Materials of the 'serial' tableWhen I joined the Scrambled Messages team for “Failure: a Complete Nonevent” at the Institute of Making, I never expected failing to be so much fun. Whether it was coming in last in the telegraphic contest after our chopstick slingshot broke (mission: convey “Hence, heap of wrath, foul indigested lump” to the team at the far end of the room), depicting an electric field using found objects, or creating an air-dough model of said “field,” every project I joined failed rather dramatically. In spite of this, the room was full of good cheer, with consistently increasing energy levels as participants progressed from scanning the neat displays of bottled substances in the morning to madly rummaging through drawers or measuring radioactive saucers with the Geiger counter a few hours later. The day ended with a candid discussion of academic failure and its relationship to risk-taking in professional endeavors. It was interesting to realize how much archeologists and engineers had in common with literary scholars, art historians, curators, and musicologists in this respect. Did our physical interaction with odd material objects and mysterious plasticine substances inform the conversation? I’m not too sure, but I definitely felt that the difficulty of the day’s tasks had softened up the room, while shifting the definition of failure itself. Perhaps writing about music, which Frank Zappa famously likened to “dancing about architecture,” has more in common with “humanists trying to use colored clay to model complex scientific concepts” than we’d like to think. If failure was the day’s goal, than the event failed spectacularly, as it was an unqualified success. 

Carmel Raz, Columbia University