Edited photograph of my peers to resemble promotional materials for the film: ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug‘, with a superimposed dragon, light adjustments, and titles to create the authentic atmosphere of a fantasy, embedded in a virtual reality.
Edited photograph displayed online on Facebook across from the original image.
The Desolation (of Jamie) is an edited photograph of my peers to resemble promotional materials for the film: ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug‘ [Jackson, 2013], with a superimposed dragon, light adjustments, and titles to create the authentic atmosphere of a fantasy, embedded in a virtual reality – displayed online on Facebook across from the original image. [Original Photograph: James Jellings, Image Rights: Henry Driver, primary figure: Jamie Smith]
This came about after browsing through the photographs taken at a particular social occasion that took place in an Undercroft in Norwich (that has a mystical aesthetic), and this image seemed to call out for editing, due to the extraordinary expression on the two figures on the left, and the large amount of negative space on the right and in the centre of the image. I decided to superimpose the image of a dragon’s head into this space (in place of the individual miming playing the Jazz trumpet), more specifically, the head of Smaug from the recent Hobbit film that was popularly distributed, taken from existing promotional materials and advertisements for the film.
In order to create the main image for this piece, the original picture; that of the dragon and the text were downloaded. The main image I had received permission from the owner of the image to use (though this was not the photographer, but the individual who commissioned them), but not explicitly from the people involved (though, as they are peers, I assumed that they would not object), however as the images are online, then theoretically anyone is at liberty to view the image, and alter it in any way without much fear of reprisal. Indeed, “postproduction transformation of the image is considerably stronger in the digital realm, where retouching and compositing are so easily accomplished” [Ritchin, 2013: 49].
I then isolated the image of the dragon’s head from the background, and superimposed onto the image of the figure, forming the basis of the Post-Pop-Surrealist: Net-Art collage. I then altered the background to form a continuum between the images, using a combination of the available elements, mostly the orange and black patches of smoke, before blurring some sections of the image for faux-dramatic effect. Before added the text; which had its own background which I erased the edges of before fading through its lighter tones onto the dark image.
Moreover, throughout the process of making the image, I made a number of colour adjustment and texture modifications to create a singular fluid image, rather than three completely severed iconographies. Which I then exported as a single image, and uploaded; to be shown alongside the original image on Facebook.
However, as the CGI dragon was high resolution and quality than the digital photograph, in order “To achieve […] integration, [the] computer-generated images had to be degraded; their perfection had to be diluted to match the imperfection of film’s graininess.” [Manovich, 2001: 202] This involved overlaying noise across the whole picture, along with the various colour adjustments done in order to create a unified and fluid colour and light palette (using high-contrast exposure, with heavily saturated orange and green tones), which gives the impression of both images existing in the same space (much as applying the same level of reverb to two sound recording can give them the impression of coexisting).
Dragons: Myth as Multi-Generational Meme
It could be argued that the “the dragon is a polyvalent symbol. One that changes according to each mythology but retains its universal power. An archetype of sorts.” [Del Toro, 2008: 6] That it has become, like all long lasting legends, a form of multi-generational; age old meme, which has been planted in culture, parasitizing society, “turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.” [Dawkins, 1976] The fantastical creature of the Dragon is symbolic of a perpetuated fiction; of long-running myology and human imagination, that occur on the fringes of reality in meta-historical accounts (such as the legend of St. George, or the epic accounts of Beowulf, or that of Sigurd and Fafnir, that directly influenced the modern tale of Bilbo and Smaug in The Hobbit [Tolkien, 1937] which I draw upon in this piece).
In other words, the dragon could function as metaphorically exemplifying a most pervasive of cultural objects; a trans-generational meme. “The basic concept of the dragon is familiar all over the world, but there are infinite variations.” Nevertheless, one can no longer generate a mental image without the affects of the influx of new media, and the effects of contextualisation on the interpretation and memory of an event or image as a product of environment. One image cannot be thought of without the presence over ever other picture in mind, without the consequential impact of the semantic interpretation, and the “vulnerability to imagery – just how much of what you consider your own personal vision is really yours, and how much is inherited or absorbed.” [Howe, 2008: 9-10] It could therefore be argue that even one’s own mental image is not wholly, or even partially, the product of an individual creative access to their intellectual property, but rather in unavoidably manipulated by the workings and products of others as part of the network; of society.
Dragons serve as a continual fascination; not because they are especially wondrous creatures, but they embody a anthropological archaeology of how people attempt to understand their perceptions of the world through the ages, how they produce fiction to fill in when an direct explanation is unavailable, and how this ideas saturate into culture, metamorphosising as memes with every transgression, exchange and mediation. They are a recurrent element in the archive of human folklore; and epitomise the reused symbol, without one fixed formed, but multi-faceted and permanently incomplete, and ever expanding. “Their size is infinite and their form unknown, yet the dragon is a powerful symbol in every culture.” [Howe, 2008: 22] Such mythology is sustained through its multiple authors and constant re-authoring, not unlike the text, which functions as “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” [Barthes, 1967; 142]
As an idea, dragons are fascinating symbols as they are an large example of an abstract, incorporeal subject that manages to sustain fascination without a physically embodied object grounded in a reality outside of the psyche. Their multiplicity is their truly remarkable feature, and their continual transformation through human interfacing, much as the mass dissemination of a single unique point of reference may be mediated and distributed without dilution but an increasingly expanded grounding; a great lie that may seem more tangible and real than a concrete subject.
They remain a source of interest as they are a highly interconnected cultural object, part of “a long tradition of stories”, with its “formes varyous” [Howe, 2008: 53, 14] could function as an effective symbol for Modernity, especially late/post-Modernity, with the increasing reliance on simultaneously referencing innumerable sources, including itself, whilst constantly insisting upon its originality and uniqueness. Much as “new media objects are rarely created completely from scratch; usually they are assembled from ready-made parts.” [Manovich, 2001: 124].
Indeed, such myths not only function of a form of sociological archive and indicators of the past trajectory, but they also function as an extension of man, as part of their society; both as a subject and a media/mode of transmission, and “any extension, whether of skin, hand, or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex.” [Mcluhan, 1964: 4] This piece, with it juxtaposing of fantasy and reality; the digital image and the photograph (both representational media, products of remediation); thereby fuses the unreal and the real; not creating a new authenticity, but undermining both, making the life-like photographic representation of the human figure seem as unreal as the electronic creature it is set against within a unified visual environment; a single image, creating a confusion of realities.
This could be compared to the neo-fascist Golden Dawn political party of Greece, whose title sounds like something from a fantasy novel, whom, for those outside the areas directly affected by their actions, only exist as a product of the reporting new media; with a tangible body, yet referred to in a wholly factual manner. Not unlike the 1938 radio production of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds by directed by Orson Welles: a science-fiction drama presented in the form of a news bullet in that is said to have confused some of the American audiences into thinking that it was in fact a real radio report on a Martian invasion, [Brinkley, 2010: 615] an example of the media format causing a fictional hyperreality that was misconstrued as a real world event; as the simulation resembled reality so vividly, that the seemingly impossible became a perceived actuality for a small section of the invasion-paranoid minds of members of the USA Depression-Era audience.
Much as the later dramas of Invasion of the Body Snatchers [Siegel, 1956] foreshadowed and echoed the paranoid delusions of the Red Threat; that of the sense of a Communist threat in Cold-War Era West. Similarly, “all debates about UFO films and photographs turn on the question of transparency.” [Bolter, 2000: 71] All experience are mediated to some degree, even those experienced first-hand are influenced by personal biases and the unique workings of the individual’s mind and the optics of their eyes. It is necessary to question the decision and difference as to why a media is presented as transparent or opaque; implicit or explicit – and in what way the presenter is moderating and modifying the subject by their decision to make the act of alteration obvious or hidden, and to question the motivation behind this decision. In the case of this piece, the mediation is made explicit by the inclusion of text in the foreground, and the unambiguously fantastical image of the dragon’s head, set against human portrait; in order to focus the viewer on the mediation and the verisimilitude of synthetic imagery.
Similarly, “during World War I, two young girls took pictures with cardboard cutouts and manage to convince much of the English public that fairies existed.” [Bolter, 2000: 106] The Cottingley Fairies Photographs (Wright, 1917) serves as example how even basic modifications to the expected reality of a photographic image can deceive an audience. Much as Wells/Welles did through the medium of the radio, however, this example mostly highlights the naivety of an audience at the start of the last century when film photography was a relatively new invention, so people were less prone to be suspicious of the deception of its surface. Nevertheless, the secure authenticity of the photograph has since been undermined, as “for a century and half photographic evidence seemed unassailably probative. […] An interlude of false innocence has passed.” [Mitchell, 1994: 225] Today, the viewer has a duty to question the truthfulness of any image seen and to question its agenda, given the ease of photographic modification.
The dragon is a useful symbol for the unreal; in terms of the digital simulation, escapism, and the hyperrealilty that digital imagery allows, where impossible elements can be generated, or existing elements can be juxtaposed together to create a sense of unreality. “They are the perfect illustrations of the desire and need to make sense of occurrences beyond human understanding. […] They embody parts of us we can never be rid of and which we can never fully realize. […] They are Freudian and, better still, eminently Jungian.” [Howe, 2008: 54, 126] It is worth noting that along with The Hobbit, (from which the dragon in the piece is sourced), “Tolkien’s [The Lord of the Rings] […] describe a world of fantastic events and characters with a photorealistic attention to detail, the text calls attention to itself with its antiquated prose and poetry.” [Bolter, 2000: 94] Retrospectively, such literature takes on a self-awareness of text that echoes the sentiments of post-modernity, and the criticality of explicit remediation of narrative.
Much as “Synthetic computer-generated imagery is not an inferior representation of our reality, but a realistic representation of a different reality” [Manovich, 2001: 202] the escapist fantasy is no less real in the mind than the perceived reality, but the individual is still capable of drawing a distinction between what is real and unreal. Should this differentiation become problematic, the individual is said to be experiencing hallucinations. Historically, such delusions could have been seen otherworldly visions and taken as prophecies rather than the products of an ill mind. From a more contemporary perspective, the potential for blurring the lines of reality through manipulated images has become a relatively straight forward procedure that anyone with even a basic knowledge of editing software can undertake, to create their own “digital uncanny” [Grounlund, 2014/Freud, 1919].
In this piece, and other manipulations, I wish to address the aesthetics of amateur editing, and seek to create images that look near professional, but distinctly inauthentic, for total verisimilitude would not stimulate a confused response, but may be accepted as the genuine article. I have no desire to be like Zeuxis, who “painted grapes with such skills that birds began to fly down to eat from the painted vine.” [Manovich, 2001, 177]
But rather, I wish to draw attention to the processes of the media manipulation, to make the audience aware of the act of imitation and representation, to create work that undermines itself provoking the viewer to want to notice such deviations from reality, upsetting the suspension of disbelief – much as a glitch exposes “the mechanisms beneath the surface […] To turn an image inside out and expose its entrails, to invite viewers to immerse themselves in this seemingly undecipherable space, to find reconstituted forms, the ghosts of an image,” [Visconti, 2014] disrupting “the data behind a digital representation in such a way that its simulation of analog can no longer remain covert,” [Manon, 2011] whereas this piece more directly disrupts and reconfigures the image-surface, rather than the hidden mechanism of digital imagery.
For this piece, there is no moment when the viewer will think the image is real, as it is well established that dragons are fictional, and those individuals who were in attendance at the original event: who are also the primary audience – are very much aware that this is a parody.
To continue the mythological theme; the computer interface could be seen to act as Bifrost; a bridge between the objective, physical world, and the subjective, digital world – what is perceived to be the real and unreal (rather than the God’s realm of Asgard and the mortal’s world of Midgard). A choice of such other-worldly imagery seemed fitting for challenging the perception of the digital media, as “the word ‘dragon’ comes from the Greek for a serpent, drakon, which is related to derkesthai, ‘to see’.” [Howe, 2008: 10] The ultimate create of myth is inseparably linked to the action of seeing, and thus deception (even if this link is purely linguistic).
Moreover, this is heighten by the juxtaposition of the altered image with original, using “the circulation of the JPEG as a means of […] display” [Cairns 131] as well as adding to the light-hearted informality of the piece, that falls in line more with the seemingly made-up phrase ‘meme-art’ [Archey, 2013:127] than the established ‘net-art’ and new-fangled ‘post-internet art’, though has a greater degree of self-criticality than what is usually described as meme-art (such as the various captioned images of cats known colloquially as Lolcats). Such online materials and art “encourages its audience to join in the play, ultimately freeing them of political and cultural dichotomies that pit right against wrong, left against right,” [Blais, 2006: 135] or in this instance, real against unreal.
The images uses, the main figurative picture, the dragon, and the text, were each downloaded and brought together, much as one might bring together multiple ideas or references in the formation of a new text, in Dawkins’ words, such “Meme transmission is subject to continuous mutation, and also to blending.” [Dawkins, 1976] Though I have edited the pictures to create a new narrative, even by appropriating the images in a visually unaltered form, the act of recontextualising would alter the interpretation for the audience. “Photomontage can be interpreted as a deviation from the essentially transparent nature of unified nature of photography.” Whilst simultaneous not deviating “from photograph’s true nature as a transparent medium but as exemplifying its irreducible hypermediacy.” [Bolter, 2000: 39]
Even by manipulating the pixel surface, only and equal but different alteration of the image would be produced. Furthermore, the use of visually collaged elements seems fitting for a contemporary art work that could be seen as commenting on the contemporary digital environment where “The creative energy of the author goes into the selection and sequencing of elements rather than into original design.” [Manovich, 2001: 130]
Sampling in musical composition uses comparably similar process, though usually they are but one element in a piece of music, where as in image making it is more easily accomplishable to create a wholly new image through existing materials. Such as in Richard Hamilton’s Just What is It That Makes Today’s Homes so Different, so Appealing? [Hamilton, 1956] or the Dadaist compositions of Hannah Höch, however, Desolation lacks the psychoanalytical or sociological contemplations of those pieces, and serves more as a pop-surrealist work created as a basis of both formal and informal discussion.
However, only a small amount of dialogue was created in the comments section accompanying the image, one which reads “Now then now then” I believe is intended to be an approximation of what they would suppose that the main figure, Jamie, would have to say to the fictional Dragon – a casual greeting that would seem of character for a fantastical encounter, but fitting for the real-life individuals involved (“Now then” being a fairly common greeting in Northern British and Lincolnshire dialects; which is appropriate for the figure).
In some regards, this piece is just another one of the 3,400 photographs that are uploaded every second to Facebook alone [Caridad, 2012] and its social media presentation lends it to an informal aesthetic, which is lots in the exponentially expanding archive of online images (not only on Facebook, but on the other platforms the image may be embedded in; Flickr, WordPress, Google Images, to name those few I have directly imposed the image in) . However, as a starting point for a discussion, I believe this piece has been quite successful; conjuring up ideas on: myths as memes, the synthetic, the online, and mediation.
Although Stallabrass argued that “lacking a medium, eschewing beauty, confined to the screen of the spreadsheet and the word processor, and apparently adhering to a discredited avant-gardism, Internet art was easy to dismiss,” [Stallabrass, 165] it could be argued, as MTAA did in their Simple Net Art Diagram, that the media of net-art is the transmission and distribution, rather than in any one singular outcome or geographic location of an image; and that by being seemingly inconsequential it is not undermined, but rather reinforces the politicisation of net-artworks. In that: any singular product can be easily overlooked in the “sea of information” [Oshii, 1995], or lost in the “Data Smog” [Schneck, 1997: 183] when “the tools of distribution are ubiquitous” [Uglow, 2014], and the design of these tools have reached their conclusion by being “completed in domestication” [Silverston, 1996: 46]. Thereby exemplifing the problems of contemporary mass communication and information hierarchies; how is something made more visible in near-ubiquity?
As a serious piece in its own right, however, I believe the image and its online presence falls short of its potential achievement, and although using the format of photo manipulation and caption typified by low-fi meme imagery and basic contemporary net-art, I do not believe that the work can be discussed by others within an academic context, nor stimulating a humorous response by my peers – and will never make the “front page [of] cyberspace” in “an era of screen based image overabundance and ephemerality.” [Ritchin, 2013; 146, 29], and therefore serves only as an exercise in my own practice as a means of generate internal debate – but in that respect, it has been useful.
Moreover, the reader should be aware that this text began, like the edited image, as a partial satire, but since devolved into something equating to serious, (creative) academic writing. A formalist approach to informal text.
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