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David London

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2007
Mobile Aesthetics & Social Movements: Thinkspace

1 – 3 p.m. Polycentric sessions and screenings, San Francisco Art Institute, Lecture hall and classrooms

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False interpretations both internally generated and externally imposed become the building blocks of manipulation. When a message is delivered by a trusted source (media or government), its credibility is taken for granted. The function of journalistic objectivity is to provide a set of facts and allow the recipient to make a determination based on the facts given. As such, if the facts presented are misinterpreted by the media or the recipient or certain facts are omitted, the recipient is prone to a false understanding of the circumstances. Consciously, the recipient makes a decision or takes a position on a given subject based on the facts presented and the emotions activated by those facts. However, the human psyche is fragile and convictions are never static. The delicate nature of emotion driven convictions make them susceptible to extreme alteration if a conflicting set of emotionally charged facts are presented. David Berreby elegantly illustrates the concept:

A conscious mind makes decisions and swears oaths to treat the enemy as an enemy, always. But consciousness is a tight, bright spotlight roaming over a restless ocean of mind. Elsewhere in that ever-changing sea of perception and feeling, things change without conscious intent.[28] For Berreby, the unconscious change of perception always displaces the conscious decision. As a result, consciousness becomes influenced by the unconscious change in perception and new emotions create new convictions.

The media are driven by profits. As such, they must offer what is demanded of them by their audience — simplification and sensationalism. As the audience, we have little choice in the demands we make as we are influenced by our psychological tendencies and preferences. While we consciously ask for truth, we unconsciously scream for a compelling story, truth takes a back seat. Following the 9/11 tragedy, Americans demanded patriotic sensationalism from the media. The media delivered. The result was both conscious and unconscious convictions of patriotism and vengeance fueled and refueled by an onslaught of media generated propaganda. The unfortunate result was as Chris Hedges proclaims, the justification of the horrible sacrifices required in war, the destruction and death of innocents.[29] As erroneous interpretations of facts continued to be generated and delivered, the mythic sensationalism we demanded from our media could only be maintained by denying the reality of the war, by turning the lies, the manipulation, the inhumanness of war into a heroic ideal.[30] This heroic ideal became one of the baseline convictions of the visitors of our exhibit. The larger mosaics represented this heroic ideal. However, the individual tiles that made up the mosaics revealed a conflicting message made up of previously unexplored facts.

Reactions, Observations and Conclusion

The exhibition sought to confront visitors with the discrepancy between representations of the war in Iraq and the reality experienced by the men and women serving there. We expected a reaction, but were surprised by its intensity. We anticipated controversy, but were surprised that so few were offended. Many of the images used depicted graphic violence and carnage – far more than American audiences were accustomed to seeing in the media.

The reactions to the exhibition came in two forms: comments recorded in an exhibition journal and student comments in a survey conducted between August 27 and 29, 2007. The former were given no prompting, but had seen the entire exhibition. The latter were shown two murals (Tear and Kiss), asked to view them form a distance and then to move closer to see the individual tiles. After viewing they were asked for comments, reactions and specifically how the murals made them feel. Their responses fell rather neatly into Paul Ekman’s paradigm of the five basic human emotions: anger, fear, sadness, happiness and disgust.[31] Sadness and anger were the two most common reactions. Most visitors indicated a distinct difference in feelings or change in emotional reaction. Viewing the murals from a distance, visitors spoke of feelings of pride, comfort or happiness. Up close they spoke of sadness, confusion, anger, shock, disgust or cynicism.

From a distance, the mosaics represent those images we are accustomed to observing in the media—images of sacrifice and sentimentality. Comments from this distance were universally positive and patriotic. One visitor commented: “I think it is very creative. It makes me feel proud seeing all the images of our soldiers.” Another said: “Beautiful from afar,” but offered an insight into the emotional transition: “At a distance, everything looks better.” One visitor went so far as to provide a purpose: “The exhibit was a great way to show support for our troops! Job well done! It’s amazing”!

These comments suggest cognitive dissonance an “us and them”[32] ideology, a key element of group cohesion in how we view the war. It creates boundaries, both real and imagined, that separate groups in conflict. In order for the conflict to obtain support from the public, this ideology or prejudice must be nurtured and maintained with propaganda. The problem lies in the fact that boundaries are not static and rely solely upon a set of unifying principles consciously accepted by the members—fear, patriotism, religion, etc. However, when confronted with information that challenges preconceptions (i.e. when media representations are displaced by the realities of war) boundaries can be dissolved within the mind of individuals without their knowledge or intent—unconsiously.[33] This phenomenon occurs when stronger unifying principle or concept is presented. As such, the media has tremendous power to create and sustain group boundaries. During the Vietnam War, combat reporters maintained journalistic objectivity. So much that it created a political disaster for the US government as the images presented by the media began to dissolve group boundaries. No longer was it “us” vs. “them”, but collective humanity against the horrors of war. The result was a culture of anti-war activists that by default became anti-government.

In the current conflict, the power of the American media has been harnessed by the White House through concepts like the embedded reporter program and the Office of Strategic Intelligence. As a result, we don’t see the same types of images that came out of Vietnam. We only see group galvanizing images like those of the larger mosaics. As the visitors began to examine the individual tiles, an emotional transformation began to appear. Ideas of patriotism and pride were replaced with confusion, frustration, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. The confusion seems to stem from “a mix of emotions” and the redrawing of group boundaries. The confusion manifested itself with comments recorded in the exhibition journal: We’re supposed to support our country and its choices, but after seeing the photos behind the mural, it frustrates me that we are spending so much time and money and destroying so many lives in the process. I support those who put their lives on the line, but not this war.

Following the initial confusion, the visitors began to grow agitated as they began to understand the exhibit on a more cognitive level. One visitor observed, “It’s just a bunch of random images thrown together that’s meant to be shocking. But it doesn’t convey a single emotion – which I think is the point”. After visitors examined the images more closely, we noticed a significant change in word choice. No longer did we hear elements of group identity—us and them—but a new reference to people and life in general, regardless of group affiliation. This supports the notion that group boundaries can be dissolved by presenting a stronger unifying principle.


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