Opie Zeitgeist

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Several Edinburgh Fringe Festival shows this year have marketed themselves with Julian Opie style images. I’m not quite sure why Opie’s aesthetic, made famous by the Best of Blur album cover design in 2000, has suddenly caught the zeitgeist. Perhaps the producers see how the stylistic forms, which are simplistic yet idiosyncratic, remind us how we build up our ideas of the human and its nature from a few bold strokes. More or less the same lines, but a million different possibilities. The same, they reason, could be said of their play.

Or perhaps its just easy, lazy design, tapping into an already recognisable ‘cool’. Maybe its a coincidence.

Elsewhere, I see Jabr-wocky has suggested that the Best of Blur album may have been derivative in itself.

Ghost

A few months back, I wrote about the ghosts in the ipod, who swim about in the diodes and relays of your MP3 player, and choose songs which somehow soundtrack your mood. It is interesting to gaze upon an old, familiar sight, and yet feel new emotions, even notice new things, because the accompanying soundtrack has changed.

A few days ago, I attended a quirky piece of theatre titled Ghost, produced as part of the Leith Festival. Arriving at the venue, you are presented with a small MP3 player and headphones, and sent off onto the streets and schemes of Leith. A narrator allows his story to unfold, while you are told which paths to follow by a robotic, feminine ‘GPS’ guide named Thanos. As you walk past random pedestrians, and sullen truants, you realise you are part of a clandestoine world which those around you cannot access. When you do spot another ‘theatre-goer’, you let slip a conspiratorial smile. Their identical MP3 headphone set is like the badge of a secret society.

The story is one of love, loss and flight, but is not without wit. References to an Icarus-like fall from the Heavens are complimented with a pair of angel wings, discarded in a tree in a church-yard. It is as if William Blake’s angels in the trees have had a nasty mid-air collision. Soon after, the narrator (a Daedalus figure) declares that he has invented the ‘cyborgs’ who walk around you. Look, notice! The man on his mobile phone, or the others with wires coming out of their ears. All robots, following the complex programming they have been hard-wired to follow. It is at this point that you are struck by the realisation that you, too, are following a pre-ordained path around the city. The production company is Puppet Lab: they have created a show where the audience and the puppets are one.
Continue reading “Ghost”

The beauty of a well designed webpage

I do enjoy trawling through someone else del.icio.us tags. First, bookmark a web page. Instantly find out who else has linked to it, and in turn what they have linked to. The act of bookmarking a site is a different thing from posting on a blog. A blog is a public diary, whereas a linklog is more a private scrap-book. Rumaging around in it feels slightly illicit. The act becomes a guilty pleasure, even if the whole point of del.icio.us is openness and sharing.

It was via del.icio.us that I sumbled accross Aharef (Subtitle: The Link Salt in the Web Soup). A page innocently named “Websites as graphs” caught my imagination with a very simple tool, which allowed me to generate the image below.

[photopress:sitemap.jpg,thumb,alignright]This intruiging pattern is not an organic chemical or a subway map, but a graphical representation of this site’s homepage (you can click it to enlarge). Each node represents an HTML tag such as DIV or SPAN. Begining with the black HTML tag/node which begins pretty much every page on every website, each line represents one tag ‘nested’ within another. The grey clump is the header information; the orange mess is the block of recent posts (uneven in length and content); and the regular protrusions that look like dandelions comprise my blogroll.

The page at Aharef gives some sample maps from popular websites, like Google and Boing-Boing. What I enjoy is how the more aesthetically pleasing patterns belong to those sites with a better site structure. A sparse pattern with plenty of red dots implies a complex site designed with tables. A cleaner, simpler site will have fewer but more concentrated nodes. They illustrate how a site with a clear structure will allow more people to read the information more efficiently.

Thinking about the philosophical ideas of mapping and representation, I wonder which is the ‘true’ representation of the document: the web-page or the diagramme? Both are valid ways of interpreting the same information. I wondered if a page could be created in which a greater meaning to the content could be found within its source code. My first, rudimentary attempt is called “I Had A Little Nut Tree”. You can also watch the visual representation spawn via Aharef. The poem is a friviolity in itself, but given a twist by its unique code structure.

I am reminded of other ways in which the same information can give rise to different things, depending on the medium you read it in; I am reminded of how the written word can take on a different meaning when read out loud; or how two people can interpret the same book as having different meanings; I am reminded of the post-Borgesian play Hear No, See No, Speak No; of the ‘graphic’ function in Apple iTunes that creates screen-savers from my MP3 collection; and how DNA code can be rendered not only into living things, but also into chromatographs so accurate that we can point at a bizarre pattern of dots, and give it a person’s name.

Book Jackets

Browsing the website of Irshad Manji, the ‘Muslim Refusnik’ who wrote The Trouble With Islam Today, it was interesting to note the variations (and similarities) between the book jacket designs in various countries worldwide.

My favourite is probably the image of the author’s mouth being censored (by the title), which appears in the French, Norwegian and USA editions. Finland, Belgium and Norway employ the same concept, but less effectively I think. By comparison, the English cover, depicting a group of Muslims at prayer, seems less imaginative, although the connotation with a phalanx of soldiers does convey one of the key concepts from the book:

Irshad Manji calls herself a Muslim refusenik. ‘That doesn’t mean I refuse to be a Muslim,’ she writes, ‘it simply means I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name of Allah.’
(from the Amazon blurb)

The English cover stands out as being very different from all the others. It is fascinating to look at what different publishers thought would sell well in the respective countries, and what best communicated the concepts of the book. Several jackets depict stone walls, while several others choose a veiled woman instead of Manji, with her uncovered, spiky hair. The covers for India and Canada are purely typographic. I am reminded of an article by my colleague Leo Warner, who wrote:

if you want to see a culture describe itself at the most organic level, you should observe the design and not the art.

The medium of icing

My dear mother makes a point of baking a cake to me on my birthday, and posting it to wherever I happen to be in the world. Not for her a simple Victoria sponge sandwich or fruit cake: The gateaux must carry some bespoke decoration. In her time she’s managed cake crosswords, football club crests, a variety of public transport vehicles, and a three-dimensional representation of Marlinspike Hall, Captain Haddock’s ancestral home, with chocolate button roof slates (this was circa 1989, before the advent of the many cake building technologies we now take for granted).

However, I have yet to see anything quite so post-modern, as the offering I received this year.

My blog in cake form

Yes! A rendering in icing of an electronic page, which itself metaphors paper. Thank goodness I don’t have Google AdWords on the site at the moment.

I have to say I’m disappointed no-one has entered anything in the comments, but I guess my mother didn’t have time to whip-up any RSS biscuits.

Working with icing is no mean feat. I refer you to an amusing interview with the anarchic Todd Trainer, drummer with the seminal Shellac, leader of the bizarre Brick Layer Cake, and something of an icing artist:

Yeah. Icing has definitely always been a part of the visual aspect of Brick Layer Cake. All four records have had icing on the covers, both front and back covers – literally all the artwork that has ever appeared on my records is icing, so that’s a theme, an aesthetic theme … Icing is a rather limited medium – I shouldn’t say “limited”. It’s an unforgiving medium to work with, because you only get once chance to really do it right.

The Road To Guantanamo

Last night’s The Road To Guantanamo was interesting viewing.

The cinematography made me uncomfortable. In places, scenes were shot in TV format, distinguishing them from the more filmic reconstructions. However, the BBC style commentary, and the angles chosen for some of the action, did not ring quite true. I could not put my finger on what was incorrect, but it was clear by end that the most of the supposed archive footage also a staged reconstruction.

Werner Herzog once said he no qualms about re-staging certain documentary scenes for his audiences. But in Herzog’s films, we accept this dishonesty, beacuse the entire presentation is a sort of hyper-reality. This is not so with The Road to Guantanamo. In choosing to present some scenes in news-reel format, and others as drama, director Michael Winterbottom is making a clear distinction between fact and interpretation. In doing so, he forfeits his artistic licence to meddle with the former. When he does so, he blurs the distinction he himself has highlighted. Furthermore, the audience are hardly invited to share in the conceit. The conclusion is that the film-makers are trying to fudge the issue, and mislead the audience. The result is a loss of trust.

This is a real shame, as the impact of the film depends entirely upon the viewer believing the story of the three ex-detainees, Asif Iqbal, Ruhal Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul. Watching the way the characters, stranded in Afghanistan, stumble upon a Northern Alliance roadblock and herded at gun-point towards the the US forces is plausible. Being mistaken for Al-Q’aeda is also understandable: As Brits in the wrong place at the wrong time, they drew attention from all quarters. What is difficult to reconcile is how on earth they came to be in Afghanistan in the first place. If people of Pakistani heritage do just go on jolly road-trips into a simmering war-zone, those decisions should be explained in much more detail. Life-changing whims must be accounted for.

But one senses Winterbottom and his team are in a hurry to move on, and moralise at the monstrosity of Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay. Here, the detainees are the underdogs, and you cannot help but root for them as they struggle to maintain some dignity in the face of overwhelming power. Here the film has sting, and asks genuine questions of the US methods. In one memorable scene, Rasul, played by Rizwan Ahmed, is accused of attending an Al Q’aeda rally with Osama Bin Laden in 2000. The truth could not be more banal: “That’s bullshit,” says Rasul. “In 2000, I was working in Currys.”

The film is a warning against an extra-judicial, unaccountable system of detention. This message was reinforced recently by a bizarre twist of events. Actor Rizwan Ahmed was returning from a promotional trip to Berlin, when he was detained arbitrarily by customs officials. He was not told his rights, and was illegally searched. Just like the film in which he stars, Ahmed’s story reminds us that the rule of law must prevail, if we are to maintain our civility in these difficult times.

Adverts

A correspondence on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, on the wish that advertising to children should be banned:

On days when he gets to watch TV, our relationship is instantly transformed from that of child and provider to child and denier. The kid is being manipulated and you know it – and you are too, as a parent, because the advertisers know that you – or enough of you – will eventually cave.

For a while, I have been perfecting a taxonomy of adverts. I have whittled it down to six types, with all adverts falling into one of these categories. Are there any that I’ve missed?

The Sexvert

The Sexvert says: “Buy this product, and you will get laid.” It might be disguised under some tenuous notion of marriage or male-female friendship, but that’s just a smoke-screen. All consmetic and hygene products are obviously of this type.

I’ll tell you the commercial they’d like to do, if they could, and I guarantee you, if they could, they’d do this, right here. Here’s the woman’s face, beautiful. Camera pulls back, naked breast. Camera pulls back, she’s totally naked. Legs apart. Two fingers, right here, and it just says, “Drink Coke.” Now I don’t know the connection here, but goddamn if Coke isn’t on my shopping list that week … Damned if I’m not buying these products! My teeth are rotting out of my head, I’m glued to the television, I’m as big as a fucking couch. “More Snickers, more Coke!”

And, according to Bill Hicks, junk food.

The Kidvert

The kind of ads that Andrew mentions above fall into this category, but also some aimed at adults too. Their message is “buying this product will make you a better parent.” McDonald’s put out nothing but Kidverts, and anything with a grandparent in it is actually a Kidvert in disguise.

Comedyvert

Funny adverts. Very rare. These do often overlap with Kidverts, but since they almost always involve young men making fools of themselves, I am yet to be convinced that they are not actually a sub-genre of Sexvert.

Worldvert

Also dubbed the Cynical Multinational Global Ethnic Diversity Shitvert, these are usually the preserve of faceless corporations trying to convince us that their utopia is the only one around. Purveyors include oil companies and credit-card companies. Likewise with the comedyvert, I don’t trust these not to be sophisticated sexverts in disguise – especially when young ladies in national dress are concerned.

Budgetvert

These are adverts that naively try and sell a product, usually sofas. Bless them.

The Elusive Sixth Element…

… is the car advert. Sweeping shots of rolling hillsides and mountains, flashes of lightning, tumbleweed and wild deer. How this convinces anyone that the car in question is just what they need, to drive the kids three minutes down the road to school, is totally beyond me.

Running Amok/Ambling Along

Bridge, by Tommy Perman

I recently attended the opening of Running Amok/Ambling Along, an exhibition by a friend and colleague of mine, Tommy Perman. His work centres around the idea of urban spaces, and how mandkind interacts with these environments.

At the event I was reminded of the organic nature of cities. I am entertained the thought of one set of people building something; then some other people extending it in a different archtectural style; and yet some more people knocking half the walls to reuse the space for something else. These mutated forms are what humanity has created as a collective, over centuries. They are as much a part of our history as the perfectly preserved stately homes under the control of Historic Scotland and English Heritage.

I enjoy revelling in these thoughts when I look at the antiquated prints one finds on the walls of pubs (which are themselves buildings that have gone through many uses and users). I like picking out the landmarks which remain, and the features which have been pushed aside due to the march of progress.

I see Tommy’s drawing in this tradition. Perhaps future generations will look at them, then close their eyes, and try to imagine what life was like in the twenty-first century, “the olden days”.

Narrow Definition of Web Design

This was the Star Letter in the July 2005 issue of Creative Review.

If the websites showcased recently in Creative Review are any guide to the industry as a whole, our definition of what constitutes a good website design is far too narrow. The emphasis at present seems to be purely on the visual, with websites being laid out using exactly the same rules as print design. Focus is given to ‘wow’ technologies such as Flash, while the basic rules of accessibility are ignored.

A film with immaculate cinematography may be totally let down by poor narrative structure or sound-track. Likewise, a website with an pleasing and original visual style will be let down by invalid markup, slow download times, and a lack of accessibility features (such as ‘title’ and ‘alt’ attributes to aid site visitors).

Examining the Aardman and Nike websites, showcased in the 2005 Annual, we see that neither site validates for HTML or CSS, and all the copy is presented as images – not searchable by Google or Yahoo – with no textual alternative. I can’t remember the last site featured in CR that was NOT designed to fixed dimensions, which reduces accessibility for those who may wish to enlarge the site on their screen. The end result of all these choices is that the key messages are communicated less efficiently to less people.

Designing good website visuals is not the same as designing a good website. I would encourage readers of CR to read one of the countless guides to website accessibility that exist online, and design accordingly. The ability to separate content from presentation is one of the positive aspects of the Internet. The web should be treated as a medium in itself, and not a metaphor for print.