The biggest take away from the contemporary scholarship is
that Media Effects seems to be having its “Expanding Field” moment (a term I know from art history; see Krauss, 1979). Shit’s getting complicated, and
things can’t be adequately explained without venturing into the theoretical
frameworks of other disciplines or redefining some of the field’s foundational
Following up the criticism from Holbert et al. to not toss
the baby out with the bathwater, my instinct is to think that the discrepancies
between Media Effects models that can describe effects and uses in earlier
periods and the ones needed to describe today’s as requiring some overarching
model or theory that can adequately explain effects from both periods. However,
I don’t know if that’s possible, already happening, or within the scope of
media effects study. The human ecological factors that audiences feel likely
have confounding influences on media use, as the differences in early Modern
(1890 – 1930) and late Modern (1930 – 1960) periods show — media use that was most
informed and guided by social, political, and economic factors like
urbanization and mass migration (Chaffee & Metzger, p. 367).
A second, counter‐perspective also comes to mind. To
continue the parallel that Neumann draws between Media Effects models and the
Heliocentric and Geocentric astronomical models, the Geocentric Model didn’t
cease being useful for navigation, timekeeping, or for telling you where in the
sky to point a telescope. It is important to note that a model doesn’t need to
represent truth to be useful; it simply must have its limitations qualified.
Maps and diagrams are another perfect example of this. Michael Beirut has a great video lecture (“The genius of the London Tube Map”) that explains how a geographically accurate map of London’s Underground train system was
challenging to read and understand, but when they trialed a map which was
abstracted from geography, it was instantly successful and quickly became the
world standard for public transit maps.
Between this mess of mixed notions that I have, I think the
key to evaluating any model is its simplicity and utility.
I think that there is a certain amount of alarmism around
media fragmentation. While, yes, new technology is creating the infrastructure
for extreme selectivity and individualized media use, there must be a finite
ability for a population to create desirable, gratifying media content with
diminishing quality and gratification for audiences and diminishing revenue and
resources for creators as the audience narrows. Eventually, this media and
audience fragmentation will equalize; though it may be at different levels depending
on the nature of the platform. For example, I have a lower tolerance for
low‐quality YouTube videos than I do for low‐quality links and discussion on
Reddit. It takes more effort to evaluate the quality of a video (being a linear, durational medium), while Reddit’s text comments take minimal effort to
skim and skip over. But in both platforms, I regularly reach the limits of the
desirable content, and either become less‐selective or move onto other things.
The only thing which concerns me are echo‐chambers and Eli Pariser’s Filter
Bubbles, and not because they might completely isolate but because they might
legitimize fringe ideas and largely seem to be passive, unintentional
consequences of algorithms. Being driven by algorithms optimizing for clickthroughs
and ad revenue, filter bubbles have the power to make us more extreme versions
of ourselves in strange and unexpected ways.
The thing that immediately stood out to me about Rubin’s discussion of Uses and Gratifications was the language. Uses and gratifications …what? Is it a perspective? Approach? Theory? It frequently goes unqualified, which seemed to be a deliberate affectation. I looked into it, and there seems to be some criticism or debate around the precise terminology, and this paper may be attempting to stay out of it. Apparently, U&G originally received criticism for being called a theory while not qualifying as one.
These are the types of
things that I tend to notice when practicing “active reading,” where I approach
a text as a conversation with the author (parasocial). I note questions and
tangential thoughts that come to mind as I’m reading. Overall, this increases
my engagement with a text, improves my recall and comprehension, and I find
that it permits me to be more critical — in contrast to Kim & Rubin (1997)
who classify skeptical responses as reducing comprehension. This is an area
where I’m active by choice and utility, but my TV viewing has become active out
of necessity and format.
I’m both a cord‐cutter
and a huge nerd, which I think makes me acutely aware of media selectivity, the
intentions behind my media use, and desires that I pursue through that media
use. I love science fiction (for its reality exploration) and educational
television (value reinforcement; learning is fun) to the exclusion of most
other types of TV content. Knowing that, it’s probably easy to see why I cut
For me, primetime television was replaced, many years ago, with educational YouTube videos because they better met my cognitive and affective desires. With what happened to TLC, Discovery Channel and the History Channel, an entire genre was increasingly absent from cable TV; I missed it and resented its departure. I sought out educational content as much I could, selectively exposing myself content like Nova and Cosmos. When the last blocks of WW2 programming gave over to the History Channel’s paranormal and pawn shop crazes, I almost entirely ceased using television and video media for passive, ritualized, and diversionary viewing. Once YouTube dominated my use of the video medium, I had to be a much more active viewer. Partly because the content is short and I have to pick what to watch next, and partly because I have to fight to keep the algorithm trained to my preferences (avoidance: list videos and conspiracy theories).
The industry is finally catching up with this. I’m a big Star Trek fan, so I am watching Star Trek Discovery. Being the show that launched CBS’s online‐only platform, it requires even more intent (and money) to watch. However, it provides me with fresh (affective) involvement in a fandom from my childhood. Involvement that doesn’t end with the episode itself; I also have to participate in the fan discussions (behavior involvement) over the course of days and weeks, because I enjoy the fan‐created critical essays that dissect each moment, reference, and context as much as the show itself.
Knobloch‐Westerwick, Silvia. 2015. “Building Blocks of the Selective Exposure Paradigm.” In Choice and Preference in Media Use: Advances in Selective Exposure Theory and Research, 3 – 24. New York: Routledge.
Oliver, B., and K. M. Krakowiak. 2009. “Individual Differences in Media Effects.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed, 517 – 31. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge.
Riles, Julius Matthew, Andrew Pilny, and David Tewksbury. 2018. “Media Fragmentation in the Context of Bounded Social Networks: How Far Can It Go?” New Media & Society 20 (4): 1415 – 32. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444817696242.
Rubin, A. M. 2009. “Uses‐and‐Gratifications Perspective of Media Effects.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed, 165 – 84. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge.
While I initially took issue with Potter’s definition of Mass Media, I see the need for the distinction that he makes between modes of mass media and the senders themselves. But, his framework raised questions in me on how to consider and qualify “viral media” — those messages (typically) made by individuals which achieve extremely pervasive exposure across societies for an extremely brief period. Are such messages exerting an influence and what types? Is there a meaningful distinction between viral messages and forms of mass media with short exposure? How do “fake news” or disinformation campaigns factor in, and do they work within or further complicate the existing models of media effects?
Greenberg and Salwen pose a question in a similar vein; is accessing internet databases a form of mass communication? Setting aside the issues Wilbur Schramm had with academia’s narrow focus, it seems that mass communication is worth studying separately from interpersonal communication because of emergent attributes and consequences unique to those forms. For my current understanding of the field, this notion points to a more fundamental definition than the one Potter provides. Valkenburg and Peter fill this gap. What makes mass communication effects distinct from interpersonal communication are the complex interactions between indirect effects and conditions that can accrue over time, reinforcing or negating each other, and spreading across a population.
The number of models and ways of conceptualizing media effects that are in and alluded to in these readings suggest that there is a “wickedness” to media effects. Wicked, as in Wicked Problems, is a term used to describe issues that are complexly interconnected, inherently human, and (because of that humanness) difficult to describe and define. Valkenburg and Peter reinforce this idea with their focus on conditional and indirect media effects. Their DSMM article does the best job of qualifying the challenges of media effect studies, and they layout a path for further research that they hope can lead to some predictive capacity that links specific media content with specific media effects.
Perhaps because of a dispositional susceptibility, I was the most engaged with Potter’s discussion of the physiological effects of media because several overlaps in areas of my work, studies, and personal life. And as an ADHD person, I often have to use sensory noise to control an overactive orienting reflex. Within design, this relates to my studies of gestalt theory, kinesthetic (body) empathy, and sensory toys/affectations.
The four arousal responses miss something that I think is necessary to fully describe the physiological effects of media. He slightly hits on it with his example of a fight/flight response, but we can vicariously experience more than just triggers for that reflex. Distinct from generalized arousal, which treats the brain like a black box and seems to be more of a catchall for the mechanisms lacking an explanatory process, I argue that we also have an empathetic arousal — that is, the activation of “mirror neurons” in response to events happening to others (usually living creatures, but not necessarily). This empathetic response allows you to feel a facsimile of another’s internal state, like the pain of a scraped knee or the love behind a proposal. It would provide explanatory power for why there is audience backlash when a favorite character is written out of a show. It explains for me why I felt dissonant with the TV show Last Man on Earth, which had character‐driven stories in socially awkward situations that were genuinely hard to watch, but which also elicited endearment through vignettes on the human condition. Though this is conjecture on my part, an empathetic reaction may also be responsible for some of the principals of gestalt theory, allowing us to interpret things like implied motion from static arrangements.
Potter’s brief on Brain Processing is in dire need of an update; the vast majority of its cited material is two or more decades out of touch. We have better ways of conceptualizing brain activity than brain waves, the Left/Right Brain theory carries a lot of baggage, and the connection between media exposure and ADD (now called ADHD) is entirely fallacious. Describing brain functioning in terms of contemporary computer‐use and using analogies from neural‐networks may be more useful (which is a realistic expectation for something published in 2012).
Greenberg, Bradley S., and Michael B. Salwen. 2009. “Mass Communication Theory and Research: Concepts and Models.” In An Integrated Approach to Communication Theory and Research, edited by Don W. Stacks and Michael Brian Salwen, 2nd ed, 61 – 74. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge.
Serrana’s Torture is socially responsible and responsive artwork that, one may hope, can provoke people into being civically engaged. Serrana’s work depicts the victims and places of torture through enormous photographs. He presents them alongside its history and cultural contexts in Christian theology, Medieval Europe, WWII, and its contemporaneous use under the guise of “enhanced interrogation.”
I recognized the journalistic overtones to Serrana’s exhibit immediately, and decided just as quickly to call my wife and tell her to come to the gallery. We walked around the gallery separately, then again together. Her first question was why I asked her to come. She was upset by the topic; Serrana’s photographs are presented at such an extreme scale that their impact is inescapable. But the show was meant to be upsetting, and that was the reason I asked her to join me. We gawked, and with nervous smiles, we tried not to cry. Even in the photographs of empty rooms, Serrana makes us feel a portion of the pain of those who went through those places and may never have justice. He gives us glimpses of context through politics and place, and a distinct lack of all context but the emotional and physical abuse in suffered by those in his portraits. We decompressed on a long walk, deciding that it was worth seeing and seeing together. My wife and I are both steeped in journalism — her, still an active participant in the profession while I use it to direct and resolve my art and critical studies.
Telling upsetting stories, especially as Serrana has, isn’t just a necessary discomfort for us. It is an ethical responsibility. Serrana is a journalist in the truest sense. He isn’t taking advantage of the excitement of a crime story, or participating in the media circus around a tragedy, his photography forces us to empathize with people who have had atrocities meted out against them. To reflect and understand a portion of their experiences. To look at its context, pseudo‐justification and contrast in war and in religion.
And this is upsetting. But it is also worth being upset.
A growing annoyance for me are subreddits for design and graphic software. They don’t live up to the potential that subreddits for other disciplines have, and most of the graphic design ones have turned into tutorial forums where people discuss various means of creating effects — never an aesthetic or methodology, pure mimicry of an exact effect in isolation.
The question is always along the lines of “how can I do this?” And the answer is, uh, you draw it. That’s it. You draw it. What are you not getting?
I see this as indicative of two things. That the mixed and undefined use of the term graphic design has steered people into misguided understandings of what graphic designers do, and that digital media have compartmentalized how these people are thinking about the visual arts into tool‐based domains, rather than ones for their conceptual or qualitative domains.
The most recent example I’ve seen was regarding the above poster — they wanted to know how to warp text this way. This is a really simple type treatment, which makes the answer — drawing — a really unsatisfying one.
Presumably, this person sees that the warping is working and looks cool on this poster, which they want to replicate. However, they don’t understand that this “effect” only works because of the repetition of similar forms in the poster.
It is far better to pose questions on the methodology for relating text with the rest of the artwork. The zigzag warping, on its own, is honestly uninteresting and commonplace, but it works here because of its well‐considered use.
Mimicry of such a surface‐level detail like this will never work as effectively as duplicating the methodology of using a visual quality from the image to inform how the type is distorted.
Becca and I were lucky when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. We were fine. Completely fine, and surrounded by people who were not.
In a combination of stupidity, morbid curiosity, and journalistic duty, we ventured out multiple times during the storm. On foot and by car, when the roads and even our parking lot drained enough to be passable. We saw some terrifying things — flooded and abandoned cars in the middle of the street, the rapid flow of flood waters through Brays Bayou. But mostly what we saw was otherworldly blandness, which is dangerous in its own right. Without seeking out the experiences and perspectives of those worse off, we risk allowing urban development to continue on the path that has made Houston’s flooding regular and unmanageable.
Textures in diagrams, maps, bar graphs, and charts are generally patterns used to separate elements. This is so a viewer does not confuse one thing for another. It is of enough critical importance that in 1939 The Journal of Geology published “Fabricated Diagrams,” a full technical guide to the use of texture, screens, and Ben Day patterns in the design of diagrams for photo‐lithography printmaking. Texture‐in‐diagram, however, is not diagrammatic texture. Instead, the following discussion is about texture as a diagram, the diagram in texture, in and of itself. Here I probe what texture is, the limits of its definition and its use, and I apply that, first, as an allegorical tool to better understanding contemporary commentary, and then as the essential nature of diagrammatic texture. With peeks at other artists and works, this is done through a survey of the work of contemporary LA artist Steve Roden who encodes all manner of information into his nonrepresentational art. By building an understanding of texture’s use and formal qualities and how to interpret texture in art and as art, you can read it as a diagrammatic artifact of its creation. But by looking at its use in the abstract art of Steve Roden, we can find the fundamental aspects of texture and apply it — truly as a diagram — to a larger context, beyond visual and tactile qualities, and we can understand the interplay between all manner of artwork and the social and societal contexts within and around them.
What is Texture
Texture is the label we ascribe to a form of our interactions with the world. They are the tactile qualities of objects we run our hands over, the food we savor, and the sights we take in. But textures aren’t the physical objects themselves, they are the perceptions of a material. They permit us to use one sense to feel‐without‐feeling how a different sense would understand the physical properties of a material. Rubbings and photographs contain such visual details, transcribed onto a flat surface, that we perceive tactilely. Through the transfer of surface details or the contrast of light in their captured visual field, we can understand at a distance the properties represented in each. In a drawing, we use the eye and mind to transform sights into renderings. The drawn marks and line work are used illustratively to convey physicality and dimension. The direction of lines in a sequence become indicators of the space, material, and surface detail being depicted. And no matter their function, such marks contain aesthetic qualities which result from the hand, the tool, or the medium. Mark‐making is a fundamentally transformative act. It takes us from blank page to portrait or prose. But their creative use and generation insert even more transformative qualities into a work. We view and read these qualities kinesthetically and empathically. These are gestural marks; meaning that when we see them, they cause us to mentally mirror the motions or emotions that could create them.
“Gesture translates into energy and behavior. It may be passive and delicate or bold and aggressive; it articulates directionality, rhythm, punctuation, and fluidity through repetition, variation, and pattern — clustering, dispersing, rising or falling, circulating, and so on. As marks accumulate, this gestural rhythm becomes an identifiable, fundamental part of the drawing’s form language. Further the specific nature of the gestural rhythm will contribute to the drawing’s narrative influencing the viewer’s emotional response to the message” (Timothy Samara, Drawing for Graphic Design).
What is abstraction
As Samara suggests, gestural qualities can be understood as artifacts of motion and energy and as encodings of expression and non‐semantic meaning; understanding these things is diagrammatic, deepening our view of art, artist, and context. To go any further, and to fully discuss textures as a diagram, we must have a discussion on the nature of abstraction. In philosopher James Flynn’s unfortunately‐titled TED Talk, “Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents’,” we find an explanation of why abstraction is both necessary and a natural result of complex thought. Flynn lays out the argument that an increasing affinity for abstract thought is the distinguishing characteristic between one generation and the generation of their grandparents or earlier. His case is that abstract thought is necessary for the difficult in‐immediate, inanimate, and systemic problems that large, and especially digitally connected, societies face because concrete thinkers are limited by their individual experience and the immediate details of their environment.
Being capable of abstract thought is to think about a thing — or a concept — in unreal ways, outside the confines of the ordinary. For example, fashioning tools from the environment requires abstract conceptualization of the materials around you and the problem to be solved. It is a fundamental aspect of the human process in understanding and describing the world. Language, for example, is inherently abstract. And it was concepts like zero, the absurdity of representing nothing as a quantity, that laid the foundation of algebraic mathematics. Similarly, “WYSIWYG” computer programs — What You See Is What You Get — allow users to create and place virtual objects effortlessly on, for example, a digital canvas rather than coding the object with commands, coordinates, and vertices. And coding in human‐readable programming languages is, itself, several layers removed from the reality of a computer system’s binary switches and logic gates. It is this removal of reality that is the power of abstraction. Obvious once arrived at, but difficult to conceptualize before, abstraction is the complex made simple. As a process, it is filtering the innumerable and irrelevant details — shackles and constraints — so that focus and effort can be better directed.
Abstraction frees from one context that which can be useful in another, but it can have a wider meaning in art. Just at the onset, all art is a form of abstraction, and Abstract Art can exist on a spectrum of non‐representation or be attempts at uncovering the fundamental aspects of visual forms. Stephen Vitiello, for example, is careful in the process of creating his abstract sound work when it exists alongside visual art because the secondary role they could take on undermines the intention of his abstractions. He wants people to discover the fundamental aspects of sound and of listening — a process we are too caught up in to even notice. Vitiello’s abstractions bring the act of listening to the forefront of attention and use it to elicit joy in the peculiarities of human interpretations of sound. Right at the surface level, this is diagrammatic. Diagrams are categorically abstract, and a diagrammatic use of abstraction in the arts applies these types of atypical representation as the means to remove one thing from its context and apply it to another. They can then transform our understanding and appreciation of everyday things like listening, a process which never ceases but which we rarely consciously examine as a process.
In contrast to Kandinsky’s recommendation that “texture must not become an end in itself,” contemporary artists create “field compositions”—a term in limited use by printmakers, but whose use has descriptive value here — which are purely textural works with no clear subject‐ground relationship. Textural compositions have the dual distinction of being technically representational and formally abstract.
Just as the line is an artifact that tracks the multiple vectors of a tool, the forms and masses of textures encode information about surfaces, sights, and states‐of‐mind. In transforming from one medium to another, or from flat to spatial perception, or even from the ephemeral into an artifact, an artist’s work becomes interpretable as a diagram. Artist Steve Roden’s 2005 drawing series, Surface Shifts, are the result of several studies of such “recording” marks. To create them, he attached paper to a steering wheel and then held a pencil against the paper as he drove. Roden explains that he “wanted to create a drawing through the combination of bumps in the road surface and turns of the steering wheel — a kind of graphic map of the movements of [his] vehicle along a particular area of road; and a different kind of topographical notation, or recording process.” Not unlike the work of Agnes Martin, Roden’s “7:30 – 7:58 am” drawing (Figure 1) for Surface Shifts brings forward the characteristics of their making as the primary subject matter. On their own, the cluster of janky arcs documents their creation, while the series together develops a reflection of modern life.
Steve Roden is a painter and sound artist, and like Surface Shifts, his artwork — visual and sound alike — bridges the concepts of recording and abstraction. In his work, he translates and transcodes signals, light, sounds, and feelings through an iterative process of abstraction. He builds from marks and lines his textures that can convey softness or fervor, but which contain remarkable consistency in the qualities of their randomness. Consistency resulting from his structural rules and translations of source material into textures. Or consistency resulting, as critic David Pagel sees them, from the intensity with which Roden returns, again and again, to a piece to probe his assumptions, and both interpretations understand Roden’s work as a diagram of his process.
In describing Roden’s 2016 exhibition, A Year Without Painting, Pagel wrote, “Space is fractured, its fragments dangerous. […] Despite the whiplash decisions that his paintings make palpable, it’s impossible to take them in quickly. They don’t let you off the hook, and they don’t let you get lost in the pleasure of the moment.” But to understand Roden as a painter, we should look at the results of his 2013 experiments. It was then, through happenstance, that Roden switched from linen to canvas, and in the material‐shift he discovered ways that it influenced the textural results of his paintings. He recognized that his earlier paintings had “artifacts of layering mistakes over mistakes;” becoming the textures that aesthetically defined his other paintings. But, the ways in which canvas absorbed his paint mixtures changed, fundamentally and completely, the results of his layering. These accidents inspired the work of his exhibit, Ragpicker, which featured a series of lattice‐like abstract paintings arriving out of layered “graphical marks” whose interactions generated the anchors for the next layer. In one of the paintings, “Black Extendable” (Figure 2), Roden’s large strokes and geometric structures are layered repetitively and, altogether, convey a dense textural non‐land‐landscape with shifts of light and shadow, atmospheric obfuscation, and peeks of bright and dominate clarity. Each line traces out an interlocking web of spatial suggestion. Whereas the brush strokes in “Everything Crushed Underfoot” (Figure 3) build over each other unevenly. These layers atmospherically distinguish the top of the painting from the opaque forms, forcing them forward as a coherent midground and structure‐like subject before the painting’s bottom half turns to a ruin of lines — straight smears of color that, as the title suggests, have been crushed underfoot. Roden’s layers upon layers of marks suggest an atmospheric depth, but in the interaction between his works this technique suggests a depth of expressive content. Pagel describes Roden as “a master of nooks and crannies;” that in Ragpicker “his abstract images and objects are suffused with a kind of mongrel melancholy whose resonance grows as you meander from one body of work to another.” Taken together, the repetition of technique in each painting provides a focus for understanding them individually, as Pagel’s read of “desperation and hope” in the Ragpicker paintings. In a sense, the textures in these pieces are the narratives of their compositions, and from their varieties coming together and departing, we can gain some form of the information they encode, be it an intangible suggestion, a tactile recording, or Roden’s own “sensitivity to those overlooked things that have fallen through the cracks.”
Diagrams of Dissonance: Texture in complicated roles
The interplay of texture and narrative in Life is Strange
Of a wholly different scope than Roden’s paintings, textures in video games come in the form of small files with repeatable patterns. There can be several types — supplying color, reflectivity, glare, translucency, and height maps of surface details — that are used by a rendering program to display a 3‐D model and environment. They are typically in service of photorealism; however, in the 2015 video game Life is Strange, French developer DONTNOD used texture as part of an interplay between aesthetic and narrative. Each texture in the game is hand painted, an art style that contrasts with the game’s attempts to accurately portray contemporary youth subcultures.
While it was distributed by a major publisher, the game’s indie origins remain intact. It is a fascinating investigation of Hipster and Millennial culture, music, and mannerisms, and as a work the game serves as a marker of the issues that these groups care about. Players are saddled with meaningful decisions related to issues that are difficult for mass media to appropriately address. Topics like bullying, suicide, right‐to‐die, drug use, guns, rape, and murder — and not killing of faceless villains, but of emotionally connected characters. Most strikingly, an investigation of the characters and the plot reveals that the creator’s intention is to set‐up and then subvert the personality archetypes that invade the real lives of media consumers through lazy writing and heavy reuse.
The game’s visual art style is developed along with these themes and goals, and it utilizes an impressionistic aesthetic in a way that reflects what authenticity means for the subcultures depicted in the story. By revealing brush and pen strokes from the hands of the game’s visual artists in everything from the environmental textures to the lettering in the game’s menus, the flaws and oddities of humans supplant digital and machine aesthetics. Which is to say that flawed representations can feel more real — authentic — than ones that look real. Co‐director, Michel Koch, explains that “Life is Strange is heavily anchored in reality; the down to earth elements like isolation, social issues, friendship, family issues, [a] missing student… are keys to Life is Strange; it is our starting point and we are not telling a sci‐fi story, but a realistic story with supernatural elements on top of it.”
The impressionistic use of texture in Life is Strange denotes, not the physicality of the characters and stories, but the duality of the story’s narrative and the intervention of those trying to tell a story through the subversion and inversion of one‐dimensional character tropes. The “soft” and “nostalgic” textures are as equally counter‐posed to the narrative’s discussion of contemporary issues as they are in support of their authentic portrayal. They create a stage on which to project ourselves, and one from which the story and the player’s own decisions can evoke an emotional connection between heavily politicized topics and our apolitical selves. And this is narrative texture; storytelling with a figurative tactility that harnesses our experiences and leads us to a new one. But the full diagrammatic picture of Life is Strange is not yet described.
Steve Roden’s silent obsession
To do that, we turn back to the work of Steve Roden. Specifically, his audiovisual work, like I Listen to the Wind that Obliterates my Traces, which also uses something unrealistic as a device for accuracy. I Listen to the Wind, takes Roden’s found photographs of Victorian and Edwardian life, many with instruments, and plays alongside them sounds that one may imagine — or that Roden imagines, or that no one could otherwise imagine — as the sounds that filled those photographed moments. In an interview with Randall Roberts, Roden muses that “there’s something very absurd about collecting images of something that’s not present in the photograph — which is the sound,” but in doing so he anchors his “ode to silence” in the reality of our experiences.
Conversely, Roden’s 4’33” paintings, which are paintings of John Cage’s silent musical score of the same name, use an oppositional duality as a pause for introspection. “Listen (433)” (Figure 4) is a weaved grid of map‐like lines that Roden painted as a depiction of the interpretive, participatory, and personal score of silence that is Cage’s 4’33”. What “Listen (433)” prompts us to ask is how such a structure can derive from 4’33”. Given what we know of Roden’s paintings, how he portrays artifacts and recordings, how can one view and understand the 4’33” paintings as such? Is the structure he presents arbitrary, or rooted in something of the experience of hearing or performing 4’33”, or rather is it rooted in reading the score instructions themselves? In interpreting 4’33”, Roden presents a space for these types of musings and debate on abstract art. From them, we can probe if such concepts as the texture of silence — or even the texture of sound — are anything but useful allegories.
Both Steve Roden’s sound installations and Life is Strange make intentional choices to use sound texturally. Life is Strange incorporates licensed tracks and composer Jonathan Morali’s original score (and Morali’s own licensed music, as part of the band Syd Matters) to provide acoustic textures. The “indie folk” sound and music function as narrative exposition, dramatic reprieve, and as a footing within the cultural setting of the story. Unlike Life is Strange, Roden says “I’m not trying to build a narrative. I’m building a space.” Which he does through reverb, hum, whistle, noise, and sometimes purely through awareness.
In collaboration with Stephen Vitiello and Jacob Kirkegaard, Roden brought “As If They Were Not There,” a performance of silent recordings including John Cage’s 4’33” —which, it is important to note, are not the same thing as nothing at all — to the Rothko Chapel in Houston. In a conversation, transcribed and published in BOMB magazine, Vitiello said, “That was a case of listening to a building, listening to paintings, and also listening to each other. […] We were also very aware of how the physical presence of the paintings alters one’s emotional interaction with anything that goes on in that space.”
If differences in contrast or surface height are visual and tactile texture, then acoustics are, demonstrably, the textures of sound. They convey a remarkable depth of information to a listener. Reverberations don’t just speak mathematically of the spatial and material qualities of an environment, we feel those qualities, and by listening we are grounded in that environment. Furthermore, architectural and electronic manipulations of acoustics transform a space from one variety to another, and so too is the spatial and functional context of a room transformed. In the first few minutes of Life is Strange, when the main character puts on headphones to isolate herself from stress and bullies (and exposition), players aren’t just treated to Syd Matter’s ToAll of You, the feeling of their acoustic environment is transformed into hers. Through sound and music together, we are grounded spatially in the muffled environment of a fictional high school and emotionally in the trauma and confusion of the story’s protagonist. Without its music, Life is Strange would be disconnected from the culture it portrays and the cinematic story that unfolds at the behest of — and, as with life, in spite of — the player’s decisions. Not only disconnected, but truly lacking in the emotional color, dramatic reprieve, and unvoiced thoughts of the characters. The tight interaction of narrative, art style, and soundtrack informs the player with the complete, diagrammatic, function of the game. Roden also uses acoustic texture for world building. But instead of placing us in a narrative environment, he prefers to upset our own. For Roden, noises and sounds are like color palettes. “My process is really about interpretation — I am constantly reinterpreting seemingly finite information,” he explains. His sound art mixes noise and rhythm in abstract compositions, forcing the listener into a mode of “reduced listening” — hearing sound only for its qualities as a sound, disconnected from any causal relationships. With this understanding of acoustics, silence is like Bender and Marrinan’s concept of white space, a diagram that transposes elements into isolation so that they may be understood separate from their contexts. In both his silent and not‐silent sound art, Roden uses these inherent properties of sound perception to build spaces and mirror histories. In his installation, OTR, Roden’s process transformed a vinyl record’s “surface scuffs from repeated listenings and years of wear and tear” into a score of noise and nostalgia.
“What you are hearing are the processed sounds of the surface noise at the beginning and end of the record […] I was inspired by the noise as a kind of physical history of the object. […] I like the idea that this quiet, repetitive music is a kind of aesthetic mirror for all those nights my mother fell asleep listening to these records, the dark room humming with the minimalist rhythmic sound of a needle stuck in the last groove, endlessly circling the record label until morning.”
His sound art, paintings, and sculptures bend our perceptions into a synesthesia; where anyone not paying attention sees a series of non‐sequiturs and non‐starters, we can have an existential experience born out of Roden’s curiosity of sense perception. Even in total silence, we hear our heartbeats, the rush of blood through our vascular system, and a peculiar hum from errant electrochemical signals in our auditory nerve and brain. But what is truly diagrammatic of his acoustic textures — or anything that functions to represent the experience of reality — is that they prompt us to hear sound as sound. Which is, for a moment, peering outside Plato’s Cave, observing the filter between perception and reality and noting the fleeting nature of both.
“The Silence Unnerved Me”
For several reasons, even beyond the themes of this discussion, I visited the Rothko Chapel. Sitting in that space, observing the subtle textures of Mark Rothko’s murals, I could hear every movement and breath of the other three people there. And I could hear my wife’s uncomfortable shifting — she would later remark that the silence unnerved her. As I listened, I noticed that stillness amplified everything — I noticed even the movement of air reverberated endlessly, becoming a pressure enveloping me from all sides. I have an unusual relationship with stillness, noise, and sound. When doing tedious work, I fill my senses with ambient noise, podcasts, and fidgeting as coping mechanisms against distraction. I also loathe being bored because all my life I have found silent moments to be torturous stretches of distorted time perception — a symptom called time blindness. But in trying to rid my life of such discomfort, I have found that boredom provides powerful moments for creativity and introspection — moments that will instead, should I not provide time for them, become unproductive restlessness and insomnia. Rothko Chapel’s sensory deprivation — and amplified perception — is a reminder that we all need to observe the nuance in the world around us and within ourselves. In Roden’s obsession with silence and abstraction, I see a call for us all to become more sensitive “to those overlooked” and a cognitive map guiding us in the process of understanding the unappreciated, ignored, and metaphysical qualities of reality as it is presented and perceived by us. I see a guide I can use in my own life to practice and habituate self‐awareness, and a means of consciously transforming the subjective quality of my experience as it unfolds.
A cultural commentary realized through interaction, and one designed around the framework of an entertainment experience.
Memes, in the form of captions on a select handful of images, are an inherently participatory phenomena. A user selects from a handful of images with strong cultural connotations and then expresses, through that meme’s archetype, their thoughts and anecdotes.
The term also describes wider forms of Internet‐based subculture. Some that are scripted and repeatable, or emergent and absurd. But all memes are an expression of old behaviors in a different cultural context.
Why collect a wall of memes?
First because memes matter (see Luckett and Dennett). They are often very short lived, and so any collection of them would become a snapshot of an almost exact moment in history. Next, because memes, if not largely enjoyable, are at least infectious. Meme was a term originally coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene to describe thoughts that are able to self‐propagate through a population and which are also honed by that population into more “virulent” forms.
Harambe memes are an example of this, and they dominated 2016. Once disassociated from the tragic events in Cincinnati, the word itself became a means for discussing race relations and the popular media, as well as an explosively infectious and inherently meaningless form of meta‐humor — laughter because people won’t stop laughing.
This is the key part in the belief that such an installation could be successful. Happenstance alone cannot ensure a meaningful level of participation. In order to research design in environmental and participatory installations, participants must be willing and gain some value from it. With Meme Me, the enjoyment comes from the absurdity.
Meme Me is designed to be a novel, absurd, and sharable experience.
This is done in light of the goals of the project and the constraints and considerations of the site.
First, the installation collects graffiti. It is this interaction that houses the design experiments and challenges. The immediate hurdle for any interactive site is getting people interested at all, but the next are directing those interactions and accounting for bad behavior.“Meme Me” takes those bad behaviors on the nose. It is presented as an art installation in order to disguise its utility as design research to uncover the ways participants might subvert, spoil, or diminish such interactions. And asking people to graffiti memes is, unquestionably, a provocation — there are ones for hate speech, like “Hitler did nothing wrong” and “Pepe,” and their use ranges from absurd, dark humor to genuine expressions of hateful bigotry.
An installation about sharing, taking, and leaving your mark.
“Study Tips” combines a bulletin board concept with constructive disassembly as an interactive component.
The installation encourages the public to take pieces, move others around, and leave behind messages. In this, is the design experiment and part social experience. The notion being tested is if such artifacts will influence further participation.
Popular distributions demonstrate a trend in human behavior, where success is heavily influenced by the reactions of other people. This study would look into how “seeding” influences participation rates.
Constructive disassembly and artifacts of interaction
The interactions in this plan give students an opportunity to share advice and ideas — and a chance to observe if and how participants voice humor or cynicism. This last point is important, because, as with the Meme Me installation, it requires significant forethought to mitigate trolling and undesired outcomes.
Since the installation would be in place throughout the last month of the semester, while students are preparing for exams and finals, it presents a timely opportunity to talk about studying. Good working and studying habits are often unintuitive, such as the advice that shorter studying sessions with more time between them increases memory retention. They can also be novel and incredibly personalized, and these tips are the true goal of such a collection.
Here, a passerby is prompted to remove a pencil which leaves behind the loose string holding it. They then write a piece of study advice on the provided paper, and finally to hang the paper at the end of the wall. The loose string and written notes become the artifacts of those interactions, and further invite participation with the site.