The Making of Meaning

For most of us, museums are givens. They house great works of art, artifacts from all periods of history, things that are somehow important, culturally significant. Yet they embody in them a sort of unquestioned authority, something that manages to shape our perceptions of the things they display without our ever really being aware of its even happening.

When objects are removed from their original contexts, they are uprooted, unanchored, available for meaning and significance and narratives to be redefined, recast. Every setting has the power to describe its object. A scattering of pots on the floor is not accorded the same importance as a single pot sitting by itself on a plinth. Are things displayed in a corner, along the wall, in the center of the room? Are they lit (or not lit) in any particular fashion? If all the displays are spaced very far apart, each individual item gains a sort of weight. It’s like those dishes in high-end establishments where you get a thumb-sized filet of something (albeit an aesthetically pleasing something) that covers ten percent of the plate’s surface area. We assume it’s nice because it’s been marked out as something unique, important.

These are all rather ambiguous frames, but they do just the same work as the literal picture frame, which tells us what to pay attention to and what to pass over. Even if the wall has designs on it, even if the painting is about as interesting as the wall, you look at the painting, not the wall. Placards and other accompanying text oddslot function similarly. The Plexiglas box is a utilitarian object (a bench), not part of the exhibit (some sort of rumination on the human condition) because it has not been marked. It does not say, look at me, contemplate me. We refrain from treating it poorly out of consideration for other people’s property, not because it has gained some sacred status.

And the text itself, naturally, has an entirely different power in its ability to shape how we contemplate things in museums. Even the fact that an object is in a museum, as opposed to someone’s private collection (a Bronze Age artifact), or on the street (any sort of art— what even is or isn’t art?), says something about the worth it is given. We, the general public, on the whole have little specialized knowledge, little background on the things museums display. We look to museums to be authorities on their subjects. Indeed, the great majority of the time, they certainly are. But this relationship, the one between the things and the museums and us, is often invisible. We don’t see it, and we certainly don’t think about it.

Pages and Pages

A properly bound blank book is something you can hold in your hand, you can ruffle the pages of, something you can put pen or pencil to and to which you can do whatever you like. It acts as a repository, of a sort, for one’s experiences. It’s a very different medium from the digital sort we are now accustomed to. It’s more personal, in a sense. More at hand, quite literally. A tome. A slim volume. The words themselves have a physicality to them, sounds that you hold in your mouth, a solidity you cradle with one hand, hug to your chest.

Blank pages are powerful. A blank word processing document, for instance, instills a very different feeling (anxiety, the pressure of things to be done) than does a blank page in a journal or a sketchbook (pristine, awaiting undefined possibilities).  The physicality of paper, of a well-bound stack of fresh paper, has always held an undefinable attraction. It’s the same thing, I suspect, that makes us continue to love physical books despite the practicality of e-readers. We love them because they (in the words of a professor today) “look like books, smell like books, (ruffles pages) like books.”

Somehow, I’ve always harboured a sort of hoarding tendency towards blank journals, notebooks, and more especially so if they were hardcover or boasted unlined pages. I’d be afraid to use the pages, be afraid of besmirching them with things that didn’t actually merit being transferred to nice paper. (I’ve been trying to get over that- I recently splurged on a oddslot Moleskine, very nice indeed, and have been forcing myself to write in it, in pen.) And so every now and then in a fit of determination I’d try my hand at gathering together my own blank pages into little booklets.

Bookbinding turns out to be an art that satisfies such cravings. Rather than a purely methodical process of production, it’s a skilled craft, a flexible craft. There are proper tools, materials, techniques, and I am yet an outsider. But with plain cartridge paper, some cardboard, a bit of glue, and very rudimentary sewing abilities, anyone might be able to gather paper into a bound form, a tangible block of pages, something that you yourself have created, and can now use, and which no-one else has.

Those with more skill can, of course, turn out books that are not only things we’d like to grasp in our own sweaty paws, but that are things to feast one’s eyes upon. And if you’re feeling a bit adventurous, there is a wonderful collection of DIY books here, complete with instructions, collected from users all over the web.

A Borrowed Lens, A Borrowed Eye

Google Maps is a universal resource for finding restaurants and friends’ houses, for ensuring we can drive from Illinois to Colorado without somehow ending up in Connecticut. How many countries does Zimbabwe border? Where in the world is Hvolsvöllur? And, naturally, street view is the patron saint of identifying shady areas in unfamiliar cities. But outside of pure practical functionality, Google Maps also carries with it a great potential for other uses.

The thing about the street and satellite views is that they are, plain and simple, massive, nearly inexhaustible visual resources. Ninety-eight percent of the time, you will see nothing out of the ordinary. But every here and there are gems. While puttering around in street view, one comes upon single frames with colorful digital aberrations, misaligned shots. Outside a police station, the view is suddenly blocked by seagulls and one bird, right up in front of the lens, is carrying a giant log of food. I’ve begun curating screenshots of interesting things. It’s found art, of a sort.

Spotting low-flying airplanes from an aerial perspective provides another pastime— one was a plane so close I’d mistaken it for an airport icon; another could only be found by the shadow it cast on the ground. Planes and the like aren’t anything out of the oddslot tips ordinary, but unlike much of the everyday activity one expects to see captured, some things are strangely absent.

Street view, in fact, gave rise to MapCrunch, which drops users in street view in random global locations (which was subsequently crashed by an influx of traffic last year from a mostly fruitless game involving finding one’s way to airports from random, unmarked locations). It generates locations at which one would never think to look, and while the majority of images are perfectly mundane, the randomization allows people to turn up rows of dilapidated stonework houses, slopes of silvering foliage, cattle standing in the road.

These tools can provide hours of recreational exploration, transporting you to far-flung locales and hidden side streets, remote mountain roads and surprises smack dab in the middle of the busiest intersection. We’ve grown so used to using maps as utilitarian resources, practical and straightforward, that sometimes we forget that there is much more to be seen.

Update: Aaron Hobson has a haunting collection here.

Beasts of the Southern Wild OST

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) boasts a colorful and poignant soundtrack written by composer Dan Romer and the film’s director Benh Zeitlin. Its score is rooted firmly in a sense of place and a sense of indefatigable spirit, its identity very much dependent on the identities of the setting and of the characters themselves. We hear the tension and the determination and the release as the young heroine fights to save her bayou community in the face of impending disaster.

The sounds are wonderful— folk elements have been blended with more traditional orchestral ones. We hear banjo and accordion, sober piano and the bright notes of brass instruments and perhaps a glockenspiel, and under all that what seems like a full oddslot string section supporting the entire thing. “We wanted the score to have an indigenous texture, but also have kick-you-in-the-face energy that modern pop music is so good at,” said Zeitlin. “To the rest of the world, it’s just a Cajun band, but in her [the protagonist’s] head it’s reharmonized and orchestrated.”

And that’s just it, isn’t it? Even as the film takes on the world through the perspective of the impossibly young protagonist, so does the music. “‘She sees herself living these glorious moments,’” said the composer, moments that a child scores for his or her own world, to accompany a life in which one is always the lead character.

The music is inexplicably satisfying, full-bodied in some places, simple and straightforward in others. But running all through the score is a forward-moving energy, lungfuls in and out, clear and wholesome, a sort of jubilance at life, go, go go.

Until Flash embedding functionality is restored, listen here.

Building Languages

Artificial languages are constructed for a variety of reasons— as ways to make communication easier, as logical exercises, as creative works.  J. R. R. Tolkien’s repertoire of invented languages falls into this last category, this category of artistic languages that have been crafted with a care and given a historical weight that mirror natural languages. With fully developed grammars and vocabularies, and some even with their own alphabets and scripts, they might even be the subject of study for the rest of us, much like any other foreign language.

Tolkien, a linguist, was particularly well-versed in historical Germanic languages (English, German, Dutch, Scandinavian varieties) and in Finnish (related to virtually none of the other European languages). This becomes evident in the astounding number of today football predictions from the experts Elvish languages and dialects he develops, modeled primarily after Finnish, replete with older varieties that change into more modern ones, varieties that split and merge and evolve. One of his most well-developed languages is an Elvish one, containing well over 25,000 words.

His “Black Speech” of Mordor is thought to most closely resemble, at least in vocabulary, to an extinct Mesopotamian language.

The Germanic languages manifest themselves in the speeches of other races in his world, in the form of older versions of languages that we know today. Old Norse, for instance. Old Icelandic, Old English. In fact, the speech of Rohan very nearly is Old English. We see eorl, “noble” (earl, etc) in the name Eorl. Dun, in placenames such as Dunland (“…they drove your people into the hills, to scratch a living off rocks!”),  closely resembles the word down, as in downland, a type of hilly landscape. And Theoden the king takes his name from none other than Þeoden— “lord.”

And the point of all this explanation? The point is to illustrate the depth and detail that went into every constructed language. Tolkien did not throw together a random assortment of funny-sounding words and syllables together; each one of his languages has rules and patterns for spellings and pronunciations and sentence constructions, much as any other language that we know. The appearance of invented speeches and writing systems visible in Lord of the Rings is merely the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Not only have they been used to give his characters histories, but his entire fictional world histories, complex intertwined histories that root the narratives in time and geographical space and establish them as all the more real, all the more tangible.


It’s difficult to lay a finger on how Bartholomäus Traubeck’s deceivingly simple “Years” manages to be so curiously evocative. The piece, quite essentially, consists of a modified record player that reads slices of wood, translating year ring data into music. Grain and ring density and color and width are converted into piano tones— every slice of wood will, then, produce unique music. There are years and years of history ingrained in any given cross-section, decades, perhaps even centuries. Tree rings reveal an entire chronology of climatic phenomena, of course. But “Years” acknowledges that data and continues outwards; it is a passage of years, a flow of time, the gathering of individual events that become trivialized within the sheer scale of the entirety.

What is interesting about Traubeck’s piece is the relationship between the concrete and the abstract, the input and the output. Reading yearly rings is on the whole fairly objective, and once the translation has been coded, the process is straightforward, transparent. Yet how the sure bts soccer artist chooses to make the translation is entirely within his control. What qualities in the cross-section will become what qualities in the music? How far, which way? The relationship is arbitrary, up to the artist’s discretion. As a critic succinctly phrases, “the design object is at once material— an interactive sculpture— and immaterial, interpreting an inanimate ‘fossil’ into arguably the most abstract art form,” music.

The finished product is deep, sparse, heavy. There is a certain dignity about it, something in its air that is greater in scale than a record player and a bit of tree. Our ears pick up the sounds, sometimes nearly careful, sometimes discordant when it hits a knot in the wood, and join them into something conceptual, something not physical. We’re reading history, reading time, constructing a tentatively cohesive narrative— only not with our eyes, but through our ears.