above and below

Prepositions: the immune system of the English language. Americans fill “out” a form where the British fill forms “in,” people new to speaking English are routinely confused by the way we “work stuff out” and how, when we get new shoes, “work them in.” No matter how perfect your accent, it is the prepositions that will out you if English is your second language. Why? Because prepositions are inscrutable: nobody really knows how they work, we just like to correct people who misuse them. They’re so special I have made of them the electromagnetic bottle in which I intend to contain the thrilling ideas that make up my thesis.

Hence, where last week was all about expanding and contracting light, this week I shall tackle the above and below of making the familiar strange and the unseen visible where it concerns foiling nature’s plan to keep people ignorant of the world outside their mundane experience of it.

Roscoe_ThesisPresentation6

Energy shunts around the cosmos at a finite variety of frequencies. When its waves are about 720 nanometers apart, they produce optical phenomena that can be recorded by cameras specially equipped to reveal it. As far as light goes, this is as far as light goes, so to speak. There’s so little energy being reflected by subjects exposed in infra-red photography that it naturally involves a temporal expansion as well: you have to leave the shutter open for a long time to get enough of the stuff together to make a picture. Hence, in the scene above, the shutter was open for so long the ripples in the water cancel each other out reducing the surface to a simplified form: a seemingly perfect mirror. And because this sort of light exists at a place in the spectrum below that phenomena we call “colour,” it is utterly without the stuff.

Yeah, think about that: the world before colour distorts it (the green-blue hue that these images often take on is artifactual). Everything you like about black and white photography–the way it reduces distraction and showcases texture and form–is true with bells on for infrared photography. Portraiture in this band of the spectrum is especially eerie because infrared light passes unimpeded through the uppermost layers of the human epidermis, rendering even the most mottled complexion porcelain. Pass upwards through the visible spectrum and you’ll come out the top in the bluest blue: the ultraviolet.

Blue is pretty special too. Because it’s the shade to which the world is shifted when the amount of visible light is lowest (on a moonless night or at dusk on a cloudy night), blue is the only colour not decoded in the cones of your retinas. See, the cones actually constitute a minority of photosensitive tissues in your eyes, existing only in the fovea or focal area at the middle of your retina.img-fovea The rods, which outnumber the cones by a jillion to one and carpet the backs of your eyes like broadloom shag in a tricked-out van from the seventies, react only to blue light. If you follow the logic that posits the optic nerve as part of the cognitive rather than perceptive functions of the central nervous system, you’ll be receptive to the idea that saturating your visible field with the colour blue engages your mind in a way nothing else can.

The ultraviolet is a fun place to be because it is probably one of the easiest places to detect the walls of the prison in which nature contains our senses. Behold: a world that appears in one way to people, and in an entirely different way to bees.

flower-uv

Again: no fair, nature! How may we escape the limits millennia of evolution imposed upon our senses? Why, with special photography, of course. When I think of all the beauty in the familiar world denied the casual unaided observer…

Tune in next week when I take my prepositional proposition to the next level: beyond the visible spectrum.

Advertisements

time / space; compression/extension

Roscoe_ThesisPresentation

Start on a laugh and end with everybody gobsmacked: that’s how I like to do presentations. Some folks will tell you to end on a laugh, and that’s a good idea too, I guess, but I always worry that “at you” instead of “with you” laughter could follow me off the stage, and besides, it’s way easy to smack the gob out of a bunch of arts students. Here’s how.

The gag I start with is parodying TED talks. I’m kind of a grinch when it comes to the gift of TED talking. Forgive my observing that people with important, smart things to say tend to write them down, submit them to an editorial board of their esteemed peers and have them published in a journal related to their field of expertise. I am suspicious of any attempt to organize, formalize and license (!) the act of talking. Fishy.

But ours is an age of showmanship; we like to be entertained and being entertained means being comfortably situated in familiar tropes. So I tried, in explaining that my thesis would treat the sort of photography that makes its subject phenomena not available to the naked eye, to be a little entertaining. Dynamic, even. You will recall from last week that my thesis would treat the issue of making the familiar strange and seeing the unseen. I intend to effect this perspective by expanding and contracting time and space, and by revealing the energies that operate at frequencies above, below or beyond the visual spectrum. Oh, and it must be beautiful, too. Natch.

Roscoe_ThesisPresentation2

Photography can take a moment that happens so quickly you’d never know it even happened and make that moment available for inspection at your leisure. Take this photo of a chap getting it rather bluntly on the chin: note the liquid texture of his features as inertia drives them flopping about his skull. Faces seem so firm when they’re not being walloped and photographed at 1/4000th of a second; you might have gone your whole life without knowing how floppy faces are.

There’s a weird voyeurism about shots that do this sort of “freeze-o-matic” stuff; even when the event is public (as is the case here, happening as it did before a thousand thousand fans and a television audience), we feel a bit like peeping toms for having made a record of what nature intended to pass our notice entirely. This sensation of keyhole peering is a result, I suggest, of our having escaped nature’s intentions for our perception. The forces of evolution formed human perception into what I have come to think of as an artificially-imposed limit on what we can know; a sort of ontological barrier; a membrane we may penetrate only with the aid of special tools and techniques.

Note that I could have used a picture of a humming bird hanging astonishingly still despite the incredibly rapid movement of its tiny wings thanks to the use of extremely high-speed photography. The reason I didn’t use that image is that it is, literally, astonishing and incredible–just the opposite of familiar. My thesis should treat the opposite of rare and inaccessible phenomena; it should make familiar things strange. I don’t know and can’t honestly imagine what it is like to be a humming bird, but I understand getting punched in the face pretty well.

Roscoe_ThesisPresentation3

The camera can also take a very long moment, one which passes so slowly that its important changes are indiscernible in their minute progress. The image above is a long-exposure of two lovers sleeping, in which the shutter was left open literally for hours. The result is a compression of time that makes plain phenomena which nature never intended us to see, yet with which we are so intimately familiar that it strains the word “intimacy” to contain it.

Roscoe_ThesisPresentation4

If you’ve ever tried to thread a needle you’ve probably rubbed right up against the ontological barrier imposed by the sheer scale of your person. When you’ve brought the object of your inspection to within a couple of inches of your straining eyes, you’ve arrived at the minimum focal distance possible for the architecture of human eyeballs. It’s like you’ve come to the end of a long corridor which terminates in a door too small for you to pass through. No fair!

Fortunately, photography has long been interested in shrink-ray technology that makes you small enough (perceptively speaking) to see the tiny beauty in the strange and small. And macro photography is fascinated with just this sort of expansion of the mundanely familiar, so it’s a natural choice for a project that makes the familiar strange. Living where I do, my everyday, mundane experience of snow usually involves the shoveling of it, and nothing could be more opposed to shoveling snow than the perfect, translucent, symmetrical thing pictured above.

Roscoe_ThesisPresentation5

Owing to the fact that my eyes are only about four centimeters apart and on the front of my head, I can only see about 180 degrees or so of the world at any given time. If I want to see more, I have to turn around or swivel my noggin. Horses don’t have this problem–nature put their eyes on opposite sides of their heads. How very different the world must seem to creatures whose perception wraps around them! Thomas Nagel famously wrote a paper about relative perceptions in 1974 called “What is it Like to be a Bat?” the text of which is available online, f’yer innerested.

When you consider that nature’s plan for human eyes was primarily to help people find little red berries in the bushes, it’s a wonder we can see as well as we presently do. Good news: she also gave us marvelously dexterous hands with which we may craft and operate sophisticated camera equipment. Thus equipped, we whom nature intended to see the world only out the fronts of our heads may cheat her utterly; we may use the master’s tools to compose spheroid panoramic compressions of vistas nature never intended us to see.

That, to my way of thinking, is exciting. There’s more, but I can see your eyes glazing over as tiny spit bubbles begin to accumulate in the corners of your mouth. Go watch some tv or something; I’ll be back next week to talk about the “above, below and beyond” of my thesis.

Familiar to Strange; Invisible to Beautiful

This little chap is happy with his lot. The world, in so far as he knows it, is made up only of lily pads and flitting flies; all else is mystery fitting for languid contemplation. We should all be so lucky.
This little chap is happy with his lot. The world, in so far as he knows it, is made up only of lily pads and flitting flies; all else is a mystery fitting for languid contemplation.
We should all be so lucky.

So far, in describing my nascent thesis, I’ve talked about light, electromagnetism, evolution, frogs, ontology and loads of stuff that doesn’t, at least on its surface, seem to hang together in any particularly compelling way. This is a typical symptom of a mental disorder from which I have long suffered called everything-looks-good-to-me-itis. The condition can compel sufferers to spend long hours and exhaust precious resources assembling grand but disjointed propositions which rise like jagged shards of ice across an impassible tundra of thought . Thank goodness, then, that my instructor inflicted upon the class the sort of assignment which focuses the mind wonderfully: a presentation.

Show, the assignment specifies, in no more nor less than seven slides, how you intend to tackle the problem of your thesis. And sum it up in ten minutes plus questions.
Well that narrows things down.

The questions I want my thesis to answer are:

  1. How can I make the familiar strange and new? And…
  2. How shall I show that which is normally unseen?

…and the provisional answers I have arrived at are…

  1. By expanding and contracting time and space.
  2. By revealing that which is below and above the visible spectrum.

And there’s a third answer, too; one for which no question was asked, but that’s just the sort of value-added scholarship instructors have come to expect from me. It is…

3. By revealing the energies that flow at frequencies beyond the infrared and ultraviolet.

That last one is kind of a doosey. But it’s sort of indispensable, too. I’ll expand upon this next week when I tell you all about my presentation.

 

Something familiar in a new way (part II)

When last we met, I was explaining my thinking about the format my design thesis would take. I explained that I was going to produce a handsomely bound collection of my experimental photography, prefaced by a few choice words about perception, ontology and neural anatomy. The crux of the thing is shaped by two simple axioms:

  1. Nature’s provisions for human perception were shaped by tens of thousands of years of humans behaving as hunter/foragers in grassy, temperate climates. There is more to the world than that for which we have evolved a capacity to see; some of it is beautiful, but none of it can be seen with the naked eye.
  2. The familiar world, to which human perception has become so accustomed that we are only barely aware of it, can be made unfamiliar through the use of the same apparatuses and techniques that make the unperceived world perceivable.

And so there exists a continuum defined, at one end, by that which is invisible to us because we are anatomically unable to see it, and at the other end by that which is invisible to us because we have become so utterly enured to it that we no longer notice.

visualContinuum

The (orange) middle part is the stuff photography handles routinely and hey, that’s just fine. But the yellow and red ends are what interests me. So my thesis project exists to answer two questions about perception:

How can I make the familiar strange and new? And…

How shall I show that which is normally unseen?

Next week, I’ll answer these questions and lay out the pattern for my thesis. Here’s a photo a classmate sent me that helps to frame the next steps. This is what a bottle rocket launching over a lake at sunset looks like when recorded by a camera set for prolonged exposure. You know bottle rockets; you know lakes and sunsets. But would you have guessed that it looks like this?

bottleRocketLongExposure

Something familiar in a new way.

When last you dipped a reading ladle in the heady stew that is this blog, I promised a chowder of familiar ingredients combined or concocted in some manner that would render it new. And tasty!

For this I believe to be the essence of all attention-getting communication: show the familiar as something new — and strange, if possible. Imagine the wha-a-a-a faces on the nascent Italian Futurists in 1912 when their eyes crossed this lovely thing:

Giacomo Balla, LeashInMotion (1912)
Giacomo Balla, LeashInMotion (1912)

Balla took something everybody recognized instantly and showed it to them in a way that nobody could have imagined; indeed, even he was echoing a pre-existing photograph. Yet the synthesis of time and space he achieved here was fantastically simple: hold one element constant while allowing another to describe itself in the space of the first. In phenomenological terms, this synthesis is the conduit that opens communications between an artifact and its perceiver; as a means of revealing data about the movement of little dogs and their walkers, it is a condensation of information reduced to what Edward Tufte calls the “smallest significant difference,” the point at which “what is going on?” becomes meaningfully answerable.

That’s the sort of thing that I find thrilling about photography, and here’s a framework to show how I intend to get there:

First, I’ll do a little song and dance to introduce the subject and show that photography started in the wild and has forever been attracted to the baying call of the experimental photographer. Hence, we start with…

Section One: What it is

History

I’d like to say a bit about the daguerreotype and the genesis of the photochemical process highlighting, perhaps, its sparring with nothing less than the invention of writing for historically significant game-changers in human civilization. Then I’ll show how Man Ray’s Rayographs and other challenges to the conventions already ossifying the nascent art shook it to its very foundations. Then it’s format wars: WWII and the 35mm revolution changes everything again. To be followed by Kodachrome / ectochrome / polaroid & Marriet Hartley’s tiny mouth. All of which brings us to SLRs, Electronic photon collectors and the digital revolution. A whirlwind tour of the subject, to be sure, but one charmingly laid out and curated to feature the subject as a transition that had masses of western eyeballs seeing things in a new way over and over again.

Theory

I don’t want to spend too much time describing the relationship of the visible spectrum to the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum, but it needs to be mentioned. I shall take an phenomenological approach to the issue of perception. The easiest way to describe this approach, I think, is by way of an amphibian allegory:

Frogs starve on dead flies. Let that sink in for a second. What I mean is, if you cage a frog, leave him there until he’s good and hungry, and then try to feed him some dead flies, he’ll look balefully up at you and not eat them at all. Why? Because he can’t see them, and he doesn’t know they’re there. In fact, he can’t really “see” anything that isn’t a fly-sized and flying around within range of his sticky long tongue.

The reason he can’t see immobile flies is that his optical system is, as a result of millennia of evolution within the merciless economy that rules the lily-pad, calibrated to detect only the subtle flitting movements of living flies. Few animals could more accurately predict and act upon the dynamic trajectory of a living housefly the way a healthy, limber-tongued frog in his prime can do. Effortlessly! But the price evolution exacts for such proficiency is great: much of the world will forever be quite beyond the imagination of the lowly frog: his occipital lobe just doesn’t see the world the way we do.

The implication being, of course, that we, too, are but lowly frogs to some higher order of perceiver: that there exists, it seems inescapable, some other perspective from which our own is dwarfed in scale or scope. It is for this reason that this section of my book needs to treat the anatomy of the retina and some of the neuro-cognitive aspects of visual perception. Did’ja know: because of the way the cells that operate your retinas are arranged, they work more like brain cells than they do like nerve cells? Freaky.

That’s it for Section One. Hey! Where’s all the experimental pictures? Dude, calm down. We’re all over that next week for… Section Two: Application.

Experimental Photography

When last you read this blog, I was waxing about my brilliant “signage and wayfinding for the apocalypse” and how it was met with limited enthusiasm by my peers and instructor. I even tried to froth it up a little by positing my system as part of a movie about the apocalypse rather than an aspect of the real end-of-times. That helped, but the committee was of the opinion that another of the ideas I presented, my peppy fruit juice and special photography plan, held greater potential.

I had worked out ways to cause fruits and vegetables to glow with a mysterious, healthful energy and proposed to build a thesis around using these photographic techniques to sell an organic, caffeine-bearing juice drink of my invention. While the committee was only luke-warm on the peppy fruit juice, they were (to my surprise) kinda gob-smacked by the techniques. This glowing raspberry seemed to particularly blow their minds.

This is what happens when you build a tiny LED into a nice ripe raspberry and then take nine carefully measured exposures of it and combine them in Photoshop's HDR plugin. Cool, huh?
This is what happens when you build a tiny LED into a nice ripe raspberry and then take nine carefully measured exposures of it and combine them in Photoshop’s HDR plugin. Cool, huh?

“You know what?” they asked rhetorically, “Screw the peppy fruit juice. You should just write us a book about your experimental photographic techniques. You’re making–what is it? Vegetable angioplasty?”

“Vegetative Angiography using bio-luminescent reactants,” I corrected.

“Whatever. That is strange and unique and you should just have fun with that.”

And so a group of my respected peers folded their respective arms and nodded their approval for my whack-ass picture taking. I suppose it might have been possible to moor me from the ankles, but I floated about the place for the rest of the day. I love experimental photography! I mean, there’s photography that pretends to freeze that which is already perceivable in the manner in which it is perceivable, and then there is a kind of photography that squeezes and / or stretches time and / or space to make visible that which normally ain’t, and I’m a fan of the latter. The sort of photography that pleases me best is the sort that makes a familiar thing strange and new.

Tune in next week when I’ll tell you more about the experimental photography book I’m writing / designing / illustrating / photographing and holy oh my god that sounds like a lot of work.

Three theses go in; only one come out.

I took the whole of the summer of 2014 to chew a knuckle in contemplation of my thesis alternatives for the fall; the assignment was to show up in September with three ideas to choose from. Narrowing my febrile imagination down to three discrete ideas was hard because I suffer from that crippling mental illness, everything-looks-kinda-good-to-me-itis. Yet I managed to carve out these three, expressed below as “elevator pitches.

“Why should first year, survey-of-anything students suffer with big fat traditional textbooks in the age of the internet? No wonder half of them ‘forget’ to bring it to class: the very nature of the thing makes it gigantic with small print on onionskin paper. Look, I know the thing has to be exhaustive, but must they tote it to and fro? Sell kindle / iPod-able versions of these biblical-scale documents along with the physical version: you can link to other resources, sell added-value services, and integrate with existing learning systems without sacrificing the advantages of a physical book.”

“Hmph,” they said. “Sounds a bit dry.”

“Howzabout a peppy organic fruit & veg energy drink? Have you noticed that between the high-octane, solvent-like canned stuff they sell to teens and the fancy latte and working man cuppa, there’s a dearth of available caffinated options available to the consumer. Especially the health-conscious, organic-oriented consumer who would never drink a can of anything spelled in all caps. No, these folks would fall for a tasty pick-me-up that looked healthy and peppy. To achieve this aesthetically, I propose an advertising campaign predicated upon a photographic technique I (think I) invented, involving the clever disposition of light sources within and around fruit and vegetables such that they appear to glow with a healthful energy.”

“That sounds awful.” “Glowing food looks like poison.”

“Well, you’ve got me there. Suppose, then, that tomorrow, astronomers discover the Earth is about to be hit by a comet,some two years hence. A plan to evacuate a limited number of people to a nearby planet is hastily enacted, and the evacuees are chosen by an ad-hoc world government. One of the first actions of the new apocalyptic government is the creation of a Department of Global Pacification, the underlying function of which is to placate and promote a positive attitude in the populace while honestly keeping them abreast of their impending doom. Why two years from now? I choose the two-year duration to allow for a seasonal as well as psychological progression in the design of civil defense communication with an increasingly traumatized citizenry. The dynamics of arranging street-level communication with people under these circumstances would be complex and changing. The varied audience of messages such as “this way for compulsory barbiturate injection” or “no personal items allowed in euthanasia chamber” may be illiterate, and/or intoxicated, and/or belligerently aware that they have nothing at all to lose. Good design will anticipate this variation within audience, and it will take into account their diachronic variation as well: a message-system that placates the masses on day -540 may infuriate them on day -5. Add to this problem the fact that civic-minded design will become increasingly difficult to motivate as the end nears, and the need to anticipate and plan for the event well in advance is plain. Hence, I propose a system of signage and way-finding, including public information literature and kiosk display that adapts to the changes in the communicative dynamic as the situation deteriorates, thus helping the evacuees escape the rioting hoards safely.”

Well, that last one hit them like a turd ejected from a passing airliner headed in a direction opposite to that in which the convertible in which they were seated had been blithely traveling in the Hamptons on some fine autumn morn. In short, they didn’t like it.

"There I was, just enjoying the drive, when this Design Student shows up and pinches a loaf right in my face."
“There I was, just enjoying the drive, when this Design Student shows up and pinches a loaf right in my face.”

However, they mulled it over for a while, we talked the thing out and we made some decisions. Keep your top up until next week when I tell you what the project turned into.

New direction: process journal

Those of you who slavishly followed this blog in the previous school term became accustomed to a higher standard of bloggetry when you encountered my pincer-action method of first cornering an issue in modern graphic design and then surrounding it with my specialized forces in the persons of Theo van Leeuwen and Gunther Kress, whose quite excellent Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (2006) would lay siege any image introduced previously in the week until it surrendered unconditionally its semantic value and cultural significance. Well, most of that has changed this year.

This year, on a mission of peace, my blog will focus upon the process of realizing my graphic design thesis, a project of no little effort on my part and one which you shall observe at leisure. Yes, as I slog through the deadlined  research, testing and development of a thesis the likes of which can be met only with spit bubbles and slack jaws by the design world, you shall watch, sitting in judgement silently for the most part, though you are welcome to pipe up with an encouraging word or two in the comment field. Enjoy it!

In the weeks and months that follow, revel in my accumulated research, creative development and explorations, selection and refinement processes and final design direction (including the final execution and the production schedule that leads up to it) as I work this thing out.

What’s it all about, you ask? I’ll tell you about the proposal, how it was met by my peers and instructor, and what I’m up against for the long haul next week. Roll on your side and chew on a wallet if you think you may swallow your tongue in febrile anticipation before then.

Actually, don't put anything in a convulsing person's mouth. That went out in the 'fifties. Just loosen their clothing, turn them on their side, time the seizure and, when they regain consciousness, tell them I'll write more in just a couple of days.
Actually, don’t put anything in a convulsing person’s mouth. That went out in the ‘fifties. Just loosen their clothing, turn them on their side, time the seizure with your watch and, when they regain consciousness, tell them I’ll write more in just a couple of days.

How to evaluate materiality: crafty analysis!

You know the drill: first post of the week discusses an interesting design issue currently causing chins to be scratched in high places; the second examines one of the images presented earlier beneath the coppery analytical bristles of Theo van Leeuwen and Gunther Kress’ quite excellent Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (2006). There is no third post, ’cause by the time you’ve finished the second you’re already reeling back on your heels and whistling through clenched teeth. I mean, what more do you want?

In our last chapter we considered the current trend toward handcrafted, “genuine,” non-computer-generated design in today’s consumer culture and put it into some historical perspective alongside the late Victorian Arts and Crafts movement. To that end, I decorated my discussion with this pithily ironic needlepoint:

Created by Briar Mark
Created by Briar Mark

Here it is in close up so’s you can see the delicate embroidery:

Detail from Briar Mark's "I could have done this on my mac."
Detail from Briar Mark’s “I could have done this on my mac.”

What are we to make of this saucy locution in finger-blistering needlepoint? Let us consider the thing first as a text, as the artist has clearly gone out of his/her way not just to convey a language-based message, but to present that message in the recognizable forms of a regularized, sans-serif typeface.
The thing about texts as such is that they can be infinitely varied in their appearance without affecting their meaning; you can write the phrase, “I did this on my PC” in any typeface you please without significantly changing the meaning of the phrase. Of course, if you render it in, say, Impact (the typeface of warning labels) the message may take on some new connotation further subject to contextualization, but that won’t change what we like to think of as its “literal meaning.” So, at a textual level, this piece has the following characteristics: it’s all caps, has no punctuation and a subjunctive direction: the reflexive subject (“I”) tells us that which is not the case. At the most ephemeral, immaterial level of analysis, this is a message, presumably from the artist to you the viewer, about that which is not the case.

But no message exists in a purely ephemeral form: in order to cook the proteins in the rods you keep buried in your retinas or knock loose the little bones in your ears or whatever, a message has to be manifested physically. This is an important thing that people who work with words all the time often forget: in order to work, words have to have volume and mass. Oh, you may have lovely ideas about words that float magically on gossamer banners in your fecund imagination, but if you’re ever going to make anyone else aware of them you’ll have to articulate them in some quantifiably volumetric manifestation. All visual texts are, therefor, first and before they’re anything else, pictures of text.

Kress and van Leeuwen make this important distinction to help us navigate the next step (which is good because it’s a doozy). There are a vast number of ways in which we might turn when considering the word manifested in writing or speech or the careful arrangement of dozens of Franklin Mint figurines or whatever. But if we approach the problem like good semioticians, we shall look for motivated signs only. It’s not enough that the viewer should say, of the image above, for instance, that “it’s white background reminds me of snow and of winter; therefor, white is a symbol of winter in this image,” because the whiteness may or may not be a signifier intended by the creator or, even if it was, it may not be recognized as such within the culture of its production or reception. To signify, for our analytical purposes, the proto-sign must meet both conditions. Another way to say this is “The white=winter value would have to meet the criteria for motivation.”

If it’s only motivated signs we’re looking for, that narrows the field considerably. Kress et. al. make the next step easy, too. There are three categories into which we might like to group our motivated signs:

  1. the surfaces involved, such as  “paper, rock, plastic, textile, wood, etc” (216);
  2. the substances with which the message is materialized, like “ink, gold, paint, light, etc” (216);
  3. the tools of production with which (1) was realized upon (2), such as “chisel, pen, brush, pencil, stylus, etc” (216).

What makes the image at issue interesting and worthy of my fine analysis here is that it delivers a duality of surfaces and structures simultaneously in order to make a point about the tools of production. The artist was clearly motivated to pair dissimilar signs from our shared culture in order to make a point about craft: the delicate, time-consuming art of embroidery meets the effortless, instantaneous convenience of word processing. The white surface on which the embroidery is featured is a suggested (especially by the former) as a symbol for a blank computer monitor, especially because it is quite at odds with the way in which delicate embroidery is commonly backgrounded in our culture.

The colours chosen back this up neatly and cast the whole thing in an editorial slant. The Cyan-Magenta-Yellow gamut is of course the arena in which computer printers create the millions of colours we perceive, but the artist has chosen a) to not blend them at all despite their overlapping, b) to cast them ghostishly apart from each other, as though the result of some Tyndall effect-inflected trapping error, which c) puts the very technical concept of computer-controlled print alignment in the foreground of the image’s meaning.

The result is a message about what the artist refused to do in a manner that suggests an intentional malfunction: rather than go the easy way, the artist went to great lengths to represent a printing error with tools that require such meticulous attention as to obviate any interpretation of the error as an error. It’s a pretty neat trick.

 

Materiality and modern graphic design: be crafty!

The first year of my graphic design program was largely occupied by projects that called for the acquisition and refinement of manual skills like bookbinding, hand-lettering and paper quilling. Why? Because, we were told, these are the fine skills on which masters of the profession pride themselves and with which they line their great big stylish pockets. So learn them we did! And then, the very next year, the program changed such that first year students were each assigned a high-powered Macintosh, and some of that manual dexterity stuff got crowded out of the curriculum–a sign of things to come, we gather. So either I’ve got some rare manual skills, prized in the design community where they are about to become even rarer, or I’ve wasted a lot of time learning how to do things nobody cares about any more. The former is the correct answer, obviously.*

Created by Briar Mark
Handcrafted needlepoint created by Briar Mark

And it’s not hard to see why. You can’t blame John Ruskin for finding the iron-clad, inhuman-yet-highly-decorated aesthetics of the industrial revolution rather inhospitable, such that he inspired the likes of William Morris to get the arts and crafts movement started in the middle of the 19th century. This anti-industrial movement must have struck magnates of industry as perfectly absurd: “Thanks to the wonders of mechanical reproduction, we can now manufacture objects d’art as fast as our workers can buy ’em, and at a price they can all afford; so why do they want a lot of hand-made junk?”

Of course, the very reason the later Victorians supported the arts and crafts movement was that object d’art had indeed become a dime a dozen and were produced under the very same conditions that routinely mangled children and drove good men into early graves, etc. Are we to infer that today, a similar shift away from computer-controlled, machine-driven design and toward hand-made, “roughly hewn” design is motivated by a popular disaffection with the electronic means by which many westerners currently earn their daily bread?

Sad Clown on Black Velvet. Classy.
Sad Clown on Black Velvet. Classy.

I mean, if you spend your day twisting up balloon animals for sticky-faced circus fans, the last thing you want to meet upon returning to your trailer is the mournful gaze of the Sad Clown on Black Velvet, despite its obvious aesthetic merits (ahem).

So folks today are inclined toward design that escapes the electronic nature of their quotidian existence and reminds them of a simpler time. For the Victorian customers of  Morris’ Arts and Crafts, the specific simpler time favored was a re-invention of the medieval, romantic or folk traditions which sequentially (if not contingently) preceded industrialization. Which only begs the question: where from does the discriminating, post-electronic consumer of today find their hand-crafted inspiration?

Consider the opening credits of the 2010 film, Super. In a clear case of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, the aesthetic on which this Busby Berkeley number is based comes straight out of grade 9 art class: two-point perspective realized in pencil crayons.

What I happen to find particularly ironic about this charming thing is the fourth-wall shattering punchline that has the “dancers” panting exhausted in the final three seconds or so. It seems an apt metaphor by which to communicate the unelectrified, manual effort to which the pencil-crayon artist went in order to render the thing. Meta? Metameta.

Stick your gum someplace clean: you’ll need it again in a couple of days when I put one of the images from this post beneath the ponderous bulk of Kress and VanLeeuwen’s Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (2006). We’ll just see if that don’t squish it flat.

*”‘Rationalizing’ is the shit you tell yourself so you’ll carry through with the shit you started.” -Pam Grier