Assignment 5: What is Reality? (Revised)

Introduction 

In introduction to his film ‘Hypernormalisation’, Adam Curtis says the following:

“We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless migrant crisis, random bomb attacks. And those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed – they have no idea what to do. 

…what has happened is that all of us in the West – not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves – have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world. But because it is all around us we accept it as normal.” (Curtis, 2016)

Curtis’ style of filmmaking is to assemble footage from a wide variety of sources: news programmes, interviews, popular culture, in order to illustrate the unashamedly subjective story he is trying to tell. In approaching this assignment, I take this as inspiration, using current visual culture I will attempt to demonstrate the conflicting nature that faces us from the relentless media noise of modern society. In doing this I see many parallels with Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ – although first published in 1967 this work appears both prescient and relevant to our image saturated, late capitalist consumer driven world. Debord saw the spectacle as the “everyday manifestation of capitalist driven phenomena: advertising, television, film and celebrity.” (Morgan and Purje, 2016) Using Debord’s text and examples recent examples from visual culture I aim to demonstrate this prescience.

Advertising 

“The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than “that which appears is good, that which is good appears. The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.” (Debord, 2009: 4)

“The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image.” (Debord, 2009:10)

In ‘No Logo’ (2000), Naomi Klein describes how from the cultural influence (and astronomical growth in wealth) of multinational corporations can be traced back to a management idea from the 1980s: “successful corporations must primarily produce brands as opposed to products.” (Klein, 2000: 3) For ‘pioneering’ businesses like Nike, Microsoft, Tommy Hilfiger and Intel producing goods became only an incidental part of their operations:

“What these companies produced primarily were not things…but images of their brands. Their real work lay not in manufacturing but in marketing.” (Klein, 2000: 4)

In frequently saturated market places, current advertising exists to establish, perpetuate and consolidate brand identity. Often it is a lifestyle that is sold rather than the product itself. An example of this is Coca-Cola – a product that has existed since the late 19th century, has consistently led the way in brand development and was rated the fourth most valuable brand in the world in 2016. (Badenhausen, 2016)

For their 2016 advertising campaign ‘Taste the Feeling’, Coca-Cola used fashion photographers Guy Aroch and Nacho Ricci to create slick image that appear both genuine and aspirational, described as “Norman Rockwell meets Instagram” a style which aspires to capture an authenticity that appears to feature unscripted moments in a contemporary way. (Nudd, 2016) These adverts present images that are youthful, fun, cool, diverse and sexy while all the time emphasising the positive effect the product is having on the lives and friendships of the people depicted through the omnipresence of the bottle of Coke each of the models are holding. The insinuation is blatantly simple: drinking Coke is the way to share this lifestyle.

News 

“In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.” (Debord, 2009: 4)

“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” (Baudrillard, 1995: 79)

2016 proved a most divisive and controversial year for news and current affairs where assumptions about the power of the media seemed to be both confirmed and refuted. Two high profile ‘shocks’ that were widely touted as not going to happen, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, have led to much analysis of why the mainstream media appear to have got it so wrong. Much has been made of the impact of social media, fake news and a distrust of mainstream media outlets and politicians. The US election for example is now thought of as a rejection against the status quo – it appears that Hilary Clinton’s professionalism, credentials for office and carefully managed image are major reasons why she was not elected with a section of the electorate viewing her as the representation of the establishment and not representing them. Despite multiple scandals throughout the campaign concerning his views and previous misdeeds, outlandish pledges and an image that was frequently lampooned as ridiculous (comb over hair, orange complexion, badly fitting suits) Donald Trump projected an image of the ‘man on the street’, despite being anything but – one of the richest men in America. Attempts to dismiss his statements made with questionable basis on truth were attacked as conspiracies by the liberal media. Trump’s campaign actively capitalised on a distrust of politicians and the establishment as well as the uncertainty about what is true and what is not.

If it is true that image is all then how can the success of politicians such as Trump, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage be explained?

In the UK concerns about immigration have been a major area of debate for some time, increasing in prominence over the last few years due to the worsening global; refugee crisis. In August 2015 David Cameron described a “swarm of migrants” coming across the channel for in search of a better life. While the comments drew much criticism for the way they dehumanised migrants and seemed to appeal to fear of the ‘Other’, there were also voices of support with newspapers such as the Daily Mail providing front pages with photographs purporting to prove that immigration was out of control. In September 2015, however, a shocking image of a dead child lying on a beach having died trying to flee the war in Syria was widely reported and another picture took the headlines and the mood suddenly changed to demands for intervention in the refugee crisis with many calling for Prime Minister David Cameron to intervene and grant immigrant’s asylum.

By October another picture made the front pages purporting to be of a potential child refugee seeking asylum who appeared to be an adult. Although there was much debate about the authenticity of the image with reports both that the pictured man was actually an interpreter and not an asylum seeker, the implication was clear – it important to support migrants only if they fall into the

category of deserving support and we must be constantly vigilant of those who wish to abuse our hospitality and trick their way in. The truth of the issue became less important than the ideological stance taken by various news outlets.

It appears that much of the current affairs reporting that is presented to us is both contradictory and unable to offer suggestions about what the correct course of action is. Confusion reigns with the ideological stand points of organisations displayed blatantly – the effect of which has been described as post truth.

Social media 

“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” (Debord, 2009: 2)

“Here’s me outside the palace of ME! 

Construct a self and psychosis 

Meanwhile the people are dead in their droves 

But nobody noticed 

Well actually 

Some of them noticed. 

You could tell by the emoji they posted.” (Tempest, 2016: 22)

In an essay about the legacy of ‘Society of the Spectacle’, John Harris asserts Debord’s prescience:

“the book is full of sentences that describe something simple, but profound: the way that just about everything that we consume and, if we’re not careful, most of what we do – embodies a mixture of distraction and reinforcement that serves to reproduce the mode of society and economy that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme.” (Harris, 2012)

The way social media has entered our lives, and it could be argued, has replaced experiencing life directly could be classed as this “surreal extreme.” Instagram, twitter, Facebook and the selfie all form part of how many of us project ourselves onto the wider world. In ‘Nosedive’, an episode from the anthology series ‘Black Mirror’, the logical progression of our society continuing to be obsessed by social media is satirised. In the apparently near future, ‘likes’ have become currency, a means of providing societal hierarchy and enabling conformity. In order to gain access (and importantly to continue to be able to use) services approval ratings must be maintained. Failure to do this means affects where you can live and work and who you can socialise with.

Some aspects of celebrity culture have embraced the selfie as a means of projecting their self image. A strata of celebrity who seems to be famous for being famous have emerged. Australian comedian Celeste Barber demonstrates the often ridiculous nature of these celebrity selfies through her Instagram account which shows how the pictures may have looked if made by a real person. It seems that image and images will only gain in currency going forward, compounding the need to live through the prism of technology rather than real lived experience.

Conclusion 

When challenged about whether he simplifies complex reality to support his subjective world view, Adam Curtis replied:

All reality is incredibly complex and chaotic. To make sense of it we have to tell stories about it – which inevitably simplifies. And that is what politicians – and journalists – do. What I try to do is to find new facts and data, things you haven’t thought about, and turn them into new stories. My aim is to use those stories to try and make the complexity and chaos intelligible.” (MacInnes, 2015)

When faced with the question what is reality? I find Curtis’ explanations here reassuring and positive – perhaps the only way to combat and possibly explain the complexity of the modern world is by engaging with it through art be it satire, social commentary or merely playful. The most dangerous thing we can do is believe there is only ever one reality and we also should not be too wedded to our own beliefs.

Bibliography: 

Baudrillard, J. (1995) Simulacra and Simulation. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Baudrillard, J. (2004) The Gulf War did not Take Place. Sydney: Power Publications.

Badenhausen, K. (Ed.) (2016) The world’s most valuable brands. In: Forbes [online] Available at: http://www.forbes.com/powerful-brands/ [Accessed December 2016]

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

Blade Runner (1982) Dir: Ridley Scott. USA/Hong Kong/UK: Warner Brothers

Curtis, A. (2016) HYPERNORMALISATION. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/entries/02d9ed3c-d71b-4232-ae17-67da423b5df5#comments [Accessed December 2016]

Debord, G. (2009) The Society of the Spectacle. Eastbourne: Soul Bay Press

Ex Machina (2015) Dir: Alex Garland. UK: UPI/Film4/DNA films

Harris, J (2012) Guy Debord predicted our distracted society. The Guardian, 30th March 2012. Available at:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/mar/30/guy-debord-society-spectacle [accessed January 2017]

Her (2013) Dir: Spike Jonze. USA: Annapurna Pictures

Hypernormalisation (2016) Dir: Adam Curtis. UK: BBC

Klein, N (2000) No Logo. London: Flamingo

Lo and behold, reveries of the connected world (2016) Dir: Werner Herzog. USA: Saville Productions

MacInnes, P. (2015) ‘Adam Curtis: “I try to make the complexity and chaos intelligible.” The Guardian, 24th January 2015. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/jan/24/adam-curtis-bitter-lake [Accessed December 2016]

The Matrix (1999) Dir: The Wachowski Brothers. USA: Warner Bros.

Morgan, T. and Purje, L. (2016) An illustrated guide to Guy Debord’s “the society of the spectacle”. Available at: http://hyperallergic.com/313435/an-illustrated-guide-to-guy-debords-the-society-of-the-spectacle/ [Accessed December 2016]

Nosedive (2016) Black Mirror, series 3 episode 1. Dir: Joe Wright. USA: Netflix

Nudd, T. (2016) Here are 25 sweet, simple ads from coca-cola’s big new ‘taste the feeling’ campaign. Available at: http://www.adweek.com/creativity/here-are-25-sweet-simple-ads-coca-colas-big-new-taste-feeling-campaign-169075/ [Accessed January 2017]

Shore, S. (2007) The nature of photographs: A Primer. (2nd ed.) New York: Phaidon Press.

Tempest, K. (2016) Let them eat chaos. London: Picador.

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Assignment 5: Response to tutor feedback

Unfortunately, the feedback for this assignment confirmed my fear that I had strayed too far from the brief and my submission did not meet the required criteria. While Pauline found the work interesting, she recommends changing the format into either a conventional illustrated essay or extended annotations. She also points out correctly that I do not meet the 2000 word guidance. On a positive note, she found the choice of images interesting and the themed groupings clear. She also understands my rationale for wanting to produce something different because of the amount of reading in the course, however, I did not mean this as a criticism of the material – if anything I have become too involved in the reading and the course has certainly whet my appetite for further study of cultural theory. My motivation for producing a visual essay was simply to experiment and attempt something different. I also wanted to pay homage to the visual essays in Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ which perplexed me when I first encountered them in the course but began to appeal more as I progressed. Pauline makes two points about this that I do not fully consider – Berger presents his visual essays in the context of his book and television series and without this they are quite unsatisfactory – I had not really thought that it was Berger at fault rather than me. In hindsight, I was too preoccupied with not wanting to lead and influence how the images are read by the viewer (even to the point of not fully explaining my rationale) and clearly this was a mistake as the approach fails to demonstrate my learning – as Pauline rightly asserts, Berger was presenting his book without the need to be assessed as a degree student! She also felt that leaving the various quotes unattributed strayed too far from academic convention.

Although Pauline thinks the rationale I included with the images was clearly expressed, she felt this could provide an introduction to the images. She also points out that I do not fully explain my reason for choosing the style of font I used which was intended to evoke the computer age while simultaneously having a retro feel, it is a strange paradox that it is necessary to take this retro approach in order to signify the digital age. She mentions that there is mileage in exploring how computers have developed over the past 20 years and the relationship between this and the increased digital noise we face in modern life – a key point I wanted to make. Another reason for using this font was as an homage to Stephen Shore’s ‘The Nature of Photographs’ which I cite as an influence. The font used in the book resembles a typewriter font which gives the text accompanying the photographs a particular, distinctive feel. Pauline also quite rightly points out that Shore has chosen images that have a particular author/photographer and this influences the way we read the book (even if we are not entirely familiar with the photographers featured by the very nature of their inclusion we are aware they are important.) The anonymous/uncredited pictures I have chosen do not share this.

Suggested possibilities: 

Keep the groups of images and write accompanying text relating to the material covered in section 5.

Focus on one group of images – are so many needed? Are there overlaps/duplication?

Use Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ (as I indicated this had particularly influenced me) perhaps using this as a further text to comment on the quotations or tease out ideas concerning reality.

Decide on a route to pursue: essay or annotations.

Although it is disappointing that I have missed the mark on this occasion I have again found Pauline’s feedback invaluable in being able to pick out what I need to do to improve and point me in the right direction. The clarity of expression in Pauline’s writing inspires me to practice and improve my writing style – through all of the feedback I have received I have found thoughts expressed that I have shared or have wanted to present myself and have not been able to. This ability is something that has not only helped me develop through the course but also provides inspiration for the future.

Assignment 5: What is Reality?

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It is a strange paradox that in studying Understanding Visual Culture I have spent little time looking at images with my head stuck mostly in books full of dense writing and few pictures. For this reason I have chosen to produce a visual essay in response to the last assignment for the course. Reading Berger’s Ways of Seeing in one of the early projects I distinctly remember finding it difficult to formulate a response to the visual essays in the book. At first I thought it was because the images are dated, but on further reflection I realised that without the comfort of words to guide my responses I was finding having any sort of response difficult – this was because I was trying to second guess Berger rather than have confidence in my own reading.

Along with wanting to experiment with a different approach for this assignment, and push myself out of my comfort zone at the same time, I also wanted to acknowledge the influence of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle on me during the course. For me the first exercise that requires reading this was a revelation. Taking the advice of the course notes I stuck with the piece, reading and rereading until it began to make sense and eventually I could see elements of what had already been studied falling into place. Debord and the Situationists had real purpose and believed in changing the world through their work. As I move toward the next part of my degree having a purpose for my work is something that I am preoccupied with and I know I will continue to find inspiration and strategies for producing work through what I have studied during this course.

Originally I intended to write about the way technology, and particularly social media, is altering our ability as human beings to engage with each other and even make sense of the real world. Two recent films were an inspiration to me: Hypernoramalisation directed by Adam Curtis (who I have previously discussed in assignment 2) and Lo and behold, reveries of the connected world directed by Werner Herzog. Both films can be described as documentaries but this does not really do justice or accurately describe what they are. Both film makers present an unashamed subjective world view, and while I do not agree with everything they say I admire their assured confidence.

I originally thought about producing a slideshow/film in the spirit of Curtis’ work but decided against this, deciding on a book format – which seems fitting given how important books have been to me throughout the course! A slideshow would mean that the amount of time each page could be viewed would be controlled, instead I wanted the viewer to have the ability to flick between pages and take as much time as needed to study the images. I decided to use quotes from different texts (Society of the Spectacle, Simulacra and Simulation by Baudrillard, a poem by Kate Tempest, the films Blade Runner and Her – I also shortlisted many other quotes from both the course and popular culture that I did not use) as a lead into the images and broad theme setting. One of my favourite photo books is The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore and I used this as inspiration. Shore uses short, enigmatic sentences as accompaniments to the photographs he has chosen in the book, with the effect being to kick start the imagination and study the images in way you may not have otherwise. For the images I brainstormed some topics that I felt would fit with the theme of how reality exists in the modern, digital world. They included: Famous people, reality TV, politicians, advertising, business, dead celebrities, scandal, technology, films, news, globalisation, google, facebook, art, commodities and consumerism. I wanted to appropriate images off the internet as the process of doing this would form some sort of curation, I was also interested about what results would come back in my search results. This proved much more difficult than I anticipated and I spent a great deal of time looking for the right images to use. I also did not want any text in the image collages which compounded my difficulties, I wish I had decided that this was the approach I was going to take earlier as collecting images that for the brief over a period of time would have led to better results. I was also shocked by how difficult it was to find pictures I had seen before but could not remember where – for example I recall reading an article about an artist potentially being sued by Donald Trump for producing photoshopped images of him in outrageous situations but could not find the article again.

Stylistically I wanted the text elements of the project to have a retro computer feel and chose a blocky font and green writing reminiscent of an early personal computer. It was important for me that the quotes I chose had no context and I deliberately left off the authors details. For the images I wanted the effect to be haphazard, with the pictures different sizes, overlapping and arranged randomly. The finished effect does not have the effect I envisaged, however, I am not sure how I would change it. If the pictures were the same size and aspect ratio the effect would be too ordered. Perhaps featuring more images slightly smaller would be a better approach however. Each quote has two pages of images in response, the intention is that they would sit next to each other as a double page spread. Each page has a different response to the quote so that the reader can infer further meaning from their juxtaposition. Unfortunately, on exporting to PDF this effect was lost, I will attempt to find a way to rectify and if I cannot will publish as a linear document.

I hesitate at this point to say any more about my image choices as this will influence how meaning is read in the essay. I am unsure if I have managed to fulfil the brief for this assignment but I have enjoyed the process of putting the essay together, albeit that finding the right pictures and preventing repetition has proved to be much more challenging than I had first envisaged.

Bibliography:

Baudrillard, J. (1995) Simulacra and Simulation. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Baudrillard, J. (2004) The Gulf War did not Take Place. Sydney: Power Publications.

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

Blade Runner (1982) Dir: Ridley Scott. USA/Hong Kong/UK: Warner Brothers

Debord, G. (2009) The Society of the Spectacle. Eastbourne: Soul Bay Press

Her (2013) Dir: Spike Jonze. USA: Annapurna Pictures

Hypernormalisation (2016) Dir: Adam Curtis. UK: BBC

Lo and behold, reveries of the connected world (2016) Dir: Werner Herzog. USA: Saville Productions

Shore, S. (2007) The nature of photographs: A Primer. (2nd ed.) New York: Phaidon Press.

Tempest, K. (2016) Let them eat chaos. London: Picador.