Spotted on Brighton pier. Remember, it’s dangerous to swim or dive unless someone from security is helping…
Archive for July 15th, 2008
After the conference finished last week in London I met my friend and colleague Qin off the train and took her to Brighton. I’ve been telling her for a while that it’s somewhere she had to visit, and I’d arranged for us to stay for a couple of nights with my former students, Shaun and Amelia. We also met up with Matt, another of my prodigies (or is it progeny? Is that rude?)
Having lived there four years I can safely say I never did the whole touristy bit so I took her to the pier, the funfair, the museum and the Pavilion (which, let me say, is absolutely fantastic inside. I never realised. You have to go). Qin was fascinated by the chinoiserie inside, the Western idea of what China was like in the 18th/19th centuries.
I took my new Flip video camera with me and followed Qin around so she had a souvenir. Here’s the video. My favourite moments: in the seaside rock shop after she’d spend several minutes looking for messages appropriate for her friends, Qin pointed to sticks of rock that said ‘Man City’ all the way through them. I thought for a few seconds and then realised her mistake: “It’s short for Manchester City, the football team” I told her.
Then at the end of the video, about three minutes out, we’re on a roller coaster. I hate roller coasters but decided to risk it. Just before we set off I felt my harness come undone but we started going before I could point this out to someone. So I went round the whole thing clinging on for dear life. As we went round each bend my feet came out of the car and I tried to push back down. Meanwhile I was also trying to point the camera somewhere meaningful.
Turns out my harness wasn’t undone after all, but that’s not the point. Qin told me the views from the top of the roller coaster were amazing. I missed them all. “You have to scream!” she told me. I told her I was saving my last breath so I could say something poignant as I was flung out into the English Channel. Something to be remembered by.
“What were his last words?” people would ask. “You should see the view from here!” perhaps…
Richard Adams on the New Yorker cover ‘scandal’ makes a valid point:
John McCain can say that he doesn’t know much about economics and later deny it flatly, then have one of his top economic advisors say it will take one term for a McCain presidency to balance the budget, only to turn on a dime and say it will take two term, and almost nothing of it gets reported in the media. But hey, Jesse Jackson gets overheard using the word ‘nuts’ and it’s time to break out the ink.
If that’s what the ‘mainstream’ news media can do when left to their own devices, a cartoon is nothing.
Seems to me, as one of the commenters on this article says, this is another example (like the ‘nuts’ episode) of the media reporting on itself rather than on the stories.
But it also suggests something else: when we start summing up complex issues in illustrated form the scope for misunderstanding is huge.
At the New Views conference it was asked why critiques of design have to rely on words, why can’t we use design? (Similar arguments are made in favour of letting students create ‘visual dissertations’) Because writing depends on redundancy – it contains clauses, clarifications, opportunities to go off on tangents or rehearse devil’s advocate positions. Create a design to critique a design and you can’t guarantee that the message will be decoded correctly. The irony here is that I’ve just read several thousand words explaining what the New Yorker cartoon is supposed to be saying.
I think the New Yorker cover is a brave attempt to highlight the way the media and others pick apart minutae like the Obamas’ fist bump, unpicking images (often because there’s not really enough real news to fill a 24 hour news ‘culture’) but falls foul of precisely the same problems: images have no redundancy. The article that accompanies the cartoon is a few thousand words long and makes it clear what it is saying. The cartoon has no words and is consequently translated differently depending on who reads it, or (importantly in this case) reads about it. If the cover had instead been a cartoon alongside the article it might have made sense. As a cover, it doesn’t and simply exacerbates the problem it seeks to analyse.
Barthes famously said that images are polysemous, they have multiple meanings. Text, he said, fixes meaning.
I don’t think we’ve yet reached a level of visual literacy (or ever will?) where images like this can be divorced from the textual context.