Spells of Ruin

By Lap Le

Have you seen the footage of an alpine newt tadpole forming from a single cell? (1) The one that is time-lapsed so we can see how the cell splits – then splits again, exponentially, until our eyes can’t make out the divisions. You should watch it. It’s a beautiful video; turbulent, like the surface of Jupiter. Watching it might remind you how advanced and misunderstood nature can still be. Or, how incredible it is for us to be able to witness this. It is like we’re seeing something we’re not supposed to. It is like understanding something immanent that our biology isn’t capable of perceiving, just relating to. We split to grow.


Watch it again. This time focus on the boundaries of the cell, then cells. There are walls within walls. Notice how the movement within one boundary goes inward until it can’t anymore – perhaps too full of life, now, to be contained within its previous form. The boundaries of subordinate layers warp, slip, and eventually press against the superordinate until it distorts or breaks. The cycle happens again. This time a tadpole emerges. What the footage doesn’t show are the layers beyond. We don’t see the edge of the water, the walls of the petri dish, the edges of the table, the room, the building…you get the idea.


At a certain point there is a boundary that the tadpole won’t ever cross. It will become a newt, surely. The newt may even find its way onto land if it wants to. But will the newt ever take new form? If it worked inward enough, can it fill up and hope to rupture the boundary of itself? If it pushes itself outward against the earth, dividing or combining itself with its environment, would it help make us something more?


It is perhaps an interesting question whether that limitation is there to protect the newt or the greater systems the newt is now a part of (the superordinate represented by each layer breaking open). Perhaps that limitation is something the ecosystem has determined. Or, perhaps it is a material limitation, something which the newt, insofar that it is a newt, is bound ontologically. We split to become.


To me, this story about the alpine newt becomes a metaphor for graduate arts education. It suggests two things. The first is that the pressure for rapid, formative, and continual growth throughout one’s practice and education is a dangerous premise and its limitations should be understood. The second is that between that which is immanent and that which is transcendent, the boundary exists. It is a thing apart, a meta-ordinate field that mitigates the latencies and potencies of the artist with the contexts of their life and work. The understanding of this boundary is an important point of arts education.



Spell #1:

– The Alpine Newt (1)

– How Dungeons and Dragons Somehow Became More Popular Than Ever (2)

– The Green New Deal (3)


To understand this let us take a different angle. Instead of a physical boundary, such as what the cell wall represents, let us think about the boundary as something social, cultural, or cognitive. As an example we can take up a term used by Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. In this he states: the arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function playgrounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within an ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.” (4, Huizinga, page 10) From this idea of a magic circle Huizinga suggests the relationship between the subordinate and superordinate logic. That is to say, like the splitting of cells, there are multitudes of orders of programmes necessary to navigate contemporary life. It suggests that the sites for these performances of an act apart are in fact sites of magic – the magic being the distortion of rules upon entering. Thus these sites can be understood by their boundaries, which may be entered into and out of. In turn they determine our behavior, expectations, and metrics for productivity. Another way to understand these boundaries is to see them as social contracts.


Think of the end user license agreement, the terms of service, or the fine print, these serve to establish rules as you engage in one service or another. In effect creating exceptions to normal life. They change the rules. They require you to agree to the performance of an act apart, or at least submit in part to an abjuration from your values.


Think also of the trend toward a subscription-based economy rather than traditional capitalist forms. You no longer own property, rather you’re granted a visa into the world apart. The private becomes public, with limitations. You become a tourist, a spirit tethered to another realm in search of agency within that one. You no longer possess, but occupy.


Graduate arts education, in its predominant form, does a similar thing. Tuition is a fancy word for price. Student loans a not-so-fancy word for subscription. Of course, this is admittedly a simple and cynical framing of it, but it serves to underscore the transactional aspects of how it’s run. We also have to understand that the social contract doesn’t end with tuition. How you behave on campus, how your work is evaluated, how your productivity to the system is valued, are all part of the rules. The GPA, the scholarship, the grant, the residency, can all be understood as minor boundaries, each encouraging the performance of an act apart; each affecting onto the student and faculty meanings and values which may be internalized.



Spell #2

  1. Twitter Has Started Researching Whether White Supremacists Belong on Twitter (5)
  2. U.S. Requiring Social Media Information From Visa Applicants (6)
  3. Cryptokitties (7)


Which isn’t to say any of this is a bad or good thing. It is just the thing. What it does say, or rather what it warns, is that occupying those spaces, whether that is the school, the curriculum, the grant, the show, the publication, etc. is important, but understanding how you got in and will get out of those spaces is even more important. The goal is not only to occupy sites of magic, but to possess magic. That is worth the price of admission.


It is exactly our capacity to renegotiate the social contracts, the boundaries, the magic of those sites that enables our participation in them. It is the only way to not become a tourist in our own education. It is the difference between subscribing to something and being a part of it. Healthy institutions understand this agency and support this kind of internal dynamism. We split to become.


Within arts education what this really means is providing mechanisms for the student to directly affect the structures of their education; namely who teaches them, how they are taught, and how resources are utilized. It means providing faculty with the ability to organize, re-organize, and destroy what they need to destroy. It means allowing the administration to position themselves to serve the students rather than the superordinate layers, which is backwards and upside down.



Spell #3

  1. Optimal quantum computation linked to gravity (8)
  2. An AI app that “undressed” women shows how deepfakes harm the most vulnerable (9)
  3. A Top Voting-machine Firm Calls For Paper Ballots (10)


We shouldn’t lose sight of the boundary, the meta-ordinate logic. That porous, wavering, vibrating field that makes this not that. That social contract whose exceptions frame this one way and not another. That power that determines the rules between incongruous things. That magic. At all levels of academia we need to reassess our agency in the framing.


We know it can be manipulated, wielded. We know this because we are confronted with it every day and in every move we make. We see the results of it in the news, in pithy absurd headlines about miraculous or incredulous things. We see glimpses of the ruptures, or the moments when the boundary buckles, but holds.


You see, the nefarious thing about superordinate logic, as complex as they are when it pertains to larger institutions, is the power dynamic inherent within the social contract. They want you to believe you are in control. Credible freedom after all is the language of sovereignty. In reality, the mechanisms for any negotiation are fully in service to them, their operation, and their maintenance of that power. Think about the task force or the committee formed to address grievances from student or faculty. These things are almost never proactive, but reactive. It is as if the superordinate layers are only there to hold in the rest. This doesn’t have to be so.


Let us think again about the alpine newt. Think about its being sub-dividing, divisions per-mutating into an amphibious dialectical world-creature. All that is, is within. And without, all that can’t be. Or can it? Think about its form. Think about how it may look like it has solidified into newt-hood, while knowing magnified within it is still splitting. Always splitting. Envision the newt in the water of a stream, or paradise. Within it, envision the ruin of the world.



  1. Van Ijken, Jan. “Becoming: From zygote to tadpole, in six stunning minutes.” YouTube, uploaded by Aeon Video, 5 February 2019, https://youtu.be/7Q9VyHJ1l2Q.
  2. Alimurung, Gendy. “How Dungeons & Dragons somehow became more popular than ever.” Washington Post, 18 April 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/how-dungeons-and-dragons-somehow-became-more-popular-than-ever/2019/04/18/fc226f56-5f8f-11e9-9412-daf3d2e67c6d_story.html. Accessed 25 June 2019.
  3. The Green New Deal. Congress. https://www.congress.gov/116/bills/hres109/BILLS-116hres109ih.pdf. Accessed 15 June 2019.
  4. Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1949. Boston, Mass.
  5. Koebler, Jason and Cox, Joseph. “Twitter Has Started Researching Whether White Supremacists Belong on Twitter.” Vice, 29 May 2019. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/ywy5nx/twitter-researching-white-supremacism-nationalism-ban-deplatform. Accessed 15 June 2019.
  6. Garcia, Sandra E. “U.S. Requiring Social Media Information From Visa Applicants.” The New York Times, 2 June 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/02/us/us-visa-application-social-media.html. Accessed 8 June 2019.
  7. https://www.cryptokitties.co/
  8. Zyga, Lisa. “Optimal quantum computation linked to gravity.” org, 28 June 2019. https://phys.org/news/2019-06-optimal-quantum-linked-gravity.html. Accessed 28 June 2019.
  9. Hao, Karen. “An AI app that “undressed” women shows how deepfakes harm the most vulnerable.” MIT Technology Review, 28 June 2019. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/613898/an-ai-app-that-undressed-women-shows-how-deepfakes-harm-the-most-vulnerable/. Accessed 28 June 2019.
  10. Lee, Timothy B.. “A Top Voting-machine Firm Calls for Paper Ballots.” Wired, 11 June 2019. https://www.wired.com/story/a-top-voting-machine-company-is-finally-ditching-paperless-voting/. Accessed 22 June 2019.


Lap Le is an educator, writer, and designer based out of Los Angeles, CA.