Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

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Measuring the Impact of Art

audience

Last week I attended a high-caliber symposium co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the UK’s Cultural Value Project. They brought together a dizzying array of researchers (demographers, cognitive scientists, arts policy wonks, “recovering” academics, etc.) to discuss how we ought to measure participation in arts and culture on the local, regional, national and global scale.

“Participation” and “engagement” are key metrics for arts institutions and their funders. But the inquiry often ends right there. I think the vast majority of people in the arts – including artists and administrators – take it as a given that art has a beneficial effect on society. I happen to agree with them. Wholeheartedly. But many powerful people in this world – including those who hold the purse strings – are not necessarily convinced. Funding for the arts is paltry compared to expenditures on science, where, lo and behold, we have a lot of convincing evidence about the importance it holds for humanity. Read the rest of this entry »

Myth Girls & the Art of Making Books

For several years now, I have been on the board of an experimental literary press where we have spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to keep the printed book vibrant and alive. At Les Figues Press, we decided to publish books in unique dimensions and we coupled each author’s work with the visual work of another artist, hoping against hope that the resulting physical object would convince even the most cyber-savvy readers to purchase our special little hunks of pulverized tree.

So I contantly keep my eyes peeled for efforts to revitalize interest in the printed book. My most recent encounter with an inspiring innovation was in Medellin, Colombia, where the intrepid forces behind Proyecto Liquido – a group that explores the overlapping territory in fiction, art, science and technology – had transformed an online short story published 18 years ago into a surprisingly layered tactile experience.

With a black rubberized cover (not unlike the one on my iPad), Kij Johnson’s Chicas Miticas (Myth Girls) feels more like a machine than a book.  Everything inside is dual: from the bilingual translation (Spanish and English) to the double-sided format (the book is basically composed of two pamphlets facing one another). While one side is devoted to a disturbing tale about the terrible cost of freedom, the opposite renders the story into sleek, hyper-polished illustrations by Oscar Gonzalez, one of the five collaborators who transformed Johnson’s story into this unique material object.

If the book were simply illustrated, and bound in this surprising way, it would have been arresting enough. But three pages into the lushly animated version of this stark tale, you finally see a depiction of the main character, but only from behind, and rendered on vellum, so that you can see her ghost-like presence in two inhuman vistas, extended by a trifold. A few pages further in, you reach the material heart of the work, where lush illustrations bleed into layered vellum inserts and – I kid you not – a ripped quilted jacket is sewn directly onto the page. Read the rest of this entry »

The Politics of Personal Taste

I recently gave my fifth talk for the TED network – this time on one of my favorite projects at the Norman Lear Center, where I’m the director of research. The Lear Center has conducted many studies demonstrating that entertainment plays a key role in people’s lives, igniting curiosity, inciting conversations, and importantly, influencing attitudes and behavior.  One of my favorites was a series of U.S. national surveys that explored whether there is a correlation between entertainment preferences, what we enjoy, and political ideology, what we believe.

One thing you learn in survey research is that it’s not very helpful to ask people to label themselves politically. So we created an instrument that would diagnose the respondent’s ideology based on their responses to dozens of statements about hot-button political issues. Using statistical clustering analysis, we discovered that three groups emerged from our national sample. “Conservatives,” as we decided to call them, “liberals” and “moderates.” These same respondents were asked about their preferred leisure-time activities and their favorite radio and TV shows, Web sites, movies, games and sports and much more.

What we found is that each of these clusters had distinctly different entertainment and leisure preferences. (For a full run-down, check out our white paper.)

Now this kind of research doesn’t allow us to determine causation: I can’t tell you whether your politics determine taste or taste determines politics. But, if I had the chance to ask you enough questions, I would be able to predict your politics based on your taste. And vice versa.

I’ve always wanted to scale up this research to a global sample, where we could see what kinds of clusters emerge on a trans-national scale. Because as you know, in a networked world, culture, media, and politics are not constrained by national boundaries. So, last Fall, I leapt at the opportunity to administer a similar survey in Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring.

Working with Mobile Accord, the company that created the SMS platform for the Haiti relief effort, we administered our survey to over 2,300 Tunisians on their mobile phones. We knew that our sample would skew younger and more Internet-savvy than the general population, which would provide us with a valuable glimpse into the mindset and media habits of a population that will most likely play a leading role in shaping the future of Tunisia, and perhaps the Middle East.

Because it was a mobile phone poll, we had to make the survey much shorter. So, in order to diagnose a respondent’s ideology we decided to focus on cultural politics. We asked questions about how their religious beliefs inform their entertainment choices, and the role that they believe government should play in that negotiation.

We also included specific questions about the controversial TV airing of Persepolis, an animated film which included an image of God, and the violent protests surrounding the anti-Islamic  film, Innocence of the Muslims.

We identified three groups that fell on a spectrum from conservative to moderate to liberal. The group that most fascinated us was the largest group: conservatives. Among these young wired culturally conservative Tunisians, we found entertainment and media preferences that we would expect from liberals in the U.S.

  • “Surfing the Internet” was their favorite way of entertaining themselves (conservatives in the U.S. had chosen “reading” as their favorite.)
  • They were more into video games than reading.
  • When they do read books, they prefer romance novels and sci fi to religious texts.
  • We were amazed to discover that they were the most passionate consumers of American entertainment,
  • They demonstrated a strong preference for Hollywood films and they had less interest in local Tunisian fare than Moderates or Liberals.
  • They were also the most likely to say that U.S. entertainment has had a positive influence on the world.

So much for stereotypes about religious conservatism and anti-Americanism in the Middle East. The picture is far more complicated than you might think. The key is asking the right combination of questions on the right platform.

We know that politics are important but we tend to be dismissive about taste and the pleasures we take from TV so bad that it’s actually good. All too often we assume that entertainment is too trivial for serious critical inquiry. But I believe that entertainment preferences often go unrecognized as powerful indicators of personal and social aspirations.  And, since the Cold War, we have found over and over again that popular culture can bridge deep national and political divides in the most surprising ways. In fact, many have argued that Hollywood films and TV shows have more impact on global public opinion than our foreign policy.

We can get so caught up in looking at people through the lens of demographics and ideology that it often obscures our view of what people really care about, what gives them pleasure. And when you know that, I believe you know the most important thing you can know about anyone.

For more results of the U.S. and Tunisia surveys, check out my TEDxOrangeCounty talk, The Politics of Personal Taste. The Lear Center site offers a lot more background materials on the U.S. entertainment and politics surveys.

Sad Summer Reading

Click to see a larger image

Click to see a larger image

I love it that I’ve joined a faculty that actually indulges in summer reading. Every year, the Master of Professional Writing faculty at USC are asked what they read during the break and Dinah Lenney sums it all up in a blog. She saw a theme in her own summer list:

Two more off the top of my head: Light Years by James Salter—beautiful and sad. And A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Hopeful, but sad. Say, why do we love sad stories? How is it they actually comfort us? Or do they?

Read the rest of this entry »

When Life Meets Art: Dinah Lenney at TEDxUSC

One of my favorite performances at TEDxUSC this year was by the actress and writer Dinah Lenney, who explored the connections between life and art. I can’t help but think that her training as an actress has made her a bit more sensitive than the average writer is about the “reality” of fiction and the visceral connections it forges between representation and material existence. Through a series of poignant and funny tales, Lenney explains why it is that she is more awestruck by a painting of a tree than the tree itself. To her, it’s the human intervention, the longing to capture in art something that simply occurs in nature, that gives her a sense of awe.

I was reminded of Jean Baudrillard‘s infamous formulation of the simulacrum: he argued that a really compelling representation of something (a picture of a sunset, for instance) may all too easily become the primary referent for the real thing (e.g., the actual sunset). Whenever you find yourself saying, “Hey! That looks just like a postcard!” then you have become subject to the allure of the simulacrum. But while Baudrillard bemoans the dehumanizing aspects of this displacement — this re-placement, as it were — Lenney celebrates it. She sees how important the witnessing of that sunset actually is: a human tried to tell us about it through a postcard, and the message was received.

Viva la simulacra!

Mash-Ups in Fashion, Music & Literature

Mashup Compilation from Eduard Minobis on Vimeo.

When I think about mash-ups, I can’t help but think about Julia Kristeva and her notion of intertextuality.

The term has been used in many, many different ways since she first coined it, but, quite generally, she was using it to talk about literature and the way that it exists within not only a network of language but a network of texts. Every text, even something you wrote on a sticky note, is in dialogue with the entire linguistic system – you’ve just selected a few words from that system. Those words, of course, are weighted with meaning: they have a long history of being used by lots of other people, for lots of different purposes – both constructive and nefarious.

Now a literary text – something that’s trying to assert or achieve the status of a cultural object that deserves a reader’s consideration (something more refined than your sticky note) – is part of a network of language and also a network of previous texts. Kristeva was very interested in how it is that the meaning of a piece of literature is produced in the mind of a reader, who cannot help but situate their understanding of that text in a larger context, one that includes what they’ve read before and what the writer is both self-consciously and unconsciously referencing.

If you think about it, the process of writing anything could be described as the process of sampling. Read the rest of this entry »

How Storytelling Civilizes Us

I knew I had to write something in response to A. O. Scott’s Sunday New York Times piece about all the movies out right now which give an insider’s perspective on industries that we find fascinating. Moneyball and Margin Call were two of the films that inspired him to write about our perennial interest in lifting the veil and seeing what’s really going on inside baseball and Wall Street.

I don’t think the irony was lost on Scott that we like to turn to pieces of fiction in order to get the real story. And some poststructuralist scholars might tell you it’s as good a place as any to look for the truth. But I don’t think that Scott went as far as he could in establishing the tremendous power that commercial storytelling has in influencing individual attitudes and, if it’s enough of a cultural juggernaut, public opinion. We may not care to admit the degree to which our knowledge of the Holocaust, for instance, is dependent on Hollywood’s depiction of it, but often these well-produced, tightly scripted fictional narratives can do more than entertain us for a couple hours, they can fill in the blanks in our knowledge. Just think about how much you learned about global pandemics in Contagion, cancer in 50/50, the founding of Facebook in Social Network and Jim Crow in The HelpRead the rest of this entry »

Let Me Infotain You

Click on the image to see an animated version of this art by Sykotik Scarecrow.

In April of this year, I attended Fractal’11, a truly unique conference in Medellin, Colombia, that explored the convergence of fiction, art, science and technology. The event was the perfect forum for me to talk about my winding career path, which began in an English PhD program, meandered through a Web start-up and an international multimedia company and deposited me, quite happily at the Norman Lear Center

One of the many fascinating themes of the conference (I explored several others here) was the appeal of infotainment, material that serves two seemingly unrelated purposes: to occupy attention agreeably (as the Oxford English Dictionary defines “entertainment”) and to transmit practical information that may just contribute to your survival. 

My talk about Entertainment as Virtual Reality focused on the ways in which entertainment – catchy pop songs, video games, movies, opera, toys, etc. – could be understood as simulations, little virtual reality machines that allow us to test our ideas about the world in safe, artificial spaces. Regardless of how distracting a cultural object may be, it is also a powerful transmitter of information about our world, and it can have a surprisingly profound impact on our lives well outside the movie theater, concert hall or American Girls store. Read the rest of this entry »

The Waste Land Was Made For Multimedia

Touch Press has just released an iPad app for T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land . . . and it’s about time. Collage and montage, those signature modernist sensibilities so evident in The Waste Land, have experienced an overwhelming renaissance in our digital age, where virtually anyone can copy, paste, remix and re-cut our cultural and historical heritage. It is only fitting that 21st century readers grapple with The Waste Land in an interactive, multimedia format.

As a founding member of Mrs. Porter’s Literary & Arts Salon, I’ve delivered more than twenty presentations on The Waste Land, and I have taken great pleasure in matching up the cut and paste aesthetic of the poem with my multimedia  presentations. Mrs. Porter is actually a character from the poem and, over the years, I’ve come to focus on a sonnet length section in which she appears (lines 193 – 206 in “The Fire Sermon”). Most recently, I have been using classic Oulipian constraint-based methods to further ventilate those 14 hardworking lines, partly to see whether my analysis holds sway even as the poem evolves into other versions of itself. I’m kind of surprised to discover that it has.

You can read two of my “re-writings” of this passage from “The Fire Sermon” on the Les Figues Press blog:

Mrs. Porter: Constrained (Part I)

Mrs. Porter: Constrained (Part II)

Nonfiction Books = Reality TV?

This weekend, I can’t imagine I was I the only one who noticed a strange thing in the best seller book lists. Both in the LA Times and the NY Times, a truly ragtag group of celebrities – Tina Fey, Steven Tyler, Rob Lowe and Betty White – dominated nonfiction hardcover book sales for the first week of May. The top ten was rounded out with new books by the (clearly) irrepressible Dick Van Dyke and Shania Twain (in the NY Times) and, in the LA Times, along with Van Dyke, we found the equally energetic Shirley MacLaine . . . and yet another book about Cary Grant.

Has the nonfiction book list become the publishing industry equivalent to reality TV?

No one bats an eye anymore when a celebrity dominates discussions about a political election or a natural disaster or an international health crisis. We’ve grown used to these incursions and the optimistic among us just hope that a little glitter and razzmatazz will attract constructive attention to difficult social issues. But perhaps our apathy about the way that entertainment has weaseled its way into just about every aspect of modern life will end once we’ve started to notice how beholden our notions of reality are to celebrity takes on them. 

Is it all that bad that one of the more brilliant TV comedy writers of our generation sits atop our nonfiction best seller lists? Not necessarily. But the relentless drive within every media sector to find “built-in audiences” by attaching their formidable resources to pre-made media stars like Fey may start to wear thin as we realize that the books that might be telling us about our shared history are edged to the side by reminiscences about life inside the media bubble . . . which is increasingly becoming the only reality that really counts.

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