Abstracts of and links to some academic papers I wrote at UVa relating to design. Oh how I would rethink and re-write all of them. I preserve them here for posterity, despite their scant relation to much of anything I do these days. Then again, think of how awesome the Ulysses paper could have been if the Google Maps API had been as accessible as it is now.
A Critical History of Binary Wayfinding
Written for Ian Grandison and Marlon Ross’s class on “Race, Space, Culture,” this paper is a brief inquiry into the origins of [symbol for toilets for men] and [symbol for toilets for women]. It traces their hieroglyphic antecedents from the early 20th century, contextualizes their articulation in the visual systems of the 1970s, and reflects on the intersection of gender binaries in public facilities with racial binaries in the Jim Crow era. It closes with the issue of how transgender bodies question the sexual binary that the signs inscribe on public space. The aim is to articulate an “intellectual confrontation” with the signs – a constellation of elements pertinent to a critical history of binary wayfinding.
“Wandering Rocks” as Subversive Map: Colonized Dublin and Cartographic Discourse
Why did Joyce not include a map in Ulysses? For those readers unfamiliar with Dublin proper, Joyce scholar Clive Hart began analyzing the episode in 1974 and ’75 with two intensive works of information design: a chart that cross-references the interpolated action with the locations of characters in the city and the time of day, and a set of maps – made in collaboration with Leo Knuth – depicting the streets and landmarks through which and around which the characters move. The chart, and in particular the maps, are intriguing not just for the assistance they provide in following the action of the episode. The maps remind us that there are many ways of representing the urban space of Dublin, and just as readers can critically interpret the text of “Wandering Rocks,” the practices of mapmaking and map reading are themselves critical discourses running parallel to traditional text-based interpretation.
The maps open a discussion of “Wandering Rocks” that demands as much attention to the method of interpretation as to the conclusions of that critical inquiry. Several questions arise: What kind of arguments can a critic make using a map as an interpretive device? What consequence does the abstraction of a map have on interpretation? What sort of Dublin are the critics mapping; and what sort of Dublin did Joyce map? These sorts of questions force us to think about the mapping of “Wandering Rocks” as a discursive field. I want to implicate the project of mapping the episode in a historical understanding of maps as instruments of power. “The social history of maps,” writes geographer J.B. Harley, “unlike that of literature, art, music, appears to have a few genuinely popular, alternative, or subversive modes of expression. Maps are preeminently a language of power, not of protest” (301).
“Wandering Rocks” is thus an intervention in the social history of mapping Dublin. Moreover, it is a “subversive mode of expression,” a textual remapping that we can read with and against Hart’s reordering of the fictional documentary of the city.
Blowing Stardust In Our Eyes: Digital Film Theory and Identification With Imaginary Cameras
One subtle but complicated way that movies create meaning is through the position of the camera in each scene. Logically, the position and movement of the camera determines how viewers will see the action of the film, and consequently, how they will interpret what they see. I argue that considering how the position of the camera creates meaning in the effects-laden pod racing scene in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace is especially important for two reasons. First, the sophisticated Computer Generated Imagery, CGI for short, employed in the movie—the most sophisticated use of the technology yet seen when the movie came out in 1999—demands a rethinking of how cinematography uses visual cues familiar from popular culture to make images of things that are impossible to photograph seem realistic. Second, the lessons from this reconsideration of digital effects shots work in conjunction with more traditional understandings of how the position of the camera hails viewers into a particular understanding of their relation to a visual narrative.
It Takes a Story to Tell a Language: The Grammar of Images and the Elements of Language in Paul Zelevansky’s The Book of Takes
This paper concerns a somewhat obscure artist’s book, though it represents another use of Ellen Lupton and Abbot Miller’s design theory – this time applied to interpretation of visual literature, relating the book to the graphic possibilities of the era in which Zelevansky wrote it.
The Right Tools for the Job: Advertising and visual culture as sites of contestation in the AIDS crisis
This paper on ACT UP AIDS activist graphics was my 4th-year distinguished majors thesis capping off my undergraduate English major at UVa.
The stated goals of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, were to publicize the AIDS crisis, get life-saving drugs like AZT into sick bodies, and end the crisis in general. In pursuit of these ends, they mobilized many tools – economic, scientific, and cultural. In the first section of this paper, I discuss the metaphor proposed by sociologist Ann Swidler that culture is a toolkit of symbols, discourses, and frameworks with which to make various claims about the social world. Reading an ACT UP action at the New York Stock Exchange and the Let the Record Show… installation in the Broadway window of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, I demonstrate how the activist group used each forum to publicize the crisis and critique the cultural assumptions that fueled it. I also claim that critically discussing the output of Gran Fury, the collective within ACT UP that produced some of the most recognizable political AIDS graphics, within the context of “political art” is useful only up to a point – mainly because its members explicitly stated that their intention was not to produce art. One of their most important graphics, Kissing Doesn’t Kill, owes its operative systems of meaning not simply to political art, but to Benetton advertising.
In the second section of the paper, I move into a substantial discussion of the cultural toolkit of advertising – focusing in particular on the critical possibilities that open up when we take Hal Foster’s concept of “intervention in the consumption of mediated images” and use it to read Kissing’s recoding of the visual signs present in Oliviero Toscani’s “United Colors of Benetton” campaign. Both Benetton’s ads and Kissing mobilize the ideologies of liberal multiculturalism and youthful edginess in order to hail viewers as consumers of a political lifestyle. Advertising, I argue, has become a meaningful rhetorical space – a site of cultural contestation – in which to make political claims.