Flash, Bang, Wallop

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We all know the famous image of Mohammed Ali (Cassius Clay) looming over his defeated opponent with legs astride, clenched fist, flexed muscle and snarling face clearly reveling in his moment of victory. Behind him is a row of photographers and open-mouthed spectators, which adds to the drama and importance of the scene. This iconic photograph has become cemented within popular culture (almost as recognized as the Mona Lisa) and adorns walls in thousands of homes, workplaces, bars and clubs, but why is this? The image manages to encapsulate Ali’s success in one moment and has come to symbolize victory, athletic prowess and masculinity. Taking a closer look at the photograph and analyzing its components can help us decipher exactly what it is that causes us to form links between the image and the aforementioned associations and the reason behind it’s iconic status.

Firstly, we must take a look at Ali himself. He is positioned in the very centre of the composition, therefore reinforcing his importance and focusing the viewer’s gaze upon him. His feet are planted a little wider than shoulder width resulting in his legs and upper body forming a triangle; a shape associated with strength and stability. After taking in Ali’s general shape and stature our gaze cannot help but fall onto Ali’s right arm with clenched fist that tells us it is most likely the result of a punch that was responsible for dealing the knockout blow to his felled opponent and also signifies aggression and defiance. His entire arm is also clenched tight helping to display his strength and athleticism through his rippling forearm and bulging shoulder and bicep, which also reminds us of his super-human status. As a viewer you can imagine the force and ferocity of the punch that was thrown by examining the muscular physique of Ali, reminding us of our own weakness and submitting ourselves to the role of worshipper, bowing down to the God-like Ali. The most striking aspect about Ali is his facial expression, which resembles that of a roaring lion. Staring down on his opponent with his furrowed brow and mouth agape, revealing his primitive looking mouth guard, it is a look of pure aggression. You imagine him to be unleashing a prime-evil, blood-curdling cry from deep within, demanding his adversary to ‘stay down’. It is a facial expression often seen in the animal kingdom, used to ward off rivals and enforce dominance. The absence of a referee in the photograph helps to heighten the appeal that the fight is one-on-one and tempts us as the viewer to conjure up a dramatic tension that may have occurred between the two fighters.

For all of Ali’s macho primitivism, none of it would be validated without the presence of his fallen victim. Unlike Ali who stands tall and statuesque appearing to be chiseled from stone, his opponent appears soft and limp. The fallen fighter lies flat on his back in a submissive pose that spells exhaustion, while his arms are outstretched behind his head conveying an admittance of defeat. The contrast between Ali and his fallen opponent could not be greater with Ali exploding with energy and life in comparison with his opponent who is void of emotion, an empty vessel resembling a cadaver. Both fighters symbolize life (Ali) and death (his opponent) and the age-old notion of ‘survival of the fittest’. As the viewer we know that the majority of us will never reach the physical strength and stamina, combined with skill that Ali has however, we can project our own struggles into the scene and visualize ourselves as the victor. As Ali’s opponent appears to be un-conscious we come to the conclusion that he was not just beaten but totally outmatched, boosting our perception of Ali’s brilliance.

It is the crowd of people and photographers observing the fight in the background that help to propel Ali to an enviable status of adoration. Perfectly framed between Ali’s legs you can see an elderly, balding photographer who reminds us of Ali’s current state of youthful prime and athletic perfection. To the right and behind the photographer we can see a young mans expression with mouth open in disbelief and excitement for what he has just witnessed, which solidifies our opinion as a viewer that this is an emphatic and exhilarating moment whilst also allowing us to grasp an acute example of the atmosphere in the arena created by the crowd. One man in the very far background stands up, craning his head for a better look with an expression of intense seriousness knowing that he is witnessing something he cannot miss or take his eyes off of. At ringside behind Ali we can see a squabble of photographers desperately trying to capture the moment on film, which exaggerates the feeling of privilege as a viewer that we are observing the event from the ideal perspective, enjoying the sensation of the moment in all its glory. The awestruck onlookers that are visible to us in the photograph look on Ali with admiration and wonder, elevating him above ‘regular’ people like you or I; a position the majority of us fantasize about. His public victory somehow de-maculates his opponent, which in return reinforces Ali’s masculinity and validates his success. Beyond the visible crowd is a black vacuum where the cameras flash has not been able to reach helping to form the perfect backdrop for Ali that isolates him from the public and enhances his detachment from the frenzy around him; his sole focus being his opponent.

Mohammed Ali is a charismatic boxer, well known for his witty jibes and fighting talk however in this photograph we are bear witness to his raw competitiveness and sheer domination of a sport. We inherently take on the same role as the onlookers in the photograph; thrilled and in awe of Ali. At the same time we like to imagine ourselves as Ali, fighting our own battles and being victorious with the resounding approval and reverence of those around us.

The Branson Show

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A man dressed in an inflatable sumo suit bounces on a floating trampoline in the sea; he is there as a target for multi-millionaires to fire fish-food golf balls at from a tropical beach. This is not a surreal dream but an everyday occurrence on Necker Island, a 74-acre island in the British virgin Islands. The Island’s land is entirely owned by multi-billionaire Richard Branson, who bought it in 1978 for £180,000 when he was 28 years old. Branson claims ‘It was love at first sight’ and has spent over 3 decades living on the island where he married and raised his children. When Branson bought the island it was uninhabited, today the island functions not only as his home but also as a resort/hideaway for the rich and famous who pay up to 39,000 per night for the luxury of staying there. To accommodate such demanding guests, Branson employs a team of employees; many of which reside on the island to ensure the paying guests are entertained and cared for 24/7. Having watched the BBC documentary ‘Inside Necker Island’ my theory is that Branson has created a constructed reality where he is able to live out a fantasy of paradise while choosing who he shares it with.

In the 1998 film, The Truman Show, Jim Carey plays Truman Burbank , a man who discovers he is living in a constructed reality televised globally around the clock. Since he was in the womb, all the people in Burbank’s life have been paid actors. Unlike Truman, Branson’s life is void of hidden camera’s and he is in control of his hyper reality, which he himself constructed. The actors in The Truman Show are paid to maintain delusions of reality, which is where I believe you, can draw comparisons with the staff that work on Necker Island. Each of Branson’s staff that live on the Island are young, attractive and mostly British, the latter being an obvious need for familiarity in an exotic location. In interviews for the documentary, the staff display Disneyland smiles and a unanimous rhetoric of ‘work hard, play hard’, all claiming to be fun loving and sociable. When discussing Branson, the consensus is that ‘he’s a friend, not a boss’ and ‘one of us’, something, which I’m sure is mostly true however these are people that are being paid to be his ‘friend’. Branson’s wealth enables him to distance himself from the day-to-day reality of running the island, which is organized by a general manager so not to ruin the illusion of his utopian society where everyone is equal. He has positioned himself in the role of being a guest and is therefore treated like one, although if he was he would be considered a VIP as he lives at the highest point of the island in what’s called, ‘The Great House’ with his own roof-top hot tub. Except for 3 weeks of the year, the entire island, which can hold 30 guests must be booked for a week at the small price of £280,000 making it an exclusive destination for the extremely wealthy. Branson can immediately relate to this elite club that can afford the luxury ensuring he his comfortable in their presence and once again constructs an equal community. The world-famous use the island as a retreat from the public eye, which Branson describes as ‘pulling up the drawbridge and being able to let go’. Having famous faces staying on the island may add to Branson’s fantasy in which he is seen as a savior, gifting them peace and tranquility while validating his reason’s for living there.

The physicality and nature of the island is also shaped to fit in with Branson’s vision of Utopia. At the time he purchased the island, according to his longest serving grounds man ‘it only had one little palm tree’. Since then, hundreds if not thousands of palm trees have been planted and grown with roads, restaurants and swimming pools installed all over the Island. A flamboyance of flamingos has been added to the island, which they have now adapted as their home. On camera Branson stops mid interview to gaze in awe at the flamingos then says, ‘that’s why I love it here’, allowing himself to indulge in his fantasy by choosing to believe his constructed reality. The roads, wildlife and entertainment are of course there for the benefit of the paying guests, although Branson placing himself in the role of guest and ultimately having control of the Island means that everything is tailored to his tastes. Once guests are on the Island, everything from eggs to champagne (which they call ‘Necker Water’) is all-inclusive, which means that money becomes obsolete. The non-existence of money on Necker is yet another attribute that forms the utopian dream on the Island that is only possible through the reality that all guests have pre-paid thousands of pounds. For Branson and his guests the absence of transacting money means they are able to live out a fantasy where champagne and swimming pool sushi rafts are a basic human right. It also hides them from the reality that they are ‘different’ to the majority of the world’s population, shedding them of their guilt for their lavish lifestyles.

Perhaps the most interesting people on Necker are the workers from neighbouring Island, Virgin Gorda who are employed to carry out the more menial work on Necker. They travel everyday to the island by boat and then return to their families at the end of their shift. Like the character Neo, from The Matrix they are able to dip in and out of a constructed world, working (often invisibly) on the outskirts of Necker’s community only to return to a harder yet more tangible reality back home. Proving that you must have money and status to be immersed in Branson’s fantasy of paradise, one of the cleaners was asked by the BBC documentary crew ‘what’s your favourite thing about this job?’ to which her reply was ‘when I finish my shift and go home’.

Branson claims he will spend the rest of his life on Necker Island and hates to leave it, even for small number of days. He has voluntarily institutionalized himself within a constructed utopia that can easily be maintained through his vast wealth and paying guests. Just like the naked model who was famously photographed wrapped around him kite surfing, Branson clings on to his vision of paradise while avoiding the deep waters of reality.

Fashion (Sub)Conscious

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Fashion is regarded as (like many other cultural facets) a ‘freedom of choice’. Since the end of the second world war fashion has become an increasingly intrinsic part of capitalist society as a direct result from a shift in consumer attitudes. Values of austerity and rationing were replaced with the ‘pursuit of happiness’ fuelled by consumption after the end of world war 2 and the birth of the teenager in the 1950’s. This dynamic shift in social conventions and consumer behavior has invariably seen the fashion industry go from strength to strength. The ways in which we purchase clothing have mirrored the celebration of ‘choice’; no longer restricted to shops, we now have the option of ordering clothes from the comfort of our own home through catalogues and now recently we can scan the vast expanse of the internet to browse through all of our favorite clothing stores. Even in today’s recession, fashion is a multi-billion pound industry in almost all western countries, so what is it that drives us to ‘shop ‘til we drop?’

Advertising is the dominating force that influences our consumer habits and fashion is perhaps the most reliant industry on publicity and the fears of the consumer. In ‘Ways of Seeing’, John Burger explains that the great hoardings and the publicity neon’s of the cities of capitalism are the immediate visible sign of ‘The Free World’. We have all become accustomed to gigantic billboards displaying the next range of clothes that are available for us to purchase and each billboard, will be projecting the same ideal: glamour. Berger believes that glamour cannot exist without personal, social envy being a common and widespread emotion and it is this knowledge that the fashion advertisers exploit. The people modeling the clothes are a dreamed up ‘better’ version of our future selves showing us the level of perfection we can attain if we purchase those particular garments. This ‘perfection’ can be portrayed through many guises. The models interaction with others in the photograph often dictates that they are the centre of attention, whether it’s from the opposite sex or an elite club. The location of the photograph is often luxurious, exotic or chic which propels our future selves to a more desirable location away from the grey streets the billboards look down upon.

In the essay ‘Fashion and Anxiety’ by Alison Clarke and Daniel Miller, they both collectively put forward the case that it is not just the power of advertising that persuades us to keep up with fashions. They both argue that there is an inherent anxiety deep within most of us living in the western world that is applied through social pressure. The social pressures on western women are the heaviest of all so any form of re-assurance that what a woman is wearing is ‘the right thing’ is a welcome aid. Of course this does not apply to all women however, women’s fashion magazines, which are the voice of fashion validation, are the most widely printed and successful publications, second after newspapers. Catalogues featuring Photograph’s of glamorous women modeling the clothes on offer are the perfect selling package. They allow the viewer to obtain (as Miller and Clarke explain) ‘a sense of what is going on out there’ while conveniently having order numbers, paying forms and phone lines presented so the viewer can invisibly purchase the item, only to wait for delivery. Both Clarke and Miller believe that You cannot have democratic liberty and equality without a concomitant sense of anxiety that is the precise result of that experience of freedom, which is a mirroring of John Berger’s theory that freedom of choice is what sparks consumerism. However, Clarke and Miller believe that above all (including advertisements) it is the fear of social embarrassment manifested in anxiety that determines what people wear. Similar to the ‘chicken and the egg’ conundrum, is it social pressure’s or advertising that form the nucleus of fashion buying? The truth is, one can’t survive without the other; each are locked together in an entrancing dance that keeps us rummaging into our pocket’s and planting money in the fashion industry’s metaphoric thong.

With the Internet at our fingertips it is now possible for us all to keep up with the latest trends and fashions on a daily basis, which can be updated on a minute-by minute basis by fashion bloggers and clothing brands. This means that we are given the re-assurance and opportunity to add to or completely change our personal wardrobes. Clarke and Miller explain that the re-formulation of a wardrobe or a cosmetic ‘make-over’ often marks a rite of passage (or desire to prompt such a transformative event) into a new or unchartered stage in a woman’s life. As our consumer choices grow, so do our anxieties, which can be temporarily cured by a one-click buy with next day delivery. This anxiety plaster inevitably falls off and leaves an open wound that the fashion advertisers willingly pour salt over.

The Armchair Flaneur

The following poem is inspired by the situationist’s theory of Derive, which as Guy Debord explains as the ‘technique for locomotion without a goal. It depends on the influence exerted by the setting.’ Using Kenneth Goldsmith’s (author of ‘Uncreative Writing’) ethos of harnessing the internet’s sea of information, I have performed a Derive virtually, using Google street view.

With no route or intentions, I navigated through the residential streets of Brooklyn, New York. Following an intuition and responding to the limitations of the technology I took note of my virtual surroundings.

Brooklyn

Barbed wire stretched, parked police car

Caution, men working

Folded flag

The old couple stares

On either side, piled high, black bin bags

Mottled Sunlight falls on hydrant, passing through leaves

Ill fitted jeans, shaped like a pair

Puddle at the entrance, tyre tracks

Bike locked, back wheel elevated

Leaves peppered on tarmac

When was it last collected?

Under shade in Blake Avenue

Thick arms pushing buggy

Open 24 hours, power supermarket

The orange barricade juts out

Triangle forms in steps

Hunched, white hair, anonymous

Jacket whipped by breeze, reveals stomach

Clutching purse, child is lagging

Rusted wall, metallic nails

Plant pots & traffic cones

Gate no.6

Bridge over nothing

Red hair, parked school bus

Empty playground, unjustified

Many saloons

Striped, multi-coloured

Living rooms, bedrooms, bunk beds, mattresses

Open palm, aggressive car

Lab coat, reflection

Plastic lion

Lonely hot dog vendor

Left turns from left lane only

Fallen ‘T’ on Laundromat sign

Stained road tells a story

Red hand says don’t go

Zig-zagging fire escape, clings to building

Hard hat, recycling

Holding hands

Fluorescent yellow BMX

Empty, why?

Skip full of wood, cigarette & dust mask

Diamond pattern, decorates façade

Adults still, children moving

Today’s vision is china moon

Waiting to cross

What did she drop?

Comments Please

Are the cats dying? Are they physically abused in any of these videos?

No, now shut the fuck up.

There must be something wrong with you to think that is funny.

Our cat named sweetpea loves chasing my star shaped laser pointer.

I hope the cat gets an army and rips their hearts out and pisses and shits on their faces.

Cats are disgusting vermin.

Omg is the cat with the hat ok? Laughing my arse off.

I’m not some crazy cat lady or anything.

I have composed a song for my cats.

These evil terrorists who torture the Poor cats should be locked up !!!!!

That cat is probably better at cooking than me.

Fuck this video just fuck it!!!

Happy Caterday!!

I hope the guy at 1:50 dies of ebola.

Who do you think you are bringing logic into this?

20 seconds tops is all that should have been dedicated to the cat fighting the mirror.

The part where you are pretending to shoot that poor little kitten is out of order!

You are the reason why people commit suicide.

Cats can have heart attacks too.

Cats should be put in ovens and burned to a crisp.

Everything I hate about cats can be seen in this video. Spazzy, angry, insane, void of attachment, paranoid, crazy… yeah.

Swimming Against the Tide

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In January 1964, British Graphic designer Ken Garland published the ‘First Things First’ manifesto, which was a call to arms for all designers, photographers and students to shift their efforts away from what he calls, ‘the high-pitch scream of consumerism’ towards more positive forms of design in the cultural and educational sectors. Rick Poyner gives some context to the manifesto in his responsive essay when he explains that when First Things First was written it was at a time when the British economy was booming. People of all classes were better off than ever before and jobs were easily had. Consumer goods such as TVs, washing machines, fridges, record players and cars were transforming everyday life and changing consumer expectations forever. In a market for consumer goods becoming increasingly saturated, corporations desperately trying to make their product stand out from the crowd put the role of designer on a pedestal. Garland utters the confessions of designers of the time when he writes ‘techniques and apparatus of advertising have persistently been presented to us as the most lucrative, effective and desirable means of using our talents.’ So is it possible for a designer in the 21st century to be a successful practitioner while retaining their soul?

The big bang of advertising began in the late 1950’s and has grown from strength to strength, fueling our capitalist society through publicity. Advertising is omnipresent in our daily lives, which is mirrored by John Berger in Ways of seeing who declares that In no other form of society in history has there been such a concentration of images, such a density of visual messages. Berger further explains that publicity is not merely an assembly of competing messages: it is a language in itself, which is always being used to make the same general proposal. The ability to create a visual language means that we have the ability to change it, so if we were to still think of publicity as a language then should designers be refraining from verbal diarrhea and only speak when we they have something important to say? Garland himself acknowledges the grasp of capitalism in his essay ‘Here are some things we must do’ where he ‘quarrels with anybody who claims they are unaffected by the dominant forces in capitalist society.’ A designer is one by trade and will have certain financial responsibilities that can only be supported through commercial work.

In 1931 Fortunato Deparo published a Futurist pamphlet entitled ‘The Art of Advertising’, in which he claims that Paintings of the past celebrating war, religion and even love were sales instruments. He was an evangelist in the purity of communication in advertising believing it to be ‘free from academic refrain, it is cheerfully bold, exhilarating, hygienic and optimistic. ‘ The ‘optimistic’ surface of an advert can be scraped away, revealing a more sinister, ulterior motive. According to Berger ‘the purpose of publicity is to make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life. It suggests that if they buy what it’s offering, their life will become better.’ The major difference between a 15th Century painting depicting a triumphant general on the battlefield and a contemporary advert featuring an all-conquering sportsman is the financial motive behind the latter. A 15th century viewer of the painting may have aspired to be like the general although the painting would never have promised achieving this through the purchase of some magic sword, or in the athletes case: trainers.

For some, as Berger explains, advertising is ‘closely related to certain ideas about freedom: freedom of choice for the purchaser: freedom of enterprise for the manufacturer. There is however, no mention of the freedom to say no; living in the west we have been re-wired to think that we ‘need’ the ‘improved’ version of the product we already own. In his book ‘Design as art’ Bruno Minari celebrates the designer as somebody who ‘responds to the human needs of his time, and helps people to solve certain problems without stylistic preconceptions or false notions of artistic dignity derived from the schism of the arts.’ There may be a link between Minari’s ‘needs’ and our insatiable appetite for consumerism, resulting in designers pumping out more and more publicity to match the demands of opportunistic corporations. However, is the designer some poor slave chained to their desk by evil, greedy corporations? Designers, like consumers have the right to say ‘no’ and can refuse work based on it being obsolete to culture and society. It’s fair to say that many people are involved in jobs that do no not ‘add’ anything to our culture, although I cannot think of many that have the potential to change our visual landscape. Designers have a responsibility to use their skills with the public in mind, or as Garland describes as the ‘real client’. Whether its signage for an exciting art exhibition or a poster for mouthwash, any designer (& client) worth their salt will relish the opportunity to identify with the viewer by informing in an exciting and engaging outcome.

With the addition of high speed Internet into our capitalist society, the amount of visual information we are absorbing everyday is rapidly multiplying. This visual noise is perhaps the cause of recent design trends becoming more minimal and stripped back. This is clearly a response from designers craving simplicity and sincerity, a quiet rebellion against the gaudy graphics that envelope our towns and cities. It can also be read as the designer responding to the publics need for visual purification, allowing the viewer to bask in an advertisement that doesn’t shout at you. Like any positive shift of direction in art and fashion, opportunistic corporations are jumping on the minimal bandwagon realizing that ‘less’ gets you noticed.

In our western society, according to Garland, ‘lack of financial profit is a sign of failure, no matter what’. It is this ethos, in any profession that clouds our decision-making. Garland is not calling for the abolishment of capitalism or complete boycott of commercial work as he acknowledges the tide of consumerism. At the root of his manifesto, he asks for designers to approach their work with sensitivity with the sole purpose to communicate with the public in a meaningful way. Equipped with powerful communication skills, he also asks designers to end apathy and use their talents to help raise awareness, instruct, excite and inform in projects that have a positive message at their core. Designers need to pay the rent but they also need to sleep at night.