Saturday, February 19, 2011

Wii and the Aesthetics of Alienation

The inlaws got my family Wii for Christmas. Having lived with it for a couple of weeks it's much easier to understand its popularity. Much hay is made of how Wii and now Microsoft's Kinect are more physically active and (real world) social than other video games. This is undoubtably true, but I think that these are just corollaries to the real appeal. What Nintendo really got right is the artificiality and clunkiness (aesthetically not technically) of the interface. The Wii programmers went completely the opposite direction of most gaming trends which feature realistic graphics and "transparency" of the control interface. By focusing more and more on the verisimilitude of the graphics and the naturalism of characters' movements controlled by smaller more automatic and subtle hand movements on a gaming pad, Gamers games aspire for an ideal where the player is drawn into the alternative world on the screen as fully as possible. The ideal of games like Halo is immersion, for the interface and the real world to disappear as fully as possible. Anything that reminds the player of the artificiality of the actual situation-- their actual body, the computer or TV screen, the bedroom, office or den where they happen to playing--is treated (and rightfully so) as an impediment to the player's ability to unselfconsciously inhabit their avitar's body and the virtual world of the game.
By contrast everything, I mean everything, about the Wii is designed to create a friction between the simultaneous real and virtual experiences. The aim here is to create a graphical world with just enough verisimilitude to create a sensual, physiological pull, but which is also sufficiently artificial to create a counterbalancing push which never allows the player to unselfconsciously immerse themselves in the virtual experience. Take Wii Sports tennis as an example. The court, ball and surroundings are realistically modeled in terms of texture and mass. Trees even shudder in the virtual breeze. Light flows convincingly over objects casting correspondingly believable shadows. Engineers have coded sfumato, the atmospheric illusion of light scattering off of molecules of air, they have programmed lens flare and soft-focus depth of field. These are all very sophisticated perceptual clues that seem excessive especially when one remembers that the inhabitants of this virtual virtuosity are simplistic abstract figures who resemble nothing so much as lego people. Here stylization rather than verisimilitude is the rule to the point that any unnecessary and visually confusing elements-- even the characters' arms have been omitted. The upshot is that the space sucks us in, but the figures distance us perceptually from this world. The space is real but we aren't in it. It is inhabited by a symbol that stands in our place.
The result of this frission is the constant to-ing and fro-ing of perception that conflates actual experiences occurring in the room with the virtual experiences occurring on screen. Immersion wants us to confuse the virtual FOR the real as an alternative to reality. Wii is based on a balance of perceptual artificiality and sensual seduction that encourages the player to conflate the virtual WITH the real to crate a single unified experience which is a fusion of the real and the virtual, nether suffiiently real nor convincingly virtual to allow conscious perception to settle comfortably inside or outside the game. Psychologically speaking, playing Wii presents us with a classic case of dual consciousness or alienation. Marx, DuBois and Lacan never imagined that psychological tension, a schism in the geist could be so darn fun...

Friday, February 18, 2011

When Leadership Stopped Smelling Like Sheep

Two words: "mission creep". That was the first thing that went through my mind when I was recently asked to facilitate a working group at the next ITI Think Tank that is going to consider engaging student leadership in the classroom. Now mind you, these are freshman level art courses were talking about here, not business administration or political science classes. I have long been an advocate of expanding the foundations curriculum beyond the introduction of art and design principles, eagerly engaging progressive approaches to course content, classroom delivery and curricular structure. The last twenty years or so there has been a steady drum beat to expand the mission of these introductory art courses and I must add, most programs and students are much the better for it. But with the learning outcomes for these courses beginning to rival the optimistic inclusiveness of a six-year-old's christmas list, my first impulse was to wonder of all the things that we should and could be teaching, is leadership really where we ought to spending our time and resources?

Add to this this the fact that I continue to harbor a deep rooted wariness of leadership in general as a positive social value. One of the reasons I was attracted to the arts in the first place is it's romantic aura of revolution, art's history of challenging traditional notions of leadership-- the artist as individual free agent blithely aloof or actively eroding the consent of the governed to fall in line with social convention, political coercion or corporate co-option. Despite my best effort to shake off this admittedly romantic and historically shortsighted bias, "leadership", with its evocation of herd mentality, and connotations sheep and shepherds, still retains the faint aroma of the barnyard for me. So I seem a somewhat unlikely candidate to head up discussions about engaging student leadership in art foundations classroom.

However after a bit of reflection and research I have come to realize that it is the language of leadership, not its principles or implications for student learning that I find vaguely troubling. I discovered that my misgivings are largely based on traditional understandings of leadership, the "command style" of the singular leader with its attendant hierarchical power structures, narrow conception of individual achievement and cult of personality. Contemporary theories of effective leadership tend to eschew this model in favor of shared or distributive leadership and the "flattening" of organizational structures. The term "shared leadership" has an oxymoronic attraction that I find somewhat irresistible. The idea of shared leadership is on its surface as silly and comical as a Yogi Berra malapropism but its implications can run as deep as a Zen koan. There is something to be gained by re-imagining what we do as foundations art instructors using a student leadership framework and I look forward to getting schooled at Think Tank where maybe we'll find out just how many leaders one organization can stand...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

My Fault

Visual art is located at a metaphysical fissure, where two planes of existence, mind and matter, collide and scrape and buckle. The footing is often unstable. There are the acrid wisps of seeping vapor. But most of the time not much happens. An occasional creak or shudder can create a slight tingle of panic in the belly. Sometimes the feeling can stay with you for days. It's a rather dicey place to build a life, but on clear days the view is good and there is the vague, oddly comforting edginess that comes from knowing that something interesting could happen at any moment. I choose to build here because every painting, every drawing is a big glowing arrow: Danger. This is the place where matter meets meaning. Perk up, step lightly, pause. You can just sense the world quiver, right here, where the surface goes deep.

The Power of Art

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must preface this with the admission that I was raised Catholic. This, of itself, is no particularly traumatic or uncommon event, but it most likely has some bearing on what follows. Most specifically I was steeped in Catholicism’s peculiar ambivalence towards power, what with all the “weak will be made strong”, “meek shall inherit the Earth” stuff. Now frankly, humiliation and death always seemed like a somewhat dubious path to everlasting glory to me. Die to live?... Really?.... Jesus was just so Tao.

I figured out rather quickly that this was not exactly the parallel that my local preist, Father Cotton, was aiming for, but the padre did seem almost excited to concede that Jesus was quite the rebel. Simply take the prevailing Roman militaristic values and Pharisaic religious norms, imagine their opposite and you have the essential life and teachings of Jesus. Keep in mind that Jesus’ radical revaluation of merit and power was presented to me as the unquestionable dogma of perhaps the single most powerful and hegemonic institution in all of human history. Add to my struggle with this epic irony a general mistrust of authority that has become every American’s birthright and you have the recipe for some serious confliction regarding power relationships.

And so I have issues with “the power of art”. I have issues with art’s ability to inspire sanctimonious reverence or coerce false, flowery esteem from those who are “cultured” or at least want to appear so. I have issues with the fact that although art is often given this kind of lip service and is lauded as among human's highest and most noble achievements, our actions as a society generally belie our true lack of regard or respect for art, a lack that is not necessarily undeserved given contemporary art’s relative impotency when it comes to engaging large audiences or effecting any kind of meaningful social change. We say that art matters. Perhaps we even want to believe that it does. But the fact remains that it doesn’t. Much like the monarchy in the UK, art enjoys a largely historic grandure and an appearance of power based on a somewhat misplaced nostalgic affection. But warm feelings and the bubble of prestige that they inflate, can only be maintained so long as there is no actual exercise of power. This is the issue that I have with "the power of art". By raising art on a pedestal we effectively neuter it. It's a problem of cultural expectations.

Cultural expectations account for the fact that the U.S. has a significantly higher proportion of married couples than any other western nation. We also have the dubious honor of leading the world in the percentage of those marriages that will end in divorce. Counter intuitively, your chances of becoming divorced are highest if you just happen to live in a southern or western state, states whose conservatism is bourn out by the fact that they reliably vote republican. One of the most persuasive theories put forward by sociologists to account for this curious finding that conservative states have the highest divorce rates is that social conservatives tend to hold real, imperfect marriages up to an unrealistic cultural ideal of marriage. In short, social conservatives expect more from a successful marriage, and as a result end up with fewer marriages that are successful. I believe that this same kind of misguided idealism informs our notions of art.

We want our visual art to be meaningful. In both the fullest and most restricted senses of the word. But marriage statistics and the political fecklessness of Prince Charles seem to be telling us that if visual art is to realize any portion of power that we so often ascribe to it, then we should feel free to expect so much less from images. Unlike words that have to mean in order to enter into a preexisting denotative system, images do not. Images have no set grammar or system of meaning production. In order to ascribe meaning to an image we must first discover the system by taking time to become acclimated to it. If there is a power of art it resides in the ways in which it can work on the viewer, subtly refining perception and remapping cognition. But this can only happen if we are uncharacteristically receptive and allow the art to work on us rather than going to work on it, interpreting it to conform to our systems of meaningfulness and confirm our expectations. The key to allowing art to assert its power is for the viewer to give up theirs.-- to be heroic enough to submit, admit defeat, and give up the fight for meaning, or alternatively, to be too cowardly to put up a fight in the first place.

It is difficult to imagine a race less aesthetically inclined than the Borg, the cyborg hive-mentality collective from Star Trek Next Generation. But their oft-intoned mantra is as surprisingly instructive as it is predictably succinct: "Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile". If art is to be moving, enchanting or inspiring then we as viewers must neither ascribe nor exert power. The problem is that few of us are heros or cowards. Instead of bravely surrendering or meekly submitting to the charms of an artwork, we decode, analyze, look for signs, hollow out the image in search of the meaning that must lie behind it. The real and only power of art is to make of itself a new and compelling system and to transform the courageous and the cowardly among us into that system.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Geography of Value

 On a sunny, though mucky, early spring day, while walking on campus between classes, I was startled by something fairly minor, the unlikely proliferation of young women conspicuously wearing boots--most, tough not all, of the tall, fuzzy "Ugg"-like variety that are a fairly common sight at ski chalets and viking clan councels. Apparently, this recent run of hippy-warrior chic has also given rise to an interesting spin off, the preppy farmhand look, jeans tucked into mid-calf rubber waders that have been silk screened in tritiary color schemes and funkygiftwrap patterns.

But my point here is not to be catty or smug-- boot mania is harmless and even fairly chaste when compared to many other recent trends that involve baring more and more tattooed, bottle-tanned, midwestern skin. Ultimately boot mania is neither more or less sensible than any other fashion or fad. I mention it only because the impact of seeing so many pairs in one place got me to thinking about aesthetics and boots-- about their relationship with the land and how aethetics are perhaps best understood as the landscape or geography of value.

When "aesthetics" is used as a synonym fashion or style, this might be thought of as a "weak" conception of the term. A "moderate" conception of aesthetics looks beyond individual expressions of value (fashion). "Ugh" boots are indicators or symptoms of underlying values and qualitative judgements. These values and methods of valuation are not individual, rather they are shared by members of a particular group, subculture or culture.

Paticular styles and fashions are expressions of values that can (and do) change readily, but the underlying aesthetic system that attaches positive value to things or persons who are stylish and fashionable is much more constant. I am arguing that aesthetics should not be understood in its conventional and narrow sense to refer to ideals of beauty but rather in a more fundamental sense to refer a group’s shared notions of precision, consistency, excellence, correctness, and completeness. Particular styles and fashions may be understood to be expressions of values and norms that a group associates with conceptions of beauty. These values and norms are themselves articulations of the underlying aesthetic system. The relative positions and arrangements of various cultural values and norms are free to change with time and tide, and even to cluster asynchronously into distinct subcultures, but not everything is possible, or even thinkable.

Aesthetics comprise the relatively stable (but by no means inert) field that sets limits to the types of relationships, the degree of mobility and range of movement that values might assume relative to each other. Viewed in this way, aesthetics may be understood as the topology or geography of value. Aesthetics constitute the “terrain” that exists between cultural sites. Examples of cultural sites include domains that we label "family", "work", "leisure", "politics", "the body", "youth", "science", etc. The aesthetic "landscape" will encourage or inhibit certain value constructions at specific sites. It will also have important consequences for a given site’s stability, and be an important determinant in the ways in which values can circulate between sites. Aesthetics are intimately tied to a group’s ontology-- its collective, and largely unconscious, understanding of what there is, how things work, what is valuable and what is possible. An Individual’s belief system is fundamental in formulating and negotiating notions of self and world. This belief system is forged in the crucible of group aesthetics.
Mind of course exists in time, but its exitance as a space is much more problematic. There is no actual space to be "in" such as when we say "I'll keep that in mind" or "You're in my thoughts." Thinking isa process or an activityConsciousness is an event, If ,as part of the ongoing e, it turns back on itself, this turning or generates a "space". This turning back on itself is commonly reffered to as self- cousness, awareness, memory, or thought (thought here referring to the activity of "thinking about" as oppsed to "thinking as" or simply percieving/responding .)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Life as a Sponge

So you want to be moved?
Then wring out your expectations.
And bring only a dry carcass
Thirsty for experience.