Category Archives: Final Project

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.

Meaning Making in Social Media: Generation of the Social Value of Content through the Interaction of Multiple Agents

Handan Uslu


Initially, social media platforms’ software and the newsfeed are defined are characterized in the context of the current online media structure, namely Web 2.0. An analysis is conducted on two levels: (1) the common architecture of all social media platforms are defined through an analysis of the interface (2) the constituents of a single social media post and the agents that generate them are identified. Through an analysis of the architecture of social media platforms, as well as an analysis of the constituents of a single Facebook post, the meaning-making process is defined. The analysis reveals that the business, users, and software are the three main agents that collectively curate the newsfeed, and generate the elements of a social media post. The elements of a social media post function to provide social value to social media content by providing contextual cues and economization of interactions. Finally, the meaning-making process and the user interaction with the content is modeled by employing Jackendoff’s “Parallel Architecture Model.”


            Social media platforms have become widely used online technologies for communication, information exchange, and representation. A multitude of constituents come together to form a social media post. Reducing the symbolic processes that take place during this interaction into a relationship between the “signified” and the “signifier,” (Chandler, 2007,p.14), or using other traditional frameworks to describe meaning making processes, however, fail to encompass the totality of the symbolic processes that take place as a user interacts with a social media content.


            While some of the scholarly work on the meaning making process describe the process on two dimensional or three dimensional frameworks (Chandler, 2007, p.14), these approaches fail to explain the totality of the symbolic interactions that take place as meaning forms.

In order to provide a comprehensive description of the meaning making process on social media, analysis will be conducted on two levels. Firstly, architecture of social media platforms will be analyzed in order to understand what is common to the software of social media platforms. For this analysis, online content from three different social media platforms will be represented without the actual content. Through a representation without the content, the interface will be analyzed. After having an understanding of the common features of social media platforms, and the nature of engagement that users have with online content, second analysis will be conducted. Second analysis will look at the constituents that make up social media content. This analysis aims to illustrate the multitude of human symbolic faculties employed during the meaning making process.

In order to explain the meaning-making processes as the user simultaneously interacts with the elements of social media content, Jackendoff’s model will be applied. Initially designed to describe the meaning-making process during language, Jackendoff’s “Parallel Architecture Model” is applicable to various meaning-making processes. Through a two-level analysis of social media platforms, firstly an analysis of the medium, and secondly the constituents of social media content, it is aimed that the role of multiple agents during the generation, representation, and contextualization of online content will be uncloaked.

Exploring the symbolic processes that take place as user interacts with content is significant, considering the high economic profit that this interaction has generated, and the cognitive consequences of this interaction. Viewing online content has became a common phenomenon, the mediums through with online content is viewed has also became marketing channels. Online content has integrated with advertisements. Secondly, interaction with online content has lead to formation of particular habits by generating specific type of cognitive engagement. The “checking-habit” is a habit that has recently emerged, and refers to checking smart phones without any notification. Similarly, Facebook addiction is a form of addiction in which the informational rewards offered by Facebook affects the neurotransmitter system in the brain as online content function as informational rewards.

Current Network Architecture: Scrolling down as an Information Consumption Process and the News-feed as a Personalized & Dynamic Meta-Medium:

            News-feed is known as the page on a browser or a social media app, where content flows through in a social media platform. News-feed consists of a multitude of media, ranging from text, image, moving image, sound, a combination of all, or a link to media. Considering the variety of content, the newsfeed is a “meta-medium.”

The software, the user and the businesses have collective agency during the curation of content in the news-feed. Firstly, user interaction is a curating agent. Liking a page, or following a friend consequently shows content from those users. Secondly, such interactions of a user on Facebook, whether in the form of liking somebody else’s post, or following a particular company’s Facebook page, functions as data. Consequently, this data is used by the software to predict and present content that is likely to be interacted by the user. Thirdly, the demographic information entered in the Facebook page as well as the interactions of a user with content allows companies to target people accordingly for marketing purposes. Liking a page related to photography, for example, may cause companies that sell photography-related products to target you. Consequently, the businesses that are interested in contacting with their customers through social media platforms become an agent that curate content on social media.

This particular representation of content is enabled through the current network architecture. The current network architecture allows online content to be streamed and instantly accessed. A description of this network architecture by O’Reilly characterizes it as “spanning all connected devices,” (O’Reilly, 2005) and allowing the “consuming and remixing data from multiple resources” (O’Reilly, 2005). This particular architecture of the web allows online content to be remixed from multiple resources. This architecture is embodied in social media platforms as well, as online content from various resources are streamed into a single interface, called the “newsfeed.”

“Scrolling-down” is a jargon that refers to the process where users interact with a multitude of content sequentially. Scrolling-down can be characterized as a particular form of information digestion, enabled by the software configuration of social media sites. Scrolling-down is a mental process, where content that is stream in a single news-feed is continually interacted with: Through a finger movement on a smart phone, or moving mouse down of a webpage browser, content is accessed.

Considering that vocabulary provides a cognitive framework for perceiving and conceptualizing, this interaction that takes place during scrolling-down will be referred to as a “consumption” process. While the word consumption refers to usage of a material, it also fits the social media content considering (1) the multitude of information digested (2) the algorithm that renders an online content obsolete in a few days: the current network structure allows the content to be updated continually, (O’Railly, 2005) and therefore content published in online media previously becomes obsolete and is not interacted with.

Mediation of Content in Social Media: Analysis of the constituents of a single social media post

            Multiple agencies take place not only in the curation of the newsfeed, but also in the symbolic construction of a single social media post as well. Online content is represented along with other elements, such as the profile photograph of a person, number of likes, etc. An analysis of the interface design of a single social media post, and description of the agents that take part in the formation of a post illustrates the agencies contributing to the meaning-making process.

(1) Contextual Cue for Social Media Content: Employing the function of “identity” and Representing Online Content as a Curation

            When the user interacts with an online content, the photograph and the name are the most outstanding features of a social media post. As seen in Figure 1, the primary symbols that are represented in a social media post are a single square photograph, and the name and surname of the person (User name in Figure 1) that has shared a content. These two features allow a person’s identity to be mediated online. The “profile photograph” is especially functional at this point: various theorists mention the role of “image-representations” as they are mentioning the cognitive aspects of meaning -making (Shepard, 1978; Pylyshyn, 2003). Therefore, the profile photograph facilitates the process of meaning making by addressing the mental-images necessary for cognition. Representing a name along with a photograph is a clever interface design, considering that it facilitates meaning-making by employing text and image, two different forms of media simultaneously.


Figure 1: Commonalities Features of Social Media Posts


Figure 2: A post on Instagram


Figure 3: A post on Twitter


Figure 4: A post on Facebook

The fact that identity is represented online leads us to reconsider the construct of identity. While traditionally known as a psychological construct, identity is also a “social-cultural structure” (Irvine, 2012, p.4) that is symbolic, and can be represented and employed in various contexts. Irvine emphasizes that these functions are deployed in various contexts: “Human culture and social functions are inseparable from our expansive system of symbolic systems and the daily activation of symbolic functions in every technical form of media and communication.” (Irvine, 2012, p.1)

The activation of the identity function has also become the sole focus of some software companies, such as in the case of the “Gravatar.” “Gravatar” is a software program that provides plug-ins for personal representation in blogging softwares, and has been integrated to WordPress in particular to deploy the function of identity to online platforms. The software company develops tools that can be integrated and synchorinized with other online platforms, in order to standardize the representation of identity during online interaction.

Presenting an identity along with a content enables online content to be represented with its curator: Identity functions as a contextual cue that contributes to the meaning-making process: the user interacts with online content in regard to the person that has shared the content. This particular representation of content as somebody else’s curation is a dynamic of the meaning-making process. This symbolic representation leads to further associations in cognition that contribute to meaning making: A user’s relation with the curator of the online content, the curator’s social capital, legitimacy, are some of the dynamics that play a role as somebody interacts with a particular content.

(2) Collective Representation of Personal Interaction: Standardizing Interactions through Likes, Follows, and Shares buttons

 Another feature that is common to social media platforms are the buttons that represent the “Like,” “Share,” and “Comment” buttons. The users are allowed to interact with online content by liking them, commenting on them, and sharing them in Facebook.These buttons take the form of “Reply,” “Retweet,” and “Favorite” in Twitter. Instagram allows only liking and commenting. “Like” button on Facebook corresponds to the “Like” button on Instagram, and the “Favorite” button in Twitter. While different texts are used in different platforms, the modes are interaction are structurally similar. (see Figure 2, 3, and 4)

These buttons that enable interaction also provide a framework that communicates possible modes of interaction with the content. Therefore, the software and the interface design that has generated these buttons have a cognitive function: they are deterministic in the way they prepare the cognitive grounds for interacting with content.

The agency of the software behind this interaction, however, is cloaked: The interface design and the text in the buttons, “Like,” “Share” “Comment” are intuitive. The texts provide the necessary cue to inform users about the functionalities of the buttons, which is a crucial dimension of intuitive interface design: “…its highest ideal is to make a computer so imbedded, so fitting, so natural, that we use it without even thinking about it.” (Weiser, 1994) Therefore, considering that a good design is intuitive and invisible, social media platforms have succeeded in requiring minimal literacy for interaction in these platforms.

Along with implementing the function of identity, these buttons function to simulate social interaction. There is no direct interaction taking place between people or between people and organizations in the traditional sense (there are no direct e-mails, no direct messages, or any physical interaction), yet the users engage in social interaction by engaging with these buttons.

Aggregation of Interaction: Social Value of Online Content through Economization

A particular aspect of the “Like,” “Reply,”and “ Comment” buttons is that these buttons standardize interaction: The Like button, for example, is useful to express any form of positive feedback for online content. This standardization allows the interactions that take place n the individual level to be represented in an aggregated manner. If 10 different people like a post, these interactions will be displayed aggregately, through the text “10 people likes this photo,” despite the fact that 10 different interactions take place in different time frames by different individuals.

When software transforms interactions into quantifiable representations, online media content’s value becomes calculable. This process enables online media content to be economized, and consequently gain a particular value. This value prepares the grounds for Facebook to become a digital marketing platform, by providing the structure that enables monetizing impressions, exposures, and interactions.

(3) Presenting Content in a Digestible Form: Employing multiple human cognitive faculties to represent online content

The third aspect of a single social media post constitutes of the online content itself. While the content may constitute solely of text or image, the software also allows users to share content from another website by providing a link. A significant symbolic process takes place as users post a link: the Facebook software retrieves a title, subtitle and image as it relates to the shared content. Consequently, all of these elements are represented all together as content. The interface design that places these elements in a Facebook post also allows a standard representation. This standard framework is employed during the remediation process, which extracts the necessary elements in an online link. Extracting elements in this simple manner and presenting them all together (see Figure 1) provides cues about the tone of the content, and allows digestion of the totality of the content.

In the analysis above, the three dimensions of a social media post are focused on: (1) Profile photograph and name of the user (2) Interaction buttons and the quantified representation (3) Online content itself. Modularly analyzing these three dimensions is significant, considering that what differentiates a social media website from another is not only the graphical design, but also the space allowed for text, image, and content. Instagram content, for example, is similar to Facebook content, but it only does not have the share button. Other than this difference, there is nothing structurally different in a Facebook post or an Instagram post. The significant differences in the demography that uses different social media sites and the nature of content, therefore, are consequences of the variances in the social media post elements.

Jackendoff’s “Parallel Architecture Model” for Understanding Meaning-Making during Consumption of Social Media Content

Along with an analysis of social media content, literature is employed from O’Reilly’s definition of Web 2.0 to characterize the information consumption process that takes place during interaction with content online. The analysis revealed three different agents, mainly the user, the businesses, and the Facebook algorithm as agents that collectively curate the Newsfeed, and provide contextual basis for meaning generation. Furthermore, modularly analyzing these features has allowed us to understand how the meaning making process do not happen in regard to particular elements, but is a function of all the symbolic and cognitive mediations that has taken place prior and the software that designs the symbols.

While the agents that contribute to meaning making process is defined through a modular analysis, the information consumption process do not happen modularly: a user do not generate meaning through looking at each element separately, but perceive social media content as a whole. The combination of the elements in a post is a “modular combination,” yet these elements are perceived simultaneously during the scrolling down processes.

Jackendoff’s parallel architecture model (Jackendoff, 2007) for understanding language can also be employed to understand how these multitude of content is perceived simultaneously. The parallel architecture modal is one of the “features of language that are extensible to other symbolic systems” (Irvine, 2012). The input of a user, the content, and the aggregated interactions all function as contextual cues in a meaning-making process, and all contribute to attach a singular social and economic value to content.

In this context, the terminology that Jackendoff employs to describe the “Parallel Architecture Model” (Jackendoff, 2007) can be translated into the social media context as well. While a social media post and language are structurally different, Jackendoff proposes a non-directional method of absract thinking that gives insight for making sense of complex phenomena. Given Jackendoff’s model, the components of a social media post can be considered as “generative components.” (Jackendoff, 2017, p.12)

The distinction that Jackendoff makes in terms of parallel processing vs. serial processing (Jackendoff, 2007) is also applicable to the context of a social media post. As human employs the language faculty, the language is perceived as a whole structure, and all the sub-structures of a language are perceived collectively. This characterization applies for a social media post as well, considering that all the elements form a post regardless of the completeness of the post, or the content inside it.


In this analysis, at first the newsfeed is characterized as a meta-medium in the context of the current network architecture. Afterwards, an analysis of the social media content revealed the role of multiple agents in the duration and representation of online content. The social value of content through economization is explored with a focus on the software’s agency. Consequently, Jackendoff’s “Parallel Architecture Model” is employed to describe the meaning-making process. The analysis reveals that contextual cues of online content and embedded interaction functionalities allow online content to gain social and economic value during the mediation process.


Chandler, D. (2007). Semiotics: the basics. Routledge.

Jackendoff, R. (2007). A parallel architecture perspective on language processing. Brain research, 1146, 2-22.

Martin Irvine, Media Theory and Technologies of Mediation: An Introduction. Google Docs. 2012-2014

Pylyshyn, Z. (2003). Return of the mental image: are there really pictures in the brain?. Trends in cognitive sciences, 7(3), 113-118.

Shepard, R. N. (1978). The mental image. American psychologist, 33(2), 125.

Weiser, M. (1994, November). Creating the invisible interface:(invited talk). InProceedings of the 7th annual ACM symposium on User interface software and technology (p. 1). ACM.



Remediating the Book: Affordances, Symbolic Capital, and Co-mediation of Print and E-Books

Ryan Leach


Most scholarship tends to overemphasize the distinctions between e-readers and traditional print, presenting these digital technologies as a rupture from previous incarnations of the book. Although the computational substrate of e-readers creates new affordances, e-books still heavily rely on the past media conventions, genres, and affordances, as well as the institutionally constructed mediational position of the book-function, which pre-exists any particular instantiation of book-disseminating technology. Drawing on Foucault’s notion of the author-function, Debray’s concept of bi-directional mediation, Murray’s work on design affordances, Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic capital, Manovich’s take on remediation theory, and Hayles’ observations on the analog-digital continuum, this paper aims to show that (1) the book-function remains the same despite alternating substrates, (2) the computational substrate of the e-book allows for a new set of affordances, (3) some of print’s affordances and symbolic value resist remediation into digital interfaces, and (4) texts exist on an analog-digital continuum, continually switching from one state to the other. Such aims are substantiated through close analyses of the properties of electronic and print books, and the larger mediasphere in which they operate.

Main Text

In Inventing the Medium, Janet Murray draws attention to the problem of perceiving recent technologies as “new media,” as if the most observable quality of these forms of mediation were their novelty (8). And, indeed, the vast majority of research on computational technologies emphasizes their difference and distance from previous, usually analog, forms of mediation. However, much of the success of new technologies derives from the remediation of prior media conventions, genres, and affordances, and the socially and ideologically constructed positions always already in place before the introduction of newer media technologies. From this perspective, “new” media are in fact quite old and just as dependent upon specific social and institutional functions as all previous media. The “newness” of digital media derives from its existence on a computational substrate capable of simulating previous mediums (it’s a metamedium) through symbolic representation in binary code. This, in turn, enables a wide variety of Human-Computer Interactions (HCIs) through which previously fixed design features can be manipulated and individually curated. Through an analysis of the e-reader, this paper argues that digital remediations of the book rely on many of the same socio-cultural institutions as previous material incarnations of the author and book functions, and that these institutions continue to depend on the social and ideological functions of authorship and textuality, even and especially in the digital age. The introduction of e-books does not alter the bi-directional mediation between socio-cultural institutions and the book, but instead offers new means of interaction between reader and text. Nevertheless, in contrast to many speculations on the ability of the computer to faithfully simulate all mediums into a single metamedium, thus rendering analog media obsolete, print literature exists and will continue to exist alongside computational simulations in an analog-digital continuum due to the socially ascribed symbolic value to printed books and the unique affordances of the medium that resist digital remediation.

E-books did not erupt Athena-like from the head of Zeus (or Sin-like from Satan, as some critics would have it); they are socially developed technologies that fill a socio-ideologically predetermined position within our culture. There exists a book-function that operates similarly to Foucault’s author-function:

 …the “author-function” is tied to the legal and institutional systems that circumscribe, determine, and articulate the realm of discourses; it does not operate in a uniform manner in all discourses, at all times, and in any given culture; it is not defined by spontaneous attribution of a text to its creator, but through a series of precise and complex procedures; it does not refer, purely and simply, to an actual individual insofar as it simultaneously gives rise to a variety of egos and to a series of subjective positions that individuals of any class may come to occupy. (130-31)

Similarly, the book-function mediates, and is mediated by, legal and institutional systems, and it does not refer to any specific mediating technology, but gives rise to a series of mediational positions that any textual dissemination device can occupy. In discussing the impossibility of dissociating technology and culture, Debray relates how a system of practices, codes, rules, and expectations—in short, a culture—always precedes and creates the mediational position for the development and successful assimilation of any given technology (50). In addition, social changes typically viewed by technological determinists as caused by the sudden emergence of a particular technology are often already a part of the culture before said technology has been developed. For instance, Debray notes how changes in reading habits usually attributed to the invention of the printing press, such as reading the Bible individually, long predate Gutenberg’s invention. Furthermore, Debray describes the dynamic between media technologies and socio-cultural institutions as bi-directional:

The mediologists are interested in the effects of the cultural structuring of a technical innovation (writing, printing, digital technology, but also the telegraph, the bicycle, or photography), or, in the opposite direction, in the technical bases of a social or cultural development (science, religion, or movement of ideas). (“Qu’est-ce que la médiologie?”)

Therefore, one can say of the book-function that cultural structures provide a mediational space for book technologies and book technologies in turn reaffirm existing and emerging cultural structures. Or, in other words, institutions mediate books and books mediate institutions.

From this perspective, the introduction of e-books is hardly an abrupt caesura in the history of the book. Instead, e-books fill a mediational position already socially and ideologically circumscribed by various cultural institutions, and previously occupied by a number of other information dissemination technologies (codex, scrolls, etc.). In addition, they co-occupy this position alongside traditional printed books, relying on the same institutions (legal, educational, medical, cultural, etc.) to “circumscribe, determine and articulate” (Foucault’s phrasing) their position in the wider culture. Further, from the other direction, these institutions derive symbolic value (economic, cultural, and social) from the production, dissemination, and accumulation of books, in whatever form they may appear. Therefore, the introduction of e-books does not alter the author or book functions, which are thoroughly maintained by social and cultural institutions (i.e. not authors or books themselves); but, instead, merely presents a new substrate—for production, dissemination, and accumulation—that provides new means of interacting with texts.

Similarly, e-books remediate conventions, genres, and affordances of print publishing that have developed over hundreds of years, many of which arose before the invention of the printing press itself. As Debray notes, the process of developing these conventions can be traced back to at least the first century A.D., when the protobook, or codex, “precociously transferred graphic spaces from scrolled surface to portable volume, simultaneously enabling silent reading, marginal annotation, pagination, and new classifications first based on titles and then on authorship” (51). Thus, e-books are not so much a break from traditional notions of the book, as they are an extension of the social, technical, and mediational practices that have developed over almost two millennia. As such, printed books function as what Murray terms “legacy media”; pre-digital media that are often taken for granted but form the basis from which digital simulations derive their organizational structure (12). In this way, e-books retain many of the genre conventions of print: title pages, colophons, frontispieces, tables of contents, forwards, prefaces, introductions, prologues, epilogues, afterwords, conclusions, glossaries, bibliographies, appendices, etc. Even electronic texts that exist on a single web page tend to maintain this sequence, so ingrained it is within our cultural expectations of the reading experience. In addition, e-books retain the segmentation into volumes, chapters, sections, as well as the same pagination and page layout:


juxtaposition of print and e-reader


Both the print and electronic versions provide extra space at the top of each new chapter, larger headings for chapter titles and numbering, proportional margins, and paragraph indentations, and each uses fonts that were most likely developed for printing presses or typewriters. All of these conventions were socially developed over centuries of cultural transmission and across a wide variety of media technologies.

Additionally, e-readers remediate traditional reading practices, enabling interactors (Murray’s term) to “turn” and bookmark pages, inscribe marginalia, and highlight or underline text. While these holdovers might appear as skeuomorphic—that is, designed solely to ease the transition from print to digital reading through maintaining a similar appearance—they in fact maintain much more than that; they also simulate the printed book’s functionality through remediating the interactivity of the older medium. In “Tech-TOC: Complex Temporalities in Living and Technical Beings,” Katherine Hayles defines skeuomorphs as “details that were previously functional but have lost their functionality in a new technical ensemble.” However, these holdovers from the printed book have far from lost their functionality; instead, they operate much like Manovich’s perceptions on the supposedly skeuomorphic nature of the computer desktop. In Software Takes Command, Manovich laments how the original Graphical User Interface (GUI) principles behind the design of the computer desktop have been long forgotten; instead, the files, folders, trash, etc. are perceived only as a means of making the user feel comfortable in a digital environment through replicating objects conventionally found in the average physical office space (101). Such a view overlooks the “intellectual origins of GUI,” which were deeply influenced by cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner’s theories on enactive, iconic, and symbolic mentalities (98). While he is right to suggest that the computational interface designed by Alan Kay engages all three mentalities, Manovich’s enthusiasm for computers leads him to overshoot the mark by claiming that the utilization of all three mentalities is unique to the experience of using computational media (100). Books, too, employ enactive (page-turning, underlining, marginalia), iconic (visualizations in the form of graphs, pictures, cover art, etc.), and symbolic (various forms of symbolic representation; primarily written text) mentalities. Likewise, e-books remediate all of these features in an effort to retain the interactive legacies of print media, while also adding new functionalities enabled by computational interfaces.

In addition to remediating many of print’s affordances, the computational substrate of e-readers affords for a new level of interactivity between reader and text. In contrast to previous mediums, “the building blocks used to make up the computer metamedium are different types of media data and the techniques for generating, modifying, and viewing this data” (Manovich 110; italics original). According to Manovich, there are two types of data manipulation: (1) “media creation, manipulation, and access techniques that are specific to particular types of data” and (2) “new software techniques that can work with digital data in general” (110-11; italics original). The new affordances offered by the digitalization of books generally fall into the later category, which includes “’view control,’ hyperlinking, sort, [and] and search […]” (111), operations that are not specific to a particular type of data. In terms of view control, e-readers enable somewhat superficial personalization features, such as the ability to change font types and sizes, alter page color, and zoom in and out. Additionally, these devices typically provide hyperlinks in the table of contents to respective chapters and sections of the text, and the search function enables users to find instances of a specific word or phrase throughout a text, remediating (in both senses of the word) the previous function of the index. Of course, readers can copy and paste text into a variety of other documents, but, more interestingly, e-readers also offer the possibility to share highlighted passages via SMS, email, Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites (though, admittedly, I know of no one who uses this function), thus affirming the social nature of all reading against previous ideologies that situated reading as a private and individual act. Furthermore, as implied by the social media connectivity, the e-reader is connected to the Internet, allowing users to search the web for more information concerning highlighted words and phrases. This affords almost instantaneous access to a network of extended cognition and a widely distributed cultural encyclopedia. While extended cognition and the cultural encyclopedia are by no means products of internet technologies—similar to how the book function precedes the technologies for book dissemination—the internet ensures faster access to more content than previous versions of media storage (libraries, for example). All of these affordances transcend the limitations of print due to the computational substrate of the e-reader, which creates the possibility of manipulating and individually curating previously fixed design features. However, print continues to exist; why?

Not only does the printed book offer certain affordances that resist digitalization (for the time being, at least), the institutionalization of print provides the medium with the symbolic capital and ideological value necessary to obviate the threat of obsolescence. This line of thinking runs counter to Manovich’s belief in the ability of computational devices to faithfully simulate prior mediums. As the book’s title implies, for Manovich, software takes command. In the first chapter, Manovich twice reiterates Kay and Goldberg’s claim that the computer is “’a metamedium’ whose content is ‘a wide range of already-existing and not-yet-invented media’” (105 and 82; italics original). In general, Manovich perceives the digital simulation abilities of computational devices as Remediation +, whereby the computer is capable of remediating the entire functionality of previous mediums and providing new ways of interacting with these previous mediums and anticipating the development of “not-yet-invented” media. This teleological narrative of media history, in which the computer serves as the ultimate telos, cannot explain the continued presence of pre-digital media, nor the ways by which analog and digital media forms interact in a broader socio-cultural mediasphere.

Although the computer can digitally simulate many of the functionalities of print (see above), it can neither remediate the physicality of the printed book, nor the symbolic capital of print, which has accrued over hundreds of years. I used the term “physicality” to employ Hayles distinction between the physical characteristics of a text and its materiality—that is, “the interaction of its physical characteristics with its signifying strategies” as an emergent and socially determined property (My Mother was a Computer 103-4). Certainly, the materiality, too, changes upon digitalization, and not from material to immaterial, as some might suggest. E-books are still material; they merely offer a different type of materiality due to the nature of the computational interface. Here, I focus on physicality because the materiality varies too much from book to book (according to each text’s signifying strategies) to be of use in intermedial comparison—that is, between two different substrates: computational and paper.

The physicality of the printed book resists remediation into a digital environment. There is, as yet, no means by which to simulate the tactile sensations of paper or the “feel” of turning a page. In addition, a single printed book is usually lighter than an e-book, less susceptible to damage, and cheaper, thus safer to carry about town, as there is no need to worry about damage or theft. Although the search function on e-readers significantly improves on the index, paper books enable easier navigability when the reader cannot remember a specific word or phrase for which to search. For instance, I tend to remember visually (almost photographically) and spatially where a certain un-demarcated section appears on a page based on its location within the book as a whole (judged by thickness of the connected pages), on the front or back of a page, and with regard to paragraph indentations and line spacing. Similarly, the note-taking affordances differ in a digital environment; marginalia is easily deleted and susceptible to disappearance in the case of data loss. The inscription of one’s thoughts on the page is thus less permanent and personal than with printed books.

Along with these physical properties, the symbolic capital of print cannot easily transfer to a computational interface. According to Bourdieu’s theory on symbolic capital, books function as cultural capital in the objectified state; they can be “appropriated both materially—which presupposes economic capital—and symbolically—which presupposes cultural capital” (50). Of course, e-books also satisfy this definition of objectified cultural capital; however, print books provide the unique affordance of physical display. As such, the physicality of the book signifies a socially determined level of cultural capital in the public arena, as well as in the private home, based on the materials that constitute it (whether its leather-bound or paperback, with gilded or normal pages, etc.) and on the cultural significance of the author or title printed on the cover (high/middle/low brow). In contrast, the material substrate of the e-reader is distinguished only by the manufacturer’s brand (iPad, Kindle, Nook) and design choices (colors, sizes, etc.), which—while certainly retaining symbolic values of their own—are not a reflection of the book itself. Hence, the development of social networking sites, such as GoodReads, that enable readers to digitally disseminate what they’ve read or are currently reading to whomever might follow them, thus turning cultural capital into social. (Though, it must be said, one’s “followers” on GoodReads are always already one’s “friends” on Facebook.)

Despite the different affordances of e-readers and printed books, one must be wary of lapsing into, or actively constructing, an analog/digital binary. Instead of a binary relation, analog and print cultural artifacts exist in an analog-digital continuum, constantly shifting from one substrate to the other. As Hayles points out, it is not a choice of either analog or digital but the “synergistic interaction” between the two (29). Within the mediasphere, cultural artifacts continually transfer between analog and digital states, such as when albums originally recorded as analog are digitized for computer storage and dissemination, and then later transferred back to analog as vinyl records to meet the demands created by current cultural trends. Similarly, all books written today have alternated between analog and digital states during the composition, editing, printing, and dissemination processes. It appears exceedingly unlikely that books will ever exist entirely in one state or another.

Although e-readers and printed books provide some different affordances based on their respective substrates, e-books do not mark a radical departure from print. Instead, e-books rely on many of the genre conventions developed over centuries of bookmaking, both before and after the development of the printing press. In addition, the change of substrate from paper to computational has not altered the socio-ideological function of the book, which is institutionally circumscribed and always already in place before the development of any particular media technology. E-books are merely the latest instantiation in a long lineage of book dissemination technologies, and new developments, such as PaperTab, are already on the horizon. While digital technologies have managed to remediate many of the features of print, both computational and paper implementations of the book continue to exist in an analog-digital continuum. Contrary to grave speculations as to the death of print, from both nostalgic technophobes and naive techno-enthusiasts, print still exists and will continue to exist due to the medium’s particular affordances, conveyance of symbolic capital, and institutionally circumscribed mediational position.




Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. 1st edition. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2000. Print.

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

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.

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. 1 edition. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. First Edition edition. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2005. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Tech-TOC: Complex Temporalities in Living and Technical Beings.” Electronic Book Review. Open Humanities Press, 28 June 2012. Web. 30 Apr. 2015.

Irvine, Martin. “Working With Mediation Theory and Actor-Network Theory: From Mediological Hypotheses to Analytical Methods.”

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

Murray, Janet H. Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. 1st edition. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2011. Print.


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.”

What’s New About New Media? — the Smart Watch As an Example

Xiaoyi Yuan

Abstract: “New media” has been a buzzword for decades. However we rarely ask ourselves what’s new about it. Traditional approaches in communication studies have identified new media as revolutionary technologies that no old medias can transcend. Through the example of the smart watch as new media, this paper takes a new approach merged from metamedia theory and distributed cognition to further explain the newness of new media beyond simplified generalizations of new media features. Moreover, the new approach opens up possibilities for interdisciplinary research on interesting issues of new media and human cognition.

 I. Introduction

What strikes me most throughout the semester is the question: What’s new about new media? There has been a significant amount of theories devoted to explain new media and how it has revolutionized our life. Traditional communication or media disciplines define new media as digital media facilitated by computer technology, Internet, and digitalization. In that traditional sense, computers are new media because “the key to the immense power of the computer as a communication machine lies in the process of digitalization that allows information of all kinds in all formats to be carried with the same efficiency and also intermingled” (McQuail, 2010).

Traditional approaches consider new media as one followed by old ones: newspaper, books, film, and broadcasting. This approach studies media as individual artifacts and focuses on the study of how new media differs from old ones and emphasizes how revolutionary new media is. However, what has been taken for granted was the interdependency between “old media” and “new media” — in other words, how new media is always the simulation and modification of old media. Also, we rarely ask ourselves what is media and what is fundamentally new about new media.

This article uses a system approach and explores the definition of “new media” from the perspective of metamedia theory and distributed cognition. However, before we launch into this approach, we have to historically recognize that “media” refers to a broad range of concepts. “’Media” has been used to refer to a broad range of concepts, “the term media has become a master metaphor-concept, a reified abstraction, a term used for so many objects, systems, and technologies that its descriptive value seems to work only in marketing and productive development. We talk about ‘the media’ and generally mean the older idea of ‘mass media’ or ‘mass communications’—radio and TV (broadcast and cable), advertising, ‘the press,’ or ‘news media’—through the media categories continue to morph in the post-Internet, pan-digital ‘media environment.’ ‘The media’ (as used in politics and PR) can reflect the older idea of ‘the press’…” (Irvine, 2012). In this short paper, we cannot discuss all aspects of new media. So I will mainly focus on discussing what’s new about new media technologies and how new media technologies create new interfaces for humans to interact with those technologies and other human beings.

Abstract concepts and theories are better explained and understood through a concrete example. Here I introduce the example of the smart watch and give a brief systematic review of its evolution. The smart watch represents an example of how new technologies demonstrate what’s new about new media. Compared with older models of smart watches, the new models show the rapid development of integrated and interactive technologies.


II. The Evolution of Smart Watches

There’s no strict definition of what a smart watch is. Usually a smart watch refers to a computerized wristwatch with functions that are beyond timekeeping. One of the most notable smart watches is the iWatch developed by Apple. However, long before the invention of iWatch, there were smart watch models developed by other companies. Moreover, the idea of smart watches has been discussed for decades. In this section, I will give a systematic overview of the evolution of smart watches.

1. Dick Tracy Watch— Early smart watches Idea Transcending the Era and Medium That Gave Them Birth


Figure 1: The 2- Way Wrist Radio in the comic strip Dick Tracy

Dick Tracy is a comic stripwritten by Chester Gould which debuted in 1931 about an intelligent and highly successful police detective named Dick Tracy. The 2-Way Wrist Radio (Figure 1) worn by Tracy and other members of the police force became one of the most recognizable icons of the comic strips. Detectives wearing this wristwatch could communicate directly with police headquarters through radio.

Even though fictional gizmo should not be included in the evolutionary path of real-life technological development, fictional technologies are always allegories of our longing for fulfilling social needs through technology. In this case, this is shown in the example of wearable technology. The smart watch idea in Dick Tracy transcends its contemporary technologies, which reflect the notion that any one of our technologies are based on both ideas and technological development—they are not invented by magical forces.

2. Early Models of Smart Watches: Calculator Watch and Game Watch

Forty years after the cartoon depiction of the fictional smart watch in Dick Tracy, there were real technologies that implemented the idea of integrating functions beyond timekeeping into watches. One of them is the calculator watch (Figure 2) that was first introduced in the 1970s by Casio. Figure 3 is the inner structure of the calculator watch as shown in a patent drawing made by the inventor Nunzio A. Luce in 1976. By de-blackboxing its material structure, it reveals how two functions – the calculator function and the timekeeping function – work together (watch CMOS, calculator PMOS, encoder,and decoder). In addition to this watch, there were other types of calculator watches in the record of American patents. However, the basic functions and mechanisms were similar. The introduction of these early smart watches showed that people wanted features that integrated merging two media functions together in one watch.


Figure 2: A calculator watch developed by Casio


Figure 3: detailed block diagram of the structure of a calculator watch assembly according to this invention

Another model similar to the calculator watch was the game watch, developed by Nelsonic Industries (Figure 4). Although it appears to be more advanced than calculator watches, the inner mechanics of game watch was at the same technological level, and were just variations on the theme of the calculator watch.


Figure 4: Game watch developed by Nelsonic Industry

3. Current Smart Watches: Mac OS/Android Smart Watch and Mechanical Hybrid Smart Watch

What’s more familiar to us are the smart watches developed by hi tech industries that are not specialized in watch productions: Sony, Samsung, Moto, LG, and Apple. Interestingly, there are also mechanical hybrid watches (Figure 5) that keep the traditional components of mechanical watch but also add the digital screen on the outer glass layer. However, no matter whether it is the hybrid or solely a digital display (iWatch), the computerized digital display and Internet/Bluetooth connections requires a much more advanced motherboard compared to its predecessors (Calculator Watch and Game Watch.) The functions of current smart watches are similar with our smart phones—people might call it a watch version of smart phones, except the smart phone’s buzz functions are enhanced in the smart watch by haptic feedback (iWatch). Since watch contact with your skin is all the time, there’s one more way for you to receive notifications.

To include the brief history of the “evolution” of smart watches is not to demonstrate that the smart watch technology develops in a linear way. Quite the opposite: it is to show that the old models of smart watches (calculator watch and game watch) are not enough for us to explain how we get to the current ones. Just as traditional communication education introduces old and new media from newspaper, books, broadcasting, film, and Internet/digital media as separate technological artifacts, it is not sufficient to account for the real evolution process of new media. There is a technological and more importantly, social, cultural, and political dynamic that has happened between any of the old and new media just as significant technological advancements happened between the old and current type of smart watches: Figure 6 shows the inner components of LG “G Watch” and its motherboard. Comparing to the block diagram of the calculator watch (Figure 3), the G Watch’s functions are backed up by technologies such as integrated circuit (microchips), Bluetooth, long-lasting batteries, accelerometer, and large memories (short term 512 MB RAM and 4GB long term memories.)

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 9.30.27 PM

Figure 5: Hybrid watch developed by Kairos

LG-G-Watch-Components-SummaryLG-G-Watch-Motherboard-Chips (1)
Figure 6: De-blackboxing LG Smart Watch: the Motherboard

III. What’s New About New Media? – Merge Metamedia Theory and Distributed Cognition Theory

Are “calculator watch” or “game watch” new media? We might not have a consensus answer to this question. However, this paper does not aim to address questions on this specific level, but rather, the example poses a crucial question on a higher level: how should we define “new media” and what’s fundamentally new about it? What’s the implication of those new technologies integrated inside of each smart device? How can we further explain the newness of new media?

The reason for me to raise this seemingly counterintuitive question is to avoid falling prey to identifying every newly developed media as “revolutionary.” Consider the example of print technology, which some people call as the “Renaissance computer”, “By 1500, over 280 European towns had some form of printing press. From these presses, books were distributed in unprecedented numbers… The new, capital—intensive print technology of the early sixteenth century was able to produce almost flawless replicas of a given text over and over again. At once, the symbolic power of the book is redefined” (Rhodes, 2015). The way that we describe the revolutionary feature of book media is just like how we describe our current “new” (digital) media: it is unprecedented; it changes how we interact fundamentally, and it changes everything.

However, rather than just recognizing its newness, what’s fundamentally “new” about new media? I argue that new media allows digital devices to be “metamedia” that can represent other media that distributes human cognition in a revolutionarily new way. In the rest of this paper, I will review literatures on how other scholars define and describe “new media.” Then I will introduce my analytical approach: to merge Manovich’s metamedia theory and distributed cognition theory to discuss the question: what’s fundamentally new about new media?

1. Literature Review on Definitions of New Media in Early 1990s

New Media & Society, a highly ranked international journal specializing on issues of new media as related to society, featured several articles in its first issue on the definitions of “new media.” This first issue was released in 1999 when Internet technology and personal computers started to become pervasive on a global scale. The issue included articles by scholars from both U.K. and U.S., in which they delineated approaches and perspectives on how to define “new media.” Those perspectives, interestingly, are still the mainstream understanding of new media for our current time.

Roger Silverstone stated that the definition of new media had been ambiguous and assumed (Silverstone, 1999). Scholars such as Flichy and Poster identified several important issues and perspectives that are worth further exploration as they pertain to the question, “what’s new about new media” by examining the evolution of Internet and digital technologies that facilities the rise of new media (Flichy, 1999) and new media’s impact on social interactions (Poster, 1999). Other scholars take a more sociotechnical approach: Ronald Rice argued that we need to focus more on the underlying dimensions of attributes available in all communication forms instead of focusing on the particular medium (Rice, 1999). Likewise, Sonia Livingstone has a similar perspective: “What’s new for society about the new media? It must locate technological developments within the cultural processes and associated timescale of domestic diffusion and appropriation.” Also, many other scholars proposed issues associated with specific social/cultural/political/economic factors: new media and information and knowledge based economy (Melody, 1999); How new media creates network capitalism (Robins, 1999); new media and democratic politics (Coleman, 1999); new media and public participation (Rakow, 1999); new media and its implication for future journalism (Paylik, 1999); and new media and globalization: Westernization and the use of English on the World Wide Web (Kramarae, 1999.)

During the rise of the Internet and the introduction of personal computers in the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, research such as those above set up the general agenda of later research and perspectives on new media. It is not to say that such research are not valuable. However, media technologies are changing with the development of cognitive technologies (artificial intelligence) and wearable technologies (Google Glass/Smart watch) and more importantly, the reconfiguration of interrelated social, cultural, political, and technological networks. Confronting more complicated situations, we should rethink the assumptions that are taken for granted in mainstream media studies: to study media as individual artifacts and which simplifies the newness of new media into a set of several or multiple features. Next, I will merge two conceptual models: metamedia theory and distributed cognition and argue that new media allows digital devices to be “metamedia” that can represent other media, which distributes human cognition in a revolutionarily new way.

2. Offloading Human Cognition in a Better Way: “Metamedia”

If we want to know what’s fundamentally new about new media, we should first ask what’s not new about it. The question can trace back to the interaction between human and artifacts.

Imagine you want to get various kinds of groceries you need in a grocery store. What do you do if you cannot remember everything you want to get? – Of course you write down a list! It doesn’t matter if you use a more traditional way (pen and paper) or a newer way (your phone). The point is that the external artifacts help you to think and memorize. That’s the theory that Andy Clark proposed named “extended mind,” as opposed to “Brainbound theory.”

The “brainbound theory” insists that human cognition depends directly on neural activity alone. “According to BRAINBOUND, the (nonneural) body is just the sensor and effector system of the brain, and the rest of the world is just the arena in which adaptive problems get posed and in which the brain-body system must sense and act” (Clark, 2008). However, Clark believes that media artifacts are in the loop of the human cognition process as extensions of the human mind, “Maximally opposed to BRAINBOUND is a view according to which thinking and cognizing may (at times) depend directly and noninstrumentally upon the ongoing work of the body and/or the extraorganismic environment. Call this model EXTENDED. According to EXTENDED, the actual local operations that realize certain forms of human cognizing include inextricable tangles of feedback, feed-forward, and feed-around loops: loops that promiscuously criss-cross the boundaries of brain, body, and world. The local mechanisms of mind, if this is correct, are not all in the head. Cognition leaks out into body and world” (Clark, 2008).

Therefore, the shopping list you write, according to Clark, is in the “thinking loop” with our human inner cognition. We offload our cognitive processes onto external media artifacts. Similarly, the discipline called “distributed cognition” also has such arguments, “Distributed cognition is a scientific discipline that is concerned with how cognitive activity is distributed across internal human minds, external cognitive artifacts, and groups of people, and how it is distributed across space and time” (Zhang & Patel, 2006). They believe that information-processing tasks require the processing of information distributed across internal minds and external artifacts.  Moreover, external representations are more than just inputs and stimuli to the internal mind. While we interact with machines, we offload and distribute our cognitive processes onto those machines.

Human beings have been distributing cognition onto external artifacts since the invention of language. We can only keep our thinking internal until we can communicate with others by language (Clark, 1998). Even before the invention of language, human beings invented the way to keep records by tying knots. Early “media technology” manuscripts and books helped distribute human cognition to a larger scale. Printing technology, for the first time in human history, enabled mass production of intellectual works. However, no matter whether it is early book media or more recent film, music record, or broadcasting, human beings interact with these media in a passive way. In other words, we offload and distribute our cognition onto older media technologies passively.

Then how about distributing human cognition onto more advanced artifacts—cognitive technologies, instead of passive media interfaces such as pen and paper? How does the newer media artifacts (smart phone, computer, smart watch, Google Glass, virtual reality, or media technologies based on artificial intelligence) revolutionize the way of distributing our cognition?

Here I introduce another important concept: “metamedia” proposed by Lev Manovich. Manovich believes that “new media” is “new” because new properties (i.e. new software techniques) can always be easily added onto it. The “metafunction” that new media possesses is revolutionary, compared to old media. Manovich also believes that the “meta” feature of new media can help people in distributing human cognition — “The prefixes ‘meta’ and ‘hyper-‘ used by Kay and Nelson were the appropriate characterizations for a system which was more than another new medium that could remediate other media in its particular ways. Instead, the new system would be capable of simulating all these media with all their remediation strategies… Equally important was the role of interactivity. The new meta-systems proposed by Nelson, Kay and others were to be used interactively to support the processes of thinking, discovery, decision making, and creative expression” (Manovich, 2013).

To translate the concept metamedia and distributed cognition into a simple example that we experience on a daily basis: huge amount of research devoted to prove that we are spending and wasting too much time on smartphones, Internet, or computers. However, those researches might neglect the fact that smartphones and computers (metamedia technologies) help human to offload and extend their cognition in a “meta” (unlimited) way. As Manovich mentioned in his book Software Takes Demand, “A computer can simulate a typewriter—getting input from the keyboard and arranging pixels on the screen to shape the corresponding letters—but it can also go far beyond a typewriter, offering many fonts, automatic spelling correction, painless movement of manuscript sections…” (Manovich, 2013). Metamedia has the feature of infinity because it can always be used for presenting other media. A computer or a smartphone does not only have note-taking functions; rather, it has the platform that opens up for more functions and creations. For example, the online Apple App Store, where different software applications can be uploaded and downloaded, significantly extends the materiality and physicality of smartphones, computers, or other “smart devices” in a way that no other old media technologies can surpass. “They call a computer ‘a metamedium’ whose content is ‘a wide range of already-existing and not-yet-invented media” (Manovich, 2013).

Therefore the newness of new media is its metamedium function where it can simulate “old media” functions infinitely. New media is the intergradation of old and new, “metamedium contains two different types of media. The first type is simulations of prior physical media extended with new properties, such as “electronic paper.” The second type is a number of new computational media that have no physical precedents… (such as) hypertext and hypermedia (Ted Nelson); interactive navigable 3D spaces (Ivan Sutherland), interactive multimedia (Architecture Machine Group’s ‘Aspen Movie Map’)” (Manovich, 2013).

Thinking about Manovich’s definition of new media through distributed cognition and extended mind: human beings are able to distribute cognitive processes onto new media technologies that: 1, simulate the form of old media; 2, are automated; 3, have new logics (e.g. hyperlinks); and, 4, represent other medias unlimitedly. New media is, by no means, has no history. Just the opposite, new media is the convergence of old medias and thus distribute human cognition with new logic and with automation. There’s no scientific conclusion on whether this new way of distributing human cognition will change human brains since compared to the time span of evolution of human species, new media is just a split second. This new perspective of defining new media, however, opens up the possibilities of interdisciplinary research on media studies and cognitive science.


IV. Conclusion

This paper analyzes what’s new about new media technologies and how the metamedium feature of new media enables humans to offload and distribute cognitions in a new and better way. Compared to the old models of the smart watch, current models integrate the notion of wearable technologies from a more mature market: smartphones. This paper aims to go beyond the simplified generalization of the newness of new media and open up a fresh perspective. A smart watch carries almost all the functions of a smartphone and allow human beings to distribute cognitive processes in a more seamless way. Similarly we can analyze any other emerging media technologies from this merged metamedia and distributed cognition approach. This approach, however, is just a start. It opens up additional interesting research questions such as: How does new media technologies better distribute human cognition? How do our addictive and repetitive behaviors of the use of smart devices relate to human cognition? How do smart devices help young children in their cognitive development? Further research is needed to explore these arenas.


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Rethinking The Art Genome Project

Mia Gao

Abstract: The Art Genome Project is a classification system of the online art auction as well as education platform, Artsy. This paper critiques the design of The Art Genome Project in terms of its semiotics rationale and its affordances as an education as well as business tool. The analysis shows that The Art Genome Project fails to provide information to users efficiently and it is an inadequate imitation of real education or auction platforms.


The Art Genome Project is the search technology and classification system that powers Artsy, which is a website claims to “make all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection as a resource for art collecting and education” (“About | Artsy,” 2015). The Art Genome Project maps the characteristics that connect artists, artworks, architecture, and design objects across history and will recommend artworks to users that share similar ‘genes’ with artworks they like (“About | Artsy,” 2015). The generative feature is an essence embedded in human meaning making process; however, The Art Genome Project lacks a visible classificatory referential, so all descriptive, emotional and art historical categories are rendered in a flat network, which made the Art Genome Project an irrational discourse of meaning making process and a poor imitation of museums.

Although promoted as an educational online art resource and has an ambitious mission to make art accessible to general public, Artsy’s business model is commission based. The Art Genome Program serves as an art dealer to potential buyers, it recommends artworks to buyers and connects them to sellers. However, Artsy’s affordances leave the audience an impression that the artworks they are recommended via Art Genome Project are not scarce.

Therefore, Art Genome Program is the backbone of Artsy but its designs made the website an incompetent education resource and an unprofessional online auction platform.

C. S. Peirce’s Model of Semiosis and The Art Genome Project Rationale

The Art Genome Project’s database is composed at present of more than 1000 characteristics or “genes” that range from subject matter (including conventional art history categories like portraiture as well as descriptive characteristics like “dark”) to art movement. Led by Carter Cleveland, computer science graduate from Princeton and son of art historian and collector David Cleveland and Sebastian Cwilich, former executive of Christie’s and Haunch of Venison director, Artsy recruited a team of art historians who spent years compiling the taxonomy (Miller, 2011). Notably, Artsy’s taxonomy is not function through binary tags. Artsy disclosed a main feature of their algorithm saying:

“Genes are applied with values ranging from 0 to 100. While not seen by users, such gene values account for the strength of a relationship between artists and artworks. It also enables similarity to be expressed in a more nuanced way than it might be with just tags because one can weigh various attributes of an artist or work of art to establish which might be the most or less important. Furthermore, such nuance allows for matching potential collectors with artworks based on their tastes and preferences” (Mufti, 2011).

The technical complexity and academic support allow Artsy’s recommendation engine to evaluate a artwork at a click and provide endless associations among different artists and artworks. In an attempt to describe the association between infinite characteristics , I will employ C. S. Peirce’s model of semiosis as an explanatory model for The Art Genome Project.

The model of semiosis as a cognitive-generative-social process was developed by C.S. Peirce from 1860s, but it is one, I would argue, that can be applied to varying degrees of any meaning making process. According to Peirce, “meaning is an open triadic process with one element of the structure, the interpretant, always unfolding new meaning.” We can apply two of Pierce’s major discoveries to further understand Art Genome Project:

1.  Human thought is based on signs in symbol systems which have a structure  of material/perceptible and cognitive relations that unfold dynamically in human-experienced time as shared cognitive processes.

2.  Meanings, learning, and knowledge are produced through symbolic-cognitive transformations (signs yielding interpretants expressible in further signs in unlimited and open-ended chains or networks) (Irvine, 2015).

Art Genome Project users’ understandings of the associations between different artists are based on their art history knowledge and interests and the dynamic associations can be expanded as an endless network. The symbolic-cognitive transformations enable users to associate or relate Egon Schiele’s Self Portrait with Raised Bared Shoulder, 1912 to “Close Up”, which is a conceptual component of Schiele’s painting.

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 4.42.41 PM

“Egon Schiele | Self Portrait with Raised Bared Shoulder (1912) | Artsy.” N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Egon Schiele is known for his erotic and deeply psychological portraits, particularly self-portraits. Schiele’s Self Portrait depicts the artist himself half naked, looking cynically at the viewers making the portrait confrontational and intense. Starting from Self Portrait with Raised Bared Shoulder, 1912, the software generates and presents other “genetically” related artworks below the painting.

Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 11.00.39 AM “Egon Schiele | Self Portrait with Raised Bared Shoulder (1912) | Artsy.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

By using “Close Up”, a descriptive characteristic, The Art Genome Project links Egon Schiele’s Self Portrait (1912) with  Lina Scheynius: Untitled (Diary), 2004.

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“Lina Scheynius | Untitled (Diary) (2004), Available for Sale | Artsy.” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

Scheynius is a young Swedish photographer, noted for her raw and unabashed depiction of intimacy and sexuality. The signs embedded in Lina Scheynius’ photograph including “love”, which directs the chain to new “interpretamen”, such as Keith Haring’s Untitled, 1982.

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Keith Haring is an American artist and social activist, whose works are great representations of “New York Street Art”. Haring directs the chain to “East Village Art”, which further leads to tremendous number of artists and artworks. Artsy listed American artists Jeff Koons (1955) in “East Village Art”, and the American Contemporary Pop Artist is connected to Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Jeff Koons is famous for his giant reproduction of ordinary objects such as enlarged balloon animals in stainless steel. Takashi Murakami, on the other hand, is a contemporary Japanese artist who marries traditional Japanese art with contemporary Otaku culture. The “gene” Koons shares with Murakami is “provocative”, which made Artsy recommend the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, who shares both the “Asian” and “provocative” genes with Murakami. The meaning chain starts from Egon Schiele opens an endless Pandora’s Box, which leads the Austrian Expressionist to a Chinese Conceptual artist.

Art Genome Project’s design shows the generative as well as open-ended features Peirce highlights in his Semiosis Model.

Three Phases of Interpretants and Artsy’s Flat Juxtaposition

The Art Genetic program seems provides a tangible model for natural human meaning-making process. However, Peirce emphasizes human symbolic cognitive process is a generative thus not standard model. The characteristics one associates with an artwork highly rely on her personal experience, knowledge set as well as motivation. Therefore, an efficient and pragmatic classification system should provide a clear hierarchical structure to guide users.

Peirce distinguished three phases of “Interpretants”: Immediate (our first impression that something perceived as symbolic has meaning), Dynamic (the meanings that emerge and develop with new associations in uses and contexts), and Final (the motivation for completed meaning experienced as future-directed unlimited possibility) (Irvine, 2015). The Art Genome Project juxtaposes different “phases of Interpretants” to the users simultaneously without explanation, which makes the meaning network flat and difficult to understand.

The Immediate Interpretant is “the schema in [our] imagination…all that is explicit in the sign apart from its context and circumstances of utterance” as Peirce described (Atkin, 2013). For Egon Schiele’ Self Portrait with Raised Bared Shoulder (1912), the Immediate Interpretant could be “close-up”. “Close-up” is a general and explicit feature people without any pre-requisite professional knowledge will associate with the painting because the subject in the painting is tightly framed. Notably, “close-up” at here is not a photography or filmmaking term but a descriptive trait people naturally use to describe a close view.

The second type of interpretant is the Dynamic Interpretant. Peirce describes the Dynamic Interpretant as the “effect actually produced on the mind” (Atkin, 2013). For Egon Schiele’ Self Portrait (1912), the Dynamic Interpretant could be “provocative” because the subject stares at viewers directly displays an unnatural eyebrow flash, which is an universal facial expression “will often be perceived as a foe signal” (Schafer & Karlins, 2015). “Provocative” consists of the interpretations made previously, that is, it consists of the “close-up” in the sign chain. Often a close-up scene will generate a confrontation feeling; therefore, people will spontaneously reach the “provocative” understanding.

Peirce describes the Final Interpretant as, “effect that would be produced on the mind by the sign after sufficient development of thought”(Atkin, 2013). At the end of inquiry for the Egon Schiele painting, people will reach “self-portrait” because of the self-reflective nature and “close-up” composition artist often adopted when creating their self-portraits. As David Savan puts it, “Peirce’s intention was to identify the third type of interpretant as providing a norm or standard by which particular stages (Dynamical Interpretants) of an historical process may be judged”(Savan, 1988). Self-portrait became a classical main subject since Jan van Eyck’s panel self-portraits in fifteen century, and set up a “close-up” composition tradition for this genre of art. Therefore, for art historians, “self-portrait” is a term, which directs the future use.

Artsy lists “close-up”, “provocative” as well as “self-portrait” together under Egon Schiele’ Self Portrait with Raised Bared Shoulder (1912) without any rationalized description among those “genes”; therefore, the juxtaposition breaks the linear phrases of interpretant. Art Genome Project’s design drives users to focus on trivial “preferences” while ignoring the depth of structure in meaning making process. The irrational juxtapositions are overwhelming for general users and useless for knowledgeable collectors. Although The Art Genome Program is a reasonable application of Peirce’s Model of Semiosis, it is not a pragmatic tool for education or collection.

A Museum Without Wall

The Art Genome Project has an ambitious mission, which claims it offers digital images housed in partners’ museums as well as galleries and it will be an online resource for education. Lacking a visible classificatory referential, all descriptive, emotional and art historical categories are rendered in a flat network, which makes the Art Genome Project an irrational discourse of the real artworks in museum environment.

Prevailing debates on the relationships between virtual “historical” objects and physical historical collections used to be bounded by established material culture and “aura” paradigms. A liberating force of scholars, including André Malraux and media theorist Lev Manovich, took up Walter Benjamin’s concern argued the digital historical objects are subjects to cultural politics and were not attempt to identify with physical reality. Therefore, a virtual museum is an abstract organizational system, which will ideally create a more condensed and well-structured “cultural encyclopedia”. Malraux describes museum’s function is more and more intellectualized and viewers will have the expectation that curators will present well-organized prototypes as art historical exemplars to them. Malraux writes,

For over a century our approach to art has been growing more and more intellectualized. The art museum invites criticism of each of the expressions of the world it brings together; and a query as to what they have in common. To the “delight of the eye” there has been added-owing to the sequence of conflicting styles and seemingly antagonistic schools-an awareness of art’s impassioned quest, its age-old struggle to remold the scheme of things (Malraux & Malraux, 1978, p.15).

Art Genome Project’s mission is same with the notion of virtual museum but it fails to provide a clear structure. Without a rational discourse of the history behind the objects, viewers will find it hard to understand why certain art works are masterpieces thus find the“cultural encyclopedia” difficult to read. Malraux explains, “an artist’s supreme work is not the one in best accord any tradition-nor even his most complete and ‘finished’ work-but his most personal work, the one from which he had stripped all that is not his very own, and in which his style reaches its climax. In short, the most significant work by the inventor of a style” (Malraux, 1978, p.15). Therefore, people will still long for a clear referential structure.The Art Genome Project categorized artworks according to artists, subject matter, medium etc. without any explanation of the categorization, hidden the complexity as well as the process. The multiple levels of abstraction generates infinite hyperlinks, which render it difficult to delve into each characteristic. Taking Egon Schiele’s Self Portrait (1912) as an example, people would be easily distracted by the series of hyperlinks ending with Ai Weiwei’s artworks and forget about the clue linked from the Austrian impressionist to the Chinese conceptual artist. The computer-generated imagery museum offered the viewer unlimited opportunities to explore, but as Fiona Cameron descripted “It represents a social desire for rational meanings by users in order to give them a clear statement of the visual surrogate’s value as a signifier, as an analogy of its physical counterpart (Cameron & Kenderdine, 2007). Therefore, viewers need a rational structure to explain why certain exemplars were chosen and what’s their inner connection.

Compare to The Art Genome Program, Google Art Project is also an online platform, which provides digital images of artworks housed in the initiative’s partner museums and gives a much clearer structure to users. Museum curators handpicked representative masterpieces to digitalize and the Virtual Gallery Simulations offered the viewer a sense context of the original structure and curatorial design embedded in the exhibition space. Different from Artsy’s Art Genome Project, it does not provide further curatorial explanation besides the description provided by museums. Notably, Google Art Project allows curators from their partners’ institutions to create digital exhibitions. The online exhibition feature is a digital story telling process organized by professional curators with images, videos and word descriptions. Users are welcome to explore and search collections by medium, curator and date etc.. Each exhibition is a complete story articulated by professional curators, which ensured its credibility so users won’t feel the artworld is accessible.

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“Search – Google Cultural Institute.” Explore Exhibitions. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

The Art Genome Program is designed to build a concrete and visible model to guide viewers to explore the artworld but it fails to construct a clear structure. Compare to Google Art Project, The Art Genome Program provides redundant characteristics under each artwork without any legitimate explanation or hierarchy of categorization among the associations. Therefore, The Art Genome Project is not a well-organized digital museum.

Art Genome Program Website’s Affordances

The art industry is a relationship-driven business funded not only by auction houses or galleries, but more importantly the merits are embedded in “cultural capitals” generated by art fairs, museum exhibitions and more.

Art Genome Project claims it’s an online resource for galleries and art lovers, but Artsy’s business model reveals it is actually a middleman between galleries and collectors. Artsy relies on two major funding sources: first, it charges the galleries a monthly subscription fee to access to the platform; second, it takes a small commission on benefit auctions (Griffith, 2015). Artsy is not taking a combative approach attempting to democratize the artworld by excluding galleries from the industry, while it adopts a collaborate approach tried to thrive in the old-school business.

In the art ecosystem, the artistic merits cannot be derived directly from the economic transaction. The artistic capitals people do receive from the art they pay for are not only a tangible good, but social capitals such as inspiration, pride and enlightenment. As Pierre Bourdieu describes, the conversion between social capitals and economic capitals can be obtained only by virtue of a social capital of relationships (Bourdieu, 1986). Museums, auction houses and galleries are in a symbiosis system, namely an artwork’s market value relies on not only the authenticity and condition of the work, but also depends on “whether the painting is hung in the museum, where it is hung and how often, where it was before it came into its present ownership, in whose private collections the painter is represented, whether he is being spoken of in the popular as distinct from the professional art journals and if dealers are promoting or disregarding him”(Grampp, 1989, p.27). Therefore, art dealers are eager to leverage the “social capitals” of an artwork by carefully manage where and how it was presented to viewers.

As an online platform, the social capitals offered by The Art Genome Project solely rely on its interface. Gibson introduced a concept, “affordance”, which means “action possibilities” latent in the environment (Zhang & Patel, 2006). I will apply the concept here to analyze The Art Genome Project’s interface. One of the important properties of Gibson’s affordance is that he describes affordance provides values and meanings complementarily to the perceiver, so affordance is neither an objective property nor a subjective property”(Zhang & Patel, 2006). In visual representation layout like website interface, the structures and information showcased on the platform provides the allowable actions to the viewers. Users of The Art Genome Project capture the external representations such as the layout, structure and functions on the website and internalize the cognitive signs simultaneously. However, The Art Genome Project’s interface design gives users an impression that the artworks they are present on the website are not scarce, which is withering its “social capitals”.

The Art Genome Project’s interface has three distinct features compare to other online fine art auction websites.The Art Genome Project lists artworks share similar “genes” with an “infinite scroll” embedded in each characteristic page; also, users can “follow and like” artists and artworks; and finally, they can sort artworks displayed by price and size.

When Art Genome Project’s users encounter the interface, their perception and activity will be constrained by its physical and cognitive affordances. Compare to Artsy, Invaluable as the world’s largest online auction marketplace has a different image display design. When users click the categories, the total number of artwork will be displayed. Users can personalize how many artworks they prefer to see on each page and they are offered a clear vision of page number with a drop-down list design. Invaluable’s interface gives users a sense of scarcity and each piece of art is distinct from others. By one click of the “Humor” category for example, 4929 pieces of artwork are represented on a vertical plane of identity. When scrolling down to the bottom of the page, more images will show up and there seems will be infinite images, which all share the same characteristic. This design gives user the illusion of equality.

In addition, users can choose to “Follow” a category, artist and museum to collect their favorite genres in their personal page. By following them, users can share their collections via Facebook and Twitter, also they can browse and follow the content of other users’ main pages. By doing so, the users’ “art feed” displays personalized images. Pinterest is a photo sharing website which share the very similar design with The Art Genome Project’s. Users can upload and manage images—known as pins—through collections known as pinboards. What’s more, these two websites’ “like” and “follow” bottoms share similar styles. The design of “follow and like” function reminds users of photo sharing websites like Pinterest, and the inefficient design renders artworks on the websites to“delight of the eye”.The Art Genome Project’s interface creates the distraction that art works can are images, which can live without content. Users can appreciate and collect them base on their visual figures. Malraux describes the art museum saying, “The art museum, born when the easel-picture was the one living form of art, came to be a pageant not of color but of pictures; not of sculpture but of statues” (Malraux & Malraux, 1978). However,The Art Genome Project’s interface makes the artworks deteriorates to color.

In addition,The Art Genome Project’s users can sort the artwork displayed by price and size, which creates the impression that the products and services users can receive on the website are consumer goods. For consumer goods, buyers’ primary concerns are their budgets and they assume the products listed are interchangeable. is the world’s largest online retailer of posters for wall déco. Consumers are also allowed to sort posters listed by price and size, which perfectly fulfills their needs: find a poster to fill their empty wall with limited budget. The Art Genome Project’s sorting tool’s affordance indicates that the artworks are also interchangeable and are used for home decoration.

In conclusion, I have attempted here to critique the Art Genome Project, which is a generative classification system of Artsy. The system’s design philosophy seems reasonable based on C. S. Peirce’s Model of Semiosis, which highlights meaning making is a generative as well as infinite process. Notwithstanding, Art Genome Project’s design drives the users to focus on trivial “preferences” while ignoring the depth of structure in meaning making process, which makes it a poor well-organized digital museum for education. In addition, The Art Genome Project’s affordances make it an untrustworthy online auction platform.


“About | Artsy.” N.p., 2015. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.

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