Visual thinking

I’m a words person. I can’t remember that ever not being true. Not just a sentences person, a meanings person, a linguistic semiotics person, though all of those too, but a letters-on-pages person.

There was, clearly, a time before I could read, but I can’t remember it. Nor can I remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by the shapes of letters, their lines and curves and circles and the small differences in the ways they’re formed; and by the ways they combine into syllables, phonemes, words, the strange admixtures of English pronunciation and spelling. I used to invent phonetic alphabets in my head before I learned the international one. If I know a word, I know how to spell it, and if I don’t know how to spell a word, I don’t know it: the words I think in are visual things. (This has been very helpful in learning European languages, but I can’t imagine how I would go about approaching a non-Roman alphabet.)

All of this is very useful for a student of English Literature, but as my academic interests have come to slide away from the strictly literary (though never leaving that behind) and towards media, film, TV, online spheres of words and so much more, I’ve come to realise how many other kinds of thinking there are and how much words and sentences can only partially encompass. I can write about a song, a video, a picture; I can write myself in circles about the paradoxes of representation, the impossibility of approaching things as if they were outside language, but there are still myriad things a visual or auditory art maker can do that I’ll never approach.

Lately, I’ve entered into a fascination with one particular genre of audiovisual artistic communication: vidding, which is what members of media fan subcultures (and some other people) call it when they edit clips of TV shows together with songs to make interpretive music videos. Fans have been doing this since before VCRs were widely available, but new media technologies have given them a lot more options, and there’s some seriously great art coming out of vidding culture now. One of the reasons fanvids fascinate me so much is that they juxtapose sounds and images to create arguments, doing intellectual work for which it would be easy to assume words are perfectly adequate, and showing — by emotional resonances, by multifaceted interpretive possibilities — that even without creating from whole cloth in a traditional sense (not that there aren’t fanvids that do that), just in the art of context audiovisuality is worth more than the sum of its parts or the list of its interpretations.

Fanvid comprehension is a skill it takes a fairly significant learning curve to acquire, at least for the less visually-minded of us (some vids take more comprehension than others, clearly). I’m a relative latecomer to the genre, and I noticed the curve first when, on the fourth or fifth viewing, I finally understood how every shot and clip in T. Jonesy and Killa’s slash Star Trek vid to Nine Inch Nails, Closer, was absolutely necessary to the dramatic, tragic story the vid was telling. It took that long to make it absolutely impossible for me to watch the vid and not take old-school Trek, which I have often enjoyed for its camp value, deeply seriously. Now I can’t imagine watching from another subject position; but remembering the first time I watched and only noticed that Spock wanted to fuck Kirk like an animal without understanding the why and how of it, I am a lot more sympathetic to the laughter the vid elicits from the uninitiated than the many more involved vid fans who find it just as unthinkable as laughing at rape ought to be.

Closer is also a vid whose distribution story highlights some of the major differences between vidders and other producers of the DIY video 24-7 celebrated, and the problems intersections can bring: when it went viral on YouTube its creator was driven into hiding by unwanted publicity and excessive demands on bandwidth. (Henry Jenkins discusses the reasons for this in his blog entry How to Watch a Fanvid.)

I’m watching my DVD of the 24-7 “Genealogy of Vidding” show (curated by Laura Shapiro and presented by Francesca Coppa) as I type, breaking for occasional full-screen appreciation of vids like Heresluck’s Superstar. (Laura posted links to the full line-up here.) Rather a different experience to sitting in a large auditorium watching it on a huge screen, but it gives me pleasant tingles of that affect, with all the problematic pleasure of seeing something geeky women have done in near-secret for years get institutional validation. I say problematic in the cold light of all my consciousness about the unpleasantnesses and violences involved in institutionalizing anything, normalizing, creating canons, leaving some parts out; sitting in the audience it was all melodramatic joy, alternately giggling and tearing up.

24-7 seems to have been something of a breakthrough in terms of my own ability to think imagistically. I spent much of the weekend in the company of vidders, and between listening to their discussions and watching many videos, apparently something clicked: ever since, I’ve been continually surprising myself by mentally juxtaposing snatches of the music on my ipod and the TV and movies I’ve been watching, imagining how they would look in a vid, thinking through how a videomusical argument could be made and how it would differ from a written one. I’m taking a class this semester that requires me to produce some kind of scholarly visual project, and for the first time I feel that’s something I might actually be capable of.

Thinking in words and making them visual seems always to be what people think it’s necessary to go to school to learn. Literacy, literature. It’s not a cognitive style I’m going to be giving up any time soon. But it’s exciting to recognise not only that there are other ways of thinking but that I may even be capable of thinking them. I don’t think it’s coincidental that this visual literacy comes most appreciably to me, despite enrolment in several film classes, from outside the sphere of academic book-learning.

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7 thoughts on “Visual thinking

  1. kbusse

    Your description about being a word person rings so true to me. In fact, in my naivite, I used to assume everyone to be just like me, only to realize in conversations how many different ways we learn and comprehend.

    Of course, I do think our way of looking at the world gets overly valorized in academia or, to say it differently, I think vids are harder not just because they don’t come natural but because we’ve been trained to read written text in ways we haven’t been trained for audio-visual…

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  2. Alexis

    I agree, kbusse! The assumption is that we’re born knowing how to see, I suppose — though I wonder if that’s changed or changing, with all the emphases on new media literacies now.

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  3. Karen Hellekson

    I have to admit that I’m not even a latecomer to vids, I’m a total nonstarter. I simply don’t get their appeal. They almost completely lack emotional resonance, even when I know the source material well. In fact, I think it’s telling that the only vid that pimped me into a fandom was one on _Equilibrium_, which is about…repression of feeling. If I don’t know the media source, the vid seems wandering and aimless. I lack the context to properly interpret it.

    I have a theory about vids, which is: they are of three sorts. The first kind is random clips or slides to music, and they mean relatively nothing. The second syncs lyrics to action and makes you go, “Cool!” And the third syncs lyrics to action _and_ makes a larger point–has its own thesis, its own raison d’etre, and makes you go, “Great! Let’s see it again!”

    I agree that people process info differently and that one needs to learn to “read” a vid. The payoff for me is so small that I probably won’t bother, unless sat down and forced. Which I guess I’m willing to do, but honestly? Just…puzzled.

    I have watched many fine vids but mostly I find them rather boring. I’d rather subtext words than anything else, I guess. I feel bad because it means I’m clueless about the Great Vid Conversation that’s going on. That’s me in the corner, snoozing.

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  4. Alexis

    Karen, I understand your feelings because they were more or less my initial reaction to vids. Besides Closer, it was a) metavids (Walking on the Ground, I Put You There) and b) lim’s vids that turned me around, gave me some language (if you will) to understand what’s going on. Maybe even after all you’ve seen there’s still a vid out there that will suddenly make you sit up and go ‘OH!!’ — you never know! šŸ™‚

    I’ll have to get to the Pinker one of these days/soon — I’ve heard a few interesting conversations about it.

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