Mapping the Imaginary

The childhood pursuit of creating fictional worlds never really goes away. The control one has over the geography, and then possibly peopling the landscape, is so very satisfying, so very full of potential. There are few enough constraints (the medium, the mind) to provide opportunities instead of options, but just enough to prevent creating something from scratch from being impossibly daunting. For a period of time when I was younger, drawing maps of imaginary lands could entertain me better than anything else. But free-range map-making does more than entertain; it’s creating, designing, building.

Author David Mitchell speaks to inventing maps as a child: “Those maps, I think, were my protonovels. I was reading Tolkien, and it was the maps as much as the text that floated my boat. What was happening behind these mountains where Frodo and company never went? What about the town along the edge of the sea? What kind of people lived there? The empty spaces required me to turn anthropologist-creator.”

The idea of cartography as a sort of anthropology is an intriguing one. Miscellaneous land-forms sprung out of a blank page are all well and good, but they’re no good just sitting there. Characters are needed to traverse the lands, sail the seas. Worlds are experiential, but everyone experiences differently. So now, in addition to simple geography, you can fill in entire socio-political structures, civilizations and societies and peoples with their various dispositions and various histories. It’s one of the reasons works of fiction and fantasy often have the insides of their covers adorned with maps, I suspect— people and plotlines are tied to geography.

World-building also occurs in other formats, albeit more constrained ones, as in computer-based games with oddslot open formats. While there might be set goals as in any other game (completing tasks, finding objects, defeating enemies), the best part of the game is often building things, constructing your building or town or country. In fact, it might even that it is because of the restrictions the game’s parameters place on the player that makes being able to creatively and effectively build and create things so fulfilling.

The Cyclical Passage of Time

The animated .gif, or simply GIF, has come a long way from its flashy pixelated beginnings of the early internet. Now used to illustrate concepts, used to register any and every manner of sentiment, lifted from every second of video as soon it hits the internet, it has proliferated, its use commonplace, normalized. Recently, a variation dubbed the cinemagraph has tentatively appeared. The movement in the image is usually very isolated and very small, leaving the remainder of the image still while the subject flutters or flickers or flows in part of it. The movement, moreover, is smoothly looped in a way that the movement seems seamless and continuous. Most of easily found cinemagraphs on the internet are the work of several photographers who developed the format and coined the subsequent term, but others are out there too.

One such is artist David Barreto, who recently created a series of photomanipulations entitled Woodhouses. Parts of houses— windows, doors— have been grafted into the bases and trunks of trees as if they belong there. What should look so very artificial instead looks natural, integrated, organic. The trees themselves are unremarkable, one of many in a wood, standing often in the half-light of predawn or dusk. At first glance, that is all there is to it. But then the windows’ fluorescent lights flicker, dim, and flicker again, casting cold rectangles out onto the still snow.

There is something about the scene that is very much reminiscent of the streetlight at night and the flashing neon sign of the corner shop, the 3am car alarm and the sudden quiet after it is shut off. A man’s muffled curse and the distant sound of a door slamming shut, and then the silence resumes, a thick blanketing silence that the darkness corroborates. The harsh light, greenish, or orangish, perhaps, cuts into it oddslot, revealing, intrusive, but nonetheless silent, wordless. And that is what Woodhouses embodies, it seems. The nature of the medium demands silence; it is an image, not a video. We are intruders looking into lit windows at night, and the abrupt light is an intruder upon the darkening winter landscape outside.

The isolated animation is crucial to the effect. Because the environment is static, its details remain important. They will not pass out of frame as they might in video. And yet some part of it slips the moment, the singular moment in which an ordinary photograph might be captured, and it moves. It catches us by surprise. We cannot be too complacent, too unobservant, because something happens. Time cannot travel too far, however, because then the motion circles back on itself, and we are again suspended in the moment, preserved.

On Photography

Much of the time, photography is, as it appears, art. Other times, documentation. The lines often blur. But the medium has become accessible to almost to the point of producing banality; we are daily inundated with more images than we can process. And this hides the other things that photography does, the way it operates as a fully autonomous actor in a larger system, a cultural system, a human system.

Susan Sontag has a lot to say about photography and its relationship to the wider world. I’ve never realized it could be explained and understood so profoundly until I’d read her work. “The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will… [be] blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it,” she says. Wordless, images can be read by any sighted person, but it can also be labeled, relabeled, framed, reframed, spun any which way.

“Interpretation is the revenge of the intellectual upon art,” Sontag is often quoted. And that’s the way of things, isn’t it? The creator has evidently made many conscious decisions— the placement of subjects, composition, lighting, colouring. Things are included, excluded. But once sent out into the world, it can be repurposed. The image becomes a tool, something that can be misrepresented or misattributed.

We like to think that photographs are the closest to the truth you can get— closer than writing or painting, for sure, because they are constructions, things that are shaped to recreate experiences, scenes. Even at their most realistic, they are things that have been filtered through the individual. Other modes of art evoke, photographs show. But even here lies a curious contradiction.

You have on one hand a gorgeously rendered photo of hikers trudging up a mountainside, shapes and forms well-composed, colors brilliant and light balanced. On the other you have the same hikers and the same mountains, blurry, too bright in one bit and too oddslot dark in another, obviously hastily snapped on a phone. Which one is more genuine? We’ve begun to immediately suspect an image that is too neat, somehow, must have been manipulated even though staging and setup might have been equally likely or unlikely in either scenario. Lo-fi has become the new thing.

And that too comes with another whole set of implications: now acquired skills are rendered obsolete, now the learning curve has been drastically reduced, now anyone can be a photographer. But that is an exploration for another day.

On Film

Entering a new medium is often all at once immensely thrilling (look at all these new possibilities that have opened up before you!) and immensely difficult (quite frankly— what is everyone else doing that you’re not?). Sometimes the learning curve is immediate and steep, and other times the obstacles are not visible until much later. Consuming the art and playing the audience for it, I think, is little different.

The reappearance of the Ann Arbor Film Festival this week provides a fertile ground for indulging in sensory rumination, for exploring ideas and concepts dissembled and reassembled and fed to the audience through various audio-visual stimuli. It has been, as an event, largely opaque to me. I’d never quite understood its intended audience, its intended market, whether it was meant to be a rather exclusive intellectual mingling or something accessible to the public at large, and I’ve certainly never been.

Finally attending one gives me little to no authority to speak on the matter, but it has produced ideas, relevant ideas such as: Is the artist’s primary responsibility to the medium or to the subject? The proper treatment of one is no use without the same of the oddslot other. Do you lay out all the facts completely and fairly, or do you craft a narrative? Bits of both will end up being sacrificed before a balance is achieved. Yet the concept of genre, fitting the content into a known form, is often met with disdain regardless of its format. Prose, sculpture, or film, there are parameters, but there is also room to explore. How far then, and how?

The one, the only, the original.

Authorship is a complicated business. Ideas and images are used and reused, and oftentimes, even new work can but follow known and established forms. There will ever be things that serve as references and sources— content is often more meaningful because it draws upon things that already exist, things that already in themselves hold a concept or association. And imitation is how people learn in the first place, learn how to create work in their chosen medium, learn its parameters, learn how to produce work that transcends those boundaries.

But at what point do allusion and imitation and reference, especially after filtered through artistic license, become plagiarism? Is a fictitious account of a non-fiction source original? Credible? Is a painting of a photograph a legitimate work of art in itself? (There have been massive outcries over this.) Is the recreation of a piece in a different medium its own autonomous entity? Even when accusations of plagiarism can be mitigated by attribution and sourcing, things deemed the first or the original are also deemed the most genuine, the most valuable, the most worthy of reverence.

Photography, in particular, often finds itself in a morass of undefined attribution. Technology has rendered the ability to take images mundane, trite. The sheer volume of pictures produced every day, hour, minute, of anything and everything, has changed the nature of photography and its perceived value. It has, moreover, given new weight to the question “what is art”: are images of other people’s art art?

Some of the answer depends on subject, of course. Natural subjects, photographs taken for journalistic and documentary purposes— these are not so much contested. But if someone else has set up the installation or erected the building or made and laid out the food, or what have you— which part, the physical piece or the carefully oddslot composed image of it, is more important? Photography requires translating a more ephemeral or greater-dimensioned, multi-sensory experience into something that cannot merely allow itself to be reduced, but needs to create for itself a greater, meaningful something that might not have been visible in the original form.

Purpose and context are what everything comes down to, in the end. While copyright laws regulate the commercial aspect of intellectual property, they do not regulate its creation, it social meaning, its cultural significance.

The Repository of Forgotten Things

In recent years, the function of the library has shifted from a repository of information to a designated workspace. Where once people conducted their research primarily by sitting down in a library and poring over books and microfilms, they now bring their work to libraries for the building and the environment and the quiet. We still utilize traditional resources from time to time, of course, but increasingly we value libraries for their updated café area or their cushy wood-paneled (and vault-ceilinged) rooms, or even just a nice table tucked away in a corner.

Part of the appeal of the library environment lies in its very identity. What makes us choose a library over the local coffee-shop, for instance? It still has a grave sort of dignity to it, however great or humble. When we say “resources” we don’t just mean the technology and the services it boasts, though those too are important. We mean the hundreds of thousands, the millions of files and tomes and volumes, organized, catalogued, searchable. Knowledge! Data! It’s not quite at one’s fingertips, but it’s all so very accessible, and, moreover, aggregated and collected. It’s an institution, an institution for the people.

Library stacks, though, are always something different. In a significantly large library, at a significantly late hour, you can be the only one in among the stacks. Shelves and shelves and row upon endless row of books, footsteps muffled and deadened by paper and oddslot fabric and webbed binding material. When was the last time someone touched this book? Opened it, read it? How old is it? Who wrote it, and were they well-received? Are they? What do they say? What are and were the lives of these books, their authors, their subjects? I don’t tend to enjoy studying in libraries, but sometimes I like to prowl Hatcher’s stacks, looking, brushing cracked spines, wondering if that one will fall open with a gentle puff of dust, like in films.

The space created by the presence of so many books exhales a sense of possibility. It’s a museum of art and history and science, but tangible, there for the purpose of letting you smell and handle and read it. It’s yours.