Author Archives: Chelsea Burwell

Kehinde Wiley and Kara Walker’s Interfacing of Worlds and Identities Through Art

Chelsea Burwell
Professor Martin Irvine
CCTP 748: Media Theory and Meaning Systems
3 May 2015


The term black and what it means to be black has always been unstable psychically, culturally and politically. For Black artists, this fact remained especially true as they faced a sort of double-consciousness tug of war with their ethnic and professional selves. However, as the meaning behind blackness continued to evolve, these artists works acted as vehicles for redirecting Black imagery, narratives and thought. This paper examines the works of Kehinde Wiley and Kara Walker as interfaces to the empirical reality of African-Americans and catalysts for overdue conversations and conversions around race, sexuality, identity, and Black narratives. Furthermore, this examines how their works anachronistically feature once-popular artistic mediums and what dialogues occur within these frames.

  1. Introduction

In coming to understand the basis of cultural identity and even individual subjectivity, it is crucial to acknowledge that both principles as being derivative of a network of meaning systems. The idea of a person or group belonging to a racial or ethnic community rests on specific requisites that make an identity group what it is, and thus these meanings are influenced and defined by those within the community and others, particularly figures of authority and knowledge. Stepping even further into examination, the manner in which identity and narratives are portrayed through a medium has a substantial impact on the presented matter itself. Two contemporary African-American visual artists have not only reframed the identity and narratives of African-Americans through their work, but they have also methodically and intentionally utilized signature art styles, mediums and references to other artworks to further their cause. The purpose of this paper will be to dissect the aesthetic and thematic elements used by Kehinde Wiley and Kara Walker for the sake of discussing artistic combinatoriality and dialogism; draw dialogic connections between their works and previous pieces, determine what worlds and systems their works serve as an interface for; and finally, examine how Wiley and Walker’s works have changed the ideas of African-American narratives and identity – particularly masculinity and femininity.

  1. History of Baroque Art and Silhouettes

Richard Parmentier’s focus on C.S. Peirce’s theory of semiosis in Signs in Society: Studies in Semiotic Anthropology opens the door for discussing Wiley’s intentional use of Baroque-style backdrops, Walker’s inclusion of silhouettes and how these aesthetic elements lend themselves to the artwork while dialoging with its previous implementations. As Parmentier explains, Peirce’s knowledge-communication process “involves a relation of progressive adequation between two fundamentally opposed elements, ‘objects’ and ‘signs.[1]’” However, as he continues, he states, “object and sign must be connected in such a way that the former ‘determines’ – specifies or specializes – the character of the latter which represents it.” In Wiley’s works, these two opposing signs are Baroquean art and African-American males, yet both serve as interfaces for broader meaning systems. Although Wiley is not the first artist to incorporate Baroque Era stylizations within his work, the combination of the era’s elaborate patterned details and African-American men was profound for an artist to undertake.

The term Baroque originates from the Italian word barocco, which, to philosophers during the Middle Ages, signified an obstacle of logic or a contorted, flawed cognitive process. This meaning carried on into the art world as a means of describing the bizarre nature of a visual piece that deviated from standards and proportions. As a counter to the Reformation Era and the idealized, harmonious tones of classicism and naturalism during the Mannerism Era, Baroque styles were intended to evoke sentimental and sensory reaction. Artifacts used deep, intense hues and often portrayed subjects in moments of action or unwavering portraiture stances. Though originally seen as a method of critical artistic degradation, Baroque art – particularly paintings – came to be associated with richness, grandeur, tension, vitality and emotional exuberance.[2]. Many places of worship became sites of adornment and rich interior decoration, using this style as a vehicle to incite piety and devotion to the divine.

Though Wiley references an entire artistic movement in his works, Walker’s art alludes to a trended medium of the 18th and 19th centuries. The oppositional signs in Walker’s work are silhouettes and African-American race and sexuality narratives. Silhouette drawings can be traced back as far as 6,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt through temple drawings and tomb art, dedicated to the spirits of the dead. In Ancient Greece, ceramics and pottery featured silhouettes as a means of storytelling and conveying motifs, myths, significant happenings and emotions. The methodology behind practicing this art form was achieved by using a source of light to backlight subjects and etch their shadow on a wall or out of paper. Silhouettes, or shadow art –as it is sometimes referenced, was tabooed during the Middle Ages out of religious fear that portraying one’s shadow or allowing someone beneath you in society to do so was equal to jeopardizing and endangering the soul.

The term silhouette is credited to Louis XV’s Controller-General of Finance, Etienne de Silhouette, who found enjoyment in cutting “shadow portraits” out of black paper. Because of his notoriety for slivering the French budget during his tenure, the art practice became associated with cheapness; further adding the impression of silhouette being undertaking for those of the lower class[3]. Moreover, shadow art became a preferred artistic avenue, as the European public scoffed the overtly ornamented artifacts of art, interior décor and architecture; they also became an alternative to traditional painted portraits, which were expediencies for the affluent[4]. Silhouette drawing became a means of survival for the politically exiled in the French Revolution (1789-1848) and early American settlers during the 18th century. One particular artist, August Eduoart, created thousands of silhouette portraits of noble figures, politicians and professionals. 18th century portrayals in silhouette were docile and honorary, showcasing status and personality for posterity purposes.

In the cases of both Wiley and Walker, the subject matter displayed in their works derails from gentle, implicit or shallow topics. They surpass the convenience of well-off art collectors or mere aesthetic elaboration, but connect with common person’s story and character. Instead, their pieces engage in a dialogue with their preceding artistic references, as well as with the audience that views their innovative work.

  1. An Examination of Wiley’s Artistic Repertoire

Wiley’s first solo exhibition took place in 2002 and featured “Passing/Posing,” one of his premiere works after finishing his Master’s in Fine Arts at Yale. During an interview with National Public Radio, Wiley recalls the moment he stumbled upon a mug shot on the streets of Harlem and how it became the inspiration behind the series of portraits and his subsequent work:

“It was… an African-American man in his twenties that appeared sympathetic, attractive, and it had all his information on it – his name, his address, his social-security number and his infractions – and it made me think about portraiture in a radically different way… a type of marking, a recording of one’s place in the world in a time. And I began to start thinking about a lot of the portraiture that I had enjoyed from the eighteenth century and noticed the difference between the two: how one is positioned in a way that is totally outside their control, shut down and related to those in power, whereas those in the other were positioning themselves in states of stately grace and self-possession. And the first paintings of “Passing/Posing” were the merging of those two lines.[5]

The fusion of the two lines to which Wiley alludes epitomizes the theory of dialogism, introduced by Mikhail Bakhtin. As Professor Martin Irvine dissects Bakhtin’s concept, he says, “Every level of expression … is an ongoing chain or network of statements and responses… in which new statements presuppose earlier statements and anticipate future responses.[6]” Another interpretation comes from Hobbs, who defines, “dialogism in terms of conflicting literary representations predicated on differences between the view of the speaking character or narrator in a piece of fiction and the author’s intention.[7]” Merely putting these distinctive signs in the same vicinity or arena tells us two things: 1) a more clarified view of the networks from which they come can be examined and, 2) these signs – no matter how different – are inherently responsive to one another, or as Bakhtin says, “the listener becomes the speaker.” Different from that of Hegel’s notion of the dialectic, dialogic processes involve a listening and an examination of implicit or individual intentions; and while this exchange between signs may facilitate cooperation, closure and resolve is not guaranteed[8].

Understanding this, Wiley veers from confining his work to being blatantly political and instead channels his artistic motivation in connecting with various communities and tackling popular constructions of Black masculinity. As a part of his creative process, Wiley gives his art models the reins, allowing them to skim art books and choose the poses they wanted to recreate – an apolitical intent with political effects, since autonomous image creation is not often afforded to African-Americans males, frequently maligned in news media.

In Robert Hobbs’ essay, Looking B(l)ack: Reflections of White Racism, he states that Wiley “deconstructs rigid Western views of power as he establishes uneasy conjunction between the rich panoply of traditional European portraiture and the hip-hop alpha males he discovers on urban streets.[9]” However, Wiley works on levels beyond placing the most unlikely of signs together in one space and dialogue. His intended combinatoriality playfully but meticulously uses an art style associated with grandeur, luxury and prosperity, as the backdrop, and places Black males at the foreground – a minute detail that speaks volumes.

Historically, in America, Black males have struggled to muster enough financial clout and stability, in hopes of establishing themselves in an economic system powered by White elites. The residue of the shattered financial dreams of Black Wall Street remains today as the success and prominence of Black-owned businesses pales in comparison to those of White-owned businesses. In addition, the racial-socioeconomic gap between Black and White men’s weekly earnings shows that the former make 75.6 percent of the latter’s income[10]. The Black males character has undergone intense vilification and scrutiny, due to lingering rape myth rhetoric and theoretical alignments with marginality and savagery. Initially, perhaps due to its unfamiliar yet captivating nature, Wiley’s work often drew superficial commentary, reduced to the categorization of “hip hop meets classic painting.[11]” Indeed, Wiley has been commissioned and called upon to frame musical greats and upcoming artists in ethereal lights, yet the bulk of his work elevates the character of common African-American subjects. Thankfully, as one of Wiley’s supporters, Jeffrey Deitch, explained, “A lot of Kehinde’s message is asserting a black presence in this largely white, male history of Western art,” giving little known subjects “a sense of iconic power and presence,” according to writer Andy Beta.[12]


Kehinde Wiley — James Quin, Actor (2008).

Aside from merging the worlds of African-Americans in urban environments and Baroque aesthetics, Wiley makes a point of purposely crafting features of his work to further its impact. The massive scale of Wiley’s work is a form of his intentionality, with some pieces measuring more than 9 feet long. Wiley credits the importance of dimensions to supplementing “modernism, bravado and chest beating” to the character of the subjects[13]. The titles and content similarity between 18th century art pieces and Wiley’s work also reflect his aim to level the authority and awe of portrayed subjects. Wiley’s 2008 piece, James Quin, Actor[14] mimics the work of British portrait painter William Hogarth. In Hogarth’s work of the same title, he depicts Quin in a theatrical pose and pays homage to the conventions of Baroque style, the actor’s importance signaled through his apparel and exuding an air of splendor[15]. The subject in Wiley’s piece dons a similar facial expression, but instead of displaying gestures of delicacy and sensitivity like Quin, his chin is titled upward, insinuating an aura of belonging and unwavering confidence. Other remixed works include the religiously allusive Ecce Homo – mimicked after Anthony Van Dyck’s 17th century piece; Samuel Johnson – mirrored for Joshua Reynolds’ portraiture of the famed writer-critic-editor; and The Veiled Christ – a rendition of Giuseppe Sanmartino’s 1753 sculpture.


Kehinde Wiley, The Veiled Christ (2008).


Giuseppe Sanmartino — The Veiled Christ (1783).


Paradoxically, the semiotic evolution of word Baroque is exemplary to that of African-American masculinity in the eyes of American society. As Paramentier explains, “…opposed to this presupposed object are forms of representation which stand for, substitute for, or exhibit the object in such a way that the next stage of comprehension will consist of a further developed representation of the same object.” With this in thought, the original denotation of Baroque signified an item with flaw or obscurity, but later came to be associated with being highly ornate or lavish. It’s clear that Wiley’s parallelism between two oppositional signs implies a conversation between micro-networks and signals an optimistic forecast of modern society’s perspective of Black masculinity. Given the oppressive skepticism embossed upon the Black male identity, Wiley’s depictions of the subjugated is not as much mystic or fantastic, as it is telling and insistent on the need to till the dialogic ground for representation equality amongst races and socioeconomic classes. By marrying two disseminating concepts, Wiley illustrates a clear interface into the everyday world of African-American subjects, creates regal, idealistic portrayals of African-Americans and simultaneously valorizes them – establishing them as worthy subjects of art and members of society.

  1. An Examination of Walker’s Work Using Silhouttes and Sugar

Alone, Walker’s anachronistic choosing of shadow art as a medium is not extraordinary; until it is realized what narratives are being depicted through the lens. Explicitly tackling issues of slavery, race and sexuality, Walker molds the once-admirable and innocent medium into a provocative, psychologically disquieting experience. This new use of silhouette triggers a dialogic conversation between Walker, the portrayed African-American subjects of her work and the shadow art consumer group of the 18th century. As history tells us, creating silhouettes was a practice for the lower-end of the socioeconomic scale and its product was an expenditure of the wealthier and even the noble. Detailing them in a proud, praiseworthy and admiring manner, silhouettes then commended and validated one’s humanity, existence, status and power. Walker steps in as a new narrative voice, and while she does not exclude the wealthy White actor from her displays, she balances the artistic-social atmosphere with the inclusion of the exploited and often muted tales of African-Americans.



Kara Walker — “Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart.” (1994).

Her first impression on the art world came in 1994 with her panoramic piece, “Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart.” The title precautions the audience of the dysfunction and disharmonious to be witnessed in the optic narrative, but the visuals supersede this warning. Featuring a seemingly innocent silhouette of a male soldier and his female Southern belle suitor, romancing under the moonlight, the narrative launches on a safe, comfortable note. Suddenly, upon further gazing, one realizes an additional set of limbs beneath the petticoat of the woman and just like that – the tale takes a dark turn. Beyond the romantic tale’s introductory juxtaposition to the classic tale of Gone With the Wind lies haunting shadows of a black child strangling a bird, a black girl fellating a young white boy on a hilltop and a black woman birthing two babies with the mere lift of a leg. The overt horror and disillusion visually etched through these artifacts of shadow art confronts the divide of the Black and White narratives of the antebellum South. The exactness of actors in Walker’s silhouettes help distinguish one race from another, due to the viewer’s assumed outside knowledge and exposure to Black racial stereotypes; characters with petticoats and tailored coattails signal well-off Whites, while frail, figures with protruding lips and plaited hair allude to enslaved Blacks with matching characteristic of minstrels[16]. The subtlety of detail, like legs peaking beneath the belle’s dress signify more than just an eerie overlooked moment, it exemplifies the wretchedness of slavery that is swept under the “good ol’ days” rug of American Southern culture.

Walker’s subsequent shadow works disrupts the engrained standard behind silhouette art and dirties it up with ugly truths. In 1998, Walker released “Camptown Ladies,” a strong follow-up to her 1994 premiere, featuring all of the chaotic imagery and leaving behind none of the poignant narration. The title refers to a song made popular in the 1800s by blackface minstrelsy and the work features such characters. Images within this montage narrative include a rabbit-like character firing a rifle behind a running Black woman, who has a male jockey on her back with a whip and carrot in tow. Instances of newborn rituals, sexual groping and well-endowed Black women also make their way into the story, making strong implications for Black female sexuality being the piece’s central theme.

Kara Walker -- Camptown Ladies (1998)

Kara Walker — Camptown Ladies (1998)

Similar to Wiley, the size of Walker’s exhibits is seldom successfully ignored. Enrapturing the audience in a series of rooms with nothing but black-and-white, nightmarish silhouettes, the works effectively throw viewers in the middle of a story of visual psychosis and discomfort. The panoramic aspect of her art also implies the inescapability and magnetic nature of the issues illustrated – no matter how temporally far off they may seem. Walker’s play with silhouettes and Black stereotypical views teases out additional meanings and mocks those that hinge on White racist paranoia. During a lecture at Virginia Commonwealth University, Walker pointed out, “When stereotypes attempt to take control of their own bodies, they can only do what they are made of, and they are made of the pathological attitudes of the Old South. Therefore, the racist stereotypes occurring in my art can only partake of psychotic activities.[17]” Furthermore, Professor Michele Wallace describes Walker’s approach to characterizing the appropriation of blackface and submissive pretense to “a mocking of simplicity, naiveté and roughness of the so-called American primitive.[18]” In this respect, Walker trivializes the said-resilience of problematic, racist stereotypes and archetypes placed on African-Americans, distancing herself from attempts to refresh stereotypes for the sake of creating uplifting art as done with the Black Arts Movement. Her reframing of silhouette-making also speaks to her feeling of being excluded from the fine art conversation and her mass disapproval from members of the art community. She uses satire and the idea of pluralistic narratives as a driver for displaying the black experience on canvas, asserting that some of the narratives break from cookie cutter standard and ooze with perversion. Therefore, her use of the silhouette is very methodical and fitting for the narratives she cuts; according to her, “The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that’s also what stereotype does.[19]” Even further, Walker iterates that her “engagement with the black arts movement was basically to send it up, to say my work has been about interracial desire, and it’s been about consorting with the man in a very brazen way .[20]

In 2014, Walker averted from her trademark usage of silhouettes and chose an equally mundane but dynamic medium – sugar – to create a larger-than-life sculpture of a crouching, bare breasted Black woman. The piece, lengthily titled “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby: an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant,” was housed at the former Domino Sugar refinery in the Williamsburg area of New York City. Recruited by the public art group Creative Time, Walker played with various concepts for the upcoming exhibit. The tantalizing aroma of the venue, along with personal research about “elaborate medieval sugar sculptures” called subtleties, sparked the blueprint for her biggest artistic undertaking yet. Measuring 35 feet tall and 75 feet long, “A Subtlety” hybridized a lioness body with Mammy-like caricature features (bandana included); and full breasts, a rotund derriere and prominent vulva perched for display and consequently, awe-filled commentary. The installation garnered wide discussion: from the exploitation of the Black female body to slavery to gentrification.


Kara Walker --- "A Subtlety..." (2014).

Kara Walker — “A Subtlety…” (2014).

Returning to the steadfast and true theme of sexuality and race, Walker’s fusion of a Black woman and a Sphinx sends waves for discussion. The enormity of the sculpture juxtaposes that of the Sphinx that resides in Egypt and marks it as a praiseworthy landmark – even if it is temporary. Attracting spectators just as the Egyptian landmark, “A Subtlety” possesses implications of something to be praised, enamored with or admired; an abnormal reaction from the masses toward the Black female body. However, the line between admiration and fetish is thin and harps on the usual hypersexualization of Black women. Just like the miniature sugar sculptures created to appease the taste and fancies of medieval European royalty, Walker’s massive structure drew spectating crowds. Teetering on the edge, “A Subtlety” fuses two Black female stereotypes – the mammy and the vixen – and their conflicting expectation of the asexual and oversexualized is manifested and on display, front and center.

Walker’s decisiveness in using sugar to create this massive sculpture references the history of the sweet substance as a traded within the triangular slave trade. As a medium, sugar acts as an interface, unveiling the importance and connections it has to the work. Acknowledging that the Black body was once commoditized as something equivalent to consumable goods like sugar, spices, tobacco and other produce adds to the multiple dimension of Walker’s piece.

Surrounding the grand sculpture are various statues of small boy attendants, some of which gradually disintegrated throughout the exhibit’s duration. The stench of the old molasses became a resonating feature of the exhibit, further conveying the implicit meanings behind its creation. Not only does the rotting smell signify the ugliness and intense potency of systematic slave labor in America and the Caribbean – where sugar plantation flourished – but also the immediate problematic situation of gentrification. The site of Walker’s work is expected to be demolished to make way for a posh apartment complex, nested comfortably in an already improved-for-middle-class area of New York[21].

As with all of her pieces, Walker remained unfazed by skeptic’s queries about where her loyalties to the Black community lie. Throughout her career, Walker has undoubtedly reaped considerable outrage from critics and other artists. But as Kathy Halbriech[22], former director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, explains, “…if we do get angry, if we do get emotional, if we are confused, then she’s successful.[23]” In essence, her work meets critics and oppressive forces at the dialogic table and challenges their reasoning and authority by upheaving standards for mending and discussing Black imagery.

  1. Conclusion

Both artist want a resonating experience for their viewers, even if its at the expense of their comfort zone. As Wiley said during a lecture in Boston, “I want you as the viewer to be suspicious.[24]” Meanwhile, Walker says, “I want the viewer to feel a giddy discomfort – the same sort that happens when I’m making the work.[25]” Wiley steps up to the dialogic podium with a new sort of rebuttal to traditional, comfortable standards of art, as Walker shatters the rosy-colored glasses with which the world may use to discuss America’s tumultuous and tainted past with race and sexuality, while laughing in the faces of oppressors. Both Wiley and Walker’s work encourage provocation and an uprooting from complacency. Their agendas may not be outright politically charged, but they certainly exceed by keeping the audience on their toes and wanting more dialogue-inciting art.


Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1986. 87-90. Print.

“Baroque art and architecture.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Web.

Beta, Andy. “Kehinde Wiley’s Global Vision on View.” Wall Street Journal (online) 20 Feb. 2015. Web.

Berry, Harrison. “Kehinde Wiley Discusses Bam Exhibit, The World Stage: Israel.” Boise Weekly 26 July 2013: 22. Print.

Coutier, Anne. “Something About Silhouettes.” Country Living Jan. 2009: 90. Print.

Dark Shadow: Walker’s silhouettes expose raw racial, sexuality.” The Daily Yomiuri. 28 April 2005. 1. Web. 1 May 2015.

Hobbs, Robert. “Looking B(l)ack: Reflections of White Racism.” 30 Americans: Rubell Family Collection. New York, N.Y.: Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2008. 30–45. Print.

Hughes, Kathryn. “Southern Discomfort: Artist Kara Walker Continues to Shock and Awe.” 9 Oct. 2013. Web.

Irvine, Martin. “Mikhail Bakhtin: Main Theories – Dialogism, Polyphony, Heteroglossia, Open Interpretation.” 2015. Web. 28 April 2015.

Kehinde Wiley, interview by Roy Hourst. “Young, Gifted and Black: Painter Kehinde Wiley.” National Public Radio. June 1, 2008.

Kino, Carol. “Kara Walker’s Thought-Provoking Art.” Wall Street Journal (online) 6 Nov. 2014. Web.

Margulis, Marlyn Irvin. “Silhouettes Stir the Collector’s Soul.” Antiques & Collecting Magazine Oct. 2002: 24–28. Print.

Parmentier, Richard. “Pierce Diverse for Nonintimates.” Signs in Society: Studies in Semiotic Anthropology. Ed. Thomas A. Sebeok. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994. 3-11. Print.

Postle, Martin. “James Quin, Actor c. 1739.” Tate. 2000. Web. 30 April 2015.

Silver, Leigh. “Kara Walker’s ‘A Subtlety’ Proves That Sugar Isn’t Always Sweet.” Complex Magazine. 13 May 2014. Web. 30 April 2015.

U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Usual Weekly Earnings of Wage and Salary Workers – First Quarter 2015.” 2015. PDF file.

Wallace, Michele. “The African Sublime.” 30 Americans: Rubell Family Collection. New York, N.Y.: Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2008. 24–29. Print.

Wiley, Kehinde. James Quin, Actor. 2008. Oil on canvas. Web. 30 April 2015.

In-Text Citation Guide

[1] Parmentier, Richard. “Pierce Diverse for Nonintimates.” Signs in Society: Studies in Semiotic Anthropology. Ed. Thomas A. Sebeok. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994. 3-11. Print.

[2] “Baroque art and architecture.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Web.

[3] Margulis, Marlyn Irvin. “Silhouettes Stir the Collector’s Soul.” Antiques & Collecting Magazine Oct. 2002: 24–28. Print.

[4] Coutier, Anne. “Something About Silhouettes.” Country Living Jan. 2009: 90. Print.

[5] Kehinde Wiley, interview by Roy Hourst. “Young, Gifted and Black: Painter Kehinde Wiley.” National Public Radio. June 1, 2008.

[6] Irvine, Martin. “Mikhail Bakhtin: Main Theories – Dialogism, Polyphony, Heteroglossia, Open Interpretation.” 2015. Web. 28 April 2015.

[7] Hobbs. “Looking B(l)ack: Reflections of White Racism.” 35.

[8] Bakhtin, Mikhail. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1986. 87-90. Print.

[9] Hobbs, Robert. “Looking B(l)ack: Reflections of White Racism.” 30 Americans: Rubell Family Collection. New York, N.Y.: Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2008. 30–45. Print.

[10] U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Usual Weekly Earnings of Wage and Salary Workers – First Quarter 2015.” 2015. PDF file.

[11] Beta, Andy. “Kehinde Wiley’s Global Vision on View.” Wall Street Journal (online) 20 Feb. 2015. Web.

[12] Beta. “Kehinde Wiley’s Global Vision on View.”

[13] Berry, Harrison. “Kehinde Wiley Discusses Bam Exhibit, The World Stage: Israel.” Boise Weekly 26 July 2013: 22. Print.

[14] Wiley, Kehinde. James Quin, Actor. 2008. Oil on canvas. Web. 30 April 2015.

[15] Postle, Martin. “James Quin, Actor c. 1739.” Tate. 2000. Web. 30 April 2015.

[16] Hughes, Kathryn. “Southern Discomfort: Artist Kara Walker Continues to Shock and Awe.” 9 Oct. 2013. Web.

[17] Kara Walker, lecture, School of the Arts, Virginia Commowealth University. 24 October 2000.

[18] Wallace, Michele. “The African Sublime.” 30 Americans: Rubell Family Collection. New York, N.Y.: Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 2008. 24–29. Print.

[19] Hughes, Kathryn. “Southern Discomfort: Artist Kara Walker Continues to Shock and Awe.”

[20] “Dark Shadow: Walker’s silhouettes expose raw racial, sexuality.” The Daily Yomiuri. 28 April 2005. 1. Web. 1 May 2015.

[21] Silver, Leigh. “Kara Walker’s ‘A Subtlety’ Proves That Sugar Isn’t Always Sweet.” Complex Magazine. 13 May 2014. Web. 30 April 2015.

[22] Halbriech showcased one of Walker’s first works and then hosted her first retrospective in 2004.

[23] Kino, Carol. “Kara Walker’s Thought-Provoking Art.” Wall Street Journal (online) 6 Nov. 2014. Web.

[24] Berry. “Kehinde Wiley Discusses Bam Exhibit, The World Stage: Israel.” 22.

[25] Hughes, Kathryn. “Southern Discomfort: Artist Kara Walker Continues to Shock and Awe.”

Demystifying Meaning Systems and Technology for Marginalized Groups

Throughout the semester, I’ve contemplated ways in which this course’s topics and theories tie in with not-so-abstract scenarios and settings. Packaging such dense and mind-blowing content into a 14-week course is no easy feat. Thankfully, connecting the dots between meaning systems and cultural contexts is almost second nature for me now, but I wondered how attainable such a-ha moments are (and could be) for those outside this CCT course.

For my final research, I want to delve into how complex meaning systems and computational thinking can be the key to demystifying technology for minorities in/outside the classroom and facilitating social change strategies for marginalized. This idea is a fusion of topics around distributed agency amongst marginalized groups (Week 9), a medium’s technical impact on communication (Week 8), semantic differentiations associated with language (Week 7) and how meaning systems operate within the world of music and art (Week 6). Millennials, especially from the African-American community have been responsible for creating and popularizing phrases and terms that were rooted in regional or even subcultural contexts (i.e. bling, twerk, fleek, etc.) However, historically there has been a disparity in access to computer science and technology education for minorities, as is evident in the lack of diversity in those respective workforces. The fundamentals of such disciplines like computational thinking and deblackboxing sociotechnical systems can be essential to spearheading social movements and rebuilding disheveled communities.

This week’s reading from Conery simplifies the definition of computation to being a “sequence of simple, well-defined steps that lead to the solution of a problem.” His approach is accessible and applicable to situations transcending that of modern computer programming or software interactions; the definition’s inexactness and comprehensibility lends itself to other arenas – meaning it is less unnerving for those newly exposed, uninterested or wary to this cognitive method. By describing algorithmic processes as static descriptions or blueprints for computational action in the manner that Conery has, understanding for arenas like music development, filmmaking and visual art can be readily achieved.

The basis for understanding media theory, technological development and meaning systems is to recall that all signs and technologies to which we are exposed are derivative of previous instances, thus meaning that no matter how tangential two signs may be are – a network connection or path is shared. Moreover, as Dror and Harnad explain, the boundary between the user and the tool disappears, as the technology is an integral part of the cognitive state itself. This exemplifies the relationship between African-Americans, social media platforms and their identity-centered participation in digital communities and discourse. It is also within these communities that transitive states occur between humans interacting with applications (humans on Twitter) to spark a social transition (grassroots demonstrations, knowledge sharing, communal self-esteem elevating practices, etc.).

With the advent of new approaches to cognition and action, we must remember that the advances of technology we witness are grandfathered by basic human interaction methods. As we discussed a few weeks ago, it’s not a matter of man against the machine or technology versus culture; but instead, the machine inspiring, awakening and molding the (marginalized) people for the betterment of himself, their community and society.

Where’s The Art?: Distinctions of Qualified Art Based on Standards

Everyone has his or her own interpretation as to what qualifies as art, particularly visual still-art. Just as there are qualifiers for hip-hop and classical music, the same holds true for Baroque and pop art. However, when art is given the stamp of approval by individuals organizations or constrained systems like museums (i.e. MoMA, Smithsonian), the level playing ground for artistic expression is tattered. Malraux’s notion of the musée imaginaire struck a chord with me, as I considered my definition and prototypes of art. My “museum without walls” is indeed vast but segmented based on theoretical/standardized notions of art versus tactile, more relatable examples. Certainly, I know who Picasso and Rembrandt are, but I resonate more strongly with graffiti or the art murals featured in Richmond or Philadelphia.

Malraux’s observation that postmodern museum standards focus on unifying works from various cultures calmed and disturbed me; its implications led me to consider the loss of the art’s original purpose for the sake of fair treatment and unbiased critique. In undergrad, I learned extensively about foundations designed specifically for African-American artists – both specially trained and folk – who were excluded from museum exhibits because of their race. Critique of their artwork, no matter how ambiguous, seemingly drew remarks relating to their Black ancestry or identity; the two could not be separated in the eyes and minds of judges. Is this practice still evident today? Are certain values or impressions placed on art forms based on aesthetic and racial prejudice? Certainly, topics and subjects in art pieces are more explicitly related to a particular group than others, but artistically conveying issues of race is not an exclusive objective of Black artists (Note: It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that race is a problem in this country and it’s not an issue exclusively on the hands of African-Americans). One of my favorite artists is Michael D’Antuono and man, is his stuff head-turning. Two of his artworks – “A Tale of Two Hoodies” and “The Truth” have ruffled the feathers of many. I’ll let you take a look for yourself:

tale-of-two-hoodies  Michael-DAntuonos-Obama

The placement and spotlight that some artists receive exceeds those of others thanks to mega-museum notoriety. Google Art Project’s home page features what I’m sure are notable artists and works that vary temporally and demographically. Perhaps, my interests for art are obscure, but the chosen pieces oozed conformity, tradition and mainstream, which isn’t my cup of tea. The mainstay art exhibits in museums such as VMFA or the Smithsonian deliver a message all on its own, as if art is not a transformative, ever-evolving sphere. We are all familiar with Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, da Vinci and Rembrandt, but not with Wangechi Mutu, D’Antuono, Nina Chanel Abney and a myriad of others. As Professor Irvine explains in his institutional breakdown of the art sphere, art is displayed in particular settings: art exhibits, museums, art colleges, etc. The competitive monetary aspect of art is one that is shielded from the face of the public, which could answer my question as to why some of my favorite artists never get the same recognition I think they deserve alongside canonical names.

The infrastructure for what qualifies as art in mainstream is one that bothers me, but makes sense all at once. Many of the artists I respect take pride in distancing themselves from mainstream standards, taking more of the folk-like approach as they rise on the artistic ladder. And while the medium to which I am exposed to these artists doesn’t manifest many financial benefits, Tumblr is a great curating hub for indie artists to gain followings and attention, especially as the social media site opens doors for dialogues and interpretations of digitally published/curated artwork. With this in mind, Tumblr is a way for Malraux’s “museum without walls” to come into fruition as more artists create their own avenues outside of the country club-esque requisites of major art institutions. And I’m all for it.


Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 1.27.38 PM   Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 1.28.33 PM

Who Dun It: Faultlessness Thanks to Computers

Of the narratives and backstories provided about pioneers in computing, Vannevar Bush’s story stuck out like a sore thumb to me this week. His instrumental contributions to science led to technological foundations for warfare — an unforeseen occurrence for the intelligible innovator. The creation of the military-industrial complex is one planted upon unstable political grounding, as America transitioned from World War II to the Cold War. As Bush explained, however, the optimum use of science is to benefit and not dismantle society. The need and utility of computer surpasses efficiency; it’s about wiping hands clean of guilt and liability.

Our dependency and abhorrence of computers is complex. We are the minds that created such technologies by determining their purpose, flexibilities, possibilities and accommodations. Yet, it’s clear that technologies are more malleable and capable than we are. Bush iterates that we operate off of association and past experience; aside from the Web’s bread crumbing of webpage history, computers do not do that. The subsequent web page you visit after looking at YouTube isn’t Vimeo, unlike how our memories and cognitive moments are chained together by association. Inner working in web browsing are attempting to mimic human cognitive relationship formation (i.e. cookies). Moreover, there is only one route to reach a specific piece of information in computing, by delving into subclasses. Conditions must be satisfied to reach an outcome, unlike humans who can use other factors to evaluate acting upon something.


The interfaces of computers create a bridge between the human user and the desired action-oriented program. All of the capabilities of these programs are things that humans can do, but as Bush explains, “such machines have enormous appetites.” Moreover, computers lack morality and fulfill tasks if objectives are fulfilled. So for example, one of the opening scenes of the ’80s film Robocop illustrates a boardroom meeting in which engineers and executives discuss the newest model of law enforcement — the ED209. This seemingly effective technology maliciously “malfunctions” and kills an armed executive during a demonstration, leaving several — but not all parties — appalled. Needless to say, ED209 is rejected as solution for the city’s rising crime rate and thus Robocop is created. The ED209 is a computer fulfilling the needs and desired actions of humans, only lacking morality and displacing accountability. So, the EP209 will say anyone who steals is wrong and should be shot, while humans may evaluate the motive behind one stealing — like feeding their family — before placing a final judgment. This is what makes computers so daunting and enchanting to humans; they are more perfect than we are but serve as a scapegoat for our actions.  The U.S. military-industrial complex works in the same way, in that drone strikes devastate residential areas with one goal in mind, neglecting the side effects of attacks.

Final note: The cover art of Engelbart’s text shows a man with a third-eye technological device. Does this remind anyone else of the Dr. T.J. Eckleberg billboard? It makes me this of the post-World War I atmosphere and the steady corruption of America’s moral fiber. Possible preceder of military-industrial complex? Or is this a stretch?


It is clear that the intellectual ability of scholar is not stunted due to technical innovations, but to the layman — is it stifled? With our mundane use of technology, particularly with HCI, how will this alter human-to-human interactions, along with individual and community-dependent skill sets ? Understanding the concepts for this week was a bit of a struggle, but I’m hoping after some discourse with my fellow students, my intellectual vision will be cleared.

Tear Down the Binary Wall of Worlds

Confession: I’m not the best coder.

Last semester, I had the pleasure (and misfortune) of taking Expressive Computation with Professor LeMasters and while I walked away with nascent computational confidence and a new avenue for creatively expressing myself, coding was more of a tedious task. Prior to joining CCT, I had no experience with computation, let alone with computational thinking. Abstractions seemed foreign to me — and still do, if I can be frank.  However, as Jeannette Wing explained in a more practical way, abstractions are simply artifacts of deblackboxing in which we extract what’s necessary and eliminate the clutter.

Art created using Processing application

Art created using Processing application

Art created using Procession application

Art created using Procession application

Eureka! Examining abstractions in computation is to editing in journalistic language and facilitating social change. Computational thinking centers on the idea of selecting ideal abstractions and drawing connections amongst these layered artifacts. The process of getting a news story is the same. News are happenings through a subjective lens; what may be news for one is irrelevant to another. The measures of what makes a “good” abstraction parallel to what makes a “good” news story, or what contributes to its newsworthiness. Moreover, computational thinking also juxtaposes with the mediation of news: efficiency (how fast? how much space/time? how much power?) and correctness. There is a grammar to computational thinking that syncs with the grammar for journalistic standards. Yet, journalistic standards often steps on its own feet by comprising one measure for another. For example, during the Columbine shootings, local and national media outlets rushed to the mourning Colorado city in a race for first coverage, but wound up twisting the facts. This left many, particularly the families and classmates of slain students, with a sour taste in their mouths about the integrity of media. The practices of news organizations are scrutinized based upon their gauging of efficiency and correctness, just as consumers closely judge and evaluate the manufacturers of their beloved products. Companies circulate surveys within apps to receive feedback from their users about the program’s usability and efficiency. Some end-users may conclude that the app adequately performs its function, but could do so in a quicker way. Their conceptual models don’t match the actual design model, thus new and improved (but still flawed) updates to technology arise. Remember, when Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox were created as competitors for Internet Explorer.

Computational thinking is not exclusive to the fields of computer science or technology. As we explained last week, these worlds are not detached from the humanities. The very concepts we take away from computational thinking — planning, learning, scheduling (as Wing’s text explains) — are the basis for social movements. Pseudo-coding and implementing plans before executing a code was the same approach civil rights groups like SNCC and SCLC used to create social change in the South. Computational thinking is about finding the Achilles heel or the problematic source within a system and solving it with the intent of preventing redundancies from reoccurring.

With the practicality of marrying computational thinking with social change, I wonder why such concepts are guarded or excluded from other disciplines. Computers, computation and computational thinking are preceded by basic human interactions and behavior. The way we interact with other actors within a sociotechnical system is the same way in which software and hardware interact. Why don’t these areas of study share the same terrain in academic settings until the collegiate level? (FYI: I would have loved to make this connection at least in middle school.)  Professor LeMasters discussed his involvement with President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative last year and has even facilitated workshops in Maryland to bridge the gap between adolescents and the daunting world of computation. It’s disheartening to compare standardized test scores in the math and science category amongst genders and races. My experience with math and science was a frustrating one — I did well in both fields, but I was better with words, not numbers; my grades and SAT scores were proof of that. The language around STEM creates a threatening vortex, especially for those unfamiliar with or intimidated by mathematical thinking and engineering concepts. Fortunately, more and more initiatives are budding in which the glass ceiling of computer science and technology are being shattered, opening opportunities for Black students, women and other minorities such as Verizon’s #PotentialOfUs campaign and GUWWC here on the Hilltop.

After completing LeMasters’ course and navigating through this week’s Codecademy assignment, I realized that there is greater value in being well-versed in code. The specificity and form required for coding may be cumbersome, but it’s about the bigger picture. It’s about setting personal goals and accomplishing them. Computing allows me to take pride in the little successes on my way to a bigger objective. More importantly, computation is certainly not an exclusive club, where you either are or you aren’t. You don’t have to be a middle-aged White man to qualify as a master of coding or computational thinking. Thankfully, the binary buck stops here.

The Haves and Have Nots: Comparing Materialism and Morality in Sociotechnical Contexts

“Man – no Woman in Heidegger – is possessed by technology, and it is a complete illusion to believe that we can master it.” – Bruno Latour


Reading this week’s texts about technology’s distributed agency while on the Metro was a bit odd for me. When considering Latour’s thoughts on technologies cementing the identities of its users, I began questioning the lifestyles of the passengers around me.

By now, we can agree that the use of media conveys a particular message about its social value and function – “The medium is the message.” Retracing our steps, we can recall the in-class discussions about signs, representations and interpretants. The affordance of objects cannot be entirely dissected from where it fits in culture and society, which are entirely subjective realms. So, Calvin Klein undergarments serve the same function as Fruit of the Loom, but the former garners more acclaim than the latter. An experiment on Brain Games shows this:

Cakes of Deception (as seen on Brain Games)

Bruno Latour’s theory of the materialist and the moralist really drives this concept home for me. The materialist believes that we are defined by our possessions and our technologies have a way of deblackboxing who we are. Assumptions are often made about the lack or abundance of tangible objects we possess, particularly from a socioeconomic perspective. For example, quiet observation can illustrate much about metro transit passengers. Imagine two passengers sitting adjacent to one another; for the sake of conversations, let’s say they are of the opposite sex. The woman totes an eReader device with Beats by Dre headphones plugged in, and sports a Pandora bracelet, Cartier frames and Christian Loubotin pumps. Conversely, the male is wearing Wrangler jeans with holes in them, a vintage starter jacket, no jewelry and isn’t reading a book. The technologies or objects of both subjects can provide a context for the user’s lifestyle. One could assume that the woman is wealthier than the man due to her possession of commoditized goods. One could even confirm these preconceptions based on where the two passengers get off on the Metro, thanks to gentrification methods and increased cost of living in inner cities.

On the other hand, the moralist concept centers on being unchanged by external factors – you either innately are or are not. I would have to side against this belief, in saying that technology’s strong hold on its user is observable even in the minutest of circumstances. Latour assers that our illusions about technology trickle into our discourses and image representations. Paired with consumerism and self-inflicted urges to obtain the mirror image (see Lacan), we as consumers fall into the trap of trying to fill voids with new or even antiquated technologies. Think about when you were a kid and you saw the commercial for the all-new Crayola 128-piece crayon set – you convinced yourself you needed it to do or become something. Let’s say in this case, the crayon set would jumpstart your aspirations to be an illustrator. Without the technology, your aspiration cannot fully come into fruition – at least you thought. But with it, you become different. You were suddenly happier and more equipped for drawing. You were manipulated by technology. Lacan’s theory of the mirror image, or the perfect self, feeds off of this social-technical interplay in the capitalist-consumerism spectrum. Not only does it change how one sees him or herself, but also one is perceived by others. Advertising is guilty of gratifying our dreams and desires by way of pushing products into our senses. The motto engrained into coerced buying is: Purchase ______ to become (a better) ____ .

Do you have $300, a license and a bank account? Then you can drive away with this new car! 

You have a paintbrush and paint? You’re an artist and you’re already halfway there. Participate in our artfest.

Do you have a better idea than this? Visit this site and invent your own product!

On a grander scale, when artists gain recognition through label signing and increased record sales, they acquire more monetary value for their “hit” records. Often times, the content of their art changes due to the constraints of the system they’re in – demand from record labels versus demand from fans (see Kanye West).

With all of these scenarios and concepts brought into the mix, it’s clear that our wants and ultimate gratification/consumption of goods and services places us in a master-slave dialectic in which we are shaped, thus controlled, by the very objects we use.

Revive The Vinyl: Music, Medium and Mediation

For the past weeks, we have examined the poignancy of a particular text, whether it was Daft Punk, Andy Warhol or “Ayo.” This week, we devote our conversation to the artifacts that allow our senses to consume this content, information or media, if you will – the medium. The manner in which this content is transmitted to and from analog and digital formats is through mediation. One medium that I am steadily becoming fascinated with is the vinyl record; partly, because I’m a minimalist and partly, because my mom’s 45s are sitting in my living room, begging for some airtime.

The mere discussion of vinyls in the age of mp3 files and Bluetooth-capabilities for music playback is reflective of how a technology – more so, a medium – cannot be eradicated. Dialectically speaking, one cannot die when it is constantly being acknowledged in comparative discourses. As Professors Ribes and Irvine discussed, Apple and Adobe became one another’s archrivals based on the functionality of their respective products. And while both appeared to be on the opposite ends of the spectrum argument, their interaction proved them both to be a part of a broader ecosystem – a media system.

While digital music files and playback lessen the need for tangible artifacts, the transformation of the medium has altered the art form. As McLuhan’s tetrad of technology lays out, just as we advance, we risk obsolescence. I believe the current minimal effort behind listening to a musical composition devalues its essence. I may be negating myself a bit here, but in making the access to music more efficient – placing it on our mobile cellular devices – we intensify the immediate gratification, quick-triggered satisfaction/obtainment of an art form. There’s something sweet about listening to an entire album untouched, no clicking or tapping of a screen, as you would with a vinyl record. It is this appreciation for tangibility that has sparked a resurgence in vinyl record sales. Similarly, it is a richer experience to indulge in a live acoustic performance versus running over to YouTube to catch video of the same event. And while the cost of concerts and vinyl records may be a deterring factor in its competition with mp3 sales, the quality is at the heart of the matter for most of these traditional aficionados , not the quantity.

Some digital music playback systems – specifically Pandora – display album art as songs play. Therefore, it is not just sounds, but visuals that are being mediated. Prior to music videos or recorded live performances, there was an ambiguity attached to music where the artist’s identity was either implicitly or explicitly hidden. Some record companies did not allow for many artists to have their faces on album covers according to their race and the musical genre. How did the idea of race as a social construct infiltrate the impact of music and of producing album art?

Vinyls also contributed itself as a galleria artifact — a thing to be admired or envied upon display. Cover art for records like The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Stevie Wonders’ Songs in The Key of Life and even Fugees’ The Score has made it on to lists for “Best Cover Art of All Time.” How do these artifacts compare to posters sold in retail shops? My parents and other relatives often mocked me for getting posters out of magazines, insisting that “nothing can compare” to using vinyl art as bedroom décor. Has the significance of album art diminished since the employment of digital music online? Do artists and record companies even focus on creating visual masterpieces to complement their aural work? How do the visuals of music — be it music video or album art — affect the manner in which it is mediated? This interplay between audio and visual can either strengthen or dismantle our notion for signs can be delivered. [Ex. Remembering the shock of seeing Teena Marie and Bobby Caldwell for the first time, as they performed hits like “Square Biz” and “What You Won’t Do For Love?” respectively.]

My dream entertainment room | Source: Pinterest

My dream entertainment room | Source: Pinterest

teena marie robbery cover

Lastly, the dissatisfaction with an aspect in the media system can influence one’s mediation decisions. Case in point: the cost and monopolization of media consumption, be it film or music. As Professor Ribes pointed out, Apple has been accused on filtering out competitors within its own products in terms of searching. How does one’s ethical decisions affect companies on a larger scale? Are we more cynical in terms of accepting larger brands like Apple, Google or even Walmart? Mediums like vinyl records are more readily associated with mom-and-pop shops while digital music files have no definite identity, except for Apple’s iTunes store or sites like Pandora, Soundcloud and Spotify. I find myself anticipating self-started web series as opposed to guaranteed blockbusters, and even watching more public television stations. (Much of this has to do with the scandalous, over-publicizing of mainstream entities.) I wonder if   instances of distrust in mainstream media will create a surge in vintage or underground art and content.

“If You Don’t Get It, You Don’t Get It”: Distinguishing Information from Communication (And Why Meaning is Inseparable from Signs)

This week’s examination and distinction of information and communication resulted in an unexpected, subtle yet abrupt realization, when reflecting on my daily use of both terms. Considerably oblivious to the intricacies of man-machine interaction and information technology/science, I never dissected the ordinary microcosm that is communication – which is simply, the exchanging or units of information, or signs.

In Ronald Day’s essay, he explains that Claude Shannon’s conduit model remains a cornerstone in understanding the basis of information science. More astoundingly is technology’s evolution in the realm of information retrieval “towards … matching the source’s data and the receiver’s desires.” This objective ideally exemplifies a relatively new iOS feature on iPhones – the QuickType bar. The technology within the mobile device generates a list of suggested words – or signs – based on the user’s initial input. The source – being the user – generates a message, or a thought, subsequently articulating this thought by way of manual typing. The receiver, which in this case is the iPhone, produces a list of words, matching the first alphabetic sign and continues to predict subsequent words as long as the communication between user and phone – better yet, man and machine – continues. Autocorrect settings and functions on word processing applications conduct in the same fashion. This organizational method works similarly to the human mind, in how it attempts to categorize and place context on signs into groups like “places,” “names,” “food,” “events” and so on. However, what this model of information delivery and retrieval lacks is visceral context, particular the role of prior experiences to mold the meaning of messages.



Weaver and Wiener further explain that there is no grand difference between human and machine transmission of information if the original message’s intentions are identical. Therefore, a Freudian slip or an instance of tongue-tying is just as a minor finger slip on a keyboard or a touch-screen device not properly registering the user’s touch in selecting a symbol.

As we clearly understand, we are encased within a network of finite signs that carry innumerable possibilities of meanings and values. So how is it that we distinguish an email message on a computer from a text message on a cellular phone? With the advent of tablets and merging message technologies, the lines of homogenous and unique methods of communication via respective devices are becoming blurred; the Messages application on Apple computers allows its users to send signals to others by using their email addresses or phone numbers. Similarly, smart phone users can access their email accounts from their devices to send/receive information. At one point, I even recall being able to send photos and audio from my phone to my email account and my actual phone number would be displayed in the “From” field.

The origin and context in which emails are commonly used are in the workplace or in academic scenarios between faculty and students. Therefore, there is an indirect value or meaning placed upon email as a medium for communication that is related to formal, impersonal messaging. This is an instance in which the technical cannot escape the social. Hand-held devices – which have swiftly evolved since the Millennial generation’s existence – has seemingly become affiliated with younger audiences and more informality, particularly because of application appeal for youth and the generation’s familiarity with advances in mobile and digital technology. (Brief aside: The same familiarity with one sign system can be juxtaposed with that of the example given in Ray and Charles Eames’ video: If one can determine the frequency of a pregnant woman’s contractions, her cervix dilation can be approximated, or one can determine the time of day based on the sun’s location.) Because of its affiliation with lax, off-the-clock communication, less scrutiny and pressure is placed on adhering to Standard English grammar and spelling when hand-held devices are the nodes for communication. Moreover, consider that few professors share their mobile phone numbers or “home” email addresses with students, unless allowing the open-door policy for emergency contacts. The distinction between these identical communication modes with differing meanings and contexts explains the needs for codeswitching, or as I like to call it, “Let me put on my best workplace voice.”


Finally, I’d like to highlight my fascination with the concepts of presupposition and noise. In previous posts, I have mentioned the complexities of digesting new information and the common assumption of shared code between sources. A dialogue about coding between a professor and a student may not render much decoding of information, yet if another student dissects the encoded information and re-communicates that to the same student, understanding of the signs or information can be achieved. As Eames’ video explained, “In any communication system, the receiver must be able to decode something of what the transmitter coded, or no information gets to the destination at all.” This is a fundamental skill and assessed scenario in the field of education. A similar occurrence of miscommunication happens in computer science, when used applications such as Python and Processing. While both programs use Java as their language system, each has its own rules or contexts that call for specificity in order to manifest successful result; just like with HTML and CSS.

In terms of noise, I was interested to learn the variety in ways it can interfere with information retrieval and how people are more invested in the meaning as opposed to the sign. Could a cultural predisposition qualify as noise? Could a cognitive or sensory malady, like colorblindness or dyslexia could fall under the category of noise? What about non-visual cues, like stressing about paying bills during a Philosophy exam?

As we have discussed preciously in regards to the social importance of meaning over signs, it’s never just a phone or a shoe. Culturally, we have attributed meaning to a branded commodity, which signifies things like our fashion taste, socioeconomic status or moral composition. The inclusion or exclusion of an object or sign carries great meaning, such as the exclusion of a signal in a movie title or the inclusion of more signs than another. However, as Professor Irvine explained in this key concepts video, meaning is not stagnant but instead temporal and ever evolving. The meanings are fluid and cannot be pinpointed. Information is translated to fit into a meaning, unique to its recipient based on their previous experiences and use of the signs or information. Because of this flexibility of sign systems, the possibilities of meanings in the far or immediate future cannot be predicted.

DC’s Signature Aural Party: Go-Go Music

I’m relatively new to the DC Metropolitan area, but it did not take long for me to understand the pride and distinctiveness of the nation’s capital. Some signs and symbols are inseparable from DC culture: the taste of mambo sauce, pillars in the food industry like Ben’s Chili Bowl or Georgetown Cupcakes, events like the annual Cherry Blossom festival. However, even as a native of Richmond, VA, an alluring segment of DC culture trickled its way down I-95 and into my life – go-go music.

Based on prior conversations and queries with people in North Carolina and Virginia, it seems that the popularity of this musical genre seems only recognizable in sporadic geographic areas or to those of particular demographic circles. However, if we examine the musical works of Wale, an artist that has received national and international acclaim, hip-hop aficionados will see that this lyricist merges open-mic-style, go-go and hip-hop seamlessly into various compositions. Throughout this reflection, I will briefly historicize go-go music and introduce several works by Wale, a DC-bred hip-hop artist who faithfully alludes to his capital city roots in his music and lyrical references.

Go-go first came on the music scene during the late 1960s, which helps explain its aural similarity to funk and blues. The term “go-go” was a slang term used within the African American community to signify a local music club (See: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ hit “Going to a Go-Go”). As Professor Irvine clearly expressed last week, pinpointing the origin of a sign is superfluous and the black box that is go-go music is no exception. Yet, the appeal, credit and placement of go-go in musical discourses has remained centered around African American subculture, no matter how much its popularity has ebbed and flowed in the spotlight of mainstream music.

The primary component or standard that distinguish go-go from its predecessors is its use of junior-sized congas, keyboards, drums, hi-hats and hand cowbells in a syncopated distinct rhythm, similar to that of swing music. Prominent artists within this genre include Chuck Brown (1936-2012) – the widely proclaimed godfather of go-go – The Backyard Band, Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, Junkyard Band and EU. With the help of Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze, go-go group EU – which stands Experience Unlimited – became a recognizable face for DC’s feel-good music genre by way of their video for the song “Da Butt.” Many instances of remix culture rear itself in the makings of go-go music, specifically recursion, combinatoriality and dialogism. Like jam sessions in jazz, go-go music is often recorded during live performances, where much of the material is free-styled, off-the-cuff, improvised. As Yuri Lotman would say, “New texts are the texts that emerge as results of irreversible processes… i.e. texts that are unpredictable to a certain degree.” The grammar of go-go music is pretty simple and liberal, in that as long as you have the signature percussionist sound as your acoustic backdrop, the rest is free reign.


The essence of unpredictability also seems to be at the heart of go-go music, which often includes verbal shout-outs/odes to communities and sectors of DC; one go-go band is even named Northeast Groovers. More often than not, the only accessible text of go-go songs are those that were performed live. These recordings typically feature a call-and-response style between the band and the audience, which adds to the organic and unpolished nature of this musical genre. Many recordings exude the impression of an actual go-go, or party atmosphere – a feature of the music I’m sure isn’t coincidental.
The lengthy duration of some go-go songs like “Sick of Being Lonely” are the result of recursion – in this case, musical works that nest references, quotations, samples or allusions of prior works into a larger composition. This 14-minute live performance includes pieces of Atlanta rap group Field Mob’s 2002-hit “Sick of Being Lonely” and reggae star Lady Saw’s tune “I Got Your Man.” A similar song by go-go band Rare Essence called “Pieces of Me” is a cover of Ashlee Simpson’s 2004 pop song.
“Rare Essence – Pieces of Me” (5:04) [Derivative of Ashlee Simpson’s “Pieces of Me”]
“Backyard Band – Sick of Being Lonely” (14:18) [Derivative of Field Mob’s “Sick of Being Lonely” and Lady Saw’s “I Got Your Man”]

Wale, who was born during the peak of go-go’s rising fame, repeatedly pays musical homage to the funky genre along with another cultural staple – Seinfeld. In 2010, he released a mixtape, titled More About Nothing, which includes snippets from various episodes of the hit sitcom on each track, respectively. (Later this year, he plans on creating a sequel to this compilation – The Album About Nothing.) Undoubtedly enamored with go-go, Wale’s most recognizable songs, “Pretty Girls,” “Clappers,” and “Bait” are all derivative of DC’s signature music style.

Wale performing at Georgetown's Midnight Madness in 2010 | source: Wikipedia

Wale performing at Georgetown’s Midnight Madness in 2010 | source: Wikipedia
“Backyard Band – Pretty Girls” – WARNING: Explicit Language
“Wale – Pretty Girls ft. Gucci Mane, Weensey of Backyard Band” – WARNING: Explicit Language

As we can discover, go-go music is clearly the offshoot of funk, blues and swing. Yet, primitive go-go is not like the traces of go-go we may catch occasionally on DC’s WYKS radio station. It has morphed with time, pulling inspiration from different signs to create unforeseeable results – the essence of discrete infinity. Like any musical form, go-go evokes nostalgia; searching YouTube for “go-go music DC” can easily grant retrieval of early texts from Chuck Brown and others. And while the infamy of go-go remains sporadic – with Wale seemingly the only mainstream artist carrying on its back – and less potent than that of hip-hop, its acoustic DNA can be found in texts from artists like Beck (“Where It’s At”) and Jay-Z (“Do It Again”). Thus, the semiotic and generative saga of go-go continues…

If you’re interested in hearing more go-go greatness or tapping into Wale’s repertiore, check out some of these songs below:
“Wale – The Break Up Song” – sample of Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do”
“Rare Essence – Sardines & Pork n’ Beans”
“UCB – Sexy Lady”
“DJ Flexx – The Water Dance”
“DJ Kool – 20-minute Workout” (5:48)

The (Dis)Connection of Signs: Meaning-Making and Our Symbolic Cognition

My overall takeaways from this week’s readings are scattered, but carry a similar theme of association and standards in language. I will first begin with C.S. Peirce’s examination of signs.

Attempting to dissect the origin of a thought is like asking whether the chicken or the egg came first – it’s an implausible task. C.S. Peirce asserts that all thoughts are a compilation and a translation of continuously growing signs.

Concepts we could not fathom of knowing in weeks, days or even hours can all be obtained through this link of symbol-filled thoughts. As Peirce says, “He makes in his imagination a sort of skeleton diagram, our outline sketch, of himself, considers what modifications the hypothetical state of things would require to be made in that picture, and then examines it, that is, observes what he has imagined, to see whether the same ardent desire is there to be discerned.” Peirce’s deciphering of symbolic connections and self-fulfillment is a testament to the journey of life and particularly the intellectual paths of those in CCT.

Clearly stated in Peirce’s theory is that a sign stands in place of an object, of which something is represented. As explained there are three categories of signs: likenesses, indications and symbols. Each distinction of signs has made its way into some of our most beloved family games: Likenesses is Charades, Indications is Pictionary and the most intriguing to me – Symbols – is Word Association. Symbols seem to be most explicitly contingent on prior exposures to a specific idea or image for correlation. The more narrowcast the symbol, the more refined the representation or interpretant– you say jazz, I think Davis and Coltrane; you say art, I think Basquiat and Banksy; you say CCT, I think deblackbox and Booeymonger’s. It feeds off of connections and mental prototypes. (It would be great if we can briefly grapple with this sign-representation-interpretant model for a better understanding.)

Thoughts, which are signs, are ultimately derivative of one another. However, I’m interested in how symbols come to be related to other signs. The element of branding for companies relates to this idea of semiology, just as much as artists – both musical and visual – have a signature. Emblems and pictorial signs serve as an optical trigger for consumers; some typographical fonts are specialized for companies, such as Cadillac’s cursive typeface or Popeye’s thick, rounded lettering. Musical artist Sia is known for her vibrant blonde bob hair and performing with her back to the audience – all of these are signs associated with a subject.



With Jakobson’s model of verbal communication, I questioned the effects of the frequent and evident sociolinguistic disconnect in academic settings. All components are present except aligning contexts and codes. The plight of many educators is to lessen this gap by reaching a midpoint for high academic standards and marginally well-rounded students. Also, the patterns of this symbolic ping-ponging are monitored closely and often inadequacies shove pupils into the categories of needing remedial attention. In this respect, the standards of verbal communication should be re-examined as not to stigmatize a linguistic standard or pattern that lies outside the margins of the typical code or context.

Finally, I want to place a cognitive bookmark on this excerpt from this week’s reading: “…Only the associations sanctioned by that language appears to us to conform to reality, and we disregard whatever others might be imagined.” The grammar, or rules, of a language is constricting. However, what does it say when such symbolic obstruction is shared by multiple grammars, as if a staple for universal grammar? Are these obstructions politically/socially enforced?