Issue #24, February 1996
I have found computer interactive multimedia to be the best form for dealing with complex subjects that defy compact conclusions. By combining images, sound, motion, timing, and interactivity, I use media to examine media as a societal and cultural tool.
I have two main objectives in my work. The first is to explore the interdisciplinary form of multimedia — exactly how combinations of sound, animation, video, text, and images create perceptions and simulate experiences. My work is usually presented on a computer screen within an installation. It is important to include physical objects within a definable space because computers can take away the power of meaning in objects by flattening them into iconic representations on a screen.
My second objective is to develop a way of looking at social issues that does not intend to moralize about or solve specific problems, but rather presents a variety of points of view. I look at relationships between 'facts,' perceptions, cultural mythology, and reality as presented in mass media. Even though we know on a cognitive level that any story-telling is subjective, as a culture we still want to believe in some kind of 'truth' and certainty surrounding public events. My multimedia work is another version of reality to be taken into consideration in evaluating large societal events, but my version is intended to be provocative rather than definitive. I encourage viewers to become comfortable with a certain amount of ambiguity. Multimedia is a perfect way to juxtapose alternative realities and show each one in its inherent seductiveness.
The following images are from the first HyperCard book that I created in 1991, called The Pyramid. The pyramid image, modeled after the TV game show, 'The $20,000 Pyramid,' is the interface for the piece. The Pyramid represents American societal structure — the majority on the bottom striving to work their way up to the top.
Throughout the piece, I use images from how-to booklets and magazines from the 1920s through the 1950s to illuminate a culture that cultivates insecurity, institutionalizes racism and sexism, and believes that those at the top have earned their places only through superior qualities and performance. I am interested in exploring how hierarchies and power relationships are represented and maintained in our culture through media.
In The Pyramid stack called 'Progress' is a little story called 'A Tale of Two Willies.' It includes a page from a 1949 yearbook, in a chapter called 'Race Relations,' with a photo of a black man named Willie Horton who was beaten by the KKK. Then, of course, there's the 1988 Willie Horton. The rest of that piece is about the Bush campaign and how they handled the whole Willie Horton affair. Text from a newspaper article has been skimmed in an animated way onto the computer screen. Highlighted keywords in the text show how powerful certain code words are in telling readers how they should perceive information.
Another chapter called 'Right There in Black and White' provides a meditation on the meanings of and the associations we have been trained to have with the colors black and white — white is good, black is bad. Most of the images are appropriated black and white images, which are perfect for HyperCard since it still works best in black and white. I use images from old ads because advertising is such a pervasive and insidiously instructive medium in our culture. Advertising is where we get a lot of our ideas about 'how things are supposed to be.' My contribution has been to annotate these ads with my own spin on what's happening in them. Here is an ad that uses the familiar image of the black jockey lawn ornament and uses it as a metaphor for the relationship between black and white men on the scale of power.
My next piece, entitled easily remembered/conveniently forgotten was a response to the 1992 celebration of Columbus' voyage. It was exhibited in September-October 1992, and various objects in the installation (such as maritime objects and ship images) related directly to the Quincentennial. Many objects in the installation were actually scanned and included in the HyperCard piece. So the objects were there — live, in three-dimensional color — and they were there again, flattened in black and white on the computer. I wanted to use the seductiveness of aged and nostalgic objects to draw viewers into the events on the screen. When the objects get scanned into the computer in black and white, they are literally and figuratively flattened out, reduced to representations of ideas. The fact that HyperCard images are black and white and flat reminds us that we are no longer looking at an object. Instead, we are looking at what the object represents, or what the image of the object represents, which is often lost in the slick glossiness of contemporary color advertising.
In finding objects to use in this exhibition, I was startled by how much our culture reveres the so-called 'discovery' and colonialization of America. Because the conquest of the 'New World' is still largely viewed as a positive accomplishment of western white Europeans, in spite of current revisionist history, it was easy to find artifacts that supported these imperialistic ideas.
In this animated segment, ships move across the screen accompanied by ocean noises. Text appears occasionally — 'friendship,' 'slave ship'... The text has been appropriated literally from old history books. One line says, 'In that period, slavery was universal. There was no moral scruple as to the presence of slaves.' Another reads, 'Government promised that the settlers...,' implying that the government was promising certain guarantees to the Native Americans.
One of the ideas that I explored in the piece is exactly how the 'isms' — colonialism, racism, and sexism — get perpetuated in this society. During the time I was at work on this piece the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas controversy broke. It obviously directly related to what I was doing, but at first it seemed too complicated. I eventually decided to take on that controversy because it became such a large media event and fit so perfectly with the ideas I was working on about media and culture.
easily remembered/conveniently forgotten includes references to the Hill/Thomas incident in several different places, touching on communication breakdowns between men and women, intra-and inter-racial sexism, race, class, politics, and Clarence Thomas' ultimately overwhelming cynicism. In one segment, by combining images of certain demographic types, I suggest the overlap and conflict in all the different points of view. The images are superimposed combinations of white male/white female/black male/black female. For example, I combined Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas's faces to suggest what they had in common and what brought them together in the first place — their race, high professional achievement, and conservative politics.
As part of the graphical interface for the work, I used children's alphabet blocks and typewriter keys, keyboards, and other objects to represent the medium of language in our culture. A typewriter keyboard and highlighted letters take us into an animated segment. If you click on A, a child's voice mixed with an adult voice says, 'A is for Asexual.' If you click on B, you get 'B is for Behave,' and then 'C is for Control.' Some buttons just have little sound snippets; some are longer animated pieces, with or without sound.
I used the children's story form to reiterate the careful instruction in cultural values that begins early in the life of everyone in our society. This image is from the 'Eagle and the Cat' segment, an allegorical tale about the Hill/Thomas case.
One of the questions I was trying to understand myself was what motivated Clarence Thomas' behavior. We do not know for sure what his personal behavior was. We do know that he was a black conservative who wanted to be on the Supreme Court, and who was appointed by a conservative Republican administration. This behavior alone is out of character for what we consider 'usual' for a black man in politics. The storyline shows the inevitability of the eagle's (Thomas') behavior towards a cat given the eagle's views of how power is wielded within an hierarchical and discriminatory society. The eagle's determination to move up the food chain of power according to the models he imitated led him to believe he was entitled to an immunity of privilege. He bought into a certain political paradigm, operated efficiently within its system, and he was ultimately protected by it.
Other children's blocks were used in the piece: a rooster, cow, wolf, mouse, and jackal. Choosing a particular block suggests that each of these animals has a gender and character association. For example, the jackal is a 'bad' animal, so the material associated with the jackal concerns male misbehavior. Each of the animals has a gender identity: the cow and mouse are female, and the rooster, wolf and jackal are male.
The work exhibits statistics showing how our society encourages aggressive behavior on the part of men, making them appear to be naturally incorrigible, or 'just boys.' The fact that most homicides are committed by men is juxtaposed with the statistic that 81% of voice-over work is done by men. Apparently women's voices just don't have the same authority and power to sell that men's voices do. Just when it looks like another serious case of male-bashing, the animated text reads, 'Women are not better people than men are. Men are given more power and permission to misbehave than women are given.'
There's a very interactive part of the piece that's like a game. It asks you to choose an identity — white or black, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, male or female. These are four major identities that heavily determine where we go and what we do in our lives. You can try on these identities — there are 16 different possible combinations. Once you have your identity, you get your fortune told in the area of money, health, work, or personal life. Here is one of the fortune cards: 'You're often losing the game before you even begin.' There follows a statistic: '80% of Fortune 1000 executives acknowledge that discrimination impedes female employees' progress.'
As you assume different identities while playing the game, you begin to notice the hierarchies of identities, which are sometimes hard to determine. We saw evidence of this phenomenon in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. His demographic profile made him difficult to categorize and the outcome of the trial ultimately unpredictable to many. He was able to use both wealth and race (fairly or unfairly) to his advantage, which rarely happens. One of these socioeconomic attributes usually cancels out the other. According to our rules of socioeconomic hierarchy, a wealthy black person has no right to claim discrimination — obviously, the system has been good to him. In the course of playing the game, we are asked to think about how different demographic factors matter more or less in different situations, a subtlety that is often lost in a culture that loves hard and fast rules.
People were fascinated with the Simpson case, as they were with the Hill/Thomas case, because it upset prevailing cultural myths. This society relies heavily on the effectiveness of cultural mythology to maintain economic and sociological order, that our entire economy is built around it. These sensational media morality plays are not simply about their key players. The players represent demographic types. When high-profile individuals behave in ways other than their assigned roles in the social order, a media sensation and collective psychological unsettling happens. The media plays a key role by explaining the aberration in a way that maintains the status quo. The media plays therapist to an agitated public whose world view has been temporarily challenged. We then receive instructions on how to deal with the challenge and ultimately are offered a facile explanation. The explanation in the Simpson case turned out to be that black people in America are exacting revenge for centuries of racism. I watched in amazement and dismay as this case was reduced, by many blacks and whites, to a mean-spirited confrontation between the races at the expense of useful public discussion on the complex issues that arose.
In my work, I hope to add another alternative to the myopic world view we are encouraged to believe as citizens of this country. I am examining the effectiveness of media in creating and perpetuating stereotypes and cultural myths. In looking at the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas case, the 1988 Bush presidential campaign's inflammatory (and effective) Willie Horton ads, and Michael Jackson's public/private persona (in another multimedia piece entitled DIS:belief/illusion/appointment), I bring up examples of complex situations that are compacted into simplistic polarities. Either you believe Anita Hill or you believe Clarence Thomas, and that's all there is to it (as the bumper stickers imply). Michael Jackson is either a disgusting pedophile or a musical genius. In reality, situations are always more complex than they may seem, but the media 'interpreters' do not have time for complexity or ambiguity.
In my most recent work, SPACE|RACE, I looked at the U.S. space program and the Civil Rights Movement from 1961, when John Kennedy declared the initiative to go to the moon, to 1969 when the U.S. flag was planted there. Holding up concurrent events in the two parallel but divergent initiatives provides an opportunity to recognize alternative beliefs and values around shared public events. Cultural myths were rewritten in the course of these two initiatives, and perceived differently according to individual points of view. SPACE/RACE was recently exhibited at the MCAD Gallery, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, in a show called 'Situation Ethics II.'
Interactive multimedia is a medium for creating entertaining and sensually stimulating environments within our media barrage. I hope to encourage viewer participation and individual thinking. Instead of passively receiving pre-digested information, people can realistically imagine the possibilities and draw their own conclusions — or not.
Colette Gaiter is a multimedia artist and Associate Professor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All illustrations to this article (c) Colette Gaiter 1996. Not to be used or duplicated without permission of the artist.