This is not the first day of study for me, I have done a fair bit of reading over Summer, but today is the first day I thought to write in the journal. Just now, I've been reading parts of a book titled "French Philosophy in the 20th Century" by Gary Gutting. I won't go too deep into the details of it here, but you can see my vague notes here, and my legible notes here. I am really glad I found this book, it seems like it is very difficult to find a narrative of Structuralist thought, but this book provides that at the perfect level of detail for me. It explains all of the concepts to a moderate understanding, which I find most books are either far too basic and barely scrape the philosophical work, or they are too advanced and I struggle to make sense of it. I find this book challenging, but I understand it.
I just finished reading a chapter about Roland Barthes. I wrote about "The Death of the Author" in one of my first-year DHT essays, so I had a vague understanding but I never understood the importance of his thought. Again, I won't go into too much detail explaining the concepts here, as I want to keep this section of the blog about my thought during this project; but Barthes essentially crushed the structuralist goal of finding a structure in language.
Yesterday was the first day back. We had a Q&A session with Jen discussing the studio brief and general questions about year 4. I had already made notes about my brief but was concerned about the level of detail necessary at this stage. I was relieved to hear that it sounds as though the brief doesn't need to be too exact, it seems to serve the purpose of focussing study into a direction.
My brief is still quite vague, possibly still too vague. I know that practically, I want it to be an interactive real-time piece, and most likely on Unity. Theoretically, I think I may still be too vague. I think my work will be politcal, (I don't really like the word 'politic' because it is too closely linked with the system of politics, when I am more interested in the though behind it) because that's usually the context in which I think about the world. I also feel like all of my thought has been grounded in modern thinking, and I would like to progress into postmodern thinking.
Admittedly, I don't know all that much about Baudrillard, but I am interested in the sort of post-structuralist neo-marxist thought. I think the most profound commentary on modern politics comes from this era, and luckily, the concept has great artistic potential.
Hopefully, I can get through the rest of this French philosophy book and it will give me more clear pointers as to what thinkers I should dig into to get a better understanding of the ideas I want to explore.
Today was the first feedback session on the brief. The main points to take away from the session are not to constrict myself to a specific medium just yet. My brief stated that I intent to produce a real-time interactive piece in Unity. This was included based on my assumption that I would want to use the software I wish to develop further, and also an anxiety to make my brief more specific.
I also need to make my definition of 'sign' more obvious, as I suspect it was interpreted to mean a graphical symbol, when in reality I mean a property of an object that signifies a deeper meaning. For example, in advertising, a lot of time and effort is put in to signify a desirible attribute with the signifier that is the product. This can be the outdated sign of ciggarette's representing freedom, or the car as a phallus.
So in my next revision, I may stress that the sign is more conceptual than a reference to symbols. Although the flat graphical representation of signs in a sort of pop art way raises some potential avenues to explore.
Although I am started to get nervous about spending too much time researching these topic and not developing a piece out of them, I can't help but see it as necessary to the success of this project. I think I just need to study it more efficiently, and keep an awareness of the main concepts that I want to explore, and not stray too far from that path.
Aside from the brief, I have spent some time studying the thought of Michel Foucault, I was vaguely aware of his work, particularly his archaelogical method and the gist of Discipline and Punish but I was hoping, given the fact that he is the most well-known of the post-structuralists, that he would write in more of a semiotics context but that doesn't seem to be the case. It may be best not to spend too much time studying his thought.
The concept of reification, where a subject becomes so defined by their objects, that they become more object than subject. That's probably a crude definition because it came from the Baudrillard page in the Stanford Encyclopeadia of Philosophy. I find this concept interesting, because I feel like I have seen it in real life.
Occasionally I meet somebody that feels shallow, a sort of inauthenticity that eminates from them. You often learn that they are obsessed their career, self-image or social media after talking to them for only moments. Perhaps its this cultural sign of success, that is permeated in the media and people feel they need to replicate in order to be worth something. The only authentic expression you really sense from these people is a sadness that sometimes seeps out.
I don't mean to look down on these people, I'm not calling them mugs or anything like that. I believe we're all guilty of it to some extent.
But just to round this point off, this concept came across as interesting to me because it isn't so abstract, its a quality you can feel in people. Also with social media, that is an endless flow of signs, I reckon reification is more common than ever.
I am rewriting my first draft and I realise I can boil down my proposal into 4 main themes.
1. Semiotics - the nature of signs and how they express ideology
2. Media - the method in which signs are communicated and developed
3. Ideology - what is signified by signifiers
4. Politics - the real-world affects of this ideology.
I feel like I need an area from which I can base these themes around. It seems like ideology is the driving force of this project, seeing as it is the object of representation of all other themes. Perhaps instead of framing my proposal around political signs, it should be on contemporary ideology, and its signifiers. Does this make sense?
Perhaps I should ask my self what the driving force of this project is. I am angered by the false appearances in contemporary politics. Particularly in the US where politics is split into two factions, who actually disagree on very little. Neither support any form of social welfare, and both desire economic growth at the expense of the poor, domestically and internationally.
However, these two factions are depicted on either ends of the spectrum and the parties seem to attack eachother based on appearances. Blue vs Red, social liberalism or conservativism.
I recently watched a video where Malcolm X describes the danger of white liberals.
His point is that liberals and conservatives goals both are of detrement to black Americans. They only differ in their approach, the liberal is friendly, and provides symbolic victory, but they will not allow any moves that threaten the inherently racist system.
These were the thoughts that I my proposal at this stage developed from. It boils down the idea that politicians will adopt political signs and symbols, instead of embracing systemic change. Contemporary politics is an illusion, conflicts are only symbolic in nature.
So what do we have here? We have signs that represent alternative ideology, these signs are distorted and the signified is lost. The signifiers still carry political connotations- they still signify political association, and therefore they become a mode of identification for rivalling factions. However, since the signifier is lost, the rivarly is self-referential and essentially meaningless.
The faction is defined through negation. One faction gains meaning through not being the other party.
What is Next?
Although the above statement is the closest to best articulation yet, I will try and further make sense of it tomorrow.
Just now, I think it is most important to continue theoretical research, so I have the best idea of what I aim to make before I look for artistic inspiration. I will probably keep up the theoretical research until next Tuesday / Wednesday and then I'll transition to a focus on art research.
I also think it is best that I keep up the secondary research. If I build up a broad and shallow picture, I'll have a better idea at where to find the relevent primary research.
Today I spent most of my time writing a chapter outline. This was actually really helpful for articulating my thoughts and finding areas that require more reserach on the subject that will also be the basis for my studio work. I still think its too early to read primary sources, so I should keep reading secondary sources to fill in the gaps. I will read primary sources when I find that my knowledge of a subject doesn't go deep enough.
I have also been thinking about researching the works of other artists in this area. I could do with inspiration to see how other artists have tackled this theme, and it could even make for a good chapter within my dissertation.
This morning I had a look into Marxian concepts of use-value, exchange-value and commodity fetishism. Baudrillard's work seems to have many references to these concepts so I though it would be best to gain an understanding and collect some quotes why I was at it. I then rewrote my proposal, it includes a better articulation of the concepts I wish to explore, but I think it is still week on artistic inspiration. I will spend a couple of days this week exploring relevent artworks, and I may even begin reading Simulacra and Simulation.
I started today with a tutorial on my second draft of the proposal. The main points to take away from this meeting are to write the proposal with more of a flow between points, and I need to further elaborate on examples of inspirational work, particularly on fluxus happenings. I think the main issue now, is finding that link between the theory, and something I can make.
A happening is a difficult thing to achieve in the context of exhibition, but by taking it into a virtual realm, I can open up possibilities for unique locations in space and time.
I realise that some video games have in varying degrees of success have achieved this. I'm thinking about games like Journey, The Endless Forest, and No Man's Sky. I'll use Journey as an example as it is the only one I've extensively played. Journey has a linear narritive, but will occasionally pair you up with another player. Interactions are limited, but users can communicate with a single button. Below is a video of a typical interaction.
I am not implying I should make a game with multiplayer, I mean that that instead of relying on procedural generation for unique happenings, I could rely on the interaction between two or more individuals in any context.
I reference the happenings because the stress the importance of audience interaction in media art. I am not particularly interested in happenings in themselves, but I like the philosophy behind them. Perhaps I shouldn't confine myself within the definition of a happening, but I should maintain an emphasis on interaction, as I believe that interaction should be the centrepiece of my work.
Today I went back for a deeper dive into Saussurian semiotics to see if I could get any useful quotes or find different directions from that starting point. I found some pretty interesting information that led to quickly skimming through his 500 page Course in General Linguistics. I can probably leave my understanding of Sausurre's work at that level for the rest of this project.
I also found a book called Semiotics : The Basics. It provides neat explanations to semiotic thought and goes onto Structuralist and Deconstructivist thought.
I read through the rest of Baudrillard's Stanford Encyclopeadia page. I mostly read about his later work that is notoriously difficult to read due to its ironic and playful nature. In his book Fatal Strategies, he presents a scenario in which objects rule over subject. The objects completely surpass any attempts to understand and continually surpass themselves as the grow. This may be an interesting narrative to explore in a piece.
I have also started thinking about possible areas to explore for practical work. I'm considering developing a collection of signs that represent myths. To take a simple example, I could gather Scottish nationalist signs, and display them all in one scene. Perhaps I could collage them to produce landscapes, or creatures. Maybe it could be completely abstract.
I have done some thinking, and I think I have realised that myth is the missing element that will tie a good chunk of my project together. Most nationalism is built on myth; a period in time that did not exist. Brexit looks back on WWII, Scotland on clans and a state of nature, the US make american great again- god only knows when that was. Myth isn't negative in-itself, but when it it is confused with reality it becomes dangerous.
Today I began reading Barthes's Mythologies. It is around 120 pages long so I am hoping I can get through it in a couple of days and have the time be well spent. The first half consists of his essays on a range of subjects, from soap to wrestling. Although these were interesting, they didn't provide much value in terms of the philosophical explanations of myth that I needed. It wasn't until I got half way through that I realised the second half of the book contained his more philosophical ideas.
Over the weekend I read some more of Mythologies. It is getting quite difficult but I am managing to follow.
Today I start practical explorations, first I am going to make a couple of collages to get a feel for representations of ideologies through signs.
After much thinking, I realised that it was time to seperate my studio work from my DHT work. A dissertation is effective when it covers a broad range of topics but this technique doesn't work so well in practice. I have decided it is best to limit my practical exploration to two areas: The adoption of nationalist signs in order to fill a lack meaning in the individual's life, AND the appropriation of signs by politicians and corporations.
There is some overlap between these two topics but I think they would be expressed quite differently so I think covering both topics in one project would be spreading my self too thin. I think I should aim to have at least one practical exploration in each area before the next studio session.
I also began watching Hypernormalisation again. The documentary is dense with historical examples of simulation so it may make good reference.
After having another look at my brief, I think I have a good direction to start moving in. Theoretically, I am keeping the same methods (poststructuralist semiotics) but I have narrowed my scope down to political tokenism.
Political tokenism is when purely symbolic elements of an ideology are adopted, but there is no real change. I am most interested in exploring this area in the corporate sense. During the Black Lives Matter protests over Summer, hundreds of brands came out in support, adopting the imagery and leaving messages in support. The figurehead of the current movement, Colin Kaepernick was selling Nike clothing, PG Tips and Yorkshire Tea were arguing with racists on Twitter, Call of Duty blacked out its loading screens.
Corporations obviously don't care about BLM, they are amoral systems designed to maixmise profits for shareholders. But I was totally taken by surprise when people bought into this cheap token.
This is completely anecdotal, but in my experience, people generally praised brands for this move. Even going as far to boycott and berate the brands competitors like complete suckers.
I am mostly concerned with the consequences of dissident signs being adopted by the elite in the system that they oppose. The means in which the system is challenged is subsumed by said system and so politcal opposition is completely ineffectual.
Nike stock as nearly doubled in value since their BLM campaign in 2018.
If I could create a piece that is a warning, a cautionary tale. Or even just highlighting this system, I think that would be interesting.
Now I need to focus in the practical methods in which I will convey this message. I am considering looking into Kitsch. I don't know too much about Kitsch but I know it adopts and reappropriates popular signs. I like how it smashes them together, often producing surreal results. Like this Lady Diana mug with legs...
I finished watching Hypernormalisation last night, I think it was the third time I had seen it. This time, probably because I was taking notes, it seemed to make way more sense than the first time I had seen it. The relationships between each event seemed far too complex for me to get around it but now I think I have a good understanding of everything he mentioned.
I think Adam Curtis uses the poststructuralist technique of studying a field throughout history in order to explain where we are today. I always thought Hypernormalisation was a reference to Baudrillard's Hyperreality, but instead it was coined by a Russian writer to describe the acceptance of the Soviet Unions false reality by the populace. I suppose Hypernormalisation could be a process in which Hyperreality is reached.
Curtis seems to believe that the contemporary state of politics is a result of decision-making being surrendered by politicians and left to controlled by the market. Politicians became increasingly ineffective, protests and revolutions consistently failed. As a result the population became increasingly apathetic. This claim is certainly true, the turnout in UK elections has never been as high as it was 9/11.
Interestingly enough, I was also trying to find what demographic British nationalists were. I used the Brexit referendum to guage this because I think it is fair to say that the vote was based on national identity, not on the politics. I found that Brexit voters were mostly in C2DE social classes, poorer and the biggest difference were they were extremelly apathetic. I'm not being snooty, I think it seems like decades of electoral poltics has made absolutely no difference to the more vulnerable in society. Maybe Brexit seemed like an opportunity for actual change.
But anyway, I found the most interesting idea in this documentary the idea of perception management. It originated in the Reagan administration where Reagan was being pressured to act in response to a suicide bombing carried out by Syria. Attacking Syria would be disasterous due to their allies, and doing nothing would make Reagan seem cowardly to the American voters. They found that they could pin the attack on Libya, due to the powerlessness of the country. They had to construct a public image of Gadaffi that made him out to be a villain, and he played along. Everybody knew this was a fabricated reality, but it was the best result the Reagan administration could hope for.
The West would continually manipulate the public view of the outside world. There are a good view instances of perception management that I have fallen for, that we all have fallen for, but a couple have been uncovered to me in recent years. Like growing up, the word communism was interchangable with Naziism, I didn't really understand the concept but the word both signified the same thing to me. Also, the more recent threats to the West turned out to be totally fabricated. I remember it was a common narrative that ISIS would have little trouble conquering Europe, or that North Korea was going to start a war with the US- which would be the equivalent of Ronnie Corbett challenging Mike Tyson to a boxing match.
Perception management has been taken to the extreme in Russia. Curtis credits Putin's aide Vladislav Surkov for the success of Putin's power. Surkov has a background in theatre, which he applied to Putin. He completely masked Putin's true intentions by supporting rivalling causes, and opposition parties. He also invented what is called non-linear warfare, where a military chooses to fight for strange causes. The war is never won, but that is not the purpose, the purpose is to heighten the public capacity for perception management.
I have also done some thinking about how I can make a start to doing some practical work. I am considering designing my own political commodities. If corportations can package a political message and sell it back to you- the most obvious examples are climate change and veganism, then why don't I create commodities that are obvious appropriations of political movements. The most literal example I can think of this is Che Guevara, who is known for being a T-shirt.
I started a Pinterest board where I am collecting examples of Kitsch that I could manipulate into representing ideology.
The Gift Shop Souvenir
The items found in a gift shop are intersting. They make very little effort to disguise their intention of making money. They will often take a sign that represents the idea of a the company that sells them, and paste them onto commodities that serve an unrelated purpose.
Take the Garfield Clock above, the first sign is the clock, the clockface signifies time. The sign of the clock is within another sign, Garfield, who represents a fictional character in the comic strip. The clock and Garfield are completely unrelated. I feel like Garfield melts away into the clock, the clock is unaltered by Garfield's presence, and Garfield is emptied of any meaning. He is merely an icon, he exists as an empty sign.
Now this emptying of the sign becomes of particular interest when the sign is ideological. This is more rare, as the commodification of a sign is a disrespect to it- it has the intention of draining any non-commercial substance from it. The example I used above, Che Guevara, is recognised as an icon over a revolutionary. Cultural value has great sign-value, appropriating it will increase the value of a commodity.
As this is so obviously disrespectful, commodities rarely appropriate cultural icons that would generate outrage. In order to profit from culture, they need to play at being part of said culture. If Colin Kaepernick is a sign for BLM and also a sign for Nike, Nike is a sign for BLM. Their products are imbued with BLM sign-value. Now this is just as respectful as BLM gift shop mug. Nike is BLM merchandise, BLM is Nike merchandise.