Seeing is Believing

by: Jennifer Warren / Independent Scholar

Britney Spears Toxic

Britney Spears – Toxic

Many years ago, I read several essays from the turn of the century in which the leading pundits of the day expressed their concern about photography and its potential impact on culture. The main point the authors consistently reiterated was a fear of what would occur when the surface of an object was separated from its physical beingness in the world. They envisioned a world where people had consumed the image and thought they had experienced the thing itself, confusing the virtual with the real. As I sit in the 21st Century and peer around San Francisco, I don’t think they were far off the mark.

Take Britney, for example. I bet you know who I mean instantly. I don’t know you, you don’t know me, but you’ll rightly assume that there can only be one Britney I am referring to. I have never met her in person, never even heard her voice except in her highly mixed singer persona. I’ve seen her in videos and in print. But I feel like I know her, know her ups and downs with Kevin, her babies, shaving her head and rehab. But the key here is that I don’t. I only know an image, moments caught by cameras and beamed around the world.

Those video images are easy to identify: the coy, sexually budding schoolgirl in Baby, One More Time; the sexually assured temptress in I’m a Slave 4 U; the impossibly CGI’ed up vixen in Toxic. What do those images tell me about her? She’s young. She’s hot. She seems to like sex, or at the very least, understands that sex sells her records. I know she married young, and that she had babies right away, from the endless parade of photographs in People and Us magazine. If I google her, I find out other details: she is the only female vocal artist of all time to have four records debut at number one, and according to Forbes, in 2007 she was ranked 12th of The 20 Richest Women in Entertainment with a fortune estimated at $100 million. With each detail, the image grows more fleshed out, but it is still just that: an image.

When I watch TV and movies, I am surrounded by a different kind of virtual image: the location itself. If the screen says the story takes place in Africa, it is Africa I see in front of me. Even if I find out later it was actually Afghanistan or India, in my mind, in the place I surrendered to the storytellers, I saw Africa. If I try to adjust my perception to this new piece of information, I experience a kind of motion sickness, a sense of disorientation. I feel like a little kid whose been lied to about Santa Claus. I hold the two experiences—my first viewing of Africa and my second awareness of non-Africa—in an uneasy truce. What results for me is a simultaneous sense of seeing the world through other’s eyes and not trusting what I see. Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage.” I would paraphrase that in the TV age as “All the world’s a set, of which we will show whatever is most convenient for us.”

Tayrona Park

Tayrona Park

It is not the false sense of having seen Africa or knowing Britney that is the problem. What is problematic is a lifetime of Britneys and false Africas building a slightly skewed map of reality in our nervous systems. The longer I look at it, the more I see a strange state that results, in which we are here and not here simultaneously. We see, but we don’t experience; we know, but we do not understand. I have watched many deserted tropical beaches on TV, but it wasn’t until I hiked through the jungle on my own to the ocean’s edge that I discovered a key detail: insects, and lots of them. I had bites from the moment I set foot on the beach until I left 3 weeks later. I laughed as I itched, amazed at how surface my understandings were of tropical beaches before I physically arrived at one. But what else could they be, having come only from the images?

Image Credits:
1. Britney Spears – Toxic
2. Tayrona Park image taken and provided by author.

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The Final Frontier: Myth and Meaning in Science Fiction Television

by: Jennifer Warren / Independent Scholar, San Francisco Bay Area

Farscape

Farscape

I don't know how it happened. I had no specific plan to immerse myself in science fiction television over winter break, to analyze the genre and its implications for society. But as each day wound to a dark and sleepy close, I found myself craving spaceships and aliens, smartly tailored uniforms and long voyages in galaxies far, far away. Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek (old and New Generation), and even a little bit of Hollywood with Ron Howard's Cocoon–I sat and gobbled them up, greedy for more until my tired head hit the pillow.

After two straight weeks of sci-fi immersion, I did not so much watch the stories as muse on their implications. What were we trying to tell ourselves about ourselves through the lens of science fiction narrative? Behind every story of battle, contact and exploration lay a tangible pulse, a subtext of species self-analysis. Underneath the cool logic, a warmth was evident in the yearnings of the collective characters voices. I had the feeling I was eavesdropping on a personal and private conversation in which the speaker was pouring out her heart to a sympathetic listener. As I listened, I could hear the anguish of what she feared she was and the tender joy of what she hoped someday to be. I was deeply touched by her plight, and wanted to reach out to comfort her. But in this case, the speaker was dozens of people representing millions more. I could only sit and quietly admire her spirit, wishing her well in her heartfelt search for meaning.

In many spiritual traditions, there is a distinction made between self and Self, with self being the local personality and Self being the Universal Consciousness. Small self is seen as illusion, as a temporary set of characteristics that rise from the infinite and return to the infinite, while Self is eternal, the ocean from which small self arises. As I watched our species struggle to come to terms with its self and its role in the universe, I could feel that eternal dance of self and Self peeking through. In these stories, Earth symbolizes the small local self, the identity that we need to transcend in order to experience the infinite mystery of Space, the Universal Self.

The longer I watched, the more enthralled I was with the deeper story beneath the shifting surface of the different narratives. This deeper story is no average Hero's journey, with its individual focus. This is the Hero as the collective species, engaging in an exploration of the universe that no one person can accomplish alone. This is the story of humanity coming together and what we can accomplish in that unity.

Joseph Campbell in his work The Inner Reaches of Outer Space discusses the creation of a new mythology in the age of space exploration, a new metaphor describing our eternal journey towards knowing the Self. As he states, “What is the new mythology to be, the new mythology of this unified earth as of one harmonious being? One cannot predict the next mythology any more than one can predict tonight's dream; for a mythology is not an ideology. It is not something projected from the brain, but something experienced from the heart, from recognitions of identities behind or within the appearances of nature, perceiving with love a 'thou' where there would have otherwise been an 'it'.” (p. 17)

As my science fiction marathon ended, I realized why I had craved these stories night after night. The mythology of space exploration is filled with that heartfelt warmth to which Campbell refers. It feels good to watch us dream collectively about a world in which a larger purpose united us, one that was all encompassing enough that the traditional divisions of race, color, creed, and gender no longer applied. I long for that day to be here, and I felt united in that longing with my fellow humans who poured their hearts into these stories.

The Inner Reaches of Outer Space

The Inner Reaches of Outer Space

As the linguist Caroline Casey says, imagination is the tracks on which the train of reality follows. Maybe, just maybe, if we dream our science fiction dreams long enough, hard enough, and vividly enough we will arrive in that moment of our greatest potential.
Will we ever actually boldly go where no one has gone before in the Starship Enterprise? As long as we keep telling ourselves that story, creating that myth of meaning and exploration, I will be there, eagerly awaiting the telling. And as I watch, I will know I am a part of something being born that is beautiful, amazing, and wonderful; my heart will nearly burst with the knowing.

Image Credits:
1. Farscape
2. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space

Please feel free to comment.




How Do I Explain This?

by: Jennifer Warren / Independent Scholar

Participants at the Angel of the Apocalypse

Participants at the Angel of the Apocalypse by the Flaming Lotus Girls

I met a man at Burning Man late one evening, alone and wandering. We struck up a conversation, and he told me it was his first year at Burning Man. “How do I explain this to people back home?” he asked me, his eyes blazing with awe and frustration. I shook my head helplessly and shrugged my shoulders, sweeping my arm across the horizon. We both stood silently for a long moment, taking in the pulsing cascade of light and sound and people. “You don’t,” I finally said. “You can try, but it’s not like anything else.”

But even so, I will try. Imagine that as far as your eye can see there is nothing green. No plants, no trees, no grass. No bugs, birds, dogs, or cats. There is only a dry alkaline dust rising off a deeply cracked earth. Mountains ring the perimeter, burnt brown and majestic. Winds rise out of nowhere, dust whiting out your vision in all directions for whimsical lengths of time. The sun beats down hot, searing you or warming you depending on it’s mood. Goggles protect your eyes from the dust, a dust mask your lungs. At all times, you keep water with you. And everywhere you look, there are art installations and art cars and art bikes and art camps and artful people. By day, many people hibernate, choosing to sleep through the heat of the afternoon. But by night, the city comes alive, its citizens swathed from head to toe in every conceivable costume, on bike and foot. Colors gleam, lights glow, and sound systems crack open the desert’s silence.

Fire Conclave performers on the night of the burn

Fire Conclave performers on the night of the burn

With something as inexplicable and all-encompassing as the Burning Man experience, it would be foolish to think I could sum it up, that I could tell you What It All Means. There are a myriad of meanings out there under the desert sun, each as unique as the individual creating them. What I can do is tell you what Burning Man means to me.

First and foremost, to me Burning Man is a testament to the human spirit of creativity freed from the constraint of commerce. Groups of people create theme camps, providing food, fun, and entertainment to the inhabitants of the city for free. One of my all time favorite Burning Man camp creations was my local neighborhood bar in 2005. A brilliantly colored green and red Moroccan tent rose invitingly from the desert floor. Inside, I found a turn-of-the-century hotel lobby, complete with a antique wooden desk, bookshelves, polished lamps, elegant velvet couches, and vividly colored oriental rugs. A bar ran along the back with a long polished wooden countertop and racks of liquor rose up behind. A DJ off to the left spun dance music and candles glowed along the small tables set up through out the edges of the room.

I had a great time there, dancing and enjoying the sheer improbability of it all. The best part was when I went to leave. A woman looking very official with a clipboard stood at the entrance, blocking me from leaving and telling me that I would have to put my name on the waiting list to leave. She took out a small brush and brushed off the dust from my goggles and smiled at my confusion, repeating her instructions in a polite customer service voice. She laughed with me as I gradually understood the sheer playful absurdity of her request. Of course you would have to put your name on a list to get out of a Moroccan tent in the middle of nowhere with one of the best DJ’s I’d ever heard where the liquor was free and the people were dressed like ghetto fabulous desert mad max survivors. It could only mean one thing: Black Rock City had risen again.

The scale of people creating together is nearly incomprehensible. This year, Burning Man was scheduled to reach 40,000+ residents by Saturday evening, the climax of the event. Just think about that for a second — 40,000 people living in the desert together, creating a city just because they can. There are no advertisers, no sponsors, and no trash collection services. The only thing provided are Portapotties, a gathering place called Center Camp and the surveyed layout of the city itself, with the streets gradually curving in a semi circle around the Playa with the Man in the center. The rest the participants fill in themselves, often at great personal expense and time and effort.

Burning Man

Burning Man

To me, Burning Man beautifully represents the eternal cycle of life and death, creation and destruction. Every year, at the end of the event the city is dismantled and much of the art will be burned. Black Rock City will be built again, but not this Black Rock City. It will come into being only once, and go out in a blaze of glory.

I found myself dancing at 4 a.m. my last evening inside a structure that had been affectionately nicknamed the Waffle, although it’s Belgian creators formally called it Uchronia. Made of thousands of wooden 2x3x30’s, it felt like a desert underwater reef softly lit by green lights disappearing into the black sky. Two European DJ’s were spinning and dancers filled the club. Knowing that this club was going to burn the next day, that this moment would truly never come again had a profound effect on me. It was creation and destruction, inextricably bound as always. But this time, the illusion of permanence was not allowed to take root. We all know that what is born will die. It is the nature of things. But to know when that death will come, by what means, and by whose hand is a rare luxury.

Dancing my last evening away inside a living embodiment of that cycle left me with a sense of peace. I would not be able to go back again. There was only this night and this dance. That was all, no more and no less. By the time I left, tired and dusty and glad to be alive, I knew Burning Man had worked its magic on me once again. And I knew I’d be back next year to help raise the city from the ashes.

Image Credits:
1. Participants at the Angel of the Apocalypse by the Flaming Lotus Girls
2. Fire Conclave performers on the night of the burn
3. Burning Man

Please feel free to comment.




The Summer of the Superheroes

For months, I have been wondering about the filters with which we create our reality. I have been looking at the proverbial half-glass and musing over the truth we reveal about ourselves with our descriptions of its contents. Same glass, same amount of liquid, the only difference our disposition and the interpretation we chose as a result. What was the mechanism with which we decided? How did it work? Was it something innate or something programmed into us from the outside world?

When I walked out of Superman a few weeks ago my musings took on a new dimension. I found myself intrigued, wondering about the filter Superman's seductive mythology created as it unfolded on the screen, with characters clearly defined as Heroes or Villains. How did that visual mythology affect how we viewed the world? And how did it interact with our already innate tendency to project meaning out into the world?

Most of us have been raised on a steady stream of visual media consumption. From MTV to blockbuster films, we have been trained to speak a new symbolic language. In this new language, the textures and nuances of our internal worlds are externalized and symbolized through pre-established contextual cues, such as lighting, sound, and costumes. To engage with the story, we are required to interpret the visual narrative quickly and easily. In order to facilitate this ease of interpretation, certain conventions have been created. From clothing styles to soundtrack choices, these conventions neatly delineate Heroes and Villains.

The visually coded traits of a Hero and a Villain vary from film to film in their particulars. What they share in common is a sensibility, a clear polarity that allows us to be confident who to sympathize with and root for. In mature and nuanced films, these traits are more interwoven to portray a complex character who raises questions more than gives answers. In most blockbuster films, however, the traits are heavily relied upon to set the tone of the story and to provide a clear map for the viewers to follow as they follow the hero's struggle to victory.

Superman

Superman

Superman is a classic example of these traits at work. From Clark Kent's clean cut Heroic good looks to Lex Luther's tailored suits and scheming expressions, who they are and what they symbolize are consistently and clearly represented. So clearly represented in fact that the language we are interpreting in the film–let's call it “Good Guy-ese”–begins to feel normal, natural even, which is fine as long as we are in the movie theater. But what happens when we begin to apply “Good Guy-ese” to the outside world?

Plenty of misinterpretation, that's what. The complexity and chaos of the real world does not lend itself so easily to clear delineations of hero and villain. The visual cues that “Good Guy-ese” uses are designed for snap judgments that can easily contribute to mistaken assumptions. We think we know someone's character and motives because they exhibit traits that correspond to the visual cues we have been trained to interpret.

The likelihood of misinterpretation increases exponentially when this outer visual dialect blends with an inner tendency that is at once both highly personal and deeply universal. This tendency is to interpret our own actions in a better light than we interpret others' actions. When we do something such as cutting off someone in traffic, we tend to judge our action against the arc of our total personality. We excuse it by saying we were in a bad mood, we didn't see them, we made a mistake. We don't judge ourselves as bad people; we see the action as a fleeting departure from our permanent self identity as a good person, a Hero. When someone else cuts us off in traffic, however, the tendency is to judge their character from that action. They are a bad person, an inconsiderate driver, a menace on the road, a Villain. In essence, we characterize others from their actions, while we characterize ourselves by our being (or who we believe ourselves to be).

Lex Luthor

Lex Luthor

When this inner dialect of judging others based on their actions meets the outer dialect of “Good Guy-ese,” what results is an unprecedented reality filter. It becomes all too easy to unconsciously objectify others based upon their surface characteristics and behavior. In the process, we villainize them and reduce their complex and contradictory humanity to a black and white identity position.

Instead of seeing the guy that cuts you off in traffic as a father-to-be who is frantically rushing his pregnant wife in labor to the hospital, you see a jerk. When the teller snaps at you at the bank, instead of seeing an exhausted woman who is barely making ends meet working two jobs, you see a bitch. Where there could be compassion there is a judgment, and where there could be understanding there is separation and fear.

The reality, of course, is that no one is ever good all the time or bad all the time. We are a little bit of both. Who you are depends on who you ask on any given day, including yourself. Human beings are in a constant state of flux, unlike the fixed identities “Good Guy-ese” leads us to believe in. When we are aware of the ever-shifting nature of a identity, a beautiful liberation occurs. We get to set down the heavy burden of polarity, of perfection and its attending isolation. We give ourselves permission to drop the filters and to see ourselves clearly with our flaws and our strengths. When we are no longer busy trying to force ourselves or others into our preconceived boxes of Hero and Villain, an unprecedented intimacy results. We receive the lovely opportunity to meet ourselves and our loved ones for who they really are, perhaps for the first time.

Image Credits:

1. Superman

2. Lex Luthor

Please feel free to comment.




The Dancer or the Dance?: Uses of Television and Video

Capacitor\'s \"Digging in the Dark\"

Capacitor’s Digging in the Dark

It's been twelve years since I kicked the television habit. The longer I am away from the rhythms of television programming, the stronger my response to its beguiling presence. I find myself exquisitely sensitive to television's cuts and textures, with their dizzying short-attention-span sequences and seductive beauty. Whatever I was thinking disappears when a TV screen roars to life in my vision with its talking heads and intrusive advertising. I am both fascinated and repelled, in love with its color-drenched motion and exasperated with its simplistic read of the world.

Capacitor, the internationally acclaimed dance troupe based in the San Francisco Bay Area, understands this love/hate relationship with television, with video and mitigated meaning. In their most recent piece, Digging in the Dark, artistic director Jodi Lomask utilizes video imagery to convey both atmosphere and contextual clues. “I use the video at times as a hook to bring in a segment of the audience that may fear the abstract or has trouble completely letting go of their logical mind. Culturally we are much more used to viewing projected images than live performances. By incorporating projected images, I offer a door into the work to some folks who would otherwise be left out,” says Lomask.

Watching the gorgeous beauty of bodies in motion is a sublime pleasure, one I treasure. Capacitor's integration of infared photography into their performance takes that pleasure to a whole new level. The dimmed lights soften and conceal the dancers movements onstage. A camera placed above them captures the heat of their bodies and projects this image on the screen behind them. My eyes darted back and forth during the performance, not sure where to focus. To have the two artforms together simultaneously–live performance and a mitigated, selected aspect of that performance unified with technology and being processed in real time–enchanted me.

In that moment, I understood what I had turned away from long ago: the use of such powerful technology for inane purposes such as television commercials and sitcoms with canned laugh tracks and superficial reductionistic takes on human nature. Watching Lomask and her company explore the realms of the human heart and psyche through the metaphor of traveling through the layers of the earth, I loved the presence of the video. I loved the multiple languages and the dreamworld they rendered visible for all to see. “Dance is vital, fleeting, and involves more risk [compared to video]. There is nothing so powerful as the expressive live body. But video allows me to describe with a fullness and clarity some things I could not describe through dance,” says Lomask.

Capacitor

Capacitor

Throughout the remainder of the piece, Capacitor utilizes video imagery to both contextualize and orient the audience. They penetrate deeper into the mystery of the human soul with each geologic layer they explore. From snippets naming the layers of the earth to a buried-alive dancer emerging triumphant from the ground, the imagery enhances the narrative structure. When I left, filled with wonder and inspired by the mysterious journey of being alive, I couldn't help comparing how I felt when I watched TV for a few hours. Capacitor left me with a sense of resonant fullness, of rich completeness, where my normal response to a TV watching session was a disoriented sick feeling of manipulation and exploitation. I concluded it wasn't the medium. It was the intention with which the medium was used.

With television, a restlessness is cultivated, even celebrated. The juxtaposition of story and sponsor destabilizes meaning, leaving me as a viewer with the sense I am fighting a barrage of information. It is challenging to keep my disbelief suspended and my concern for the characters alive as the commercials create wants, needs, and desires out of thin air and solve them for me in a loud, flashy, 45 second format. By the time the characters reappear on the screen, I require a few moments to transition from a state of blocking information to allowing it in. And even then, my awareness of the business model of TV wars with my enjoyment of the story. Every product placement, every choice of consumption calls my attention to it. I question how much money changed hands to place that can of Coke with the intention of me subconsciously identifying with the character, so the next time I am at the grocery store I will be drawn inexplicable to the soda aisle and leave with a 12 pack of cola in my cart. I can feel them, all the marketers and brand managers and advertisers, all with a stake in me confusing my sense of self with the characters I see on the screen. I can feel them, and I don't like them.

When I watch the video images of Capacitor, I feel the intentions there, too. But instead of feeling I am fighting an invisible cadre of biased marketers whose direct survival depends on brainwashing me, I feel a sense of solidarity. I feel a sense of love, of passion, of hope. When Lomask utilizes the infared photography, she does so with the intention of the audience participating metaphorically in the chamber of the heart, “a place where we seek out connection in the dark but can lose it easily and a place where surface logic and judgment has no ground.” I can get behind those intentions, of raising questions and wonderings, without a simple answer pointing at a prefabricated point of view or a consumer product. As I watch the dancers and their heat-ghost selves on the screen larger than life behind them, I am filled with wonder, with a deep appreciation of the fragility of the human condition.

Image Credits:

1. Digging in the Dark

2. Capacitor