By Shalina Chatlani
Though it sounds cliched, artwork as a format and a practice is entirely subjective not only for the artist, but for the audience. I started thinking about this idea when I was back home in Jackson, MS this summer.
I had met an artist named Daniel Johnson, who had articulated his concern with the idea of messaging and its increasing inescapability. This anxiety shone through his art shows. He had produced this shield-like metal structure upon which he projected an onslaught of images from pop-culture and media–cartoons, tv shows, music videos–with a deafening white noise to surround the room. He stood behind the shield, while the audience was inundated with the noise and the images–a symbol of how we are constantly victims to messaging on tvs, our phones, advertisements, everywhere. The show was an interface of interpretation to the interface of technology to the interface of the contents of our thoughts–which was both confusing and overwhelming. I immediately interpreted the show as a nod to the effect of all that is digital on what it means to be human.
However, what stood out to me the most was not the show itself, but the conversation I had with Johnson afterwards. I had told him how I had interpreted the artwork– that I saw it as humanity’s inability to create “original thought” due to technology. And he responded that he appreciated my interpretation because he had “never thought about it that way.” I thought this response was so interesting, because this reaction seemed to me to be the most obvious analysis.
He responded that the meaning of his artwork is a product of acquired interpretations. He continued to understand his own art based on how others understood it, and how they understood him.
For something that seemed so literally and metaphorically pointed– a shield to block images from media–it’s interesting to think that even this type of artwork can be interpreted in so many different ways. What seemed obvious was actually more of a collaboration of thoughts and views from the artist himself and the individual’s own background and subjective, contextually created interpretive methodology.
And it’s for this reason the act of considering artwork requires the development of theories in media and mediation, in order for the audience, researcher, or individual to understand how art and all forms of cultural expression can be presented in an interpretive framework.
This reality exists for all forms of artwork no matter how obvious or abstract it might be–without a methodology we run the risk of losing valuable meaning.
This sentiment is the foundation of the concept of an art museum, which seeks to organize artefacts in such a manner, and provide a meaning system, for the audience to more effectively understand and interpret the artwork on display. These institutions provide a venue for the individual to understand an artefact in its truest form, a form that is not detached or reproduced, and organized in a way to provide context.
Had I not spoken to Johnson about the meaning and background of his artwork, absent a museum or meaning system to guide me, I would have almost certainly lost value in my understanding.
Irvine writes about this idea in his discussion on André Malraux, a photographer who sought to organize his work in a universal matter by styles. He wanted to tackle a question of artwork in the modern age, as writes: “If photography as a technology is defined by reproducibility, how can mass reproduction represent art and artefacts understood to be unique objects in a material place and time?” (Irvine) In other words, how can we possibility understand the meaning of something, if we are becoming increasingly detached from the implicit context. How could I have understood Johnson’s artwork practically if I failed to gain the background?
Maulrax saw that photographical representations of art resulted in the issue that “dissociated cultural objects from their material origins (a feature that troubled Benjamin in the 1930s)” demonstrated “an important cultural truth…in the modern era of mass mediated images” that there are “misrepresentations when artefacts are reduced to reproductions” (Irvine).
For him the concept of the museum addressed the reality of misrepresentation by helping the viewer see the artefact, regardless of whether the interface is digital or physical, by “assign[ing] to established categories (periods, cultures, genres, styles, movements, etc.),” to the artefacts. As a meaning system, the “musée imaginaire” generates is an abstract, ideal meaning system: it generates implementations of the conceptual and ideological system that actual museums and art history books realize in their selections and structures of organization and validation” (Irvine)–an organized manner of answering the questions through a given meaning system that we are unable to ask the artist or cull from the collective interpretation of other observers.
What’s further interesting to me is that my quickness to interpret his artwork, which I perceived to be a take on “remediation” in contemporary media as described by Bolter-Grusin, was also a product of this remediation being so prevalent in society! While he was representing the idea of interfaces in human thought on the shield, I realized after our conversation that my interpretation was a product of my understanding of technology and artwork in other books, tv shows, and media that I had experienced. I realized this when he explained that the shield was in its truest form “his way” of understanding his place in how he deals with technology and media, rather than necessarily a way of confronting it.
As Bolter-Grusin writes: “The process of remediation makes us aware that all media are at one level a “play of signs,” which is a lesson that we take from poststructuralist literary theory. At the same time, this process insists on the real, effective presence of media in our culture” (Bolter-Grusin). The effect of other forms of media on the formation of my thoughts, even on a piece of work that tries to tackle this idea, is even more apparent to me now.
Ultimately, I think that this analysis serves to show that the in-person observation and ability to receive the background and contextual information is absolutely critical to the development of any form of valuable meaning system that is not biased. In a sort of meta way, I realized this through a piece of artwork that seemed to tackle this idea, but actually had a different agenda.
Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin,Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000