An Insight into See Yourself X by Madeline Schwartzman

By Manuela Hiches

Second volume of a series

Image courtesy of Manuela Hiches

I’ve had Madeline Schwartzman, a professor in the Barnard + Columbia Architecture Department, for two of my architecture classes at Barnard, and my only wish is that I could take even more. She is quite an inspiring person even if everything she says doesn’t always make sense to you. But that’s the beauty of it. She pulls you into a world that you may have never experienced before or even thought of. See Yourself X  is a perfect example of this. This is the second volume of a series which looks at human perception and the sensory apparatus. See Yourself X focuses in on the human head and how we can extend ourselves physically into space.

The idea of this book occurred after a plane crash she was in. Afterwards, Madeline started to think about where we begin and end. She started off by asking the pilots passing by during her four hour layover if they could feel the width of their wings. The interesting part is that the fourth pilot she asked, the oldest of the four, had said that he could. In essence, he had expanded himself 150 feet wide out into space via the wings of his plane. This began the exploration of what more could our heads, or our brains, do beyond what we already know and how we perceive their limits-or perhaps their future liberation from these limits.

A few spreads from See Yourself X

Image courtesy of Manuela Hiches

I sat down with Madeline, before her second book launch, to speak with her more about her new book, See Yourself X. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation:

Manuela Hiches: What is your book, See Yourself X, about?

Madeline Schwartzman: See Yourself X is about the future of the human head. The way I look towards the future of the human head is to look at current fashion, design, and science that, to me, points the way to something that might happen in the future. For example…we might plug into the wall with our hair. Or we might even have no head at all. Or we might be just a brain. It’s a head centered book.

MH: Where does the title come from? Why X?

MS:  It was extended, or expanded. The publisher shortened it and we liked it, so we kept it. The second part of the title is, Human Futures Expanded.

MH: I know you already published, See Yourself Sensing, your first book. What prompted you to do a second book? Your inspiration.

MS: Inevitably, when you’re researching something-and it’s so much to research some of these topics because they pull in so many disciplines-you begin to see something, or find another trend, and that’s what happened with this book. For one thing, for See Yourself Sensing, there was this idea that it wasn’t a good idea to have student work, and my student work I really like. And eventually, everybody was begging me to show student work… And then there was that airplane crash I was in, in which, there was this question of whether the pilot could feel the edge of his or her wings. Because if your [head or] brain is so plastic and you experience pain from receptors in your fingertips that are firing in the brain then…where does your body end?. That was the question. And that’s when I thought that really it’s your head that is expanding into space.

MH: What was the biggest challenge in compiling this book?

MS: It’s so time consuming to write spritely conceptual paragraphs about each of these things. You know why you picked them and you know your criteria is good, but then you have to actually say it. And you don’t want to just describe the piece. It’s really two books in one. One book is the images. And then there’s a second book of this narrative I created about the work I’m seeing. So if you look carefully at the book, the image might be a fashion image but what I write about might be something in science. And so, I really had to think creatively for each person because, my books are not descriptions of things that exists. They’re actually themselves creative explorations on things that don’t exist. They’re almost philosophical.

MH: What was your favorite part of working on this book?

MS: Finding these things. It’s just so exciting when you find one that’s just so strange and nothing like you’ve seen before. And then you read about it and it’s even better than you thought. So it’s those certain ones that no one has seen yet, and they’re so strange and fun, as well as writing my own sort of future philosophy based on this work. It’s fun to collect from different disciplines. It’s fun to put people together. It’s fun to arrange the book.

MH: What helped you the most when you were working on this project?

MS: A Columbia student in our program named Luiza Furia. And a whole bunch of Barnard students were also helpful. We’d get together on Sundays and do all sorts of things, such as, find the chief articles about the people. But Luiza made all the PDFs, while I was finding and getting permission from all the artists. Also having done another book, it’s so much easier to do a second book because you’re more confident of what you have to say and of the way you think, matters to people. Whereas the first book I would think, ‘Is this a good idea to write this way?’, I had no proof. But now people write to me, even yesterday on my Facebook, and say, that the book meant something to them. It’s really shocking because you really have no idea until someone writes you that it’s affecting people.

MH: How do you feel now that you’ve finally completed this project? Are you already working on a third book?

MS: Not yet, no. I have an idea for one, but, I feel very excited to disseminate the book. It’s not really out there yet. The launches are out there… I’m just excited. You try to contribute something; and when I see that these books really do affect the way that some people think about things, I feel like I’m making a contribution to the idea of concepts, the human body, and the future. And I’m also showing people that you can think things. And that there can be valid ways of working. That you don’t need someone’s permission to have an idea

“…That’s the point to these books. Why write about something we know? I’m trying to speculate on what we don’t know. And we really don’t know a lot about the brain, or the head…”

MH: What do you hope your readers gain from reading See Yourself X?

MS: I hope they don’t take for granted where things are in our body and what our future might be. And that this mystery of the brain just continues to be something that we ponder. That in the same way there are See Yourself Sensing, See Yourself X’ing, that they’re doing this in their own lives, that in every single way they’re  thinking things don’t have to be this way. What might they be? That’s probably the strong suit of the book.

Image courtesy of the Barnard + Columbia Architecture Department

MH: Do you have any tips for someone who is planning on writing a conceptual book, similar to this?

MS: The trick is not to listen to anybody that will tell you that you can’t do it. There are so many people that would have told me not to do this book. Or that I don’t have the credentials to do any of my books. And none of that is true, really. You can do anything. You have to have a good idea, and I think that is an area that needs work. People really need to go outside of their discipline.

MH: Anything else you’d like your readers to know about See Yourself X?

MS: The most important thing about the book are that the images are really great, and if I may say so myself, the writing is really great. But also, that they don’t necessarily fully describe each other. And that’s what’s interesting about the book.

Students viewing a few of the spreads from See Yourself X, at the second book launch

Image courtesy of Rya Inman

It was my pleasure to sit down and speak with Madeline Schwartzman for this very insightful conversation. I’d like to give a shout out on Madeline’s behalf to Luiza Furia, a Columbia student, for being a great help in putting the book together. Also, to all the Barnard and Columbia students that met with Madeline on Sundays to work on some of the complex archival matters of the book. Lastly, a huge thanks to Karen Fairbanks, the chair of the Architecture Department, for being very open to the ideas of her staff and allowing them to pursue their passions.

You can pre-order the book on Amazon here.

Also check out her See Yourself Sensing Facebook page where she posts many of her intriguing and thought-provoking daily findings.

You can also see other things she’s worked on here.

Manuela Hiches is a senior at Barnard and Vice President/Treasurer for Barnard Bite.


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