Understanding the Cycle of Artistic Inquiry, with a Little Help from Project Runway

Later this month, Lifetime Television will air the eighth season of Project Runway.  Say what you will about reality television, but this show actually inspires me.  For those of you in the dark ages, the show charts a design competition in which fashion designers of various skill levels and backgrounds are tasked to make a garment each week given unique parameters and time constraints.  They are then critiqued on the runway by a panel of fashion experts, during which designer Michael Kors can frequently be heard spouting genius such as, “She looks like Barefoot Appalachian Lil’ Abner Barbie,” or, “Next thing you know, it’s big button earrings and you’re on ‘The Facts of Life.’”  Also, there is Tim Gunn.  I love this show for many reasons; however, lately I notice there are even parallels with my work. 

Take Performing Arts Workshop’s teaching methodology, the Cycle of Artistic Inquiry (CAI), for example.  The CAI is our rigorous framework that all our teaching artist staff use as the basis of their lessons.  It’s a method proven to go beyond the technical acquisition of an art form and get at the core of critical thinking through art.  Still, when we first introduce the CAI to site partners and new artists, we get the occasional blank stare.  While we’ve gotten much better at messaging the CAI, here’s how it breaks down on Project Runway:

Cycle of Artistic Inquiry

Perception
Designers are held in suspense as they await news of their next challenge.  Sometimes they are trucked in their sponsoring vehicles to hardware stores (see: Season 7 washer-bikini nightmare) or warehouses full of scrap metal; and other times to the Met or flagship of a successful designer.  Whatever destination awaits them, once there, they are introduced to a visual, physical, or audible stimulus.  At that moment, they perceive.  What is this pile of scrap metal?  Is it design?  Can it be used for clothing?

Conception
After perceiving, it is the designers’ task to take in that stimulus and form a response.  But before arriving at a response, one needs to make sense of it all, or conceive.  What inspires me in the architecture of the Met?  How do the lines of the building match my sense of clothing design?  How can I use one thousand pieces of sandpaper to make a couture dress???

Expression
Now we get to the good part.  Given a very specific task- make a garment from only things found in this hardware store, and oh yeah- you have a budget of $50; dig through this pile of garbage and make something fabulous that Heidi Klum can wear to the Oscars; make an outfit for these female wrestlers, and if they don’t like it, prepare for a body slam- it is now time for designers to create, or express their vision.  Frantic sewing and panic ensues.

Reflection
Reflection on Project Runway occurs in the form of a runway critique.  Was the sandpaper dress believable and realistic as a wearable garment?  What could have the designer done differently to give the garment a more commercial appeal?  Or in more words of Michael Kors, “That was so Paris hooker 50’s.”

Revision
Sadly, designers on the show don’t get the chance to revise their work after this point.  They don’t get to take in all the verbiage thrown out during the reflection period and use it to better their design.  Instead, someone gets the boot.  But hey, it’s a competition after all. 

The good news is, young people in Performing Arts Workshop programs DO get to revise their work.  We guide them through the creative process, push them to think critically about their choices, then allow them to improve upon or change their work.  That’s not to say that revision never happens on Project Runway; in fact, it happens all the time.  See, the CAI isn’t a linear process but rather one in which each facet occurs at multiple stages.  Before the runway show, designers are constantly reflecting on their choices at each stage of the design process and making revisions as they go along.  Well, unless you’re that bull-headed washer-bikini guy who was not so great at the whole reflecting and revising thing. 

 If you’d like a more straightforward description of how the CAI plays out in Workshop classrooms, check out our documents as they relate to each art form.  And don’t worry- I do not plan to incorporate this comparison into my future program outreach, nor would we ever critique our students’ work as harshly as Michael Kors does.  Sometimes it’s just fun to wander a bit… or perhaps more fittingly, sashay down the runway.

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