Friday, September 14, 2012
Just about every morning I take our three dogs to the woods behind the local YMCA. There's a loop trail just over a mile long, skirting the edges of swamps and creeks, and the last quarter mile of the walk offers a couple of lovely pauses at the edge of Brickyard Pond for the dogs to drink or wade into the water, or to pester the swans and geese swimming near the shore. Animals lose all inhibition when they're on the trails, careening like mad, playing ridiculous games, and pretending it's their first time on the path—charging ahead to sniff for clues about what action went down in the woods over night.
Yesterday I was up especially early, having had little sleep due to nodding off shortly after an exhausting day at work (I was out by 7:30 pm: isn't that pathetic?). I woke with a fierce headache at about 2:30 in the morning, couldn't get back to sleep and then—after a great pre-dawn run to clear my head—I decided to venture out with the dogs by about 6:15 for our walk. The light was still pretty dim so visibility was limited, but we navigated the path without trouble. Halfway through the walk I noticed something in the brush off the trail about 15 feet ahead. Crumpled and slightly obscured by brush and leaves, the only visual cues the object offered was a palette of bright colors: magenta, yellow, blue, white, black and brown—doled out in measured proportions on the surface. In an instantaneous flash of unconscious recognition, my mind's voice whispered the words, "Dora the Explorer." I continued on my walk, the dogs well ahead, peeing, sniffing, rough-housing, munching grass. I immediately moved to other things—the sticks someone had thoughtfully laid on the mucky path to form a dry carpet, the dogs running ahead, my laundry list of things to accomplish before noon.
But my mind suddenly returned to Dora, defaced beyond explicit recognition on the side of a path in the woods. At first this passing awareness seemed insignificant, primarily because Dora means absolutely nothing to me. My own kids—now in their early twenties—mercifully left behind annoying children's programming with "Rug Rats," rescuing me from a complete mental breakdown after years of shrill adult voices impersonating toddlers on TV. But I was suddenly compelled to return to the trash (it turned out to be an errant balloon) for a closer look and to take a picture. I needed to know that I was right. I wanted to confirm that—in a scant fraction of a second, in dim light, 15 feet away and obscured by vegetation—I recognized a handful of distinct visual properties which had previously only entered my awareness peripherally, unconsciously and unimpressively. I'd never seen the show—ever. I'd only caught snatches of its heroine on web banners, lunch boxes and backpacks in Target. But the relentless and ingenious consistency with which "Dora the Explorer" had been sustained in the visual vocabulary of my world enabled instant recognition. And this is a collective vocabulary, shared by anyone who has been exposed to her rusty skin, her black bobbed hair, and her girly color of choice, magenta. If Dora the Explorer was the first thing to come to mind for a 50 year-old man, following a pack of dogs in the woods, imagine the mechanics of a child's mind, languidly drowning in a swamp of pattern recognition—the colors, shapes and proportions of popular culture swimming just below the surface.
This is the way the mind works in its apprehension of visual culture. It sorts the cascade of stimuli according to reiterative formal patterns and keeps them at the ready, just below the surface. While psychologists and pop culture critics may find this relentless establishment of patterns corruptive, I suppose there's nothing wrong with it as long as we're able to elevate our awareness of the phenomenon once in a while, to not let it get the better of us. It can even be a little fun to look for clever exploitation of established visual vocabulary (noticing that all cream cheese packaging bears a resemblance to the famed Philadelphia brand, for example). But keen awareness and excitement in testing the boundaries of recognition seems most important to those whose work centers on visual language, and not just those of us involved in the sort of imbedded branding like that produced by designers of strictly limiting style guides (i.e.: the systematic standards of visual properties associated with a brand). The ability to weave in and out of that awareness as we construct visual messages is, I think, vital to the perceptual dialogue we establish with those who encounter our work. It's a means of establishing and expounding on relationships, both syntactic and semantic. It's a way of guiding understanding. It's how we share unspoken recognition, stirring the language of form deeply imbedded in collective unconscious. To anyone whose work centers on visual culture, such experiences can be a fascinating adventure.