Project 01 – Puppet Master Documentation

By nuff
November 2, 2023
8 min read

For Project 01, our class was split into thematic groups and given both a group topic and a randomly selected individual topic to research. Our goal was to create a guide to our topic. My group topic was transgression; within that, my topic was puppets.

Puppetmaster is a semi-useful guide to puppetry. More accurately (spoilers ahead), it’s a guide to installing a puppet politician and ruling from the shadows, wrapped in a semi-useful guide to puppetry.

Two Versions

Originally, I pursued the format of a single-page, fold-out zine. The reverse would be a cut-out D.I.Y marionette (I never got round to designing one but prototyped using a found version from Hej hopp). Belatedly, I decided to try a different format: I laser-cut a book cover that could behave like a marionette and bound the entire book with fishing wire.

Intentions and Original Ideas

From our first cohort conversation onwards, I knew I wanted to make something that reflected our group theme not just in subject matter but in spirit. I wanted something a little surreptitious and slightly sinister, but in a funny way.

Two possible directions emerged. One is effectively what you see here. The other was really interesting and something that's been on my mind for a while, but not quite right for this project. My dad's side of the family were traditionally responsible for putting on the village masquerade but after the village converted to Christianity, there has been little mention of anything to do with that. I thought it might be interesting to find existing ethnographic research of similar villages with similar masquerades and pair that with my own digging into my family history. I'd still like to do that someday.

References and Research Trail


I've had a really hard time getting my head around any of the systems thinking readings we've done, going back to the summer. Maybe my brain doesn't work in terms of seeing interconnected nodes creating emergent behaviour. So rather than trying to see the systems in puppetry, I looked at puppets as systems themselves. After all, they are interconnected nodes creating emergent behaviour.

That lens didn't work so well when it came to thinking about stakeholders and the stakes they hold.

A systems map of puppets.

Puppets and Politics

This line of inquiry came largely out of my conversation with Margaret, the Tisch librarian. Having suggested I looked into Bread and Puppet Theatre, I was reminded of the UK's affinity for political satire via puppets (specifically Spitting Image). The idea of using puppetry to, in the words of Peter Schumann, “make the gods cry” was interesting, but also not quite the direction I wanted to take.

Then I looked into sock puppets—online accounts used to spread disinformation or otherwise manipulate a population. I thought about becoming a sock puppet myself and allowing anybody to spread any message via my online “reach”, such as it is. This idea made me laugh no end and also felt spiritually linked to Beth Fileti's thesis, which we'd seen in class. But I decided against it because a) I have no reach and b) it's not a guide (although maybe you could make the argument for it).

Tarnschriften, Capoeira and Trojan Horses

Last winter, I went to see the NYPL Treasures exhibit. It was the first time I'd learned about the Green Book. While thinking about this project, this idea of clandestine literature came back. Growing up, my dad had told me about how bibles were smuggled into China as a way to gratitude-scare me into reading mine.

I felt like there could be something here—at the NYPL, my friend had mentioned anti-Nazi literature needed to be disguised as mundane things to get past the prying eyes of the military. But I didn't remember what they were called. Three hours of Googling later...Tarnscriften.

This felt like the energy I was going for. Smuggling something dangerous inside something palatable to the powers that be. A literary trojan horse. It also felt linked to the practice of Capoeira. I'm not sure how much truth there is to the claim that original practitioners disguised their combat training as a dance to escape the attention of slave owners, but it's a beautiful thing either way.

Subliminal Imaging

People have found a way to hide subliminal messages in generated images. I thought this might be a fun way to illustrate the guide. My initial attempts failed but I did eventually figure out how to use Illusion Diffusion to do this—to an extent. Unfortunately, the images were both extremely creepy and not quite in the vintage illustration style I would have preferred. Squint to see the hidden text on the right.


I prototyped a few different single-page, fold-out zine types—I most typically saw instructions for the version with a slit but I actually preferred the accordion fold. I tried both 11x17" and 18x24" starting sizes.11x17" felt like a good size for a pocket book but the various risograph printers I reached out to were either busy or couldn't do short runs. That meant I'd likely be printing at home.

Vellum Paper

Once I moved away from a single-sheet format, size restrictions became a little easier. I liked the idea of printing something deceitful on something transparent (or at least translucent), so I tried vellum paper.


Our instructor shared some references with me that prompted me to think more about form. How could this object become part of its own conversation?

My classmate Elizabeth (with a friend) also led a bookbinding workshop. These two things in combination ended up providing the spark for the “puppet-binding” look and feel of the second version.


The front cover is laser cut in three pieces. The cutout from the outer layer becomes the controller.

Puppetworks: Nick Coppola

As part of the project, we were tasked with interviewing a subject matter expert on our topic. After my classmate Mishka sent me a photo of the puppet theatre in Brooklyn she happened to drive past, I had the great fortune of speaking with Nick Coppola, founder of Puppet Works. Nick's been a puppeteer since [year], founded puppetworks in 1980 and knew from the age of [age] he wanted to do that. By the end of our conversation, I had an immense sense of guilt for how cynical my project seemed. Not necessarily cynical about puppets, but still cynical.


I really struggled with this project. In my working life, research often involves a lot of early discovery work run through a client or stakeholder. It mostly lives at the brief end of a project—the idea is once we have synthesised it, we are free to move away from it. Here, I hoped the answers might lie in the research itself, but that never quite worked out.

From the beginning, I think I stumbled on the idea of a “guide”, particularly one that would enable some sort of action. Wanting to play the double-entendre, it felt like I would end up neither enabling any literal puppetry or allowing someone to become the power behind the throne.

Puppetry is a pretty cool discipline, and getting into the mechanics, history and philosophy of the artform has been quite fun. I'm quite interested in learning some basic marionette techniques in terms of both building and manipulating, as well as looking more into shadow puppetry. An early idea for this project was to create an app that would turn hand gestures into shadow puppets using something like Posenet or Leap Motion. I could see that happening later in the year.

What feedback did you receive? Any reflections on critique itself?

Most people I spoke to were quite interested in the idea—although there seemed to be even more interest in the other direction I considered (family history/Yoruba masquerade). Nobody had a chance to interact with the physical object but classmates did give some helpful feedback on the digital spreads.

What might you do differently in terms of process or content?

Having put so much effort into thinking about systems and criticality without finding anything compelling to lean on there, I would probably resort to a form-oriented workflow from the start were I to redo this project.

Revisit the assignment prompts: how did your project relate to the original prompts, in terms of critical lens, audience, tone, etc…

I think I was able to identify a lens, tone and point of view fairly early. This is, in effect, a satirical product. I found it hard to create “meaningful” content within the framework of a guide for aspiring shadow dictators disguised as a puppetry manual—but that is what it is.

How did you balance research and experimentation? Which is easier for you? How can you focus more on the areas that you shy away from?

Because I have no real research “muscle”, I decided to lean fully into that. I think in the future I would start with some early experimentation, just to ground the project in something familiar.


The Radicality of the Puppet Theater

Peter Schumann 1934- Bread and Puppet Theater.
Glover, Vt. : Bread & Puppet Theater Press 1990

(JSTOR Link)

Puppetry : a world history

Eileen Blumenthal 1948-
New York : Harry N. Abrams c2005

Toward an aesthetics of the puppet : puppetry as a theatrical art

Steve. Tillis
New York : Greenwood Press 1992

Aspects of puppet theatre

Henryk Jurkowski author. Penny Francis editor.
Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York, NY : Palgrave Macmillan 2013

Puppet theatre : production and manipulation

Miles. Lee
North Vancouver, B.C. : Charlemagne Press c1991

How do we install a puppet leader in another's country?

Quora post by Norbert Voss


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