For my first post as a Praxis Fellow I’d like to share an exercise that a mentor of mine often used to kick-off courses in interdisciplinary collaboration: The Impossible Proposal. At the first meeting of a class of engineers, artists, musicians, dancers, writers, etc. tasked with creating a tangible project by the end of the semester, our professor would ask us to come up with a proposal for an impossible project—not just difficult but totally and utterly impossible. Few of us succeeded on the first try.
The point here is not simply inspirational. The practice of generating impossible ideas is like weight training for your brainstorming muscles. And on the path to the impossible are many possibilities that could otherwise be overlooked.
In those classes we managed to do a number of things that would have seemed impossible (or at least unwise). We floated a large light-responsive sound installation on the pond next to the music building. (My proudest distinction as a freshman music student was to achieve the rank of ‘first-chair’ radio-controlled boat operator.) I’m pretty sure that project started off as a failed response to the Impossible Proposal assignment—a ‘non-impossible’ idea.
The Impossible Proposal is now a reflex for me in the early stages of a project. I can’t help it, even when I start to notice that more pragmatically-oriented collaborators are losing patience. At the first meeting of the Praxis Fellows last week I proposed that Prism should be able to record the eye movements of readers. But—just like the floating installation—it turns out this proposal is far from impossible. After the meeting Wayne informed me that UVa employs such technology in usability testing for websites, and he even seemed prepared to dive into the technical details of how this could be incorporated into our project…
So at today’s meeting I’ll do better. Maybe something involving time travel?