Author Archives: Liz Sabatiuk

About Liz Sabatiuk

Be it through digital media, Argentine tango, or interdisciplinary studies, I seek connections. Discovering unexpected connections is crucial to solving the complex problems of today’s world. And the feeling of connection – to self, community, and the planet – can drive us to make changes large and small in our lives and the lives of others. I’m pursuing an M.A. through Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology program to learn to better identify, explore, and facilitate these connections. When not studying at Georgetown, I create and edit content for, a birth control support network that makes birth control easy.

Appropriation Art: The Meaning Is in the Media

Liz Sabatiuk


In the context of a dialogic, generative, or ritual approach to communication and culture, the concept of Appropriation Art can seem oversimplified at best. Yet the hypermediacy inherent in Appropriation Art offers a powerful interface through which to analyze the dialogic and generative properties of communication and culture. Artists like Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, and Yasumasa Morimura emphasize the mediating function of their work to add meaning to the cultural encyclopedia from which their work draws. Applying the concepts of mediation and generativity from Peircian Semiotics along with Bolter and Grusin’s theory of remediation, we can better understand the power of this genre to hold a mirror to culture while ensuring that we realize the reflection we see is never the whole story, but rather a part of an ongoing evolution of meaning.


In the context of a dialogic, generative, or ritual approach to communication and culture, the concept of Appropriation Art can seem oversimplified at best. Appropriation implies the existence of an original and a copy as opposed to nodes in a generative cultural process in which each “original” has been informed and made possible by what has preceded it. In “A Cultural Approach to Communication,” James Carey writes, “If we are to engage in this activity — writing an essay, making a film, entertaining an audience, imparting information and advice — we must discover models in our culture that tell us how this particular miracle is achieved. Such models are found in common sense, law, religious traditions, increasingly in scientific theories themselves” (Carey, 1989). Carey is articulating the importance of understanding genre in order to participate in any form of meaning making. All artists must to some extent work within the context of their genre in order for their work to be relevant, so appropriation in the sense of taking something that exists and using it for one’s own purposes is a matter of degree rather than a present or absent quality.

Nevertheless, there is value in approaching the mimicry, performative re-creation, and recontextualization that characterizes Appropriation Art as its own genre, particularly when analyzing the relationship between “appropriated” works and the “original” works or genres they seek to evoke. Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, and Yasumasa Morimura are all conceptual artists associated with the genre of Appropriation Art. All three artists use a practice that Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin call remediation to depict one medium using a different medium, drawing attention to context, genre, and the media themselves as they do so.

Warhol’s work remediates the mundane or commercial in a high art context, experimenting with scale, color, and repetition to create visual interest. Sherman’s work also defies convention by crossing genre boundaries; Sherman often uses her own face and body to create “stills” of films that never existed or remediate historical portraits with costumes, makeup, and photography. Morimura’s work also remediates, using elaborate sets, costumes, photography, and sometimes digital techniques to re-create and literally insert himself into famous imagery from art, politics, and popular culture.

In “A Cultural Approach to Communication,” James Carey notes, “We not only produce reality but we must likewise maintain what we have produced, for there are always new generations coming along for whom our productions are incipiently problematic and for whom reality must be regenerated and made authoritative. … Finally, we must, often with fear and regret, toss away our authoritative representations of reality and begin to build the world anew” (Carey, 1989). These artists perform both functions by reinforcing the cultural encyclopedia while simultaneously altering it, forcing viewers to see it in a different light.

Here's Yasumasa Morimura actually appropriating a work by Cindy Sherman.

Top: “Untitled #96” by Cindy Sherman. Bottom: “To My Little Sister: for Cindy Sherman” by Yasumasa Morimura. Found on

Peircian Semiotics and the Mediation of Meanings

In Signs in Society, Richard Parmentier quotes C.S. Peirce as saying “In portraiture, photographs mediate between the original and the likeness.” (Parmentier, 1994). Thanks in part to artists like Cindy Sherman, we now know that Peirce’s claim about portraiture using photography may be a bit naive. Putting aside the fictive capacity of photography and portraiture, Peirce’s example beautifully illustrates the importance of media in connecting meaning with an interprétant.

The meanings relevant to Peirce would be only those that are understood to be meanings (signs) by the interprétant.  As Parmentier puts it, “Peirce’s point is a subtle yet crucial one for his entire argument: ‘A sign does not function as a sign unless it be understood as a sign’ (MS 599:32)” (Parmentier, 1994). The meanings would also be limited to the intention of the artist if they are to be classified as “genuine” rather than “degenerate” signs. So, are there genuine meanings we can suppose are both intended and perceived in the works of Warhol, Sherman, and Morimura?

Marilyn Diptych image via Tate Modern's website.

Marilyn Diptych image via Tate Modern’s website.

Warhol. Warhol’s famous Marilyn Diptych has been so widely distributed and referred to that it has surely accrued countless additional meanings since Warhol first created it. Still, are there signs we can assume Warhol meant for viewers to interpret? While there are many ways to read this work and there is certainly room for further interpretation, some basic meanings can be deduced. We must begin by acknowledging that the tiny digital representation above does not represent the “original” work, which is almost 7 feet tall and more than 9 feet wide. The size itself seems like a sign of the monumental significance of this representation, yet the repetition of the printed image makes it clear that we are not viewing a single intact idol but rather a mass-produced and mass-consumed idol. The diptych format suggests a religious connotation and a strong visual duality, perhaps of life and death as was commonly depicted in medieval religious diptychs and is supported by the contrast of color with black and white.

#21 of Cindy Sherman's "Film Stills" series via MoMA.

Untitled #21 of Cindy Sherman’s “Film Stills” series via MoMA.

Sherman. For the purpose of this analysis, Sherman’s “Film Stills” series can be taken as a whole rather than looking at an individual work. All the photographs are in black and white and all, as the name of the series suggests, appear to be moments taken from a film. The photographs are deliberately ambiguous, inviting viewers to imagine the plot and imagery of the film they’re supposed to represent. The characters are each carefully constructed to trigger in the viewer powerful associations from the cultural encyclopedia. To make sure the associations are clear, Sherman uses the “remediation” of the familiar but outdated genre of black and white film. She then invites the viewer to think critically about the familiar genre and stereotypical subject by remediating this genre in an unfamiliar context: the viewer is aware that the films do not exist and that rather than staring at the “big screen” of a cinema. Rather they are viewing relatively small prints of scenes that have been elaborately staged to evoke familiar genres and stereotypical subjects.

"In praise of Velasquez: Distinguished ones in confinement"

Yasumasa Morimura’s “In praise of Velasquez: Distinguished ones in confinement” Luhring Augustine.

Morimura. Like Sherman’s “Film Stills” series, Morimura’s series “Las Meninas Renacen de Noche” restages existing media to be at once recognizable and strange. Morimura remediates the famous 1656 painting “Las Meninas” by Diego Velázquez using staging, photography, and digital manipulation. Like Sherman, the artist depicts himself in different roles, but where Sherman’s depictions convince the viewer that she is someone else, Morimura’s depictions seem to suggest the opposite, that all the characters are him. Like Warhol, Morimura has employed techniques of repetition and scale. He has scaled down his reenactment of the original work and broken it out into a series of portraits of the characters, giving them all some version of his face. These manipulations dismantle the delicate social relations depicted in Velázquez’s painting, desensitizing the viewer to the individual characters while giving them all equal prominence. By highlighting each character individually with the same face, Morimura illustrates the power of art to confer fame regardless of one’s place in the current hierarchy while also reminding the viewer that despite their fame and recognizability, these individuals are still representations.

Yasumasa Morimura's series "Las Meninas Renacen de Noche" via Luhring Augustine.

Portraits from Yasumasa Morimura’s series “Las Meninas Renacen de Noche” via Luhring Augustine.

The way these three examples overlap with one another as well as with the works and genres that inspired them clearly illustrates the dialogic and intersubjective nature of art. According to Parmentier’s analysis of Peirce’s framework “…the triad of elements at one semiotic moment implies a constant expansion of the process of semiosis as the interprétant, in turn, acts so as to determine a further sign, becoming thereby a sign to that further interprétant” (Parmentier, 1994). Every instance of interpretation and the resulting creation supplies fodder for the next instance of interpretation and resulting creation, expanding the cultural encyclopedia indefinitely.

Despite Peirce’s insights about the role of mediation in meaningful communication, which could be said to presage Régis Debray’s concept of mediology, Peirce ultimately viewed media as nothing more than a means to an end. According to Parmentier’s interpretation, “If the primary function of signs is to be a ‘medium of communication,’ they fulfill that function more perfectly if the interprétant is determined to represent the complex semiotic object as if the mediating forms of representation were not there at all.” Parmentier concludes his analysis of Peirce with this observation: “Although he founded his semiotic philosophy on the notion of the mediation by signs of thought and reality, Peirce in the end reduced the role of signs to being blind vehicles for communication of meanings that they do not influence” (Parmentier, 1994).

Debray, Bolter and Grusin, and the Meaning in the Media

Régis Debray takes Peirce’s ideas about the semiotic importance of mediation to another level with his concept of mediology. In “What is Mediology?” Debray writes “Beyond a renewed place of honor for ‘intellectual technologies’ (Pierre Lévy) and the means of transport … the mediological approach could lead one day to a new way of describing the world and of telling stories, far from the inherited dualism. We can proceed by abandoning the ancestral oppositions which direct what we write like a remote-control: original/copy, potential/actual, internal/external, underlying substance/phenomenon, spiritual/material. These antiquated tandems reproduce themselves over and over again in other more techno forms: real/virtual; support/code; signal/message.” In his emphasis on “the function of medium in all its forms, over a long time span (since the birth of writing), and without becoming obsessed by today’s media,” Debray gives more weight to medium while still keeping it in a historical, non-specific perspective. Debray recognizes both the importance of not fixating on one particular medium and the importance of medium in general in conveying meaning.

In their Introduction to Remediation: Understanding New Media, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin explore the implications of the phenomenon Peirce identified of wanting media to seem as if it “were not there at all” (Parmentier, 1994). Bolter and Grusin observe, “Our culture wants both to multiply its media and to erase all traces of mediation: ideally, it wants to erase its media in the very act of multiplying them” (Bolter and Grusin, 2000). That Peirce observed this same phenomenon more than a century earlier strengthens Bolter and Grusin’s claim that it fits into an ongoing paradox of human experience rather than something specific to the digital age. Bolter and Grusin write, “Remediation did not begin with the introduction of digital media. We can identify the same process throughout the last several hundred years of Western visual representation. A painting by the seventeenth-century artist Pieter Saenredam, a photograph by Edward Weston, and a computer system for virtual reality are different in many important ways, but they are all attempts to achieve immediacy by ignoring or denying the presence of the medium and the act of mediation” (Bolter and Grusin, 2000).

Bolter and Grusin posit that this quest for immediacy, or the feeling that a mediated meaning is “real” rather than mediated, ultimately leads to a heightened awareness of the medium. Nevertheless we continue seeking technological advances to diminish the experience of the medium. In Bolter and Grusin’s words, “Although each medium promises to reform its predecessors by offering a more immediate or authentic experience, the promise of reform inevitably leads us to become aware of the new medium as a medium. Thus, immediacy leads to hypermediacy” (Bolter and Grusin, 2000). Bolter and Grusin define hypermediacy as a “style of visual representation whose goal is to remind the viewer of the medium” (Bolter and Grusin, 2000).

Against the backdrop of this ongoing tension between immediacy and hypermediacy, Appropriation Art can provide a fascinating exploration of both sides of the spectrum. All three examples referenced above convey immediacy and hypermediacy in different ways.

Warhol. The Marilyn Diptych in a sense seems to flout the immediacy quest. The photo Warhol printed from is easily recognizable as media and its status as an obvious symbol is emphasized by the repetition, the blocky, garish colors of the left prints, and the dramatic inconsistency in the ink distribution in the right prints. However, Warhol brings a different sort of immediacy to the viewer by unabashedly featuring the media. The scale of the piece and the texture and variability of the prints force viewers to experience the media itself, both the original picture and the printed artifact physically before them (presuming they’re viewing it in a museum as it was originally intended). In celebrating the media itself, Warhol flips the paradigm and creates immediacy through hypermediacy, illustrating that “Media have the same claim to reality as more tangible cultural artifacts; photographs, films, and computer applications are as real as airplanes and buildings” (Bolter and Grusin, 2000).

Sherman. By virtue of being photographs rather than silkscreen prints, the “Film Stills” images have a higher degree of immediacy than the Marilyn Diptych. Furthermore, the often off-kilter or seemingly haphazard composition of the photographs gives them a sense of movement and narrative which augments their immediacy. However, the immediacy of the “Film Stills” images is tempered by their hypermediacy. As discussed above, their high art context along with their aesthetic values make them instantly identifiable as media and therefore hypermediated, “ask[ing] us to take pleasure in the act of mediation” (Bolter and Grusin, 2000). The hypermediacy of the photographs reminds viewers that media representations aren’t always as they appear; it invites viewers to imagine their own narrative for the photos while bringing to their attention the role imagination and assumptions play in interpreting all media.

Untitled #5 of Cindy Sherman's "Film Stills" series via MoMA.

Untitled #5 of Cindy Sherman’s “Film Stills” series via MoMA.

Morimura. Like “Film Stills,” the “Las Meninas Renacen de Noche” series creates some degree of immediacy simply by virtue of employing photography, yet as soon as we find comfort and realism in the sharp lines and smooth contours that suggest the photographic medium, we are confronted with numerous tell-tale signs of the hypermediacy of the works. Even “In praise of Velasquez: Distinguished ones in confinement,” the piece that most closely resembles Velázquez’s original painting, has all kinds of inconsistencies, most prominently the superimposition of Morimura’s face for each character depicted. The postures and positioning of the subjects looks awkward and collage-like in the photographic medium.

Morimura explores immediacy and hypermediacy further in the rest of the series, photographing himself looking at Velázquez’s painting, presumably in his normal dress, and photographing “real” depictions of the characters from the painting looking at Morimura’s version in the same gallery space. This reversal creates a sense of immediacy by foregrounding the photographic, seemingly “real” figures as they observe media while also creating hypermediacy by directing the viewers’ attention to the gallery experience. The reversal in these works also illustrates dialogism in art by suggesting that not only is Morimura drawing from the cultural encyclopedia; he is contributing to it.

The culmination of immediacy and hypermediacy in this series may be “Las Meninas renacen de noche IV: Peering at the secret scene behind the artist” (below), which appears to offer viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Velázquez’s masterpiece, which appears to hang on the wall in front of the group of characters, faithful to the original except for the presence of Murimura in place of Velázquez in the painting. Of course, the only face in the “real world” of the gallery where the painting is supposedly being staged is Murimura’s in the portrait of the Infanta, the subject of Velázquez’s unviewable canvas.


Yasumasa Morimura's "Las Meninas renacen de noche IV: Peering at the secret scene behind the artist”

Yasumasa Morimura’s “Las Meninas renacen de noche IV: Peering at the secret scene behind the artist” via Luhring Augustine.

Media as Content

In “A Cultural Approach to Communication,” Carey describes art as a tool for inducing people to reexamine the familiar things they might take for granted. He writes, “Things can become so familiar that we no longer perceive them at all. Art, however, can take the sound of the sea, the intonation of a voice, the texture of a fabric, the design of a face, the play of light upon a landscape, and wrench these ordinary phenomena out of the backdrop of existence and force them into the foreground of consideration.” (Carey, 1989). Carey applies this concept to objects and natural phenomena, but the works of Warhol, Sherman, and Morimura show that it can also apply to media. Remediation is not only about bringing some abstract semiotic content formerly communicated in one medium into a different medium; it is also about mediating media. Furthermore, because meaning cannot be divorced from medium, remediation of media brings all of the meanings associated with the media being mediated into the new iteration.


“There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and boundless future). Even past meanings, that is those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all) – they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue’s subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in renewed form (in a new context).” – Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres, 1986

Appropriation Art offers a powerful interface through which to analyze the dialogic and generative properties of culture and communication. Artists like Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, and Yasumasa Morimura use hypermediacy to convey the addressivity and answerability of their work in context of the cultural encyclopedia (to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s vocabulary of dialogism). Applying the concepts of mediation and generativity from Peircian Semiotics along with Bolter and Grusin’s theory of remediation, we can better understand the power of this genre to hold a mirror to culture while ensuring that we realize the reflection we see is never the whole story, but rather a part of an ongoing evolution of meaning.

To carry this exploration further, it could be interesting to analyze more examples of the use of digital media to participate in ArtWorld and cultural dialogues, perhaps including memes and other lowbrow appropriations. Carey writes that “If one tries to examine society as a form of communication, one sees it as a process whereby reality is created, shared, modified, and preserved” (Carey, 1989). Looking directly at Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, setting aside the Morimura’s mediation for a moment, we can see that self-reflexive art far predates the digital age. Yet, digital media in particular has opened up many new possibilities for employing hypermediacy for art and cultural critique, many of which are already being realized, many of which are still be explored.

Works Cited and Consulted

Bakhtin, M. M. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Translated by Vern W. McGee. Second Printing edition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Ed. John Richardson. New York: Greenwood, 1986. Print.

Carey, James W. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Psychology Press, 1989.

Carrier, David. 1998. “ANDY WARHOL AND CINDY SHERMAN: THE SELF-PORTRAIT IN THE AGE OF MECHANICAL REPRODUCTION.” Source: Notes in the History of Art 18 (1): 36–40.

Debray, Régis. Transmitting Culture. Trans. Eric Rauth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. Print.

Debray, Régis. “What is Mediology?” Le Monde Diplomatique. Aug 1999. Trans. Martin Irvine.

Donald, Merlin. “Art and Cognitive Evolution.” Ed. Mark Turner. The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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

Irvine, Martin. “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture: A Model for Generative Combinatoriality” (preprint version). In The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies, ed. Eduardo Navas, et al. New York: Routledge, 2014. 15-42.

Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. INT edition. New York ; London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Richard J. Parmentier, Signs in Society: Studies in Semiotic Anthropology. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Rosenberg, Karen. 2015. “Yasumasa Morimura.” The New York Times, January 15.

Shanes, Eric. Pop Art. Ill edition. London: Parkstone Press. 2009.

Sherman, Cindy. Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills. The Museum of Modern Art. 2003.

Zohar, Ayelet. “The Elu[va]sive Japanese Portrait: Repetition, Difference and Multiplicity.” The Trans-Asia Photography Review 2 (1). 2011.

Preventing Unplanned Pregnancy, by Mind and Network

Screenshot 2015-04-15 07.45.50

In reading Hutchins’ analysis of the implications of extended mind vs. distributed cognition, I was struck by the very reasonable way he described the subjective nature of thinking about distribution:

…to take the distributed perspective is not to make any claim about the nature of the world. Rather, it is to choose a way of looking at the world, one that selects scales of investigation such that wholes are seen as emergent from interactions among their parts. The boundaries of the unit of analysis for distributed cognition are not fixed in advance; they depend on the scale of the system under investigation, which can vary as described below.

Can the Bedsider program (where I work) be an interface to thinking about this concept?

The website itself was designed to be a cognitive tool to extend the minds of users to incorporate accurate knowledge about pregnancy prevention and sexual health. It is designed to give individuals access to an immediate sense of all the ways to prevent pregnancy (with a visual “method explorer”) and then to provide more detail on demand. We provide video interviews of people talking about the birth control they use, which we hope will serve as alternatives to “real” interactions with people in an individual’s social circle.

Bedsider has some customization at this point, as you can see in the screen capture above – users can set up birth control and appointment reminders, earn rewards, and save health center information to their profiles. Eventually we’d like to do more with customization such as allowing users to bookmark content or to “subscribe” to their method to get updates, news, and detailed information.

One important way in which Bedsider is “distributed” is through partnerships with health care providers. To stretch the metaphor, we see providers as a crucial extension of our programmatic mind both in terms of their knowledge and in terms of their connection to our target audience. We need them to help make sure our resources are accurate and useful and also to help our resources reach our target audience. We also need them to actually provide the health care that makes it possible for our audience to put their knowledge and intention to prevent pregnancy into action.

In exchange, we provide providers with tools they can use with their patients to provide better health care. Providers can sign their patients up for birth control and appointment reminders as well as testing reminders for sexually transmitted infections. We work with them on tools for waiting rooms to help patients familiarize themselves with their birth control options before their appointments. Providers can also customize the information about their clinics/offices in our database to let people know about their services.

The goal of Bedsider is to reduce rates of unintended pregnancy among 18- to 29-year-olds in the United States, so the program itself aims to distribute cognition to create collective behavior change. While the program is “human-centered” and seeks first and foremost to be a resources for individuals, the individuals are part of the big picture of creating change on a societal and cultural scale. Like Hutchins’ systems, accomplishing the desired goal involves influencing complex interactions on individual, interpersonal, and cultural levels.

Close up and far away in the meta-museum

Detail from Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night (from the Museum of Modern Art, New York) via Emily Magnuson’s “Virtual Museums.”

Google Art Project is a natural and necessary extension of art history education taking advantage of the digital metamedium. Since museums have had online collections, it has been an idea in the “adjacent possible” [1], just waiting for the right entity to put all those collections in the same place (figuratively speaking?). Google has done so in a way that emphasizes and pays respect to the context of a work (the museum where it came from) while allowing the free association of Bush’s Memex in the user-curation function. Is this the same as experiencing art in the physical world? Absolutely not. Is it an engaging and interactive way for visitors to build cultural capital? Absolutely. Is it a way to potentially expand our collective understanding of what constitutes art? Perhaps.

Just as a print of a painting isn’t a substitute for seeing the real thing, nor are digital reproductions – even in the gigapixels, though that is a very interesting feature of selected works in the Google collection. A digital reproduction on a screen (probably a screen of maybe 20 inches max, a smart phone in many cases) is never going to convey the aura Walter Benjamin attributes to authentic works of art. The most powerful art experiences I’ve had personally had everything to do with the physical experience of being with a work itself, appreciating scale, texture, and atmosphere. Google’s Project certainly is not that. Malraux’s words about the imaginary museum certainly apply: “Indeed reproduction (like the art of fiction, which subdues reality to the imagination) has created what might be called ‘fictitious’ arts, by systematically falsifying the scale of objects.” [2]

Thus far, Google’s Art Project strikes me as best described as a meta-museum. It is not an index of every work of art ever produced. It is curated. It takes objects from their physical context like a physical museum, following that same conceptual model which Malraux cited as the basis for his Imaginary Museum. This is nothing to be feared since “By the mere fact of its birth every great art modifies what arose before it” [2] In other words, a physical museum collects objects from different times, places, and imposes connections upon them. (Is this beaker more “authentic” in its case in the Museum of London than it is as a digital reproduction on your computer screen?)

Beyond its (tiny, two-dimensional) enormous scope, the Project’s interactive features may be what most distinguish it from its predecessors. Malraux said a function of reproductions is to allow us to “have far more great works available to refresh our memories than those which even the greatest museums could bring together” [2]. Whether we look at the Project as a glimpse or fantasy of the physical possibilities to be visited, or a way to “refresh our memories,” it makes sense for us to have agency to peruse and organize as we see fit. Playing the role of curator in this wonderland of representation may offer a powerful opportunity for people to think critically about what they appreciate about a certain work of art (is it the brush strokes you noticed while zoomed into one of the gigapixel reproductions?) or about the art they notice in their surrounding environment.

In terms of Bourdieu’s cultural capital, the freeform nature of Google Art Project could potentially diminish its value as a teaching tool to facilitate upward mobility through cultural literacy. Based on Wikipedia’s summary, it sounds like the Project may have been better suited to this in its original form when it was Western-centric. However, the inclusion of a broader range of traditions including street art (which surprised me somehow even though it’s incredibly trendy now and I shouldn’t have been surprised) could also have a democratizing effect on people’s understanding of what art is, who can produce or appreciate it, and where it comes from.


[1] Johnson, S. (2010). Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation. Riverhead Books.
[2] Irvine, M. Malraux: Imaginary Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved April 8, 2015, from

Is There an App for DIY Computing?

Freedom of expression?

Many of the readings for this week struck me as unsettlingly prophetic. (The vintage ones, of course – Bush, Kay, and Engelbart.) Maybe it makes perfect sense that given the state of computing in the ’60s and ’70s, the paths and possibilities would have already been clear to computer literate creative thinkers. Indeed, in the Kay video, he basically implies that some of the earliest design programs, like Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad, were better for intuitive human use than the ones available in the ’80s. So maybe all the pieces were there. Indeed, Manovich goes as far as to say that Sketchpad “already contains most of the genes…of contemporary graphics applications” (p. 93).

Manovich notes that Kay referred to “metasystems that can support many kinds of information structures” as “a first metamedium,” Nelson as hypertext and hypermedia, and Engelbart as “automated external symbol manipulation” and “bootstrapping,” but that “behind the differences in their visions lay the similar understanding of the radically new potential offered by computers for information manipulation” (p. 83). So, have we harnessed that potential?

The answer appears to be yes and no. There’s no doubt that today’s computers are interactive and to some extent can “support the processes of thinking, discovery, decision making, and creative expression” (Manovich p. 83). But are these interactions too mediated? In class we’ve discussed the question of who owns computing technology. Indeed, if we’ve fallen short of the interactive visions of the ’60s and ’70s, the gap can be found in the divide between creators and consumers.

As the saying goes, there’s an app for everything under the sun. Lots of people know how to make apps; but lots don’t. The latter group is fully dependent on the market to provide them with the tools they want to manipulate information. As long as a software is a commodity packaged for consumption rather than a learning tool to which everyone has access, we consumers will be following preordained channels for interacting with technology. Programmers may be able to approximate an experience like Beth and Jimmy’s (with Kay’s DynaBook), but our choices will all have to be anticipated by the creator of that experience.

Kay writes “What then is a personal computer? One would hope that it would be both a medium for containing and expressing arbitrary symbolic notions, and also a collection of useful tools for manipulating these structures, with ways to add new tools to the repertoire.” For most people, the way to add new tools to the repertoire is to download them from the market. (Even free software often survives off ads on the downloads page.) To take it down another level to basic computer literacy, as long as 90% of people don’t know how to use Ctrl/Command+F, they will download a “word search” add-on or program that someone else made. (Full disclosure: I only learned to use Ctrl/Command+F a few years ago. And the word search add-on is conjecture.)

On the other hand, how big a trade-off would we be making to spend the time it takes to learn to code and gain a high level of computer literacy? If like Beth and Jimmy, we all learned from early childhood to manipulate and create software, would it become as natural a skill as writing on paper?

All about that binary transmission…

Binaries are fundamental to our understanding of the world and our lives. Night and day. Alive and dead. Love and hate. Close and far. Of course we soon realize there’s nuance to these supposed oppositions – that they’re not as simple as they seem. They’re inevitably on some sort of common spectrum – time, state of a living organism, emotion, physical (or metaphorical) distance. Distinguishing between these seemingly complete, holistic states is useful for our understanding. It can be especially useful when we need to decide whether to take action or not (eg. fight/run, buy/sell).

The readings this week gave me new insight into why these oppositions are so useful – especially Hillis’s description of how important restoring logic is for designing a consistently functional system. He writes “…the implementation technology must produce perfect outputs from imperfect inputs, nipping small errors in the bud.” His description of the hydraulic computer also clarified for me the famous Bateman quote, “a difference that makes a difference.” These differences are what create meaning and are a fundamental part of how we comprehend our existence. In order for them to accomplish that, they must be definitive – on or off, right or left, or we can’t perceive them.

The main thing the Code Academy exercises demonstrated for me (and I admit I didn’t finish the tutorial) was what I believe Wing is referring to when she talks about layers of abstraction. The various tools for analyzing (eg. length) and manipulating (eg. uppercase) different types of input offer insight into how these different inputs relate to one another and to the broader system. This also relates (I think?) to the distinction between meaning and doing made by George Dyson in the description of the von Neumann project in Dr. Irvine’s introduction.

This is similar to the way our minds are capable of storing different dimensions of information – we can understand the function of an object, its size, and its color and keep those classes of information clear so that if we encountered a different object of the same function but a different size and color, we could tell that the difference was in those categories. Similarly, with these broader categories of binaries, we examine the difference to understand something new, but we are aware, at least on some level, of the fact that other aspects of what we’re comparing (eg. hair, skin, and diapers in the case of the babies above) are the same.

Dr. Irvine writes in his introduction, “Human cognition is both massively parallel and has many simultaneous states, many not even at the threshold of awareness.” Binaries help us make sense of our world by allowing us to hold all these different states at once, but they also fit into an organizing, dare I say unifying structure. The lightbulb can be on or off, but either way it is a lightbulb.

I found myself thinking a lot as I was reading this week about the binary of analog and digital. Humans are capable of perceiving both nuance and distinction. Evans (p. 11) suggests this complexity when he writes about how color translates to computing: “There are arguably infinitely many different colors, corresponding to different wavelengths of visible light. Since the colors are continuous and not discrete, there is no way to map each color to a unique, finite bit sequence. On the other hand, the human eye and brain have limits. We cannot actually perceive infinitely many different colors; at some point the wavelengths are close enough that we cannot distinguish them. Ability to distinguish colors varies, but most humans can perceive only a few million different colors.”

I wonder if a connection can be made between this digital/analog binary and Debray’s concept of transmission/communication. Debray writes about passing information through time, in effect representing a difference in a sustainable way. Communication may be anything we perceive, so that the sound of the wind in the grass may mean one thing to me and another to you. But if I want to capture something about what the wind in the grass meant to me, I’ll have to make some decisions about how to represent it so others can perceive something similar. Can we think of the transmission as the message we want to encode and must therefore render definitively rather than leaving it up to interpretation?

Your World, Reified in Your Pocket

It seems obvious, but I can think of no better example of an everyday digital device that cloaks a large quantify of forces and agencies than the smart phone. To use Hollan, Hutchins, and Kirsch’s three tenets of distributed cognition, the smart phone provides examples of socially distributed cognition, embodied cognition, and culturally embedded cognition.

Socially distributed cognition. Smart phones put both local and broad social networks of knowledge at our fingertips. We can text our husband to measure the basement’s square footage while when we’re at the paint store or our colleague to check the number of visits to a certain page of our website from a meeting. We can also tap and contribute to living encyclopedias of knowledge through websites and apps like wikipedia and

Embodied cognition. One obvious way in which our smart phones interact with our bodies is by making this interface to so many resources portable. For example, we can use our smart phone for a self-guided tour of a city, walking around and exploring without fear of getting lost. We can play music on our smart phone and spontaneously practice tango in a park. Smart phone use may also be affecting our posture.

Culture and cognition. As Hollan, Hutchins, and Kirsch put it “Culture is a process that accumulates partial solutions to frequently encountered problems.” (Hollan et al p. 178) Smart phones are conceived and designed out of culture and they participate in a feedback loop of shaping the culture that shaped them. The intuitiveness of so many components of smart phones that we take for granted is due to cultural reference points. Would we understand the iconic interface so well without experience with desktop computers? Calling, text messages, email, camera, even apps like Words with Friends or Facebook draw from our familiarity with these tools in other contexts.

Smart phones were constructed according to our culture, bodies, and social tendencies, and they in turn contribute to those spheres of our reality. We live in a world where we expect to be able to access a textual and possibly graphic history of our lives (email, text messages, social networks); get directions or identify our location; fact-check anything; and entertain ourselves and others on demand. All thanks to a “thing” that fits in our pocket.

Transmission in the Digital Age: A Mini-Case Study

With consolidation of digital media technologies and networks, are we transitioning to a “post-media” era where individual media forms matter less than the social institutions, economic systems and industry groups, and political boundaries define information, communication, and cultural expression?

As a “content” strategist for my job, I realize that there is an awful lot of redundancy in digital messaging. The first step in being strategic about content is figuring out who you want to reach and with what message – next step is to decide how to convey that message in the places you want to be (YouTube, Twitter, website, conference, etc) to reach the intended audience. No matter how creative your approach, this will mean redundancy in messaging between different “channels” or “mediums” to emphasize the intended message.

In the case of the program I work on, we seek to transmit (in Debray’s sense of impart in a meaningful and lasting way) a cultural value of pregnancy planning. From that core goal, we develop other core messages (“planning is part of healthy relationships and healthy sex”), then build out content to communicate those messages in a variety of ways in a variety of places. And knowing the message is not enough. For transmission to be successful, the communication must account for context.

Is it hubris to seek to intentionally change a cultural value? Our cultural values are constantly shifting, shaped by economic and political powers. Sometimes those shifts may be organic; sometimes they may be driven by the intention of some power. (Maybe it’s more often than not a combination of those two parts.) This is not new to the digital age.

In contemplating the idea of a post-media era, I found it intriguing to think about the many ways ideas and messages are packaged through these screen-based mediums, as if staring at a screen reading about Taylor Swift on Perez Hilton were conveying a different message from watching a Taylor Swift music video on a screen. Of course there may be differences between the messages in these two pieces of content, but both transmit the essential message (cultural value?) “this person, who you don’t know but maybe you feel like you do, matters.” Debray writes in “The Medium’s Two Bodies” of the importance of redundance in transmission. “Because an excess of originality affects reception adversely, one must know how to use signs that are dispensable – or already familiar to the ambient milieu – to be understood.” (Debray 13) I would say that messages that transcend media go way back. There have been recurring themes across different kinds of media since the beginning of recorded history.

If commercial and political interests shape cultural values, why shouldn’t “do-gooders” try to be a part of that “conversation”? And indeed, part of the strategy for transmitting this cultural shift is to insert messages into the “spaces” where these commercial and political interests are vying for people’s attention. McLuhan’s famous saying “the medium is the message” makes sense if I think of the medium as the context and perhaps even the subculture of an online space where a message is being delivered.

Our brand, for example, seeks to have a presence in contexts as diverse as television (mass media, alongside multi-billion-dollar advertisers) and Twitter (tweeting directly to our audience). We seek a blend of influence and intimacy, and navigating the various mediums available to us (even, gasp, analog materials from time to time) helps us do this. Of course we must confront our own set of political and commercial forces. Our message is extremely political and politicized – that our brand attempts to deliver that message in a “sex-positive” way makes it even more controversial. We also face the challenge of simply not being a multi-billion-dollar corporation with resources to figuratively shout from every rooftop. On the other hand, our status as a non-profit sometimes lends credibility.

The powers that be at my organization chose to use digital media and the Internet to transmit their message because they felt this technology offered a unique opportunity to reach their intended audience. It’s true that we have a unique opportunity to get our message in front of many, many people without needing to be there physically. Yet the analog component of our work is still very important – and for us to make any lasting impact, we will need time.

P.S. Speaking of the political and commercial forces and digital media, the Atlantic published a story today about some of the challenges our program and other sexual-health-related brands have been facing lately.

Got context?

From the broadest to the narrowest definitions of communication – whether James Carey’s concept of it as “the ambience of human existence” or the transfer of a set of binary digits from one device to another – all communication, and all meaning, must have context. Furthermore, as Dr. Irvine puts it in his summary for this week, “In any model of information and communication, we also need to account for contexts in two senses of the term: both the sender’s and receiver’s context (world of meanings and kinds of expressions assumed), and the message’s contexts (its relation to other messages both near and far in time).”

Many of the readings this week seemed to focus on parsing the distinction between meaning and medium, but given these two types of context, meaning and medium cannot be completely separate from one another. Medium itself, the way that a message is transmitted and even its potential for “noise,” is a component of what is received. An email is a digital text that arrives in ones inbox – it is not a telephone ringing and a voice on the other end talking in real time. This context affects the meaning of the message. That said, medium does not fully account for meaning either, at least in the conduit model. It leaves out the broader context.

We’ve talked about layers of meaning in past classes and I think that concept is useful for thinking about transmission and context. What layers of meaning are communicated through transmitted information depend on the receiver. A song with the lyrics in Spanish can activate a meaning for a Spanish speaker that wouldn’t apply to a receiver who doesn’t understand Spanish. It would activate a meaning for someone who’s studied that genre of music, or who came of age when the song was popular. We each have our unique cocktail of references from the collective cultural encyclopedia with which we derive meaning from information.

Debray’s concept of mediation is useful here in suggestion that information reception can be facilitated by mediators, improving communication. A translation of song lyrics or a thoughtful visualization of a complex concept can help more people receive meaning. If communication describes the transmission of meaning through information, the receiver’s ability to interpret meaning matters, not just the message being transmitted. This meaning may change over time and space.

Carey writes, “If one tries to examine society as a form of communication, one sees it as a process whereby reality is created, shared, modified, and preserved. When this process becomes opaque, when we lack models of and for reality that make the world apprehensible, when we are unable to describe and share it; when because of a failure in our models of communication we are unable to connect with others, we encounter problems of communication in their most potent form.” If a message is transmitted and received but doesn’t carry meaning for its receiver, communication hasn’t taken place.

In other words, we’re back to the interpretant. I was thinking about Agile software development as a starting point for a potential model for this interactive approach to communication. It’s an iterative approach to development that includes ongoing feedback and communication. The developers’ vision only matters if it works in practice and meets their clients’ needs. A message only matters if it has meaning for its recipient. Cultural and technological context evolve because of our feedback loops of communication and interpretation.

Embodied Imitation: Why Riff When You Can Copy?

Notice the hilarious caption. (Via the Atlantic, shamelessly screencapped, but here's a link.)

Notice the hilarious caption. (Via the Atlantic, shamelessly screencapped, but here’s a link.)

“Why bother replicating a masterpiece that already exists? There’s only one original.” – Dan Morgenstern, jazz author and critic

Dan Morgenstern in a sense answers his own question about Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s (MOPDTK) reproduction of Kind of Blue, which is called Blue. There’s only one original. Indeed, there is no danger of infringing on the larger than life notoriety of Kind of Blue – and there is no way to reproduce the moment in time when this communication that has meant so much to so many was created.

We already read about the “original” in Dr. Irvine’s “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture” reading, so I’ll just say a few words before getting back to MOPDTK. Dr. Irvine observes, “The album is an interface to a dialogic moment of major reinterpretations of the cumulative, inherited musical encyclopedia (African American blues roots, jazz and bebop reinterpretations, and music theory in the European-American classical tradition).” Davis took a combinatorial approach to exploring how different musical traditions could intersect. Kind of Blue is unquestionably original as a composition in a moment in time, but the composition was made using the lexicons and encyclopedias of several musical traditions. Dr. Irvine also notes that this album has gone on to be “the most commented on jazz album in history, forming a dense node of cultural meanings and values expressed both in interpretive discourse and in hundreds of appropriations and elaborations by many other musicians in the dialogic continuum of contemporary music.” It’s also worth noting that this wildly influential jazz album is a recording of an improvisation – its very function of committing the explorations and interpretations of these particular musicians in this particular moment to be listened to time and again connects it to the encyclopedias of other genres.

Back to MOPDTK. As David A. Graham puts it in his review for The Atlantic, “The joke is that no one has ever tried to recreate a record quite like this, but for the last six decades, musicians have performing music that sounds a lot like Kind of Blue and the other milestone records of its era.” It seems Kind of Blue is both lexicon and cultural encyclopedia for jazz musicians. Presumably its riffs and tones are incorporated into both live and recorded jazz every day. MOPDTK is in a sense cutting out the middle man by choosing to dedicate themselves to rendering this powerful influence with as much fidelity as possible rather than “interpreting.” On one level of meaning, Blue could be seen as an acknowledgement that the closest MOPDTK can come to accomplishing a comparable feat to Kind of Blue is simply to play it.

On another level, MOPDTK, like Davis before them, are experimenting with the conventions of different genres. In classical music it’s accepted practice to play someone else’s (very famous and previously recorded) composition note for note. Why not in jazz? MOPDTK dares listeners to experience the ineffable charm that makes Kind of Blue so great by being able to compare it to a carbon copy that cannot actually be the same. Graham’s assessment for The Atlantic: “MOPDTK are no slouches—they are among of the finest players working today, and to have produced so close an imitation is a serious accomplishment. But no amount of meticulous necromancy can conjure the vibe of the original players, some of the greatest to ever pick up instruments.” Can we in fact hear the difference between adept, heartfelt improvisation and painstaking performance?

Is Blue a message meant specifically for jazz musicians, critics, and aficionados? The way Graham puts it, “This is music intended to hold an unflattering mirror to jazz’s worst tendencies, not to mock the music before the outside the world.” Is the generative purpose of this album to remind jazz musicians that they should be flowing and exploring? Does MOPDTK think jazz is in some sense stuck in a previous era of innovation, worshipping past victories instead of generating new meanings?

Clearly another important level of meaning in this endeavor is that which MOPDTK experienced while executing the project. To recreate the sound of Kind of Blue, they needed to use modern recording equipment in an innovative way just to produce the “old” sounds. They had to learn not just what notes to play, but how to play them. They got to in a sense embody the musicians that so many jazz musicians since have sought, perhaps less explicitly, to emulate. MOPDTK’s bassist and band leader Matthew “Moppa” Elliott told the Wall Street Journal, “You can’t take this on the road and expect studio results, which was the whole point… Even the Miles Davis Sextet sounded different when they played album selections live. For us, it was always about the studio experience – the archaeology of it.”


Graham, D. A. (2014, October 28). Why Did This Band Recreate Jazz’s Most Famous Record Note-for-Note? Retrieved February 18, 2015, from

Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Blue. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2015, from

Myers, M. (2014, October 10). Miles Davis’s Jazz Masterpiece “Kind of Blue” Is Redone. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

The Semiotics of Warhol

Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, via the Tate’s website.

Andy Warhol’s celebrity prints are clearly icons (explicitly representing real people), yet he uses them as symbols for…what? “[D]eath and the cult of celebrity” according to the Tate website where I found the above (ahem, digitized) version of the (ahem, iconic) Marilyn Diptych. In other words, The Marilyn Diptych is an argument (“a sign which is apprehended to be a symbol” in Parmentier’s words) by Pierce’s standards. Parmentier explains in Foundations of Piercean Semiotics, “a proposition… determines its interprétant to represent it as being merely an index of its object. Now this is not to deny that the interprétant still represents both a term and a proposition to be conventionally related to their objects; the claim being made is that, in addition to this level of representation, interprétants have the power to apprehend semiotic grounds as being other than they are.” Here Warhol’s purpose isn’t to depict an individual – we are not, for example, seeing her humanity – his purpose is to evoke our cultural encyclopedia and examine “her” meaning within it.

Dr. Irvine’s “The Grammar of Meaning Making: Sign Systems, Semiosis, and Cognitive Semiotics,” poses the question “Is language the main, or sufficient, modelling system for all human symbolic activity?” Assuming this means spoken or written language, I think the Marilyn Diptych is a clear example of why words aren’t always the strongest symbols. Could the word “Marilyn” printed a million times have achieved a similar effect to the photo? It could absolutely represent something powerful, perhaps even a related “message,” but it would be no substitute for the impact of a familiar image. A face has a singular visual impact – and the depiction of faces in two dimensions is part of a long tradition of portraiture. An instantly recognizable face, simplified, rendered in a range of colors and shades, printed 50 times edge to edge, evokes another layer of meaning for a modern audience. 

Warhol created visual impact with both mundane and grand subjects by applying a blend of high art and commercial design principles. In fact, the symbolic function of his grand subjects (pop culture icons) is mundane and the symbolic function of his mundane subjects (Campbell’s Soup can) is grand.

Warhol’s “Shadows” series, via the Hirshhorn Museum website.

Which brings me to the “Shadows” series. This is my personal favorite body of work by Warhol, yet I wonder if its semiotics are too ambiguous for collective interpretation. This series has had mixed reviews and Warhol himself famously referred to it as “disco decor.” Here he has chosen a subject that is unquestionably mundane yet perhaps a bit grand in its eternal mystery – a shadow. He has treated it with a similar technique to previous works, experimenting with color and repetition. He (or an assistant) has slathered on different colors of paint with a mop. And then, if you look at it in the context of the Hirshhorn exhibit in the photo above (or in person as I had the good fortune to do), a curator has marked Warhol’s argument with the curved wall of the museum and his or her own decisions about how to order the paintings. Can we agree on what it says? Probably not. What does the ambiguity mean?