Sarah Palin & Dinosaurs Comic

6 October 2008 – UPDATE: After getting some feedback from my Comm Lab class, I have made some changes to the comic and replaced the version shown on this blog as well.

I worked with Ruxy on this week’s Comm Lab assignment, which was to tell a story using 4-10 sequential images. We created our comic using Photoshop and images we found online. The final assembly of the comic was done with Comic Life.

We were inspired by an article published in the LA Times on September 28, 2008, that cites a conversation Sarah Palin had with Wasilla, Alaska resident Philip Munger in 1997, in which Palin said, “dinosaurs and humans walked the Earth at the same time…she had seen pictures of human footprints inside the tracks.”

Click here or on the image above to download the hi-res PDF version of the comicAlso available as a T-shirt!

Response to Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

This is a response to Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction for Comm Lab @ ITP.

I had to brush up on my Marxist fundamentals, which I haven’t really engaged in depth since my undergrad political science classes, to understand some of the historical/political references that Benjamin was making.  This sent me on an hours-long quest looking up articles and reading articles online related to the issues Benjamin brings up.  I find the essay prophetic, as if Benjamin can somehow look into the future and see Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia and even more obviously propagandistic films like The Eternal Jew.

Benjamin writes: “For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.”  And he continues, “Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice — politics.”  I don’t think politics can be viewed as something separate from ritual.  Politics and religion have always been linked.  Also, in political narratives that legitimize power, there are invocations of “cult value” or “instruments of magic,” be it a “founding myth” of a state or nation, or in the idolization of certain historical founder figures.  To me, they are two sides of the same coin.

“This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.  Communism responds by politicizing art.”

These are the last two lines of the essay.  Maybe I’m not understanding nuance here, but aren’t these the same thing?  Both Fascism and Communism are mixing the art with politics or politics with art.  I believe that art and politics have always been bedfellows and that the role of artists is to comment upon and engage with their societies and times.  Sure, politicians and others can use art as a means of persuasion or propaganda, but others can similarly use art as a means of resistance against coercion and hegemony.  The innovation of mechanical reproduction, or in our times, digital distribution and network communication make art an even more powerful and even more dangerous two-edged sword and tool for oppression and for liberation.

I don’t necessarily agree that there is a decline of the aura in art, but instead, I think that the ritual value and the aura of art have changed.  There is still a ritualistic quality to going to see a movie at the cinema as an “event” or happening.  Or the ritual fetishistic quality of unwrapping an album or CD recording and playing it for the first time.  In fact, even with MP3s replacing CDs and movies available to download on demand, there is still an aura attached to the real thing.  Audiophiles and DJs still appreciate the qualities of vinyl or CDs over MP3s.  Even with the ubiquitousness of music through the popularization of iPods and other MP3 players, live music shows are still an event, a spectacle, something with an aura that has ritual value.  In fact, the relative banality of ubiquitous mechanically/digitally reproduced music probably makes us appreciate live shows even more.  Probably the same goes with movies.  Sure, I can BitTorrent a movie and watch it on my laptop to avoid paying money to see it in a theater (but of course I wouldn’t because that would be unethical and even illegal), but there is still a lingering aura in seeing it in a theater, for the immersive experience and for the ritual social value of experiencing it with friends or a date.

Comm Lab Week 3: 30 Minute Film Festival

I worked with Mustafa today for this in-class assignment for Communications Lab at ITP.

In-class Exercise: The 30-Minute Film Festival. In teams of three you have 45 minutes to create a short video that contains a simple narrative arc. Create a blip account. Upload your video. Embed it into your blog. We’ll have a short film festival.

The inspiration for this short film came from a squashed pigeon I saw in the middle of Broadway when I was crossing the street from the subway to school this morning.

Click here or on the image above to play.

Response to Ong’s Orality and Literacy – Chapters 1-4

Week 2 of Communications Lab @ ITP:

In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong draws from cultural anthropology, Greco-Roman classical antiquity, and modern (McCluhan and company) to illustrate the differences between primary oral cultures (societies that do not have written language) and “chirographic” or literate cultures.  Ong rejects the term “oral literature” as “preposterous.”  The term “literature” implies writing, but oral storytelling is not simply unwritten stories.  Ong claims that there are fundamental structural differences between orality and literacy.  He points out that these differences are hard to grasp for people like us in predominately literate societies, as the written word has influenced so much of our culture.  From a historical standpoint, orality is more the norm than literacy.  Writing is a relatively recent development in human history, and even today, with about 3,000 languages in the world, only 78 have what could be considered “literature.”

The sharp distinction between orality and literacy are is inherently problematic.  Ong himself admits that the origins of language is oral.  In the state of cognitive development, even in literate societies, people start out oral first, then they become literate.  Ong introduces the concept of “residual orality,” meaning vestiges of orality even in literate cultures.  In this way, orality is so central to the human condition, as a cognitive and psycho-linguistic phenomenon, that it does not disappear with the onset of orality, but rather changes and is augmented by literacy.  But of course this change and augmentation is not necessarily “lossless.”

Ong provides a list of 9 characteristics of thought and expression characteristic of oral cultures that differentiate them from chirographic ones:

1. Expression is additive rather an subordinative

2. Aggregative rather than analytic

Ong claims that oral cultures are more likely to use set expressions or “clichés” than literate cultures, although these set expressions linger even in post-literate cultures.  Even if Ong meant no value judgement, I question whether this is not due to social prejudices and taste, rather than something instrinsic to literacy.

3. Redundant or “copious”

I’ve read some pretty redundant and copius text in my day, and heard a lot of redundant and copius speeches and sermons, so I don’t know if this is something we have moved away from in a literate society ;).  In any case, Ong admits that this redundancy and “copiousness” of style persisted up until the early 20th century in Anglophone cultures, so is this really something unique to orality, or is it merely a shift in stylistic norms?

4. There is a tendency for it to be conservative

With no way to preserve knowledge in the long term, oral societies must spend a great deal of energy in repeating and performing oral knowledge as a way of remembering and transmitting that knowledge.

Even though writing allows you to preserve culture and collective memory, the written corpus becomes to vast for people to keep track of.  Knowledge still has to be repeated and orally performed in post-literate cultures in order for it to be passed down.

5. Close to the human lifeworld – “primary oral culture is little concerned with preserving knowledge of skills as an abstract, self-subsistent corpus.”

Even so, oral cultures are able to construct elaborate and fantastical legends and fables, so there is no lack of imagination there.  I would argue that there is rich metaphor and symbolism in oral traditions, even if there is not what Ong would consider to be “abstraction.”  But maybe I am missing Ong’s point here.  In any case, as someone completely immersed in a chirographic society, it is really hard to comprehend a primary oral society, let alone analyze it.  Our whole world view is filtered through the lens of written language.

Ong himself declares, “[f]reeing ourselves of chirographic and typographic bias in our understanding of language is probably more difficult than any of us can imagine.”  Yet is it impossible?  In writing the book, Ong seems to have believed that he has been able to bridge the gap and attained some degree of understanding of a primary oral state.  But we are never able to free ourselves from a chirographic/typographic bias, so we will never know for sure.

6. Agonistically toned – “orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle”

Ong writes, “Growing up in a still dominantly oral culture, certain black males in the US, the Caribbean and elsewhere, engage in what is known variously as the ‘dozens’ or ‘joning’ or ‘sounding’ or by other names, in which one opponent tries to outdo the other in vilifying the other’s mother.”

This is echoed in the way as hip hop MC’s “do battle.”  This also reminds me of the ball culture depicted in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, where “combattants” from rival “houses” engage in verbal duels known as “reading.”

7. Empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced

Writing in 1982, Ong could not have predicted the phenomenon of internet chatting, which makes written communication a widespread “live” interactive phenomenon, rather than a distanced, one-way communication.

8. Homeostatic – “oral societies live very much in the present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance”

While this is true, politicians and people working in PR know the limits of collective memory.  The scandal of yesteryear is quickly forgotten in the media deluge of the modern news cycle.  There are limits to individual and collective memory due to the vast amounts of information floating around.  Of course, written language allows us to keep a record of the past, but up until very recently, this has been a tedious process that has required access to historical records and the ability to conduct research.  In the post-Google age, the internet now becomes an easily searchable collection of knowledge that can be quickly retrieved.  It becomes harder to bury the past in the stacks of imposing archives.

9.  Situational rather than abstract – people in oral cultures tend to think more about the situation – the here and now – rather than the abstract hypothetical

Part of the power (and the limitation) of oral language is its dependence on place and time.  Once a word is verbally uttered, it is gone.  It has an ephemeral quality that the written word does not.  Oral language is always tied in with physical action, whereas written language can be preserved and transmitted with ease.

In Ong’s words, “Sound exists only when it is going out of existence…Sight isolates, sound incorporates.  Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer…The spoken word forms human beings into close-knit groups.”

If this is true, then reading something off of a printed page (or computer screen) is not the same as hearing the same words live in a room.  There is a socially cohesive quality to the spoken language, as well as a mystical quality, as Ong points out in the theological example of God ‘speaking’ to human beings in Christianity.

In chapters 1-3, Ong primarily addresses orality, but in chapter 4, Ong addresses the characteristics of writing.  He claims that “[m]ore than any single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness.”  Writing, like computers, is a form of technology and completely artificial. But Ong does not condemn this artificiality, but instead praises it.  He states that “[t]echnologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness…writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does.”

In this way, one could infer that humans and technology are mutually transformative.  Humans alter the environment to create technology.  They create paper and inks to write language, thus transforming raw materials into something new.  But this technology of writing likewise changes people’s ability to think and reason.

When Ong starts talking about Asian language scripts, he starts to drop the ball a bit.  He predicts that Chinese characters will eventually disappear as pinyin (Chinese romanization) and the Mandarin ‘dialect’ is spread throughout the People’s Republic of China.  While pinyin romanization is now firmly established as a pedagogical tool in teaching Chinese to beginning readers in China and foreigners learning Chinese as a second language, the characters (hanzi) are not going anywhere anytime soon.  While the character set has been simplified in Mainland China, the traditional character set is still in use in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and much of the Chinese diaspora.  Also, his claim that the Chinese ‘dialects’ (which are actually mutually unintelligible languages sharing a common root, much like French, Spanish and Italian all derive from Latin) are “basically of the same structure” is also false.  There is structural similarity, but modern written Chinese (which replaced classical Chinese – wenyenwen, an archaic written language with a similar function to Learned Latin in the European Middle Ages) in the early 20th century is based on spoken Mandarin.  Even if native speakers of Cantonese or Taiwanese are proficient in written Chinese, there is a big gap between the written language they use and their actual spoken language.

He also makes a factual error about Japanese script.  Japanese is not written with “a syllabary and Chinese characters,” but TWO syllabaries and Chinese characters (kanji).  The two syllabaries – hiragana and katakana – both express the same sounds, so are technically interchangeable, but have distinct roles in the written language based on stylistic usage.  Also the Chinese characters often have 2 or more ‘readings’ or pronunciations based on the context.  They are not pronounced only, as Ong describes, “in its own non-Chinese way.”  Some kanji readings are based on and attempt to imitate Chinese loanwords to Japanese, although the pronunciations have changed over time and been adapted to the Japanese phonetic system.  Other readings are purely Japanese, and the characters have only been borrowed semantically, with no regard to the Chinese pronunciations.  This would be akin to us writing French words in English, but pronouncing them in English, i.e. if I wrote “oiseau” but pronounced it “bird.”  Although this analogy is a bit awkward because French and English both use more-or-less phonetic alphabets, whereas the Chinese ideographs are not phonetic.  Finally, Ong’s description of Korean being a hybrid of Chinese characters and the Korean alphabet is no longer true, as the Korean alphabet is now almost always used exclusively in writing in all but the most academic contexts in Korea.

New York City Waterfalls

ITP - Applications

As part of Communications Lab at ITP, we were asked to visit and comment on the New York City Waterfalls.  I went with my classmate, Catherine to observe the Waterfalls from the South Street Seaport on September 7.

ITP - Applications

Living in New York, one often forgets that Manhattan is an island.  Access to the waterfront areas are cut off by highways, so it feels that New York faces inward and upward, rather than outward towards its maritime surroundings.  The topography of NYC is known more for its urban peaks and valleys created by skyscrapers and the artificial oasis that is Central Park, rather than for its maritime orientation and island nature.

Even when I am by the rivers in New York, I feel like the water is just something I look past or through, concentrating my eye on the view of Brooklyn, Queens or New Jersey across the water.  That is to say that the built environment dominates ones perception of the city.

The Waterfalls draw attention to the qualities of the water itself.  By elevating the water and dropping it down as waterfalls, Danish-Icelandic artist and creator of the Waterfalls Olafur Eliasson reminds us of the vast force and volume of the water.

The Waterfalls are clearly fake, you can see the scaffolding, and maybe that is the point.  Nobody would mistaken them for Niagara falls or anything like that.  But man-made structures still have the ability to evoke the beauty of the natural world.  Or at least that is the theory behind landscape architecture and garden design.  A garden or a park is not a forest or a meadow, but they evoke these natural environments and demonstrate the beauty of nature.

My favorite Waterfall is the one under the Brooklyn Bridge.  It plays with the sillouette of an iconic fixture of the NY skyline.  It invites us to look down and over at the river that the Bridge traverses, and not just the Bridge as a part of the terrestrial built environment.