Monday, 7 January 2008

The Digital Art of Memory

Stella Artois 'Memory Palaces' from Commerical Archive

“Storytelling,” the screenwriter Robert McKee once wrote “is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” His is a sentiment shared by most global brands. Strong brands are those that have strong stories to tell. “The more coherent and compelling your brand story,” Mark Thomson tells us in Crafting a Compelling Brand story, “the more it will power the success of your enterprise.”
The key purpose of branding is of course to create a strong set of easily recalled associations in the memory of the consumer. And to this end, stories are incredibly efficient ways of doing this. They are well known mnemonic devices. Before the advent of writing, oral societies used narratives as a way to memorise and preserve information about their cultures and their past. Even today, psychologists list narrative as one of the four strategic techniques used by the human brain to remember clusters of information effectively. No wonder then, that stories have become such integral parts of most brands’ existences.

But as story expert Sam Keen reminds us in Story Lore, we are perhaps a society fast approaching our narrative limit. “We are the first generation bombarded with so many stories from so many authorities,” he tells us that, “in a sense, we are saturated with stories.” The world of narrative is becoming just as cluttered as the world of commercial messaging. The fact that the average person can receive anywhere up to 3,000 commercial messages a day is a statistic that has been bandied about the advertising industry for quite a while now. But what about the sheer number of narratives we encounter on an average day? We are bombarded with stories from the news, our friends, work, television shows, radio shows; in fact when you stop and think about it the list is enormous. And brands themselves have numerous stories to tell; not only is there the overall brand story but a wealth of individual product stories as well, not to mention the increasing number of consumer-generated stories on top of these. Keen could well be right. We are a society on the verge of saturation point when it comes to stories.

But narrative was of course not the only mnemonic device used by our ancestors to link together and memorise pieces of information. They used spatial devices as well. The Romans for instance, famously constructed so-called “memory palaces” in order to remember complex stories, fables and speeches; a process also known as The Method of Loci. The imagined loci were physical locations, usually large familiar public buildings. To utilise the method, you would walk through the building several times in your mind's eye, viewing distinct places within it. After a few repetitions of this, you would be able to remember and visualise each of the places. To then memorise a speech or a story, you would break it up into small pieces. Each piece would be represented by an imagined object or symbol and then placed into particular places within the imagined loci. Each piece could then be recalled, simply by imagining that you were walking through the building again, visiting each of the loci and viewing each of the images that were placed in the loci.

Indeed, this technique did not simply disappear with the collapse of the Roman Empire. It is still very much in use today. Brands quite often use spatial mnemonic linking devices; a few years ago for example Stella Artois created a series of posters designed to strengthen the brand’s association with film. The posters functioned like 2D memory palaces; objects that symbolised famous films were placed in various loci around an everyday, public scene such as a street or a beach. In effect the brand was creating miniature Stella Artois memory palaces for us to wander around and recall well-known stories. This technique has, not surprisingly found its way into the digital arena; M&M's with their Dark M&Ms viral puzzle, Virgin Digital with their 20 greatest bands puzzle and Absolut Vodka with their 82 bottle search. By creating virtual memory places, all three brands were able to associate and link themselves with a wealth of stories and tales.

In today's cluttered world, branded memory palaces (or places; they can, according to psychologist’s be any place, even a town) can offer consumers a way to organise, store, memorise and navigate the myriad of stories and associations that are thrown at them by brands. Indeed one of the strongest brands around today is one already conceptualised by most of us as a town; Nike is now almost synonymous with the concept of a ‘Niketown.’ Conceptualising a brand as a place rather than as a personality has a distinct advantage when it comes to recall. "Our spatial memory" remarks Steven Johnson in Emergence "is more powerful than our textual memory." It is easier to conceptualise and memorise a brand as a place than to memorise what it says. Indeed, Marlboro, one of the strongest brands of the 20th century wasn’t just a brand. It was a country.

“To a large degree,” Mark Thomson writes, “crafting a good brand story is about applying the lessons we’ve always known. Remember the tales we used to love as children?" This is an interesting bit of advice. I don't think it is any co-incidence that the stories we remember most vividly from our childhoods are more often than not, spatial stories; Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and of course, Harry Potter to name but a few of the most famous. These are all examples of stories that take the reader on a journey through landscapes filled with weird and wonderful objects; giant bong smoking caterpillars sat on toadstools, crocodiles with clocks in them, talking beavers and yellow brick roads. Perhaps this is something brands are beginning to cotton on to, using on-line environments to create weird and wonderful spatial journeys. The more unusual the objects associated with your brand stories or products, the more likely people are to remember them as they pass through - just as in The Method of Loci.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Negative Cyberspace

Image from Wikipedia

The notion of
negative space has been around in photography and art for a long time. The most famous example is of course Rubin’s vase (above). Negative space is the space around an object. It defines the very form of the object we perceive as positive space.

In traditional Japanese art negative space is often prioritised, a technique known as ‘ma.’ What is interesting is that increasingly this concept is not just limited to Japanese art, photography or modern art. The concept of ‘ma’ has begun to find its way onto the web, via film trailers; spoof film trailers are almost a genre on Youtube these days. Thousands of them float around the web. But they are arguably a kind of experiment with negative space; the space surrounding an object (in this case a film) that doesn’t actually exist. (Like the white space in Rubin's black and white image.) We are fascinated by them. Indeed one of the most talked about things in the wake of the release of Taratino’s Death Proof (rather than it’s original Grindhouse) is the fact that by releasing Rodriguez’s and Tarantino’s two movies as separate entities, a series of
spoof trailers commissioned by the two directors have been axed as a result. According to John Patterson “the real loss here is the fake trailers that Tarantino and Rodriguez inserted before and between their retro-sleaze classics.”

We are it seems drawn to negative space, drawn to the ‘fake’ and what is in fact not there. It is a creative force; as the modernist sculptor Alexander Archipenko once said "it is not exactly the presence of a thing but rather the absence of it that becomes the cause and impulse for creative motivation." (Quoted by Grace Glueck, New York Times, April 14, 2005). The critics want to see the trailers for films that do not exist more than they do the films that do exist.

It is no wonder then, that Trailer Trashing is still a hot phenomenon in the digital world. Trailers are after all, simply ‘the object’ (the story of the film) surrounded by a load negative space (music, voice-overs etc.) which sets the tone and thus define the shape of the object/film story for us. Trailer trashing simply finds new meaning in this negative space by altering or playing up the background that defines the form of the object. The trashed version of
Sleepless in Seattle is a perfect example of this. It is the background ‘negative space’ surrounding the clips in this trailer that transforms it into a horror movie instead of a romance; or in other words, leads us to start to seeing faces instead of vases.

The creation of negative space is an important part of remix culture. We are just as intrigued by hidden faces as we are by vases.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Make music, not war

Image from Focus

A few weeks ago Sir Elton caused controversy, declaring that the web is destroying music and should be closed down. “The internet” he said, “has stopped people from going out and being with each other, creating stuff.”

But has it? People may sit at home on their own creating music, as Elton sees it, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude collaboration. In fact, arguably the very nature of the internet lends itself to collaboration. As William Gibson pointed out, “remix is the very nature of the digital.” And with remix comes both collaboration and new ideas. Indeed with the arrival of powerful PCs in the 1990s came the arrival of the music mash-up, “an unofficial remix created by "underground remixers" who edit two or more recordings (often of wildly different songs) together.” (From There are some fantastic mash-ups out there. If Sir Elton is calling for collaboration, isn’t the mash-up a type of collaborative creation?

What is so brilliant about this type of virtual collaboration is that they are more often than not made between ‘wildly different’ songs and artists - the kind of collaborations that would never be made in the real world. I mean imagine contract negotiations that would have to be made between Kylie and The Prodigy before you’d have got
Slow My Bitch Up. But back to Sir Elton’s rant for a sec:

We’re talking about things that are going to change the world and change the way people listen to music and that’s not going to happen with people blogging on the internet… Let’s get out in the streets and march and protest instead of sitting at home and blogging.”

Of course someone who has being doing just that of late is
Peter Tatchell. He has been up in arms, out on those streets, marching, protesting and shouting against the homophobia found in the lyrics of some reggae artists. His efforts have finally resulted in Buju Banton agreeing to ditch homophobic lyrics - but only through fear of slumping record sales. It seems a rather hollow victory, won by money rather than any real change in the world. And yet away from all that there’s Eminem (who let’s face it probably doesn’t own a copy of Brokeback Mountain) sampling Elton on Ghetto Gospel, a homage to Tupac Shakur. The world of sampling and remix is a world built to bring polarised elements together. Eminem’s haunting use of Elton’s voice on the Ghetto Gospel track surely speaks more volumes in the effort to get homosexuality accepted in some communities than simply by holding people over a financial barrel.

It’s not exactly rocket science. Getting people together is the first step in breaking down barriers and prejudices. And the beauty of the music mash-up is that the more diverse and polarised the collaborations are, the better they tend to work. It is a medium set up to bring the polarised together. Now for that reason alone, surely Elton should rethink his comments.

Friday, 10 August 2007

The Gay Jean; Levis and gay remixing

Image from Rotten Tomatoes

According to Adage, Levis’ have made two versions of their latest ad; one straight, one gay. It’s an interesting approach. And it begs the question, are we going to see more brands remixing adverts for the gay population? After all, it is when you think about it no different to the kind of localisation of campaigns that brands already do; re-shooting (or photo-shopping) different versions of the same adverts to fit different markets. Nokia did a similar thing a while back, offering two versions of the same advert – bizarrely one for the straight population in Germany and one for the gay population in other markets.

Significantly, this kind of ‘gay remixing’ or (gay ‘B-side’ if you will) is something that consumers are already doing; both with adverts but more frequently with movie trailers. Back in 2005 the phenomenon known as ‘Trailer Trashing’ took the internet by storm. Classic film trailers were cut-up and new and different stories created simply by editing the order and context of the clips. What was interesting about the phenomenon however, was the sheer numbers of gay parodies that were created. ‘Gay Trashing’ became an almost sub-genre of the trailer trashing trend. Indeed last year Virginia Heffernan reported in the
New York Times on the vast number of Brokeback Mountain mash-ups that appeared in the wake of the movie’s release. “Online parodies of the gay-cowboy movie” she declared were “proliferating faster than the curatorial video sites…can keep up with them.” Suddenly a host of old films were being re-crafted through a gay lens. Original dialogue was being re-contextualised and repurposed in order to hint at gay subtexts. We ended up with trailers for fictional films such as Point Breakback and The Empire Breaks Back. There are hundreds of examples floating around the web. Heffernan points out that although some may be crass and clumsy, others however are surprisingly slick and “as commentary on the forms and ceremonies of proto-gay relationships, they’re surprisingly sharp, and worth taking seriously.” And it didn’t just stop with Brokeback mash-ups. Since the trailer trashing phenomenon began the number of stories being remixed into tales of homosexual desire has rocketed. Some of the best include Top Gun Recut and the beautifully named, The Fast and the Curious.

So why the fascination with gay remixing? Well, stories are how we define ourselves, our history and culture. Ursula LeGuinhow once said “there have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” Stories are an integral part of our cultural identities. And yet tales of homosexuality are few and far between – it is only in the last few decades that gay texts have actually been allowed to enter the mainstream literature. (Oscar Wilde was on trial not so many years ago) Which begs the question just how many gay stories have been lost and suppressed over the years? How many have been locked away or silenced? Some critics for example argue that Terrance Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea was originally written as a tale of gay desire, later lost under a veneer of heterosexuality for reasons of acceptability. Whether this is true or not, there is certainly a huge unwritten and unspoken history to gay culture, a myriad of lost stories that will forever remain unpublished.

What the remix nature of the web perhaps demonstrates is a cultural need to reclaim the lost stories of the past, to find voices in the silences and re-assess the tales of our past. Indeed many of the most high-profile gay stories are set in past eras; Sarah Walter’s Tipping the Velvet in Victorian London, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion in Napoleonic Venice, and E Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain in 1960’s Wyoming. Levis’ are arguably well poised to take advantage of the fascination we have with gay remixing – what could be easier for example than some sort of ‘Twisted Originals’ site where old iconic Levis ads are remixed into gay versions; Brad Pitt eyed up by a guy at a pool table, or a girl watching an Amazonian bodied woman rising out of the river as she clutches what she thinks are her jeans.

Now that would give Diesel a real run for their pink money.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Sewing and the cut and paste generation

Image from ibiblio

This week
Wired has been discussing the furore surrounding Andrew Keen’s new book and his attack on what he calls ‘the cut and paste generation.’ The basic premise of Keen’s argument is that kids are more likely to blindly cut and paste information these days because the internet makes it so easy to do so – which perhaps has some validity; indeed in The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell suggests that it is “the power of context” that is the key motivating factor when it comes to school cheating.

But ‘school assignments’ are only one dimension of the cut and paste technique. It is in fact perhaps just an updated version of the way we have always treated language – as a recombinant entity. Oral culture for example has long been closely associated with the art of sewing. We stitch pre-fabricated parts together. The word ‘text’ is itself derived from the Latin word ‘textere’ meaning to ‘weave;’ and the word 'rhapsody' literally means ‘to stitch together’ in Greek. At some levels then, cutting and pasting is simply a new way of cutting and sewing – a recombinant process we’ve been using for generations. American storytelling for example is closely linked with
quilting – an art involving the stitching together of pieces of fabric.

I think the important point in all this however is the fluidity of meaning. The interesting bit of cutting and pasting (as with cutting and stitching) is how we join what we have together. Cutting and pasting, cutting and re-assembling allows us to create new meanings, discover hidden meanings and to weave elements together to form completely different texts – something literature has long been interested in.
William Burroughs was one of the first to experiment with this Technique in Naked Lunch. And more recently in Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace, Grace rather significantly sits sewing as she recounts her version of the brutal murder of which she is accused, ultimately perhaps managing to convince those around her of her innocence. The narrative thread is very powerful thing – if we can claim to be “stitched-up” Atwood’s novel illustrates the power of re-stitching, of the way we can alter meaning simply by stitching pre-fabricated parts together in a different way.

The beauty of the digital arena is that it makes this process accessible. “I am a language costumier”
Jeanette Winterson tells us in The.Powerbook a novel about virtual worlds and the fluidity of meaning and identity. The same stories and words can be re-stitched into different forms night after night. Indeed arguably many of the “cut and paste generation” are highly aware of the fluidity of text and manipulative power of the narrative thread. Youtube is full of evidence of a generation wise to the fact that simply by weaving together the same words or ‘texts’ in a certain way can create completely new meanings – which may perhaps be one reason why we are beginning to hear about the so-called end of political spin on the web. Whilst some of the cut and paste generation maybe little more than digital kleptos, others have cottoned on to the fact that the way pieces of texts are stitched or pasted together is in fact of utmost importance and interest.

Monday, 18 June 2007

They do things differently there

Image from Wikipedia

It is often the case that many of the seemingly new features emerging in the digital world actually have their roots in literary techniques and movements of the last century. A case in point is the ‘mash-up.’ In her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf created a new novelistic structure in which her prose blurred the distinction between dream and reality and more importantly between the past and present. James Joyce had pioneered a similar narrative structure with Ulysses a few years earlier. As extreme as these narrative experiments seemed to the rest of the literary world, this is of course exactly how human beings actually function. “I tend to live in the past” Herb Caen once said “because most of my life is there.” We simultaneously flow from the conscious to the unconscious, from the fantastic to the real, and from memory to the present moment. Woolf’s prose was noted for its ability to flow seamlessly from one to the other, over-laying the past with the present – the very basis of the modern-day mash-up.

There is an over-whelming sense of loss and sadness that permeates Mrs. Dalloway. An irreparable gulf seems to erupt between the idealistic potential once held in the past moment and the banal, deadening reality of the present moment – interestingly a similar disconnect found in many of the mash-ups that now appear on Youtube. One of the most popular sub-genres of mash-up culture is a kind of childhood brand bashing – we mash figures and brands from the memories of our childhood with the darker grittiness of those we now meet in the present-day moment;
Thomas the Tank Engine meets 50 cent and Grand Theft Auto invades Lego City. Behind the humour there is in many of these mash-ups a similar disconnect to the one that Woolf attempted to capture – the unnerving gulf between an idealistic past when our lives were full of promise and innocence, and the present where a darker, harsher reality now pervades.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

What are you doing? Going to the dentist?

Image from Wikipedia

Twitter has caused a lot of interest recently. Just why on earth do we feel the need to tell everyone what we are doing? As Advertising Age reports, most of what appears on Twitter is for the large part mundane, an “inane, piecemeal and ultra fleeting" commentary on life.

Which may well be true. But Twitter is perhaps, more significantly, a product of a recent shift in our perception of our culture and therefore history. Alan Moore and Tomi T Ahonen have long argued that with the rise of the internet and Web 2.0 we have seen the rise (or return) of
folk culture. We have it would seem, repossessed culture, claiming it as our own collective creation. And if this is the case, then such a shift does of course impact not only popular culture but politics and history as well. If folk power is on the rise, then all areas of social study are bound to be affected – especially history. In 2001 for instance, SMS helped to bring down the Filipino President Joseph Estrada. Reports say that text messages accelerated the scandal-ridden Estrada's exit by two months to two years. Suddenly the power of a connected folk culture was immense.

One view of history is that great men and institutions cause great events and make great decisions. But another view is of course that history is little more than a series of random, chance acts, a view based largely on the chaos theory – the notion that major events are, contrary to perceived wisdom, actually triggered by completely random occurrences that our traditional, institutionalised and lineal view of history has not recorded. Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys plays around with this theme; history, Bennett seems to suggest is little more than a series of random accidents. According to
Nicholas Hytner, the play's original director, "it is the theory of history that says that if the Archduke Ferdinand had not gone to Sarajevo that day, the war would not have happened. The theory that if Halifax hadn't gone to the dentist, Churchill would not have become prime minister and we would have lost the war."

Which brings us back to Twitter where interestingly two of its most recent members are
presidential candidates updating us on their day to day lives. Could it be then, that Twitter is a kind of folk history tool? A record and map of butterfly flutters? Maybe in years to come we will look back to these updates as a resource to explain the possible random roots of a major event. Who knows what a seemingly innocuous trip to the dentist by one of these candidates may trigger in the following months?

With the rise of ‘folk culture,’ inevitably comes the rise of folk history – the notion that we are all somehow, without realising it, responsible for and part of major events. We are, after all, separated from each other by only
six other people. We have never lived in a time when we are so connected to each other. Even our smallest actions then, may well have knock on consequences that we can never fully know or appreciate. We are all butterflies in a chaotic world. Who knows which tiny flutters really trigger major events? Indeed, one of the first questions we tend to ask when it comes to recent history is what were you doing? and where were you when… For some reason we have an urge to locate ourselves, to weave ourselves into some incomprehensible web around events in the recent past. This overwhelming belief that we are all somehow connected in a chaotic web, is something currently being explored in other areas of popular culture; Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s recent thriller Babel and Paul Haggis’ 2004 film Crash are both stories in which major events are triggered by little flutters, amplified by the chaotic and complex web of human actions. Literature has of course also long explored a similar notion: one way to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is to see the failure of Friar John to inform Juliet of her lover’s plan as the cause of the tragedy. The actions of Verona’s health officials lead to the tragic death of a pair of young lovers.

Twitter could then perhaps just as easily be called Flutter because it is in some respects a response to a chaotic, folk view of history; an attempt to somehow weave this web of human chaos that we all feel inextricably part of. It is after all, an application built on the very question “what are you doing?” It taps into this notion that somehow we are all part of the same complex human web and as such it comes as no surprise that not long after it began, Twitter updates began to include those from the
BBC and other major news broadcasters as well. As a result applications like Twittervision now map major events alongside mundane ones; butterfly flutters mapped alongside turbulent storms.