Women Reinvent Science Fiction

A woman gave birth to Frankenstein and his monster, opening the door for a new imaginative literature. Strangely, this literature, dealing with the future, with alternate worlds, with technology and its societal effects, became an exclusive all-men’s club. All this began to change with the emergence of a group of brilliant novelists in the late 1960s and early 70s: Ursula K. LeGuin, Doris Lessing, Kate Wilhelm, Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood, to name only a few. This blog contrasts Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, 1977, with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985 and discusses their contribution to the genre of SF.

Woman on the Edge

Marge Piercy. Woman on the Edge of Time, 1976. Summary: Consuelo (Connie) Ramos is placed in a mental hospital after trying to intervene in a violent family dispute. No one believes her side of the story because she is a poor Chicano woman. While in hospital, Connie begins communicating with a person from the future, Luciente, who asks her for her help. Connie answers that she is a person without power, mislabeled as insane, with no resources and no prospects. Why was she chosen? Connie is told that she has a receptive mind and that she is the only one the future people were able to make contact with. Connie is given a tour of a Utopian future world, but it is a fragile world, only attained if it is fought for by the people of the present.

Marge Piercy

 

In a perceptive review, Michelle Erica Green notes: “Woman on the Edge of Time is an angry text. The utopian yearning cannot disguise its rage … Yet the prose, in both the science fiction segments and the fatalistic present, has the compelling flow of poetry, and the bluntness of Connie’s self-expression keeps her grounded even when she questions her own sanity. Like her main character, Piercy labels the effort to transform the world a war. Known for her radical political activism in the 1960s — particularly for her involvement with groups which advocated armed struggle — Piercy favors violent insurgence in many of her poems and novels. Yet she chooses writing, not violence, as her means of insurrection. Connie’s violence may not be able to safeguard the future, but Piercy’s unshrinking commitment to finding radical solutions to age-old problems itself offers hope for the strength of the human spirit.”

A few things that impressed me about this novel:

Piercy contrasts a brutal, gritty depiction of poverty and prejudice in present-time America with the communal-minded future utopia. Class, gender and race merge together as issues crucial to SF and any imagined future community. What makes the story so effective is the likeable but unheroic character of Connie. She has no superpowers apart from her channeling ability and struggles throughout the story to try to understand how one without power can–and must–resist those who oppress her. She is told: “There’s always a thing you can deny an oppressor, if only your allegiance. Your belief. Your co-opting. Often even with vastly unequal power, you can find or force an opening to fight back. In your time many without power found ways to fight. Till that became a power.” (p. 317) The reader reacts to this awakening conscience with a considerable degree of ambiguity: is the heroine suffering from madness or does she have a kind of visionary revelation? This ambiguity breathes new life into the theme of medical experiments and forceful confinement, making for considerable suspense while deepening the sense of a problem that must be answered.

The Handmaid's Tale, 1985

Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985. Summary: A diary-like account by an enslaved surrogate mother detailing the regime of a newly-installed totalitarian state, a theocracy in which women have no freedom and no voice. The handmaids wear awkward burqa-like uniforms that hide their figures and restrict their vision. It is a familiar story of a fundamentalist religious society that banishes love, told from a woman’s point-of-view. Most characters are so demoralized that they submissively accept their fates. The heroine, Offred, named as the possession of the Commander who she sexually serves, is plagued by memories of a former time spent with her husband, daughter and lively friends, none of whom she can now locate or account for.  The commander takes advantage of his privileged position to indulge person whims and attempts to turn his slave into his mistress, with unsatisfactory results. Out of a desperate need for some genuine human contact, Offred has a clandestine love affair with another servant. She does not know if she can trust this lover and lives in fear that she will be betrayed at any moment.

Margaret Atwood

Atwood shows how quickly a society can form which removes basic rights and privileges from women. It starts when women are not allowed to hold jobs or to own property or to access bank accounts. In this way, women become economically dependent on men. Loss of economic power, loss of autonomy.

The women who are breeders are treated like cattle, prisoners–this does not sound terribly original. What is original is that their prison guards, their disciplinarians, are other women–the oppressive and hateful aunts. On a day-to-day basis, it is women who most diligently enforce inequality and loss of self-respect, loss of personhood. Women who buy into and safeguard the system of oppression against women are one of the most serious problems posed by the novel. As for the men in the novel, they get their own special treatment as rapists, power-mongers, zealots and religious hypocrites. The oppression of women is all performed in the name of religion. This hardly seems like SF, more of a commentary on Christian fundamentalism and Islamic extremism.

The heroine does not believe in the system she is forced to live under, but she doesn’t know how to act against it. A turning point for her comes when she meets a once-fierce rebellious friend who seems to have given up. “‘Moira,’ I say. ‘You don’t mean that.’ She is frightening me now, because what I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition. Have they really done it to her then, taken away something–what?–that used to be so central to her? But how can I expect her to go on, with my idea of her courage, live it through, act it out, when I myself do not? I don’t want her to be like me. Give in, go along, save her skin. That is what it comes down to. I want gallantry from her, swashbuckling, heroism, single-handed combat. Something I lack.” (p. 261) Denied this vicarious resistance, Atwood’s heroine finally attains the courage–or despair–the feeling of nothing to lose–to throw caution to the wind, setting in course a chain of events that transforms her life.

Both Atwood and Piercy are outspoken poets who write novels in many genres, including science-fiction. The works discussed above could be described as feminist or political SF novels. In her depiction of the future, Piercy addresses the problem of over-population, harmful attitudes toward environment and technology. Atwood is concerned with the breakdown of democracy, the erosion of basic human rights and the exploitation of women.

Both novels are concerned with the non-chalance with which we judge and mistreat others different from ourselves.  In Piercy’s novel, Connie meets a person of the future who boasts of going mad twice. Jackrabbit describes his madness: “I’m jealous of everybody’s gifts. I want to be everybody and feel everything and do everything. Wherever I am, where I’m not plagues me. As long as I don’t have to get up too early in the morning to do it all…” Connie answers, speaking out about her own experience with mental illness: “Do you tell everyone you meet that you’ve been mad twice?” She resented his casual, almost boastful air. She lugged that radioactive fact around New York like a hidden sore. To find out she had been in an institution scared people–how it scared them. Not a good risk for a job. They feared madness might prove contagious.” (p. 117)

A fear of difference, with no true sense of collective. Reading these novels, one feels a growing sense of protest and a need to revisit social positions. This is not science fiction as escapism or science fiction as technological wonder or technological horror. It is science fiction grounded in political realities, calling for the decent treatment of others through an awakened political conscience. I’d like to end on a vision of a committed life in this poem by Marge Piercy from the collection, “The Moon is Always Female”, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1980.

The Low Road

Alone, you can fight, you can refuse, you can take what revenge you can but they roll over you. But two people fighting back to back can cut through a mob, a snake-dancing file can break a cordon, an army can meet an army. Two people can keep each other sane, can give support, conviction, love, massage, hope, sex. Three people are a delegation, a committee, a wedge. With four you can play bridge and start an organization. With six you can rent a whole house, eat pie for dinner with no seconds, and hold a fund raising party. A dozen makes a demonstration. A hundred fill a hall. A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter; ten thousand, power and your own paper; a hundred thousand, your own media; ten million, your own country. It goes on one at a time. It starts when you care to act, it starts when you do it again after they said no, it starts when you say We and know who you mean, and each day you mean one more.

Art is like an armchair

Henri Matisse. Ballerina Seated in an Armchair, 1944

It is Henri Matisse’s most controversial saying. “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” Critics pounce on this quote, arguing that Matisse’s concern for beauty leads to comfort on the part of the viewer, indulgence, complacency. It is no way to change the world. But let’s be fair to Matisse. The artist took up art relatively late in life–at the age of 20–while recovering from an operation. Art was a form of therapy. The armchair simile may be Matisse’s way of saying that art has healing or restorative properties. Restful as the chair may be, in the charcoal drawing above, the ballerina in it seems to dancing. She is at once at rest and in motion, limp but graceful. As a dancer, she is also an artist, so Matisse may be commenting on his own process. Art involves both activity and its opposite.

How else is art like an armchair? Art needs a viewer–an armchair with a body in it. Art makes us stop and comtemplate. Art takes time–it takes time to make, it takes time to digest, to sink in. At some point, the viewer engages with the work and changes the work.

Max Ernst. collage, La Femme 100 Tetes, 1929

In a collage for Max Ernst’s collage-novel, La Femme 100 Tetes, 1929, a man falls asleep in an armchair and dreams of phallic shooting jets and flooding waters. He is the respectable bourgeois man whose unconscious reveals unspeakable desires, chaos, fears.

Other artists use chairs to challenge our understanding of media. Robert Rauschenberg is an artist famous for merging large three-dimensional objects with flat canvases in a way that blends painting and scultpure. In one work, Pilgrim, 1960, a paint-splattered chair sits beside a paint-splattered canvas. Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth does something similar by placing a real chair beside a photograph of a chair and a dictionary definition of a chair. Chairs are at home in surrealist art, abstract expressionist art, conceptual art. They take on meanings that range from bourgeois to anti-bourgeois. They are even political.

Doris Salcedo. Installation for the Istanbul Biennial, 2003

Colombian artist Doris Salcedo makes artwork using chairs she collects from the families of the victims of state violence. These victims have been abducted and made to disappear from the political scene. Salcedo displays their chairs as symbols of voices that have been silenced. In the installation at right, the chairs are stacked in an urban crevice like bodies in a mass grave. In other works, Salcedo encases chairs, writing desks and other pieces of furniture in blocks of cement. They function like repressed memories; vanished people whose presence continues to haunt us.

Dawn MacNutt. Man in a Black Coat

 

Dawn MacNutt is a Canadian artist who merges craft and fine art sculpture. Her Man in a Black Coat, 1985, made of woven rope and willow, creates a fusion of half-man, half-chair. Here we feel the identity of a ghost-like being struggling to come to life. MacNutt depicts a world of flux and metamorphosis,    embracing human frailty in her frequently bowed and hollow figures and in her use of discarded materials like ditch-growing weeds and cast-off rope.

Art is like an armchair. Matisse’s simile takes us from the notion of comfort and luxury to that of therapy, self-healing and contemplation. The simile suggests the role of the viewer in completing a work of art. It evokes dreaming and the unconscious, expanding traditional media into realms of multimedia and conceptual art. It marks the place and memory of missing persons and serves as a lingering political protest. It also merges boundaries of art and non-art, where the possibility of transformation and the energy of imagination engage in a productive interaction.

 

 

Armchair Collage

Ed McKean. Artist's Studio, 2012. Collage and oil paint on paper

I cut an image of an armchair from a magazine and placed it on top of paint-smeared scraps of paper used to clean my brushes. The result: a portrait of my studio.

Smile Collage

deKooning collages the mouth from this Camel cigarette ad to his 1950 painting Woman.

While researching artists who use collage, I was intrigued to see how American Abstract Expressionist Willem deKooning incorporated elements from ads into his paintings. The addition of a mass-reproduced smile (from a rather grotesque cigarette ad) makes the face in the painting above a little more mask-like. The intrusion of a foreign element complicates the charming spontaneity of the figure, as realism and abstraction collide in a jarring hybrid image.

I challenged myself to make my own smile collage. This is what I came up with.

Ed McKean. Smile, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Could an abstract construction be a face? A mask? Or are the colours and forms just happy to be together? Hope this collage makes you smile.

 

 

5 Theories of Advertising

Advertising is the great evil, the great annoyance, the less-than-truthful spin of which everyone despairs. Yet adversing may serve as the very foundation of modern media as revenue from ads finance our newspapers, radio, television, Internet and social media. In this blog, I look at 5 theories applied to advertising and consider how the different approaches intersect.

Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Psychologist Personality (1967)

1. The hidden message. The idea that ads mislead and unconsciously manipulate the viewer was advanced by sociologist Vance Packard in his 1957 best-seller, The Hidden Persuaders. Packard argued that advertising is dangerous because it uses psychology to create emotionally-loaded hidden messages. Because the message is hidden, the viewer’s critical resistance is evaded and minimized.

The Cornflakes ad at left suggests this product promotes not just good physical health, but also good mental health. It is a classic instance of “a doctor uses this product, it must be healthy” approach. It also demonstrates how psycho-analysis has entered the mainstream and become something of a joke. The joke is that we are all split personalities, wavering between lazy hedonism and disciplined self-improvement. Happily, cornflakes serve both interests: they are a candy-like treat and they are also a form of breakfast.

2. Shifting loyalties. Ads play upon and reflect conflicted, ever-changing loyalties. While ads try to cultivate a strong sense of brand loyalty, ads also urge consumers to change loyalties, to try something new, to disavow an old loyalty in favour of a new product.

In her study,  Advertising in the 60s, (Praeger, 2001), media historian Hazel W. Warlaumont argues that ads changed from the 1950s to the 60s. The look and message of many ads appeared to embrace the anti-authoritarian hippie counter-culture, all the while being designed and distributed by giant corporations promoting the status quo and capitalist interests. Warlaumont argues that advertisers co-opted the anti-establishment’s “ideals, leaders, icons and goals into the existing structure.” (p. 138)

Not only does the revolutionary socialist Che Guevara appear on T-shirts, but the commercial success of this icon leads to imitations and parodies such as the Cher Guevara shirt on right.

Warlaumont’s argument inverts the concept of détournement, developed by activist Guy Debord and others in the 1960s. Debord was leader of the radical collective, Situationist International and author of The Society of the Spectacle, 1967. Détournement refers to an artist’s reuse of familiar images, by shifting contexts to create a new work with a different often contrary message. Détournement has an element of ‘anti-art’ using blatant theft and sabotage of existing elements, turning the original message against itself. The idea leads to the later strategy of culture jamming. Both strategies are conceived as a method of resistance to the grosser elements of Capitalist culture and raise awareness of corporate ploys and their social effects.

An example of an ad using elements of détournement is the print ad below sponsored by the World Wildlife Federation. The “turned” element here is the portrayal of a toxic industrial can as both a kind of giant urban monument and as the polluted life water of the city. The image redirects the pride we might take in the magnitude of our industrial complexes into a fear that we are poisoning the very environments that are essential to our existence.

wwf.Advertising AgencyContrapunto, Madrid.2007

The Beatles' Yellow Submarine, 1968 animated film by Canadian animator George Dunning.

Changing the intent of public messages is a two-way street however, practiced by advertisers just as readily as by activists and artists. Détournement gives way to recuperation. Originally subversive works and ideas are themselves appropriated by mainstream media. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze speaks of deterritorialization and reterritorialization to describe this ongoing war of counter-ideologies.

These image wars reflect shifts in loyalties and conflicted loyalties. For instance, the Beatles were leaders of the 60s counterculture, with their experiments with drugs, their personal song lyrics, anti-war attitudes and openness to Eastern philosophy and religion. However the Beatles also invented the music video and pioneered the use of cross-branding music, films and related products, as the ad above demonstrates.

Playing on her own image, Paris Hilton features in a series of Guess ads in 2009

3. The mediation of reality. Ads only work in conjunction with other media and environments in which they are embedded and cannot be understood apart from other media and environemnts. Marshal McLuhan noted that it is not the content of ads that makes them so persuasive. Rather it is the way they use media to fuse together a world of actions and a world of fictions. McLuhan writes: “When the movies came, the entire pattern of American life went on the screen as a non-stop ad. Whatever any actor or actress wore or used or ate was such an ad as had never been dreamed of … The result was that all ads in magazines and the press had to look like scenes from movies.” (Understanding Media, 1964, p. 252) InThe Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, 1962, historian Daniel J. Boorstin describes how news and advertising have blended together to such an extent in popular media that they create an impression in which truthful reporting becomes ambiguous and the difference between a serious newsworthy event and a fabricated news event, such as a publicity stunt, is indistinguishable. But Boorstin does more than just describe how ads disguise themselves as news. He sketches the origins of celebrity culture, as fame and overblown public exposure become coveted ideals not just among a small set of people but among the general population of image and media consumers. However the ability to generate publicity and controversy, to saturate and bombard, to get people noticing, talking, arguing is something products do as well as people. We have celebrity brands. Advertising thrives in a celebrity culture and is integral part of it.

In the ad for Guess shown above, Paris Hilton steps off a helicopter accompanied by a male lover/ servant rolled into one. She exudes an air of wealth and glamour, playing her private life out in the public eye as heiress, model and reality TV star. The ad looks like a paparazzi photo, blurring boundaries between reality and fantasy.

McLuhan explains our addiction to media by pointing out that media extends and heightens sensory responses. For example, why do we like to read press stories of events we’ve already witnessed? McLuhan answers: “The press repeats the excitement we have in using our wits, and by using our wits we can translate the outer world into the fabric of our own beings. This excitement of translation explains why people quite naturally wish to use their senses all the time. Those external extensions of sense and faculty that we call media we use as constantly as we do our eyes and ears, and from the same motives. On the other hand, the book-oriented man considers the non-stop use of media debased; it is unfamiliar to him in the book-world.” (p. 229) Media adds an extra level of mediated experience to things we already know, giving to reality a sense of hyper-reality. Ads thrive in this land of extra-mediated hyper-reality.

Rock stars save the planet in this Louis Vuitton ad, 2010, photo by Annie Leibovitz.

4. The magic of meaning. Ads don’t just sell products but infuse those products with meaning for the people who use them. In this way, ads influence our values and underlying beliefs. Carlyle put it rather bluntly in the 19th century: “The quack has become God.” In his seminal essay, ‘The Magic System‘ (1962), cultural theorist Raymong Williams argues that advertising “has passed the frontier of the selling of goods and services and has become involved with the teaching of social and personal values; it is also rapidly entering the world of politics. Advertising is also, in a sense, the official art of modern capitalist society: it is what ‘we’ put up in ‘our’ streets … and it commands the services of perhaps the largest organized body of writers and artists, with their attendant managers and advisers, in the whole society.” Williams goes on to remark that as a form of organized magic, advertising obscures the true nature of consumerism and its effects on public attitudes and social goals. Keeping the public away from discontented questions, advertising “is a true part of the culture of a confused society.”

The above ad uses many of the same features as the Paris Hilton ad for Guess, but the message is the opposite. The party girl in the helicopter was looking for adventure and excitement, indulging her own whims and revelling in the exposure and notoriety this indulgence brings to her. In the above ad, the celebrity rock star Bono and his wife Ali Hewson descend from the sky like angels into a pristine African wilderness, which their activities will be protecting. Bono uses corporate sponsor Louis Vuitton, working together with his own company Edun, to produce hand-bags made in Africa. Proceeds from sales are reinvested in the local economy. The ad functions as a fundraiser, but also suggests Bono and wife have come to Africa for other reasons. Returning to the roots of humankind for inspiration, it is the ultimate trip. The ad plays on ideas of youth, travel and self-discovery, mixed in with an altruistic concern for other people and other places.

James Twitchell, author of Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture, 1996, writes: “Mid-twentieth-century American culture is often criticized for being too materialistic…we are not too materialistic. We are not materialistic enough. If we craved objects and knew what they meant, there would be no need to add meaning through advertising … What is clear is that most things in and of themselves do not mean enough. In fact, what we crave may not be objects at all but their meaning. For whatever else advertising does, one thing is certain: by adding value to material, by adding meaning to objects, by branding things, advertising performs a role historically associated with religion.” (p. 12)

The essential message of all ads.

5. Imitative desire. Ads play upon people’s tendency to desire what others desire. French theorist René Girard argued that we often desire to become the other (when the other is powerful, famous or beautiful). However it is impossible to become another person. This impossibility keeps our desire alive. Girard’s ideas are explained in depth in Kathleen M. Vandenberg’s
“Sociological Propaganda”.  Vandenberg argues that ads function as interactive rituals rather than as one-way messages. The essence of a ritual is that people place themselves in communities through imaginative projection toward others.

The ad for a bookstore above, suggests that books function as escapes from ourselves as we take on the disguises of others, stepping into imaginary worlds. Ads serve a similar function. We see a product. Someone in the ad wants the product. We want the product because it is desired by others. This is René Girard’s idea that our desires are always mediated. Ads cannot affect us unless we participate in the social ritual, the imitative act, that they invite us to.

Conclusion

I have outlined 5 ideas concerning advertising. It is remarkable how these ideas appeared within ten years of one another, the span from sociologist Vince Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders in 1957 to Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, 1967. Each viewpoint acknowledges that ads reflect, but also distort certain aspects of our lives. Commentators such as Packard and Barthes argue that ads need to be critiqued to reveal hidden messages, hidden ideologies. Raymond Williams suggests that ads are an effective form of propaganda because they play on our patterns of social bonding and our loyalty to symbols. Winning this loyalty involves the shaping of opinions and beliefs. Kathleen M. Vandenberg notes how advertising “exhibits many of the characteristics of propaganda; chief among these characteristics is a speaker’s reliance on self-interest (rather than the good of the audience), anonymity (or the suppression of ethos), the use of saturation or repetition of messages (rather than the delivery of formal speeches), and the employment of emotional appeals (rather than logical ones). Advertising meets these criteria insofar as it is, in the words of Twitchell, “ubiquitous, anonymous, syncretic, symbiotic, profane, and, especially, magical.

Historian Daniel Boorstin, author of The Image: A Guide to the Pseudo-event in America, 1962, suggests that the critique of ads leads to controversy, the key ingredient of celebrity culture. Critique does nothing to demystify a product, rather just the opposite. Debord suggests that in an ideological war all the rules of rational debate go out the window. If you want to oppose the message of an ad or the corporate aims which it promotes, then you must counter-attack, manipulating language, image and context to turn the message against itself. McLuhan’s approach to ads is to consider them an inseparable part of media and mass communication, part of an on-going technological revolution. Like every other message, ads obey the four laws of media. Applying McLuhan’s laws to ads, one could say: ads enhance our senses, ads make other types of messages obsolete, ads retrieve overlooked areas of culture from the past, ads lead to unexpected side effects which trigger reversals opposing the original initiative. Turning from technology to religion, Girard suggests we should not speak of reforming ads, as much as of reforming ourselves. Humans are great imitators and mimics, in need of a sense of belonging and a sense of meaning. But when we try to fill our deepest needs by imitation alone, we get in trouble.

I personally believe that all of the above positions have merit. The purpose of a critique is not to combat evils, but to enhance understanding and clarify values, to lessen the distance between what we’re doing and what we’d like to do. For those who prefer taking more direct actions, Debord’s strategy of détournement may be more useful. It recognizes advertising is an infinitely adaptable tool that can serve the revolution as well as the corporation. McLuhan helpfully reminds us not to focus exclusively on messages, but to also study the media and environments in which messages are conveyed. We need to keep reinventing media and reconfiguring our social networks. McLuhan believed electronic and digital media were making culture more participatory and interactive. However the more we interact, the more we tend to imitate others. This is why I conclude on Girard’s notion that we need to take responsibility for our acts of imitation.

 

 

 

Language Lessons


NV on her new film, Language Lessons.

Remix, collage, mash-up. Retelling stories. People love stories to the point where they do something terrible to stories. They turn them into products. Commercial stories tend to be glossy and predictable, which to my mind is the opposite of what a story is. A story should be a little messy, and keep changing, growing, surprising.

I found the birth footage in an anthropological film. I thought what if this were framed in a different way? What if we saw this birth not as social studies, but as science fiction? That’s why I show it as a film within a film, following footage from Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

A language lesson from Michel Thomas is used throughout the film. To me, language is the ultimate mash-up. I love Michel Thomas’s approach. His tapes aren’t language drills so much as seductions and hypnotisms. You listen to foreign sounds and you absorb without even realizing it. Looking at art is a lot like learning a foreign language. You feel on the outside of something bewildering, something that communicates but the only way to get it is through habit and immersion.

There’s something absurd about the way the voice-over of the language lesson interacts with the images. It’s the loneliness of technology. I tried to imagine what if a person listening to a language lesson over and over began to fixate on the voice as if it were speaking to her personally, as if it were giving her advice on how to live her life. Magical thinking. William Gibson calls it apophenia or faulty pattern recognition.

The film was partly inspired by Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. The challenge I set myself is to try to merge drama, documentary and animation footage. To see them not as separate fields, but as interacting forces. Drama, believability, imagination.

 

Selling the Future: Science Fiction & Advertising

Brainstorming for a Coke campaign, NY, 1963. Photo by Frank Horvat

Two dream worlds collide, advertising and science fiction. Both create alternate universes, selling a future transformed by time-saving gadgets and by the flash and wonder of new technology. Ads conjure up optimistic utopias; SF is drawn to problematic dystopias. Ads try to manipulate and shape public thought and behavior, a major theme of SF. Advertising imagery pervades SF, from George Orwell’s sinister posters of Big Brother to the mock commercials which colour the hallucinatory world of Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick's masterpiece, Ubik, 1969. Cover of the Doubleday first edition by Peter Rauch.

In Dick’s stories, inane objects serve as the outward face of hidden, disturbing conspiracies. In the 1964 novel, The Simulacra, a character speculates that even in outer space, explorers will have to fight their way through a glut of consumer products. “We’re being robbed, he decided. The next layer down will be comic books, contraceptives, empty Coke bottles. But they–the authorities– won’t tell us. Who wants to find out that the entire solar system has been exposed to Coca-Cola over a period of two million years?” (The Simulacra, p. 40) In the novel Ubik, ads serve as chapter epigraphs. Ubik is an ever-present, ever-changing product. At times it’s a car, then a brand of beer, then a type of instant coffee. Ubik finally appears in the story itself as an aerosol spray can which allows its users to escape disappearing into a death-like state of unreality. Literary critic Carl Freedman comments: “In the end, this strange but paradigmatic commodity is identified with theological mystery: ‘I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am … I am. I shall always be.” (“Towards a Theory of Paranoia: The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick, SF Studies, March 1984, p. 21) In the discussion that follows, I focus on two novels: The Space Merchants, 1953 by American novelists Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, and Pattern Recognition, 2003 by Canadian novelist William Gibson.

The Space Merchants, first published in 1953. This 1974 Penguin edition cover by David Pelham captures its proto-Pop spirit.

The Space Merchants is set one hundred years in the future, but feels strangely like a period novel of the consumer-driven 1950s. In the novel, rival advertising firms declare war on one another in their ruthless quest to control the Venus account. Venus invites unlimited exploitation but involves selling an unsellable product–the colonization of a distant planet with its unbreathable waterless environment, hurricane winds and terrible heat. This does not deter ambitious copywriter, Mitchell Courtenay, of Fowler Schocken Associates, from taking charge of the project. However, Schocken’s control of the coveted account stirs up a hornet’s nest of corporate crime, as double agents, kidnappings, identity theft and murder run riot in this satirical and fast-paced novel. Adding to Mitchell’s woes is the activities of an underground conservation movement, the Consies, whose take on reality is jarringly at odds with that of Madison Avenue. The novel is full of fantastic plot twists and adopts an irreverent attitude to everything from the things we eat to the power of the president. Its wry take on the role of media in shaping popular culture makes it a dazzling proto-Pop novel.

A Maidenform bra ad from the mid-1950s uses provocative sexual innuendo to sell women on the idea of appealing to men.

A key feature of Pop art is its appropriation of popular culture and methods of mass reproduction into the realm of high art. Pop Art focuses on crass and mundane subjects which appear as threatening intrusions when inserted into fine art settings. As one example of this Pop sensibility, the anti-hero of The Space Merchants meets a group of conspirators in a unlikely place–the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Inside the hallowed museum, the ad man notes the current show, a retrospective exhibition of the Maidenform bra campaign of the 1950s. The idea that bra ads would hang on gallery walls as art may have played as satire at the time, but today, as the field of art history merges with the wider interests of visual cultural, it seems eerily prescient. In a recent interview Pohl stated: “The science fiction method is dissection and reconstruction. You look at the world around you, and you take it apart into all its components. Then you take some of those components, throw them away, and plug in different ones, start it up and see what happens.” (Interview with Frederik Pohl, Locus Magazine, October 2000) In his later Hugo Award winning-novel, Gateway, 1977, Pohl takes this Pop approach one step further by supplementing a conventional narrative with a series of fictitious ads, memos and news bulletins that appear concurrent to the story, adding texture and widening the reader’s perspective.

Frederick Pohl first expressed his SF interests by contributing to fanzines and joining the Futurians club while still a teenager in New York city. He currently writes an informative “The Way the Future Blogs” with many reminiscences of old collaborators such as Kornbluth. Both he and Kornbluth were veterns of World War II, a war in which rocket technology was no longer a distant fantasy.

Young von Braun with Test rockets.

During World War II, the German aerial attack of London used V-2 rockets, creating the fear that no target was out of reach. After the war, the Americans invited Germany’s preeminent rocket scientist Wernher von Braun to come to the USA to turn this technology toward scientific purposes.

Collier's Magazine run a cover story on space travel in 1952.

Popular magazines such as Collier’s helped spread the idea of technology transforming the post-war world. However, it was the Soviet launch of the satelite Sputnik that accelerated serious American investment in space ventures. Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach recalls how “Americans reacted to the {Russian] satellite, which could be seen in the night sky, with a mixture of fascination and dread.” During the Space Race that ensued, von Braun was instrumental in creating the Saturn V booster rocket which enabled the first astronauts to land on the moon in 1969. But the lasting legacy of these rockets, was not in outer space, but in the technology that satellites have allowed to flourish here on earth such as cell phones and other forms of instant wireless communication.

The 3-D glasses craze was an attempt by movie theatres in the 1950s to offset the competition of television.

The Space Merchants consistently links technology with communications, introducing inventions such as multi-sense films. I’m reminded of how cinemascope and 3D films were introduced in the 1950s in Hollywood’s bid to compete with the rapid spread of TV. Pohl and Kornbluth introduce fantastic inventions–bio-engineered foods and ads appearing on the windows of public vehicles–which have almost come to pass in today’s world of industrial farming and omniscient digital screens. In the novel, the product coffiest “contains three milligrams of a simple alkaloid. Nothing harmful. But definitely habit-forming. After ten weeks, the customer is booked for life.” (The Space Merchants, p. 10) The story’s ad agencies introduce their products to children, imprinting lifestyle patterns at the most impressionable age. The authors foresee these products promoted by multi-national corporations, operating across the globe as powerful forces more influential than governments. At the same time the authors cannot resist inserting nationalist rhetoric, as Americans justify their need to wield exclusive control of space colonies in order to protect American interests.

On his blog, Writing Scraps, Sean J. Jordan reviews the novel. Joradn ehthuses: “What makes this book so awesome is the world that Pohl and Kornbluth conceived. It’s frighteningly close to the world we live in today. Advertising is used not just as a means of persuading people to buy products, but to shape public opinion about real issues, like the scarcity of water and fuel, and to make people feel like their lives are better than they really are. Every piece of communication is persuasive; every idea has an agenda. Even the simplest slogan has been massaged by expert ad men. The world is a dark and frightening place, and yet society is kept under control by these resassuring messages that they should be happy because of the products they consume. One of the most memorable and horrifying scenes in the book comes when Courtenay finds his way into the facility where “Chicken Little,” a processed chicken product, is packaged. What he finds is a giant, living mound of chicken tissue, where butchers come and cut pieces of flesh off to prepare for processing and packaging. The campaign around the product leads you to believe you’re eating normal chicken, but this genetically engineered, unthinking living blob of meat is all it is. The idea is that as long as people don’t know what they’re really eating, society will hold together.” (review 19 July 2009)

On his blog, The Zone, Patrick Hudson comments: “The 1950s was a great era for these acid observations on the capitalist system. Authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Sheckley, Bob Shaw, Harry Harrison, Jack Vance, and Pohl and Kornbluth filled the gap between the gee-whiz optimism of the pulp era and the more radical politics of later eras with great style and wit, as exemplified in The Space Merchants.”

The novel’s irony revolves around the hero’s stubborn inability to see how upside down his values are and as a result he consistently harms the things he should value most, including the woman he loves and the environment. He believes he can win the woman’s love by succeeding in his career. However the ruthless steps he takes to achieve this success horrify the woman, who serves as a conscience figure throughout the story. The ad men regard the environment as a disposable resource. Fowler Shocken outlines the history of advertising, “from the simple hand-maiden task of selling already manufactured goods to its present role of creating industries and redesigning a world’s folkways to meet the needs of commerce.” (p. 12) “The world is our oyster,” Shocken boats. “We’ve made it come true. But we’ve eaten that oyster.” Now they look for new worlds to conquer, to repeat their pattern of exploitation and disposal.

This car ad from 1953 makes an association between a car and a rocket-ship.

The novel introduces a new kind of hero into American literature–the cynical ad man, who uses “statistics, evasions and exaggerations” as a sure-fired path to power. Ads invite conformity to a pushy sales pitch, but the ad men see themselves not as conformists but as resourceful adventurers. On her blog Mediaknowall, media historian Karina Wilson writes: “By the 1950s, advertising was considered a profession in its own right, not just the remit of failed newspapermen or poets. It attracted both men and women who wanted the thrill of using their creativity to make some serious cash. Hard-working (early heart attacks were common), hard drinking (those legendary three martini lunches), unconventional and often amoral, the flannel-suited Ad Man became a recognisable archetype, the epitome of a new kind of cool.”

The Space Merchants recognizes that both corporations and conservationists use various forms of public messages to rally people to their causes. Propaganda can be used for constructive as well as harmful purposes. After a sudden reversal of fortune, the cynical ad man in the story joins forces with the conversation movement. To rise within their organization, to make himself indispensable to the environmentalist cause, Courtenay rewrites their communiqués and launches campaigns questioning the corporate control of basic services.  The ad man doesn’t for a minute believe in what he is doing, but his methods are effective. He has no money to promote this counter narrative, so he resorts to spreading rumours and using viral messages. The use of viral messages is a major theme of the second novel I’d like to discuss, Pattern Recognition.

Pattern Recognition, 2003

In this story, an underground filmmaker has invented a brilliant new synthesis of computer animation and live-action film, samples of which are released in fragments on the Internet, with no supporting texts or documents. The identity of the filmmaker is a mystery, as is the shape, content and intention of “The Footage.” An Internet discussion group, FFF—Footage Fetish Forum–a reference to www, the Worldwide Web, has sprung up to share information about this inspiring but obscure material. Wealthy advertising executive, Hubertus Bigend, is obsessed with exploiting new trends and finances a search for the artist behind the Footage. He hires as a

The anxious mood in the aftermath following attacks on the twin trade towers in New York, 2001, underlies the novel Pattern Recognition.

detective the young design consultant Cayce Pollard. Pollard identifies closely with the figure behind the Footage. Her mission, which takes her to cities around the world and introduces her to a rogue’s nest of traders, collectors, spies and computer fanatics, becomes increasingly personal. Cayce uses the Footage to exorcize a series of traumatic ghosts, such as her grief for her absent father, missing since the attack on the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001. As Cayce moves closer to her goal of meeting the maker of the Footage, she realizes how she is fatally compromising something beautiful and worth protecting.

One of Gibson’s contributions to the SF genre is achieved by setting his disorienting stories in the present or near-future. He explained this at the book fair Expo America in 2010, reprinted in his latest collection of essays, Distrust that Particular Flavour, 2012: “I found the material of the actual 21th century richer, stranger, more multiplex than any imaginary 21th century could ever have been. And it could be unpacked with the toolkit of science fiction. I don’t really see how it can be unpacked otherwise, as so much of it is utterly akin to science fiction, complete with a workaday level of cognitive dissonance we now take utterly for granted.” As Lisa Zeidner in her NY Times review of Pattern Recognition put it: “Predicting the future, Gibson has always maintained, is mostly a matter of managing not to blink as you witness the present.” (NY Times, 19 Jan, 2003)

This MTV ad, 2002, suggests that broadcasting signals enter directly into the head of consumers in a techno-human fusion.

The Space Merchants and Pattern Recognition differ in their attitudes toward originality. The ad men in the 1950s novel are suspicious of unorthodox thinkers; the ad men and women in the 2003 novel embrace radical new ideas as the most marketable commodities there are. Cayce, like Courtenay in Space Merchants, is both insider and outsider. However Cayce’s loyalties are more complex and shaded. Whereas the ad men of the 1950s assert top-down pronouncements on the latest styles and trends, one style being good for everyone, the 21st century cool hunter is a more nuanced observer of a diffuse, constantly shifting scene. As a cool hunter, Cayce has an exceptional talent for spotting trends, for predicting which designs, which loogos, which products will ignite public interest. As a result, she is given considerable freedom to explore the random pathways of pop culture by the innovative ad firm, Blue Ant. Cayce pays a price for her talent. She is afflicted with a nausea-inducing nervous reaction whenever she comes in contact with too much branding.

Reviewer Lisa Zeidner shrewdly notes that “Gibson himself has always been something of a coolhunter, and Pattern Recognition gives Cayce his own sharp, wry eye. Her effortless hyperintelligence ought to put to rest any complaints that science fiction’s computer cowboys are members of an all-boys’ club. With such a tour guide, you don’t skip the descriptions.” (review, NY Times, 19 Jan. 2003)

The savvy imaging of pop culture. "Pink is still the new black according to Canadian pop princess Avril Lavigne, whose stage was candy coated like a giant Pepto-Bismol ad. On tour in support of her most recent album The Best Damn Thing, we discovered a different, brighter more poppy skater girl." (Review of Montreal concert from CornerShop Studios, April 8, 2008)

Young British Artists were promoted by ad man/ art magus Charles Saatchi. Shown here is an autobiographical work by Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1999.

Artists play a prominent role in Gibson’s novels. In Pattern Recognition, avant-garde art crosses paths with advertising and speculative capitalism, causing moral boundaries to blur. The fictitious Blue Ant agency has parallels to the real-life figure of Charles Saatchi. A British ad man who helped bring Margaret Thatcher to power with his scathing “Labour Isn’t Working” campaign in 1979, Charles Saatchi is also a keen art collector who opened the Saatchi Gallery in London in 1985 and immediately altered the landscape of contemporary art. His sponsorship of the school of Young British Artists assured such artists as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin wide public exposure and fabulous wealth. The novel Pattern Recognition compares ad man Hubertus Bigend to Saatchi (Pattern Recognition, p. 83). Hubertus explains his working methods to Cayce Pollard, his reluctant protégé. “‘The client and I engage in a dialogue. A path emerges. It isn’t about the imposition of creative will.’ He’s looking at her [Cayce] very seriously now, and to her embarrassment she feels herself shiver. She hopes he doesn’t notice. If Bigend can convince himself that he doesn’t impose his will on others, he must be capable of convincing himself of anything. ‘It’s about contingency. I help the client go where things are already going.” (Pattern Recognition, p. 64) Hubertus calls this pattern recognition, which in his mind means making money by recognizing and exploiting a trend before it explodes in the popular consciousness. As Hubertus puts it: “I want to make the public aware of something they don’t quite yet know that they know–or have them feel that way.” (p. 65)

The Footage represents a new trend, but what exactly is that trend? As an art form, The Footage remixes film clips downloaded or appropriated from other sources, then blends these stolen clips seamlessly together through computer animation and ingenious editing to create a new work. In the digital age, anyone can do this. Art is no longer the preserve of an elite few. Young people especially feel a need to participate in the things they see, to put their own stamp on it and to share it with their friends, encouraging others to do likewise. Hubertus describes the new thinking about art like this: “Musicians, today, if they’re clever, put new compositions out on the web like pies set to cool on a window ledge and wait for other people to anonymously rework them. Ten will be all wrong, but the eleventh may be genius. And free. It’s as though the creative process is no longer contained within an individual skull, if indeed it ever was. Everything, today, is to some extent the reflection of something else.” (p. 70)

The remix society, supported by an around-the-world-in-30-seconds, poverty jet-set, sparks new dislocations. Reviewer Lisa Zeidner comments: “Distant cities seem both strange and familiar, especially under the influence of jet lag, here also called ‘soul-delay.’ Culture itself, Gibson suggests, is a kind of jet lag, or, as Cayce’s therapist puts it, ‘liminal’ — a ‘word for certain states: thresholds, zones of transition’ … Cayce’s globe-trotting gives Pattern Recognition its exultant, James Bond-ish edge. Yet the book also manages to be, in the fullest traditional sense, a novel of consciousness — less science fiction than Henry James. After all, Oedipa Maas, the truth seeker of Lot 49, is sort of a pot-smoking Isabel Archer, inheritance and all. Cayce is Isabel, with a search engine.” (review, NY TImes, 19 Jan. 2003)

Blogger Thomas M. Wagner praises “Gibson’s uncanny knack for having his finger on the pulse of technology (the first clue to tracing the footage comes in the form of digital watermarking) and überhip pop culture. Hell, Gibson references both Beat Takeshi and Ryuichi Sakamoto in an off-the-cuff manner that indicates he expects you to know who they are. That scores coolness points in my book with a big red pen. Plus, all the characters use Macs!” (SF Reviews. net, 2003)

Product placement is spoofed on The Turman Show, 1998. Shown here is actress Laura Linney.

Pattern Recognition introduces another idea, steganography, as Cayce tries to find the creator of The Footage. “Steganography is about concealing information by spreading it through other information.” (p. 78) An example would be product placement in a Hollywood film. The opposite of this is apophenia, a paranoid condition in which one sees messages hidden in places of random or meaningless data, places where no messages were ever intended. An example would be hearing your father’s voice in the whir of a refrigerator or hearing Satanic messages in a Beatles record played backwards. In the novel Pattern Recognition, Hubertus hires attractive young women to go to bars frequented by fashionable people and to strike up flirtatious conversations. In the course of these conversations, the young women mention a new product or service promoted by the Blue Ant agency as the hottest new trend. The subtext is: ‘If you’re in the know about this product, you’ll impress others, so pass it on.’

The problem with this widespread use of viral advertising–a use that spills out of conventional media into everyday life–is that it begins to colour and tarnish messages of every kind. As Cayce puts it in the novel: “I’m starting to mistrust the most casual exchanges.” (p. 86)  Reviewer Toby Litt comments: “In the end, William Gibson’s novels are all about sadness – a very distinctive and particular sadness: the melancholy of technology.” (The Guardian, 26 April 2003) On the other hand, the viral element in the novel, The Footage, spawns an alternate virtual community. Cayce refers to this community as: “a way now, approximately, of being at home. The forum has become one of the most consistent places in her life, like a familiar café that exists somehow out of geography and beyond time zones.” (p. 5) The Footage helps her escape the pain of her own reality into the promise of another reality. “She wonders really if she uses it any other way. It is the gift of ‘OT,’ Off Topic. Anything other than the Footage is Off Topic. The world, really. News. Off Topic.” (p. 48) Cayce later muses how “the mystery of the footage itself often feels closer to the core of her life than Bigend, Blue Ant, Dorotea, even her career. She doesn’t understand that, but knows it … It is something about the footage. The feel of it. The mystery. You can’t explain it to someone who isn’t there. They’ll just look at you. But it matters, matters in some unique way.” (p. 78) The footage has become a religion for Cayce. This returns me to Carl Freedman’s words on Philip K. Dick’s use of advertising, how it hovers between paranoid conspiracy and a “paradigmatic commodity identified with theological mystery.” Abuse, manipulation, delusion, imagination, creativity, hope.

Advertising in these two futuristic novels, The Space Merchants and Pattern Recognition, alternates as an oppressive controlling of others and as part of a quasi-religious quest for spiritual healing, the founding of a new community of like-minded believers. Ads, propaganda and branding are essential elements of modern communications. New technology needs to be promoted. It also enhances, speeds up and revolutionizes communication. The ad man of the 1950s is brash, confident, ultra-competitive. As an insider in the ad business, he feels he not only has an edge over others, but also that he has the power to shape his own destiny, using the tools of his trade. The ad woman of the first decade of the 20th century is a cool hunter who is deeply insecure, ambivalent about the morality of her job, uncertain of her exact role or the consequences of her actions. In addition to this, she senses that information of any kind is deeply uncontrollable, especially as it spawns virtual worlds. But these virtual worlds may be the most necessary of all, as they offer alternatives to present problems and bring together communities where people use technology in creative ways to suit their unique needs and define the avenues they want to explore.

 

Matisse and Symbolist Art


Detail from Henri Matisse. Dance (I), 1909. MOMA NY

People either love Matisse or hate him. His work strikes an immediate cord that bypasses thought. Most art histories relegate Henri Matisse (1869-1954) to a branch of early 20th century Expressionism that contributed to the vocabulary of radical modernism. As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to grasp the essence of this alarm-provoking originality. If anything, Matisse is damned now for being too tame, too concerned with serenity and beauty. In an effort to place a little more nuance in an understanding of his work, I touch here on a few ideas and strategies Matisse shares with Symbolist art.

Gustave Moreau. Mystic Flower, 1875

Matisse’s teacher was Gustave Moreau (1826-1898). Moreau is famous for creating beautiful dream-like images, full of rich colour, elaborate patterns, ethereal beings and exotic settings. Moreau is invariably linked with the late-19th century movement known as Symbolist Art, which was a counter response to Naturalism and Impressionism. Impressionism, when not found on shopping bags and pretty calendars, has something to do with the scientific observation of light effects, with a sense of the transience of modernity, with an emphasis on contemporary subject matter, especially outdoor scenes painted on the spot. In contast to this, the Symbolists turn to literature and mythology for inspiration. Symbolist artists, inspired by writers such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, pursued their desires into the realm of decadence, driving their imaginations to intoxicating heights. They reintroduced themes of psychological conflict, sublime isolation, exotic characters and locations. Symbolist art is imaginative but escapist, promoting art for art’s sake and ignoring current social problems. It stresses originality and genius to the point of being obscure, occult or hermetic. Part of this mystical impulse is the desire to unite contrary things, to come up with a cosmic all-encompassing vision of the world rather than depict a specific scene or localized street corner. Art historian Edward Lucie-Smith notes that “suggestiveness and ambiguity were the very essence of Symbolist poetry and art.” (Symbolist Art, 1972, p. 15) Allegories are one means of achieving this cosmic yet suggestive aim.

Henri Matisse. Dance (I). 1909, MOMA NY

Matisse’s themes–the joy of life, the dance, music, the dreamer, the circus, the artist’s studio–touch on Symbolist ideals. In Dance, 1909, Matisse presents a timeless allegory that recalls a distant golden age. It is a portrait of community in motion; the harmonious circle of nude dancers allows for a rhythm of contrasts: up and down, large and small, fast and slow, enclosed and open. The work is dynamic and interconnected, as if a chain of vitality flows from one figure to another.  If one dancer loses balance and falls, then all will feel the effects.

Matisse’s affinity for Symbolist art extends to his still life paintings. In the history of art, the still life is often heavily symbolic, with the addition of skulls, coins and clocks making comments on the fleetingness of life and the things we value. Matisse takes a slightly different approach, turning his still life images into cosmic fields that alternate between microcosm and macrocosm. His over-riding strategy is to bring inanimate objects –floral patterns, statues, mirrors, rugs, paintings within paintings—to life, blurring the distinction between nature and artifice. His inventive and witty analogies link one thing to another–a pot of flowers fuses with the floral motif on a background drapery, while household fruits lay scattered across the branches of a printed tablecloth. These paintings excite the senses, but also confuse and confound the viewer as foreground and background, interior and exterior space blend together. The wildly exuberant patterns are sensuous and suggest a joy of life as well as a richness of life. Vine-like surfaces, full of nervous energy, are hard to contain within the confined apartments and studios that are the most frequent settings. These works awaken strong affective responses, inspiring indescribable feelings.

Henri Matisse. Spanish Still Life. 1910-11. Hermitage Museum.

Henri Matisse. Goldfish and Sculpture, 1912. MoMA, NY

There is another way that the artist uses symbols. It is not the elaboration of information, a richness of detail or truth-to-life that makes something a symbol. Rather the reduction of information into a highly distinctive form that jogs the memory and triggers recognition is a key element of any symbol. By simplifying forms and colours, Matisse turns the goldfish bowl shown above into a miniature world.  His tiny sculpture of a reclining nude changes scale and appears monumental. In the process, the figure comes to life as a bather. The studio interior is all at once a forest glade, the vase of flowers serving as a canopy arching overhead. The rich field of colour creates an indeterminate free space, allowing the imagination to make these transformations possible.

Sample from Matisse's private fabric collection: North African appliquéd hanging, late 19th century.

Growing up in a cloth-making region of north-eastern France, Bohain-en-Vermandois, Matisse came across a wide assortment of pattern books and textile samples, samples he collected throughout his life and incorporated into his art. (This connection to fabric design formed the basis of the exhibition “Fabric of Dreams” held at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2005.) Matisse’s paintings feature patterns drawn from diverse cultures and regions. These patterns when draped across the surfaces of a room turn a domestic space into a stage set, inspiring a sense of play and fantasy, as well as creating visual rhythms and associations of exotic unknown elements. Fantasy and the exotic are key themes of Symbolist art, as is the escape or transcendence of everyday realities. Many modern artists come across as alienated and brooding prophets of the sick soul. In contrast, Matisse comes across as a kind of therapeutic hedonist, a doctor of pleasure, offering us sanctuaries where boundaries dissolve and the energy of the imagination is released.

Conclusion: Matisse’s work is daringly modernist, but also draws on a Symbolist tradition from the 19th century. Like the Symbolists, Matisse’s world is slightly abstracted and suspended beyond time. He uses allegories and microcosms to suggest elaborate worlds of the imagination. The great simplification of figures and forms in Matisse’s work encourages viewers to read them as symbols. Conversely the great elaboration of pattern in his work helps trigger imaginative transformations, turning a simple everyday scene into a fantastic dreamscape.

 

Computers in Films & Fiction of the 1960s

Computers come into their own as characters in films and novels in the 1960s: the controlling, proselytizing Alpha 60 (Alphaville, 1965), the insecure, ingratiating and murderous HAL (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968), the gender-bending, joke-loving Mike/ Michelle (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, 1966). In these stories from the mid-60s, the computer is linked to the central nervous system of a city, a space craft and a colony on the moon. The computer relays messages, regulates oxygen levels, plays chess, debates with reporters, and even delivers lectures in a university. A powerful figure who can operate in diverse situations, the computer is a compelling virtual character–not quite real as a personality, but real in its effect on others.

Berkley Medallion edition, 1968 with cover art by Paul Lehr.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is Robert Heinlein’s entertaining novel of a penal colony on the moon whose rebellion from Earth is abetted by a rogue computer. The polymorphous computer in the story is known as Mike for one user and as Michelle for another, changing identities and genders to suit all needs. A similar trend of sexual ambiguity appears in the fashion world at this time, with androgynous model Twiggy and rock chameleon David Bowie leading the way. The computer in Heinlein’s novel is also known as Adam Selene and Simon Jester. Selene is the Greek goddess of the moon, a fitting name for a character who controls space operations on Luna. Adam Selene is a pseudonym adopted by the computer to allow members of the colony to believe in a heroic, but unseen, leader of the revolution.

The gender-bending computer in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress reflects the androgynous fashions of the 1960s. Left: portrait of fashion model Twiggy by Christian Borau Pousa. Right: Pop artist Allen Jones challenges assumptions about sexuality in his hermaphrodite series in 1963.

The revolution gains momentum through small acts of social disruption and sabotage. When these symbolic acts occur, the computer credits them to Simon Jester to irritate and confuse authorities. Soon other rebels perpetrate their own acts of resistance in the name of Simon Jester. The tag goes viral and becomes symbolic of the resistance movement. The novel predicts the role of computers in spreading dissent and counter cultural ideas–an extraordinary anticipation of the power and possibilities of computer aided-communications in transforming society.

Themes of rebellion from authority and the expansion of consciousness are common to these works of the 1960s. What intrigues me is the way that computers are portrayed with human traits, neurosis, thoughts and needs, yet are also separated from humanity by their machine-like state. In an earlier post, I described how Isaac Asimov humanized computers by giving them flaws and conflicted motives. The computer stories of the 1960s go further by suggesting that the flaws of the computers  are also flaws in a social order dependent on technology.

Alphaville

Alphaville: Cinematographer Raoul Coutard combines the feel of film noir with a cinéma vérité mobility, shooting Paris at night through glass, neon, reflected lights, and disorienting signs.

Alphaville, like other films of the French New Wave, daringly disregards the niceties of conventional narrative. It is violent and funny, bold and inventive. There are no futuristic sets or props. The night shooting features flashing lights and disorienting reflections. Hand-held cameras track actors through labyrinthine corridors in a treatment that is so stark and unrelenting that it conveys the idea of a strange and alien world.

Alphaville. Lenny Caution tests his wits against the computer in a sound recording booth.

The computer Alpha 60 is shown in a variety of ways stressing Godard’s Pop Art sensibility: as an ordinary stove top element, burning hot, or as a slowly rotating wall fan silhouetted against the light. Electricity and a cooling system are its essence. While the computer is rarely seen, its voice is frequent and omniscient, carrying through every hotel room, lobby, classroom and city street.  Alpha-60 is instantly recognizable by it distinctive voice–spoken by a man with an artificial voice box–as it makes statements such as: “Nor is there in the so-called Capitalist world or Communist world , any malicious intent to suppress men through the power of ideology or materialism, but only the natural aim of all organizations to increase their rational structure.”

The computer-controlled city is serviced by trench-coat clad seductresses and hidden assassins. Here a paid seductress interacts with corrupted agent Henry Dickson.
Alphaville
Natasha (actress Anna Karina) discovers poetry as an alternative to the state-sponsored Bibles (dictionaries).

Alpha-60 is connected to all telecommunications systems in the city and also conducts seminars at the university. One interpretation of the film (David Anshen, 2007) is that the computer’s control of Alphaville is an allegory for Hollywood’s control of world cinema. Hollywood replaces thoughtful or idiosyncratic stories with formulaic doses of sex and violence. Anshen’s interpretation rests on the notion of a Culture Industry introduced by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in 1944. Culture is prone to mass production like any other commodity. Mass culture is seductive, providing easy satisfactions which deceive people into thinking it is an accurate reflection of themselves, their needs and interests. Mass culture prevents any other kind of culture, any independent voice from being heard. In Alphaville, the computer (representing the Hollywood monolithic model) is defeated by a man who recites French poetry (the New Wave artists) and who baffles the computer by speaking in riddles, paradoxes and metaphors. Flashing light is a repeating motif throughout the film. Godard cleverly uses this light motif to signify both the artificial nighttime world of Alphaville and its control by an artificial intelligence and to signify the awakening of love through the influence of poetry.

HAL: computer as a glowing light encased in a glass ball

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL wants to fit in with the crew on the spaceship. The astronauts treat HAL more like a servant than an equal, though the computer’s intelligence far surpasses their own. The viewer sympathizes with HAL because of this disregard. However HAL’s hurt feelings quickly turn to paranoia. He over-reacts and begins harming the very crew he was designed to serve and protect. One of the great murder scenes in cinema involves the disconnection of HAL by the methodically determined astronaut David Bowman. The computer pleads for his life as his circuits are unplugged.

The murder of HAL. Inside the computer, the astronaut’s helmut looks like the face of a shark, its teeth created by light projected from a computer panel.

HAL regresses to his first memories, singing the children’s song “Daisy Bell”–an incident based on the first talking computer (the IBM 7094) programmed to sing a song in 1961. HAL’s childish regression is the inverse of the astronaut’s journey, which involves a rebirth into a higher form of consciousness.

Childhood's End
Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, 1953. This 1976 Pan edition uses cover art by Dean Ellis.

As a story of future evolution, 2001: A Space Odyssey parallels Arthur C. Clarke’s earlier novel, Childhood End, 1953. In this novel, aliens come to Earth and impose a set of benevolent rules, which forbid warfare and the exploitation of others. The human race prospers under the guidance of the alien Overlords. However, a small community of people object to this paternalistic benevolence and rebel from it to start their own colony. The aliens have been waiting for this moment because it is only be rebelling, by taking ownership of their own actions, that people are able to evolve to the next step in the expansion of consciousness. In Space Odyssey, all needs are met by the computer so the astronauts do not have to think for themselves. It is only when they rebel from the computer that they begin on a path toward a more advanced and independent form of thinking.

The human relationship to the computer in Space Odyssey is symbolic of a dangerous loss of control of technology. HAL is portrayed as both a gentle male voice and as a round glass bulb with a glowing red light inside. There is some similarity between this glass light and the rounded astronaut’s helmut, the glass visor with its multiple reflections as dots of coloured light superimposed over the human face buried inside. But whereas the computer’s image is visually static, the human face through glass suggests vulnerability and courage in an encounter with the unknown.

Light on glass motif in 2001: Actor Keir Dullea plays astronaut David Bowman

After disengaging the computer, the astronaut travels through space, witnessing a cosmic light-show (with special effects by Douglas Trumbull). This awe-inspiring Stargate sequence suggests an hallucinogenic drug trip and serves as a tonic from the claustrophobic spaceship environment and the controlling, limited viewpoint of HAL.

MGM's revised ad campaign for 2001 featured the tag line, "The ultimate trip" to alter viewer's expectations of the film.

Mike Kaplan, marketing executive with MGM, explains how the film confounded expectations of viewers at the time: “It was being presented as “an epic drama of adventure and exploration, and many were expecting a modern Flash Gordon. Instead, Kubrick had created a metaphysical drama encompassing evolution, reincarnation, the beauty of space, the terror of science, the mystery of mankind.” (The Guardian, November 2, 2007)
The revised marketing campaign related the film with psychedelic altered states, heralding a new approach to science fiction. The hallucinatory aspect of the film also signalled a new direction for later computer stories. In works such as Neuromancer (1984), Idoru (1996), Strange Days (1995), The Matrix (1999), computers are depicted not as super-logical machines, but as gateways to mind-bending environments and experiences. In the cyber-punk milieu, computers are depicted less as personalities and more as plug-ins enabling an interface with the human psyche, often presenting illusory projections. In these stories the distinction between what is natural and what is artificial breaks down. The distinction between hero and villain, oppressed and oppressive, also begins to blur. Cyberspace is inherently lawless. Unlike in Alphaville, where the computer represents order and reason, in later stories the computer is a site of uncontrollable energies where hallucinations, viruses, firewalls, hackers, and virtual characters intermingle and where reality and self-identity come into question.

 

First Doodle Painting

Branded

Ed McKean. The Red Desert, 2002

In 2002, I did a small painting of a cow in the desert, with strange markings added to the side of the animal. The markings, with their hard angles and abrupt turns, contrast with the soft undulating dunes beyond. Has this animal been branded by an over-zealous owner–or tagged by a mad graffiti artist? Doodles, often created in spaces I have no control over such as classrooms, act as self-defence from boredom. The scribble maps an alternative imaginary space. With this map, I am no longer a frustrated student, but a ticket-holder to the subversive lands of surrealism. The doodle itself is pure automatism and was created on a separate piece of paper, then collaged to different objects and images. By chance, it adhered to the cow, resulting in an image that surprised myself.

Cat, Car, Constellation

Ed McKean. Cat, Car, Constellation, 2002

I later did a painting of a cat, car and star constellation, each marked by a similar geometric maze pattern. The pattern itself is meaningless apart from its context. I offer three different contexts in the cat, car and constellation, chosen in part because I liked the sound of the title. Patterns appear in living creatures, in objects and in landscapes, encouraging analogies and relationships. In my painting, the doodle swirl is both absurd and decorative, and functions as a source of chaotic energy. I contrast the swirls enclosed inside shapes with an unconstrained swirl that dances freely across the sky.

The Doodle Mandorla

Flight Lines

Ed McKean. Flight Lines, 2002

The doodle as a form of energy led me to “the doodle mandorla,” one of my favourite motifs. A mandorla is a full-body halo, usually almond- shaped, that appears in many religious paintings of Christ. It is a cloud or ring that surrounds and encloses a body to indicate a spiritual condition. In secular iimages, the mandorla is used less as a symbol and more as an attention-grabbing device. It is also a kind of doodle–tracing lines around the outside shape of a figure in a series of expanding rings. My painting contrasts the invisible flight lines of the birds with the visible growth rings of the tree. Both flight lines and rings mark a passage in time as well as an expansion in space.

At the time I made these paintings, I had been struggling to find a way to translate cartoons of mine into paintings and here was something less than a cartoon–the merest of doodles–that miraculously found its place within a painting. The doodle also helped me overcome a fear of abstraction. To me, the oscillation from abstraction to representation and back again, is central to any art experience.

Network

Ed McKean. Anti-social Network, 2011

I stopped creating art for a few years as I went back to school to study art history and the French language. It was a wonderful experience, but stressful at times. I was living in Montreal, away from my wife and friends, and found I couldn’t sleep at night. I asked myself: how can I possibly unwind? How can I think no thoughts so I can relax enough to fall asleep? The answer was simple. A return to doodling, drawing on index cards one mad sketch after another. Never erasing a line or pausing to think, plan or evaluate. As I scribbled away, I relaxed and began to drift off. The drawings became looser and looser. In the morning, I would look at the doodles and laugh. Out of 10 drawings, I threw 9 of them away. But the drawings I saved began to add up. In no time I had 100 drawings, then 500. I wondered how long I could keep it up and began to think of my activity as a series of drawing games.

The above drawing is a recent example–one of my “constellation games.” Draw two dots and join them with a line. Keep drawing dots until you’ve covered different areas of the page. I supplemented the lines and dots with four half circles to break the linear pattern and imply another kind of motion. Finally I added the face in a squared-off area that looked to me like a screen. I wanted to suggest someone in the middle, a user or creator, who is unconcerned by these elaborate construction lines. The drawing expresses how I think of doodles as something that one is in the middle of. Not so much a maze as a piece of architecture or a network that seeks out connections with other things. A doodle may be aimless but, used in the right context, it can be full of associations. Chaos. Energy. Decoration. Connectivity. Motion. Whimsicality. Escape from boredom.