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You probably made rubbings in elementary school, but Kim Beck views rubbings as field recordings. She wants you to take a snapshot of a particular place by making a rubbing of the ground you're standing on. Here’s what she means:

1. Get a crayon and a large piece of paper
2. Find a piece of ground that you respond to
3. Make a rubbing of that piece of ground
4. Take a photo of the rubbing in the place you made it and upload using #theartassignment
5. Fame and glory (Your work might be featured in a future episode)
6. BONUS!: Send us your rubbing (with a return address) and we’ll send you someone else’s — mail to: The Art Assignment, PO Box 30827, Indianapolis, IN 46230

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(PBS Digital Intro plays)

Sarah: We're outside of The Mine Factory in Pittsburgh, where the artist we're meeting with today, Kim Beck, has her studio.  She has an incredibly keen eye for a built environment, paying careful attention to things that many of us overlook, like power lines, fences, billboards, and weeds.  A number of her works encourage us to reconsider the often maligned weed, including drawings, installations, murals, and an artist's book.  Kim makes work about architecture in our landscape, but she's also made them in our landscape.  She's done works that involve skywriting and also a series of empty billboard skeletons along the highline in New York, and I had the pleasure of working with Kim on a project she did at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, called Notice: A Flock of Signs, a clever play on the often over-abundance of signage in museums and parks.  We're gonna go inside to talk to her, but I have a feeling we might be coming back outside soon to get going on this assignment.  

Kim: Hi, I'm Kim Beck, and this is your art assignment.

(Intro plays)

So this studio is the place where I process a lot of different material and information, you know, I sit and look at the images, the photographs that I've taken, I play with drawing and rubbings and new materials.  One of the things that I've been doing lately is working on rubbing.  So I started rubbing--doing, making rubbings of the concrete floor in this building, and I guess sometimes when I don't really know what I'm doing, I tend to look at the ground, and the ground in a building like this is actually pretty amazing, because it--it shows the history of what used to be in this building, which were, you know, old manufacturing equipment, old machines and so there's divots and stains and cracks in the floor that kind of record that history and so I started just working with newsprint, spreading out really just cheap paper on the ground and taking some crayons or colored pencils and just kind of recording the different kind of textures on the floor, and that process is something that, you know, when I've gone out and made these other field recordings or surface tests, as I've been thinking of them, this is a place where I can come and look at them and pin them up and think about them, and for me, it's a way of, you know, the way that a photograph records this fraction of a second in time, in place, a fraction of a second of light, of a field recording, or a surface test is another way of taking a snapshot of a place, it's just through texture and touch.

Your assignment is to, one, get your materials.  These include a nice crayon, a largish size piece of textured sketchbook paper.  Two, find a piece of ground that you respond to in some way, either because of how it looks or the texture.  Three, go out and make a rubbing of this piece of ground, putting the piece of paper onto the ground and rubbing the crayon slowly over it, so that you capture the rubbing.  Four, take a photograph of this rubbing in place so while the rubbing is still on the ground, you can use pieces of rocks or sticks or whatever is nearby to hold the thing on the ground and then photograph it.  Take a couple of photographs, take your time so you really like the way that you've photographed it.  Try photographing from different angles, and then five, send us the photograph.

Sarah: Okay, so Kim is asking us to do a rubbing, which you might have done before, maybe even in elementary school.  But people have been making rubbings for a long time, including artists like Max Ernst, who's associated with surrealism.  He made these drawings in the 20s, called Frottage, or the French word for rubbing.  He saw this floor in a hotel, a wooden floor, that was amazingly detailed, and he made rubbings of them, and then he actually saw images within those rubbings that looked like forests or wild creatures, and he used this technique as a way to tap into the unconscious mind.  That there's a history to making rubbings, but I don't really think that's what's happening here with Kim's assignment.  What I'd like to talk about today is representation and how we tend to assume that a photograph or a photo-real painting is somehow the most accurate way to depict a place.

There are other ways to record something not based on photos, like a rubbing.  It's something that we all know, but it's been theorized by the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, who developed his theory of signs, which is basically looking at the way we humans come to know the world through representations.  It was published in the 1860s and it's extremely complicated, but I'm just gonna share with you the bit that applies to our assignment today, but I want you to go and read it all yourself.

Peirce's theory thinks through how signs relate to the objects they point to, and he says there are basically three kinds of signs.  An icon is a sign linked to its object by a shared quality or likeness, like a painting of a landscape is an icon of the actual landscape it depicts, and a symbol represents an object through a rule or an interpretive device, like the word 'pipe' is a symbol of a pipe, but it doesn't look or smell like a pipe.  It only has meaning because you've learned to connect the symbol with the object, but an index is a sign linked to its object by an actual physical connection, like smoke is an index for a fire.  It's a mark or trace, like a footprint or a cast shadow.  It gives information or evidence about the object.  Like Jello has an indexical relationship to the Jello mold, and a rubbing is an index of the place where it was captured.  Kim's assignment is not asking us to create an icon or a symbol of a place, but to make an indexical sign of that place, a very real document that gives you real information.  This is a place, I did this thing, I was there.  

Kim: So much of my life was spent on the internet or on the phone and it's the thing that isn't transferable, it's not--you have to be in that place to be touching that piece of ground, and that's--there's nothing more locating than the piece of dirt below your feet, so that's why I'm so attracted to the ground.

So now we're gonna go get my dog, her name is Addy, and we're gonna take her for a walk and we're gonna take some paper and crayons with us, and we're gonna go make some rubbings.  

I really notice the way different pieces of ground meet each other, the way that pieces of sidewalk abut each other or adjoin each other, the way that the grass hits the sidewalk, the way that the poured asphalt might meet another piece of poured asphalt might meet a sidewalk, the cracks in the sidewalk or in the asphalt, the things that disrupt the order, I find to be really beautiful and moving.  It's such a curious thing when you really think about what is real and what is realism, and in a way, for me, these rubbings are the most realistic depictions of space there is, because they may look like abstractions when you're done.  Again, I describe them as a field of static or something that looks like a map, but they're the most realistic representations you can have.  What's great about this project is the documentation doesn't function as just documentation, it is the piece itself, it becomes part of the project, so the other things that are scattered around that might ordinarily just seem arbitrary and random actually take on meaning, so if you happen to have a table leg in the potential frame of the image, you have to think about, "Oh, there's the table leg in there, do I like it?  Okay, yeah, I kinda like it, it's weird, let's keep it in" and the fun of it is that you can play with the stuff that's in your everyday world as part of it.  

Well, the materials are one dog, so you'll need one dog, and one crayon, and one piece of paper.