I have spent the last couple of weeks reading further into the encoding/decoding of visual messages and how text is used to orientate or strengthen the dominant reading. Something I keep coming back to is the idea of unstorys. The only definition which seems to come close to describing this is ‘a story which lacks the expected characteristics found in a normal story’. I don’t think this is simply a bizarre juxtaposition, that would be mostly meaningless, although it could by chance produce something of interest.
This thought is more like cut-ups and the work of Brion Gysin where he slices through pages of text and reorders the columns, revealing a strange and somewhat disjointed but different narrative.
An image with an unstory which comes to mind is from Richard Avedon. Taken in 1991 at the last Volpi Ball in Venice, Italy, where it was billed as the last great aristocratic ball. There is a strangeness about the composition that is unsettling, the sideways glances, vacant stares. Something almost predatory in the construction and not in keeping with the expectation of a ball.
Following on from this line of thinking, as advertising makes associations between objects to create meaning, it is interesting to experiment with alternate associations by manipulating the signifier in order to change or confuse the intended meaning. This is an area of great interest, as part of my research project is to understand how we can easily disassociate meat from animals. Certainly advertising plays a significant role in this reinforcement. My current work uses imagery from the meat industry, but the iconography I use is from the Renaissance period. As a signifier, it is too far in time from contemporary imagery for the majority of viewers to create meaning. This is a useful insight, and while the iconography makes for a puzzling image, it probably does not work at the level of an advertisement to create a meaning, positive or negative.
This leads to how to promulgate an idea through a similar mechanism used to disassociate meat from animals using imagery that is contemporary and meaningful. J. G. Ballard gave this some consideration when he compared the effectiveness of the written word to a visual advertisement in a high circulation magazine:
Instead of advertising a product, I would advertise an idea. I’m advertising extremely abstract ideas in these advertisements, and this is a very effective way of putting them over. If these ideas were in the middles of a short story, people could ignore them. But if they’re presented in the form of an advertisement, like one in Vogue magazine, people have to look at them, they have to think about them. (Ballard, 1969)
As an experiment, I gathered up a few old advertisements from the 1970s to see what the effect is of changing the signifiers between well-known commodity products and if this would disturb what was being signified. The first thing I discovered is a recognized brand such as Heinz can dominate a page and become a mini advert in its own right, it’s not immediately apparent the image has been tampered with. Second, it’s not that easy to manipulate the dominant reading of an advertisement, they are quite resilient.
This has been an insightful week and one where I have given a lot of thought to my visual strategy and how I can influence the dominant reading of my images. Having previously identified the challenges in creating an alternate reading of the meat industry, it has been very helpful to study basic decoding and interpretation of advertising images and gain an initial understanding of how they work. My early efforts at tinkering around with the elements of old advertisements are clumsy, but the idea is worth persevering with further, although constructing a counter message needs to be equally clever as the advertisement.
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GYSIN, Brion. 1967. The Third Mind. Edited by William S Burrows. Viking Press.
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