Manipulation of the Family Photo Album: ESTHER PARADA’S TRANSPLANT: A TALE OF THREE CONTINENTS

Manipulation of the Family Photo Album: ESTHER PARADA’S TRANSPLANT: A TALE OF THREE CONTINENTS

Eggemeyer, Valerie

As an art form, an artist’s website allows vision into their world. It can make available to the global community an artist’s ideas without him or her ever having to leave the studio.1 Many of these websites are interact five arenas for advancing art beyond traditional media such as paint on canvas or wood sculpture. Roy Ascott, an early user of computer technology as an art form and communication forum, writes that the World Wide Web, “replaces the bricks and mortar of the institutions of culture and learning with an invisible college and a floating museum the reach of which is always expanding to include the possibilities of mind and new imitations of reality” (cited in Lovejoy, 1997, p. 212). The World Wide Web has become a new venue for exhibiting art, one that offers viewing at any time, in almost any place.

Culture can be defined as the qualities that make and identify a community. In turn, the Internet becomes a new culture composed of people who connect to it. These people may connect with each other to discuss issues or “log on” just to observe. The existence of this “cyber culture” is unique to history. For example, some artists, such as Sawad Brooks and Beth Stryker (http://disseminet.walkerart.org), use this unique forum to comment on issues that are common to art, such as politics, religion, and family. The cyber medium allows visual codes to be viewed in an integrated, non-linear story, oscillating among aspects of the world that express these themes. It also allows for non-chronological time travel through multiple versions of stories of human life. That is, a story may be created in different time zones, yet be connected in the same cyber reality.

Can this cyber medium be “read” in the same manner that viewers consider traditional media such as paint or wood?2 If yes, can these works be accessed through formal art criticism models used to critique works found in traditional museums? The language of art can still be seen through elements of line, shapes, colors, textures, time and the manipulation of space, yet, works on a computer become non-linear experiences and involve exploration that may not allow for the same type of observation. For example, a painting may contain properties of implied time, yet a website may contain animated components that project elements in real time. Johnson (1996) proposes looking at some of these elements by utilizing the language of computers. A “point” becomes a “pixel,” a “contour line” a “silhouette line,” and “value” is “contrast” on the computer screen (Johnson, 1996, p. 42). The “point” is conceptually different on a computer screen than on the printed page. Points are “pixels” on the screen, and are DPI (dots per inch) on an image printed from a computer program (Johnson, 1996). Along with the issues of how best to “read” a work of art using the basic elements that built it, educators must also look at content. Keifer-Boyd (1997) writes “point, line, pattern, and their subproperties may mean something different when referring to art from various cultures” (p. 26). Therefore, one must consider technological properties and formal elements as well as subject matter when studying a computer-based work of art.

This article focuses on Esther Parada’s non-traditional use of the Web to communicate her art, and offers a critique of her work Transplant: A Tale of Three Continents, and suggestions for critiquing Web art in the school classroom. Parada creates an intersection between this new medium and the more traditional medium of photography. Her words and images craft a story and the Web allows these visual codes to be viewed in an integral non-linear manner.3 The ideology embedded in Parada’s site facilitates the viewer to create a commentary on feminism, imperialism, and society, and to consider the social impositions of a foreign economy. Critiquing web-based art is a fairly new phenomenon in art criticism,4 yet, this process can be done by art educators and their students to reveal interesting connections to their world through postmodern works of art such as this one.

Realities

What happens when reality becomes a non-linear cyber story? The meaning of a work can change when it is not presented in a linear fashion. Words or icons taken out of context are no longer part of the author’s story but instead are seen subjectively, depending on the routes viewers choose. That is, the author’s intent may not be conveyed in the manner in which it was originally conceived.

However, what if the author conceives of telling a story in a non-linear fashion with the World Wide Web as the medium? Interactive computer art may tell a story in which viewers are given choices of what to see and contemplate in order to construct their own meaning. This type of storytelling lends itself to new forms of deconstruction and critique. Each part of the story may be told in a different order depending on how the viewer reads it and by choosing links in a different order from that of previous readers.

Esther Parade’s Transplant, a Tale of Three Continents

Esther Parada has described herself as “a cultural worker who is fascinated with the artifacts, histories, and mythologies we construct about each other as individuals and as societies, whether in the form of family snapshots or official public monuments” (Parada, 1993). Parada revisits historical figures icon or unknown, explores issues of common societal perception surrounding their images, unleashes multiple voices, and provokes viewer thought. She has considered the role of popular media in constructing consumer beliefs, and has written about her work of the 1980s to early 1990s as an “effort to challenge these beliefs” (Parada, 1993). Part of her artmaking extends beyond traditional forms such as painting or sculpture and utilizes new technology in computer programming. She writes, “My original attraction to digital technology was (and remains) substantially based on the almost magical ease with which it allows me to play with the shifting and blending of images and text-in other words, digital technology allows the materialization of linkages in time and space that enhance understanding” (Parada, 1993).

Esther Parada created the Transplant: A Tale of Three Continents site (http://tigger.uic.edu/~e-parada/TRANSPLANT2) as an interactive work of art and an intersection between traditional visual arts, photography, and the Web. Her site is to be viewed as a complete work of art with the computer as the sole provider of the imagery and iconography.5 Buttons, or links, to other images and text on the site can be selected in any order. There is no indication of a path to follow. Each viewer conducts his/her own navigation of the site and constructs meaning as they go. If a viewer simply downloaded this site, the impact would not be the same because the non-linear interaction would be lost.

The site features a story about a young bride, her husband, and their journey across the globe. Photographs are presented on each page of the site showing a family established between the Curzons of England and Mary Victoria Leiter, a young wealthy woman from Chicago. During the height of the Victorian period, Mary married George Curzon and moved to England and then to India.

Six options are linked from the main page. The options are titled “Bride, Groom, Brother, Husband, Daughter, and Wife” (Parada, 1996). When one button is selected, information and visual imagery about that person’s identity are revealed. The story is presented as if each web page is part of a puzzle. Only when each page has been reviewed, in no particular order, does a full story emerge. The family portraits themselves are accessed in a linear fashion; one image per decorated page as might be found in a Victorian photo album. Parada redefines these photos by adding flashing text over each one, and assigning titles to each page in the form of a quotation. Through this technological addition of dynamic text the gender-ordered roles of each family member are revealed.

Critiquing the Cyber Story

One method of critiquing this site is the exploration of gender-ordered roles through a feminist lens. Esther Parada did not intend for the work to be viewed exactly in this manner.6 However, this analysis gives insight into one manner of deconstructing a web-based work of art. Students of art can try different methods for exploring a single work, and use such approaches as those offered by Barrett (1994), Congdon (1991), Feldman (1971), and Hamblen (1991), to see how interpretation and meaning can change with different worldviews.

Symbols in a work of art may be used to show a socially agreed-upon meaning. Deconstructivist feminist art critics look at how meaning is embedded in words, images, and forms found within a work of art (Alpert, 1990; Garber, 1996). A feminist art critic may look for “the woman’s experience” in a work of art or look exclusively at works of art created by women. Sometimes works may be analyzed for who or what they exclude. The critique may develop social awareness or simply represent human diversity. Barrett (1994) writes that feminist art criticism “can be connective, inclusive, and nonhierarchical. Some feminist critics are quite content with their political and cultural actions to open doors and raise more questions than they answer” (p. 129). This suggests that a feminist critique of a work of art may exclusively involve questioning what signs, symbols, images or forms mean to the individual viewer as well as examining those symbols within the work’s cultural context. These symbolic elements may also be examined in terms of what they imply to a select population. Garber (1996), for example, offers components to guide feminist inquiry that include studying all artworks in their social and cultural contexts, using narrative and conversation as techniques for discussion, allowing for personal associations and exploring a variety of possible interpretations by comparing differences. Using a feminist lens to explore works of art allows for personal interpretation and understanding of one’s own place in society as well as probing gender issues.

In relationship to Parada’s site, questions may be posed to determine the socialization that perpetuates stereotypes about men and women. Feminist inquiry takes place when the differences in male and female perspectives are exposed in this manner. In the art classroom this may be accomplished by having students look at a work and notice the differences in gender roles, or by allowing students to discuss the symbols or codes contained in the work, noting the differences.

Looking through a feminist lens at the title of the work, the word “transplant” may refer to the diasporic condition of an upper-class woman. In the work, the American bride of a titled Englishman is first transplanted to England.7 The culture she encounters is different from her own. For instance, “Mary felt isolated due to both excessive admiration and to resentment of her American ways” (Parada, 1996). Then, Mary is uprooted this time to India, as a result of her husband’s economic ventures. She is thrust into a political life and another foreign culture in which she is expected to be a mother to her children and hostess to affairs in their home. English peers in India title the bride “the toast of three continents” due to her undefeatable spirit. But it is her inheritance that seems to captivate her husband.

Symbolic codes are layered under the photographs of Mary. For example, white lilies are used as background “wallpaper.” Lilies are icons common in European Renaissance art, especially in paintings, as a symbol for the Virgin Mary. Parada’s use of the lily may be a modern parallel to the virtues innate in the Biblical Mary, such as the purity of body and soul. Text also appears on this page, as Parada has written “Bride, Lily, Heiress, Oleograph” to reinforce the ideas of who Mary appears to be in this family.

Titled, but not as wealthy as his political aspirations need him to be, George Curzon uses Mary’s inheritance to acquire the coveted position of Viceroy. George is shown in a photograph posing with a local Indian man and two dead tigers after a hunt. The background “wallpaper” also depicts live tigers behind vegetation. Several meanings may be conceived about this image. First, George’s bounty from the hunt may symbolize his power or prowess as a hunter, or the lions may simply symbolize the native habitat of India. Rule over nature in India is necessary for George’s home country’s control of a crop that is shipped out to England.8 This is Parada’s intended double meaning of Transplant, in which the control of the plants leads to their appearance in a place far from where they were grown. However, the term “transplant” also applies to Mary’s personal journey and struggles as an American woman in foreign lands.

On the Web, Parada’s art is interactive and because it can be viewed in any order, it can be a different journey for each viewer. For example, a viewer may choose to view the links dealing with George Curzon, and not observe Mary at all. By peeling away layers of information on the website in a random order, each viewer has a unique experience and might construct meaning from the themes of gender, economics, imperialism, marriage, social class, and politics. Parada’s characters transcend local existences and can be interpreted as part of a global culture.

Parada uses the site as an artmaking medium. Her story would not “work” without the technological advantages of the digital machine as it adds text and iconographic aids, such as the previously mentioned lilies do to the photographs. This art is not static and therefore contemplation of a singular image or page provides only partial understanding. The ability to change the screen at the viewer’s command gives time for individual reflection and results in greater impact on the viewer. This subjective viewing time allows words, images, and icons to provoke emotional responses within each user. In a sense, the site offers dematerialized art or art whose “importance lies beyond what can be seen or touched” (Lovejoy, 1997, p. 77). The emotions felt by the viewer can be brought on by words alone, but the visual aspects and the viewer’s movements through the site complete the story.

Web-based art stories can be compared to other means of telling visual stories. For example, due to the embodied feminist concerns, aspects of Maya Deren’s films can be appropriately paralleled with Esther Parada’s website. Deren, the 20th-century avant-garde filmmaker of such works as Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), reveal personal journeys and stories through images, but without the use of spoken language. Deren’s works often express themes of women’s romantic relationships to men and the underlying submissiveness women sometimes embody in such relationships.

The individual’s journey is revealed through emotional responses. While the film projector and computer monitor cannot express emotion, the characters presented through these media become connected to the viewer when their story is interpreted on a personal level. The viewer creates his/her own dialogue and version of what has transpired. This is the same phenomenon that occurs when the images on a website are accessed in different patterns, as when each user creates his/her own reading of the story. We are distanced from others when viewing works such as these, yet we can become connected to others because of them. The computer provides a story that embodies emotions yet it has no “body” of its own. Websites and movies may both offer works of art that evoke deep human emotions and allow viewers to experience personalized and intense reactions while remaining passive.

Implications for Art Educators

Lovejoy (1997) writes, “The postmodern presumes the modern, and includes both an academic, or high aspect and a low or vernacular one” (p. 67).” Parada’s site has the “high” or research intense study of culture and social dynamics of the family unit. The “low” or vernacular aspect is the text employed over each photo such as “bride” or “wife.” The photos themselves are not high art photography but rather those that can be found in a family album. Parada’s work is postmodern partly because it uses contemporary interactive computer technology as the medium, and partly due to the issues she raises through visual codes. A discussion of what constitutes fine art versus other forms of art may be a fun way to approach this and other websites in the art classroom.

Overall, the site provides the viewer with many codes and symbols about culture and society. A feminist critique of this artwork reveals Parada’s commentary on the traditional role of women as objects. Should the site be viewed solely through a feminist lens? A Marxist critique could center on class distinctions among the cultures presented. Other frameworks for the interpretation of websites to consider may involve an iconographic method focused on culturally recognized symbols.

As more professional artists explore the “virtual studio,” teaching about web-based art seems to be a necessity in our technologically advanced 21st century. Greh (1997) writes, “Because teachers strive to give students a breadth of experience in a variety of media, as well as depth in one or more, there is a need for students to explore the imaging potential of computers and become critical evaluators of the resulting images” (p. 16). While not all art classrooms may be equipped with Internet access, students can “surf the net” at home or in the local library. They should become aware of how the images they observe on the Web make meaning in their world.

In the classroom, critiquing work on the Web may have different rules from work that is hung on the walls. Web-based works could be discussed in terms of the formal elements such as line and color as well as in terms of pixels, RGB, and CMYK. Further, Yenawine’s (1992) strategies for developing visual literacy may be applied to developing a mode of inquiry for website artworks in the classroom. Yenawine’s methods include providing an introduction to the work of art, facilitating a discussion of its significance to the class, defining essential vocabulary (in this case, terms such as “pixel”), directing the viewer’s attention to certain areas of the work (subject matter, formal properties, meaning, etc.) and allowing students to analyze relationships to other works (possibly to other Web-based works). These strategies are appropriate for viewing many forms of art and, in part, draw on the students’ personal worldviews in defining significance, meanings and relationships, all of which will lead to meaningful personal connections with the work.

Greh (1997) developed several questions for contemplating computer art, including “Where does the artwork exist? How should it be displayed? How does time affect the artwork and the public’s appreciation of it? What is the role of collaboration?

What is the role of the viewer, and is the viewer even the correct terminology?” Similarly, Search (1999) notes, “interactive works of art blur the boundary between author and viewer” (p. 191). Newly created Web-based works become the embodiment of multiple ideas and lived experiences.

To fully comprehend the multiple facets of Parada’s commentary on feminism and the idea of being “transplanted,” the reality she creates must be viewed in a non-linear manner. Another discussion for the classroom might focus on how and why artists tell stories in a non-linear manner. Activities may include looking at films or reading stories that include a lot of “flashback” or “flash forward” scenes in which the story flows back and forth through time.

The World Wide Web poses endless possibilities for lesson plans. This article described only one possibility, in the form of Esther Parada’s website Transplant, A Tale of Three Continents. By allowing students to share multiple interpretations of Web-based work in the classroom, teachers allow both meaningful personal and cognitive growth to occur.

ENDNOTES

1 The global community is made up of all peoples of the earth. In this case scenario the community would have to be limited to those who have access to the technology to view or interact with a website.

2 Websites created by artists as fully developed works of art, might be considered in this way. A website that projects an entire body of work, or acts as a commercial venue might not be considered in the same manner.

3 “Non-linear” in this context refers to the ability to choose a pattern and order for viewing this or any other hypertext or hypermedia work. Links may be selected and followed in any order. Just like there may not be a single “linear” manner for viewing a work of art, the order in which the images are viewed in Transplant: A Tale of Three Continents is not dictated by the artist.

4 While Web art is a relatively new area in art education, many educators are exploring hypertext as a teaching/learning tool and are building non-linear units of instruction where links may be accessed in any order (Taylor & Carpenter, 2002).

5 An additional artist’s statement and a curator’s statement can be found at http://mitpress2.mit.edu/ejournals/Leonardo/gallery/gallery294/parada.html.

6 On the opening page of this website Parada states “Manipulation of the social and physical environment, while often carried out in the name of nature or neutral progress, was invariably in the service of particular countries, classes or elites.” Should a work only be critiqued in terms of the artist’s intent?

7 Titled men of this class did not necessarily have wealth, but instead had a hierarchical position in British society. In this marriage Mary, the bride, provided more money to the union than the groom and his family.

8 Throughout history, European and American corporate capitals have shown imperialistic tendencies to gain control over land that produces lucrative products. Examples are England in India for tea and opium, Belgium in the Congo for gold and diamonds, Spain in the “New World” for gold, and the United States in Chile for copper and nitrate. England’s interest in the Indian landscape in the 19th century hinged on the production of the cinchona bark that produces quinine, which controls malaria.

9 An argument can be made that there is a distinction between high and low art. In studying art history in a formal academic setting, one could easily argue that there is a definite difference in art that is sometimes classified as fine art and at other times as craft. These categories may also be called fine art and popular art. Some people consider Web art to be popular art, yet Parada crosses over these traditional boundaries.

REFERENCES

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Valerie Eggemeyer is a doctoral candidate in art education at the University of North Texas and works as an art historian at Casper College in Wyoming.

E-mail: vleggemeyer@hotmail.com

Copyright National Art Education Association Mar 2004

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