7.07 Semiotic analysis of four selected images + a short conclusion

1. 9th November 1996, pages 6/7 [1] (See illustration 3)

A round Renaissance balloon is threatened by an extinct fossil skull that bears down on it. But the balloon is the imagination, which presages the technological society which itself, is rising. So although the balloon looks vulnerable, it is the wild animal, however fierce in countenance, that is to be the victim. The balloon is a temporary 'goal' that leads upwards to the 'participants' on the top right facing page, which are other late medieval characters.[2] A bald monk toasts the rise of technology, which, ironically, is shifting the control of knowledge away from the monasteries. His head is bowed before the inevitable rise of a secular materialism but his downward gaze may suggest superiority. The vector of his gaze leads our reading path to an aristocratic hawk, which looks on, proudly from its branch. It has survived an earlier transition from hunting to agriculture and will, in Britain at least, survive the transition to capitalism.

The 'new' pinnacle of technological success is ironised in the lower half of the right-hand page. A television set in the place the hawks droppings might land. A TV family with a 'background' which is reduced to banal horizontal lines, look away passively from their settee to a exuberant woman on the screen. Are they any more powerful than the little frog on the left-hand page, which looks up from its corner?

The two pages are unified by a complex grammar of vectors, which guide our reading. The text has little relation to the images, although it is difficult to avoid the top left heading 'Life in this Society' as an 'anchor'. The computer generated typography is in a Fifties hand-lettered style which makes an ironic connection to the monks implied function as scribe and the birth of the TV nation.

2. 8th July 1995, pages 4/5 (See illustration 4)

Two vertical compositions face each other across the page spread. On the left is a vulgar form of high art, on the right a high form of popular art. Both share a surreal representation with Freudian resonances of anxiety. At the top of the left-hand vertical, the naked girl bears a smile, which masks her resignation. Lower down an open-mouthed vulva screams the reality as ants carry their huge eggs threateningly towards each mouth. On the top of the right-hand vertical is a domestic 'kitty' cat' at the bottom a wildly prancing zebra carrying the column of tumblers - The domestic as ideal and the wild as real.

On the left-hand page, the status quo of high art is represented by the visual disturbance of Op Art and the mental disturbance of Surrealism. On the left is hope for renewal is to be found in popular art represented as the three old fashioned acrobats. Here is an example of the reversed grammar that is common in underground visuals.

The captions work closely with the images: choking; County Girls; Jaunt; LOVE IS DEAD; which all seems to illustrate the images - in another reversal of the normative.

Between the two parallel verticals there is produced a spine of obtuse tension as our minds oscillate between the two meanings and their reversals. We are reminded of Barthe's third, obtuse, level of meaning and the need for an active audience not weighed down with aesthetic baggage.

3. 9th May 1998, pages 4/5 (See illustration 5)

No collage is used on these pages. Two contrasting iconic images face each other. On the left a photograph with a dark background, on the right a classic image from Marvel comics. The 'given', two women wearing only fishnet tights, are locked in a passionate embrace. The 'new' is the violent ejection of The Thing, a dark hairy creature, by a vast scaly arm (The Hulk?).

A strong syntagmmatic vector transverses both pages from top left to bottom right - BLAM! The implied source of this vector is the open mouthed kissing of the women - A movement from the emotive to a useful confrontation. Does this connote a powerful downward rejection of machismo powered by women being together? Or is it a consequence of forbidden love - a violent expulsion to the margins, with its implied moral uncertainty?

Again an oscillation of meanings provokes a challenging uncertainty. The words 'deliverance', 'Rachel + Maria', 'X minutes', and the phrase 'What is this thing?', all seem to lubricate the action and anchor the reading above.

 

 

4. 17th April 1993, pages 10/11  (See illustration 6)

The hairy face of Freddy Krueger[3] fills the screen with a terrifying grimace. His rough gouged face looks down and meets the readers gaze head on. The centre being the place of the divine ruler according to Kress and Van Leeuwen, a divinity that is here ousted by a good god's primal negative. The tilt of the head creates a diagonal vector across the eyes, which leads us across the spine to the picture on the right.

Here a contrasting scene of apparent classical repose shows a woman braiding the hair of a naked girl with silky skin. The girl looks around and out towards us, her anxious gaze turned towards an apple, which hovers in the lower foreground. She stands on a vector from Krueger's threatening mouth. Below her feet are steps leading down to a lower level - which is in heavy shadow.

Freddy's face is unframed. In contrast the two women are framed by dark marble and stone. On the left a modern icon of horror, on the right an icon of classical repose. Horror arises from our subconscious, from the underground, to challenge the detachment of the classics as a veil covering abuse. Civilisation is a mask for oppression. The classical scene represents an ennobling civilisation with a sense of its foundation, but the appearance of Freddy produces 'a spasm of the signifier' which displaces the benign faŁade that is given by the classics. His intuitive cry of outrage displaces the rationalisation of desire.

The obtuse level of meaning unsettles the normative reading. The text adds to this sense, perhaps even anchoring meanings and syntax too firmly.

Conclusion

The contextual meanings provided by the historical precedents of the programmes format were considered. This was long associated with low culture and radical activity. A broad subject classification of the imagery contained within this frame allows us to see the range of concerns expressed by the collective. This amounts to a dissection of the counter culture as it refracted through the prism of the Exploding Cinema collective. Four aspects of this taxonomy are selected for further discussion intended to uncover aspects of the collective mind-set not detailed in other parts of the thesis. Finally a semiotic analysis of a few selected page openings illustrates the kind of statements these images are making.

In spite of its scientific pretensions semiotic analysis is still an artform that bears the subjectivity of its author. It is rational to the extent of being systematic, theoretically considerate, and so to a degree transparent in method. With this in mind I hesitate to 'prove' things about Exploding Cinema by this partial analysis - I have no doubt different interpretations could be made.

What such an analysis does signal is a sympathetic in-depth reading of Exploding Cinema activities is possible. It is the representation of this aesthetic depth that is my primary aim rather than any attempt to over-determine meaning.

Kress and Van Leeuwen's visual grammar allows us to order pictorial meaning in the way that exposes narrative and even argument. A richly structured picture plane may contain a few choices of paths and sequences but this may be true of a written text. Nonetheless a visual grammar asks the viewer to be active and responsible for the validation of her own reading. This only mirrors the Exploding Cinema ethos of an active audience.

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[1] Pages in the programmes are unpaginated. The page numbers given here are counting pages from the front cover as page one.

 

[2] I have occasionally used the terminology adopted by Kress and Van Leeuwen as defined earlier, which is initially put into inverted commas - e.g. 'goal' and 'participants'.

 

[3] Freddy Krueger was the lead character in, 'Nightmare on Elm Street', directed by Wes Craven (1994).