5.4 Images in net.art.satire

While images standing by themselves can convey incongruity or contradiction, or hypocrisy and other moral deformities (think of Hogarth and Daumier and Nast and the other great caricaturists, or George Heartfield), images combined with some words or lines of text provide contexts for each other and increase the range of options for representing hypocrisy, incongruity and so on. Digital images can of course be distorted in ways that caricature their subjects—and this is a technique used by some Web satire sites—but the mainstay of many very popular sites is to place images that by themselves would be taken to be rather bland or even affirmative next to text that casts a different light on them. These juxtapositions develop another of the old humorous devices—the inappropriate or flippant caption. As a regular feature of on-line satiric newspapers and newsletters, these images appear under the conventional relation of "illustrating the story" and it is only as we read the story that way they illustrate the story becomes clear. If we survey the practice of popular on-line satiric sites, starting with the extremely popular The Onion (over 25,000 sites link it, according to AltaVista in August 2001) and then widening our gaze to include chickenhead, thecomedylab, and landoverbaptist, we can extract certain principles of what we might call contemporary ironic illustration on the Web.

The Onion: 8 August 2001: S&M Couple Won't Stop Droning On AboutTheir Fetishes

5.4.1 innocence exposed:

With no context to guide us, we could fairly readily identify the type of image at the left and its probable purpose. Even though the woman wears no ring, and perhaps because of that, the picture asserts the happy couple-hood of the two individuals. It is the sort of picture people in their later twenties might send out at Christmas. What could be more wholesome than the shine on her cheek? The Onion reveals a double complexity beneath the surface: "S&M Couple Won't Stop Droning On About Their Fetishes." They tell all their friends of fondness for SM role playing and practices, which supposedly shows them to be adventurous and open-minded, but, The Onion reports, their friends find their constant return to this topic makes them just as boring and uptight as the "normals." Their real fetish, the woman's former roommate concludes, is talking about fetishes; that discourse (fetish talk?) is the target of the satire.

Nation's School Children Call for Cuts in Math, Science Funding

Here we have a snapshot of two elementary school children making a presentation about math and science funding. They are rather cute in their solemnity, though exception is sometimes taken to using children to discuss issues that they can have only a slight grasp of. Once again The Onion discloses that things are much less normal than they seem: it is the children who are advocating the cuts so that they will not have to study math and science as much in school. We can't tell how good their math and science are, but they have clearly mastered the rhetoric of education funding discourse:

The U.S. has the most advanced space program in the world," Witherspoon continued. "We invented, among other things, the microchip, the PC and the Internet. We cured polio. Are these the accomplishments of a nation that lags in math and science education? Clearly not. But like a bloodthirsty leech, federal expenditures on laboratory equipment, textbooks and flash cards continue to go up and up each year."

Employee of the Month Sad It's Already the 19th

5.4.2 the intensification of the banal

Here we have a rather amateurishly composed snapshot of a woman who has received the "employee of the month" award from the local Target store in Franklin, Tennessee (one of about 1000 Target stores). The picture may be the Polaroid photo which, the article reports, was slipped into the Employee of the Month plaque. Such a picture documenting the award may have value to the recipient, but on the face of it the event would ordinarily receive no wider notice than the store newsletter. The text, (Headline: "Employee of the Month Sad It's Already the 19th") rather than revealing some unsuspected wider significance, dwells precisely on the completely routine nature of the award, the fleetingness of its fame, and its success in motivating the employee to "raise the level of her performance" by straightening out laundry baskets and refolding every towel. The target of the satire is the discourse of Human Resources Management ("Catbert") in the dead end world of minimum wage, minimum skill world of discount marketing.

Enormous Bra Found

The picture at the left is is the focus of another "small town newspaper" satire. Such a sight is not uncommon in city or town gutters, but the "discovery" of the large brassiere gets the full treatment of interviews with the discoverers, police analysis and speculations, and comments from the neighbors. If finding a discarded and worn out large bra in a gutter near a laundromat is a newsworthy event, there must be very little indeed going on in Herkimer, New York, but suspicious things must be reported and investigated if only to keep the authorities and reporters busy. That is to say, with this type, the absence of news is the news. But people will still talk to reporters, who dutifully write it up: the number of lines of direction quotation in this piece actually exceed the reporter's own. So in this case the image itself is not ironically undercut or revealed to be other than it seems. The irony lies in the text's failure to explain why the image or the article were run in the newspaper at all.

5.4.3 brochure art exposed

The picture of three elderly persons enjoying a glass of wine on a lawn, presumably, of their "retirement community" opens a site at chickenhead.com called "Treasury of Geriatric Erotica." This is an advert for a library of six classic titillating tales of erotic dalliance among the very aged. Each title has its own image and jacket blurb and each asserts that lust can still burn brightly, triumphing over walkers and pacemakers and colostomy bags and bladder control devices. The images are vignettes from the life of the elderly (socializing, receiving medical care, taking exercise, gathering around the piano, and touring in a Winnebago)—the sort of thing you might find in a brochure for a retirement community. The text, however, purports to reveal a secret vitality behind this bland and wholesome surface, though in fact it also repeatedly alludes to various debilities. Neither the erotic nor the frightening and humiliating parts are depicted. The titillating parts seem largely fantasy and incipient senile dementia, but the loss of basic bodily functions is a sure fact. In a sense, the blurb texts and the images share a similar tone in that they both affirm the possibilities of life for the aged, but the text lets much more of the disturbing and disgusting parts of that life leak through. Text is able to call these parts to mind while saying something quite different, thus exposing the images as nothing more than a facade.

Teen Poetry Corner

If the images at the previous site look like illustrations from a brochure for a retirement community, the one at the left (from thecomedylab.com) is instantly recognizable as a posed school or college promotional shot: "students reading together in the auditorium." The book looks like a yearbook, but the image accompanies the Teen Poetry Corner where six "bards of the month" offer three examples each of "totally awesome and heartfelt verse." This verse is, shall we say, uneven, and individual poems rarely sustain a flight for more than a few verses without descending into lewdness, personal attack, murderous fantasies, and rant. Again, the bitter and savage realities revealed by the text puncture the school catalog image of students engaged in literacy activity. The top page of this site is so well designed (with image) that one of my teenagers thought it was a "nice idea" and had to be urged several times to read a couple of the poems before deciding whether it was so nice.


5.4.4 50s' cheerful smiles exposed

The "happy people in a happy world" look of 1950's illustrations and advertisements has become a favorite object of satire, associated as it is with the formation of suburban consumer society and the return of women to the role of homemaker. The images of this era are something of a specialty for chickenhead.com, from which all three of these example are taken. The first at the left is actually one of a sizable set of animated banners that they have used, usually as anchors to a page developing the notion epitomized in the banner. Virtually all of these banners match a 50s retro image with some text that represents a messy or unpleasant reality glossed over by the image. Here the animation flips through from top to bottom at 1.75 second intervals with words that belie the ever-pleasant permed and pearly-toothed visage of the "ideal woman."

Truth in Advertising: Chesterfields40

"Chesterfields" is one from another chickenhead site, a rather large display of cigarette adverts from the 1940s and 50s called Truth in Advertising: A Collection of Vintage Cigarette Advertisements from the Age of Innocence. It is introduced by a page contrasting that pleasant illusory world of innocence with the grim health consequences as we now know them. "Gosh Darn, Wally!" it exclaims at the disparity, and then provides 52 reproductions of period cigarette ads with some of the "Fun small print" highlighted for each ad (without comment). In these pages, the text and the image are completely congruent; the effect of 52 pages of image and "fun small print" is to dramatize the wide gulf that separates us from that "innocence." This dramatizing may in turn lead to a certain nostalgia, even though (or because?) the introduction concludes "This site is powered by the white-hot bitterness of long-term Nicotine withdrawal." We at this point are very close to Richard Prince's Marlboro Man images and the question of whether "noticing" can be a critical act. The ironic title of the site does reflect some of the bitterness and leaves us in little doubt that we are about to enter an exhibit of prime examples of the Big Lie (in one of its forms) but, as Plato feared, the images were and are appealing and would perhaps retain that appeal even if each one had a little skull in the corner, or a Surgeon General's warning. The contemporary viewer knows their promises are snares and delusions but still can wish they were true and that we could inhabit the world they project, a world with no unpleasant long term consequences.

Even more open-ended are the set of computer desktop wallpapers offered on the site—48 of them in three sizes. Few are as ideologically charged as the one at the left, but all deal with practices, attitudes, products, and fashions of middle class suburban life of the 1940s and 50s. Most of the women wear dresses, all are Anglo in features and complexion and they dramatize their enjoyment of their things to the point of grinning like idiots (to the contemporary eye, of course). (The excessive animation of the women's expressions has been noted elsewhere—"Were Housewives on Drugs?") Some of this stylization we associate with Norman Rockwell and especially his covers of the Saturday Evening Post, but it appears to be the generic idiom of the time. There is no text accompanying and no framing or highlighting. These images are not merely treated as a gallery for viewing, however. They are quite seriously offered as desktop wallpaper in three resolutions and with installation instructions, so that the ultimate context of their appropriation is the monitor of one's computer. The desktop is a special place for exhibiting images, since "wallpaper" is more a decoration for one's work environment than something you look closely at, is fringed and sometimes obscured by the "context" of desktop icons, and it is something of a statement to others as well as one's private "fav." Putting one of these period images on a computer desktop might make a number of statements to a number of people ranging from a general fondness for retro looks or a desire to return to particular values and practices to an affirmation of how far we've come and thank goodness. John Berger in Ways of Seeing included pictures of people's desks and bulletin boards with reproductions of museum pieces pinned up along with notes and other documents. This, Berger said, is the new art gallery, and to that we may now add the "desktop" on the monitor.

5.5.5 glossing over the horrors

The predominant pattern in the types we have looked at is for the image to represent an surface view with the text providing the messy complications seething beneath the surface. In this last type, this pattern is reversed and we see text glossing over images of horrific events and moments. The first example is from landoverbaptist.org, which purports to be the home site of the Landover Baptist Church, a congregation of 120,000 souls in Freehold, Iowa. Here the text of the caption tries to reframe the image so that it is not seen as a cross-burning by an active KKK chapter but a Christian Love ceremony of Landover Baptist. The power of the image is so great, however, and its meaning in the larger context of American culture so fixed, that it overwhelms the caption and places the sanity (or sincerity) of the Landover Baptists in serious question.

The Landoverbaptist page also has a thumbnail "Support the NRA" which links us to the Krazy Kidz Korner of the National Rifleman's Association (courtesy chickenhead). Again we have an image of something which appears terribly wrong—a youngish boy aiming a pistol directly at us with the stars and stripes supporting his act (or so it would surely be read). However, it is just a kids' fun page, right?

Welcome to the NRA Kooky Kidz Korner boys and girls! Hope you're packin' heat and lookin' for fun - cuz we're all about playing with high-caliber guns! Old Mr. Boring never shows his head 'round here, and if'n he does, we'll slay him like a deer!

and this same "light touch" is applied in Spotlight interviews (boy and girl of the month). The site also provides a interactive weapon-selection program so that you, the child, can select the best gun for your age, favorite color, gender, mood, and opinion of Janet Reno. The touch is not quite so light in the Ammo column which leads you through a scenario where you protect your school and "Norman Rockwell democracy" from a small platoon of heavily armed Arab terrorists by loading Black Talon armor piercing ammo.

Pretend you and your friends are clowing [sic] around in the playground after a grueling day of enduring pinko liberal verbal diarrhea spewing forth from the mouth of some diseased homo intellectual teacher.

As in the previous example, the text tries to reframe the opening image as a "fun" kidz activity, but the power of the image to horrify (and perhaps frighten) us is so great that we reframe the text voice as lunatic instead.


Lest one suppose that chickenhead is entirely fabricating the NRA's attempt to make guns part of children's culture, one should have a look at Insights magazine on line and more generally at the NRA Youth pages at www.mynra.com . Chickenhead's Kidz Korner is to be sure much more noxious that the real NRA's magazine, but the inspiration is there.

On this account of the five types, I have argued that the target of each of these satires is a discursive practice: fetish talk, educational funding policy, human resources management, news-interviewing, promotional brochures, 1950's advertising, fundamentalism, and NRA's version of kid-talk. All call attention to, and some clearly critique discursive practices that are alive socially and would not make their point if we were unfamiliar with these practices. I do not mean to suggest that these discourses are purely text, for they do make use of "visuals" as well, and in the case of the 50s adverts, may be predominantly visual. It is not the visual modes of signification that are the main target, however, but the discursive practices of which they are a part.


It will not have escaped the reader/viewer that these Web satires are, as we say, fairly broad, unsubtle, and simple in their implied repudiation of a discursive practice. Aligning oneself in relation to a discursive practice is clearly not the same as aligning oneself to a particular work that is familiar and much thought upon. At times, the motive for either sort of alignment can be desecration, as when one Web satirist exposed Santa Claus as a voyeur and pederast, which is a bit like drawing a mustache on La Giaconda and captioning it "L.H.O.O.Q." But the sort of rich relation of past and present image that Witkin, for example, creates—homage across great cultural distances—is hard to imagine at the present state of development of net.art, when perhaps the most widely known image is that of Mouchette's attacking cat, and that is still known only to fans of net.art. The most direct and extensive connection of net.art to the History of Art is Dean Brown's An Incomplete History of Art, where Barbies and Kens are posed in many classical settings, and that, alas, has been taken off line without explanation or farewell. (It is still linked by over 300 sites, several months after going down.) Barbie has become quite the Web celeb, despite Mattel, Inc.'s vigorous opposition, but I do not wish to offer her as the epitome of how a Web image can acquire meaning. Nor, for that matter, do I wish to include Morimura's recent version of La Giaconda naked and quite pregnant as anything other than the spelling out of what some have long suspected. It is not even clear to me that Web images can or should establish complex relations to images from the History of Art, even though those images are available as never before just a few clicks away as one surfs or works on line. But it is clear that net.art needs to summon and marshall its contexts, as Jon Ippolito said, or it will be severely limited in how much it can mean. Looked at from a different angle, viewers may need to be prepared to do some of the contextualizing and sorting work of galleries and museums, some of the work that Ippolito was asked to do. This also means that a standard semiotics that sets out to read the code from the work is likely to be unproductive.

Harlan Wallach, Chicago Murder Sites (c. 1992).
Currently 14 image/text pairs can be viewed at http://smith.mmlc.northwestern.edu/~harlan/arthole/cms/ index.html.

An example will illustrate these points. Chicago Murder Sites is a minor Web classic, having been on line since 1996. As it appears on the Web at the Northwestern site, it has little or no explanatory material, no artist's or curator's statement, no interviews, nothing but high modernist "the work itself." The work consists of fourteen pairs of texts and images describing and depicting sites of murders in Chicago. The texts are excerpts of newspaper accounts of the murders and the images are presumably of the sites where the described murders occurred. Nothing is said about the pictures, which are dark, restricted in tonal range, oddly tilted, many shot from ground level. There are no bodies—in fact no human figures of any kind—just pictures of alleys and dumpsters, houses, apartment buildings, and rundown shops. These 14 sites can be reached from a single index page which has the sites plotted with red pins on a map of Chicago. (Each pin is a hot link to an image/text pair.)

Sean Williams,"Structured Dissonance and the Art of Building Arguments for the World-Wide Web"

Without very much more to go on, Sean Williams analyzed the images in this site using the Kress and van Leeuwen semiotic framework, picking up on such things as the apparent positioning of the camera, and hence the viewer, on the ground and the numerous strong oblique angles, concluding that there are "dissonances" in the camera's views: at times they are "objective" and "uninvolved" but at others they are subjective, subjugated, and powerless and in that sense very much in the scene. He also notes that the images sometimes do not seem to him to illustrate exactly what the text describes.

Catalog of Murder as Phenomena exhibit 1992 in San Francisco: webspaces.artic.edu/~cschau/murder/murder.html

Google returns 106 sites to the query "Chicago murder sites", and we can use them to break down the isolation of the Chicago Murder Sites and perhaps give explanations for some of Williams' "dissonances." Wallach did not simply put this project up at his own site. He contributed four text/image pairs to the on-line gallery SITO along with some information about the project. He lists the exhibition and publication history of the project and mentions that it is pinhole photography. SITO reports an exhibit at S. F. Cameraworks, and we find a notice of a "Murder as Phenomenon" exhibit in 1992 in S.F. where Wallach's Chicago Murder Sites is described as part of a project to photograph the 922 murders that had been reported in Chicago in 1992. The date 1992 directly conflicts with another one that appears on a couple of linking sites, namely 1951, when Wallach is said to have taken the pictures. This I think is an urban myth: you can't find out much about Wallach on the Web, but you can find an MFA showing in May 2000, suggesting that there was no Harlan Wallach in 1951 to take pictures, and the self-portrait drawing at SITO also argues for a later date of birth. So we may conclude that Chicago Murder Sites was a work for gallery exhibition and print publication that was adapted for the Web. The originals are 11x14" prints, which means that the text on them would be legible: the text-image pairing is a result of adaptation to the very lean graphic capacities of current desktop computers.


Both S.F. Cameraworks and SITO note that these prints are instances of pinhole photography. The pinhole camera explains a number of the formal features Williams noted: pinholes have high depth of field and wide angle of vision, but require long exposure times (2 seconds to 2 minutes) and are frequently set on the ground, or set with a wedge under the taking end of the camera. Depending on the film and developers used, the result is often high in contrast and weak in the midtones. Because of the long exposure times, objects that move through the scene do not register, hence streets appear empty. If something or person enters or leaves the scene part way through the exposure, they may appear as semi-transparent, giving the ghostly effect valued by Clarence Laughlin and other photomontageurs. Pinhole photography stretches out the moment of exposure; hence the process sees stasis. This, along with its wide angle of view, make it suited for landscapes and especially abandoned, ruined landscapes. (And see Lisa Johnston's "Urban Anthropology" collection of pinhole images.) Pinhole cameras have become quite popular on and through the Web; they have several fine exhibition sites and Webrings.


Harlan Wallach, Chicago-Murder-Sites, No. 26 (from SITO)

A second clue can be found in Black and White World's listing for Chicago Murder Sites in its March 1999 Top Ten Photo Websites. There they say the pinhole camera was placed at the exact spots where the victims were found. This addresses another of Williams' "dissonances," since he assumed the camera would be pointed at the scene or the body (as is the strong convention of scene-of-crime photography, complete with chalked body outline) not placed at the scene or the body. So in one case he discusses, the body is said to be found under a porch, but the camera points to a building with no porch. Ah yes, but the camera might well be under the porch pointing across the street. Black and White World do not tell us how they came by this useful piece of information. It does square the texts with the images insofar as the images can be made out. Finally, if we could add to the context this study we would quickly draw the parallel with Rosler's Bowery set of image/text pairings depicting urban physical and moral decrepitude which are in addition devoid of human subjects!

None of this addresses "why?" of course, but it does help keep us from being caught up in a semiotic updraft toward a flight of fancy. It gives us a tradition and context for Wallach's use of the pinhole and it restrains us from reading significance into certain features that are part of the material reality of pinhole photography. The camera is on the ground because it stablizes it and because the body was on the ground. The body was on the ground because it was dead and that the dead are powerless is not news. These images are as it were what the dead people see, urban landscapes utterly without life. The modernist "My images say best what I have to say" presentation of Chicago Murder Sites invites a structural-semiotic approach: deprived or lacking much context, we try to apply the code and come up with a partial approximation and some loose ends.

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