Structure, meaning, and interpretation

I’m going to preface this post by saying it will have almost nothing to do with photography. These are ideas I’d like to incorporate into photography but haven’t figured out how best to do so yet. It’s 1am, I’m sitting in the library waiting for my roommate’s friends to leave so I can go fall asleep. I have no other work to do, so I’d like to think into the internet about a topic I’ve been thinking a fair amount about recently: how we understand structure, how we pick meaning off of structures, and methods of creating structures which are still recognizable as structurally consistent but carry absolutely no meaning.

This fascination started during a lecture in my surface studio in which our professor showed us work of a particular artist and said “you see here some things which look like they could be letters, almost, but aren’t quite. This is called …” I cannot for the life of me remember the term she used or the artist she was talking about, but this led me to a lot of scribbling in my notebooks as I explored this phenomenon.


I would pick bits and pieces out of other alphabets, I’d experiment with line vs curve vs dots and dashes, I’d challenge myself to strip away more writing conventions like left to right, top to bottom lines. I wanted to see how far away you could get from something recognizable as “writing” and yet still recognizable as “this is a clearly organized system of conveying information.”

Basically, I was asking myself, how could I scribble on a page and make it look like there was a rigid set of rules it obeyed, even if those rules were unknown to the viewer? Could the rules be unknown to me? Could it still have rules even if I didn’t create it with any rules in mind?

I haven’t created any finished pieces using these concepts, at least in the realm of visual art. I’m not sure what a finished product would look like, or if I even have the time to do something like this outside of an assignment. For the time being I do enjoy the idle scratches on the backs of paper or in sketchbooks. It looks nice and feels nice to “write”, so I’d be interested in exploring this idea further later on.

Lessness & the AFO Foyer 
In the realm of sound, however, I made a piece recently for time studio which explores or at least touches on the idea of having a structure vs conveying meaning. But first, a few words on how this piece ended up as… what it is.

AFO foyer assignment process 
The prompt for the piece was to create a :30-2:00 sound clip for the AFO foyer, which is a fairly small room between the elevators and the main hallway, which has a door onto the patio, a door into the stairs, a set of sliding doors into the hallway, and a space to wait for the two elevators. Everyone’s final pieces would be played together, end to end, in a loop in the actual space, so we were given that idea to work with and guide the piece.

At first, I wanted to play with stereophonic sound. I set up two recorders the same distance apart as the speakers in the fotyer outside of Cabell, recording sounds of people walking by. I wanted to give the illusion of being in this area while just passing through the space of the foyer. Very well. I loaded up the audio into Audacity and lined it up and realized… ok, all I’ve got is a technical exercise. There was some degree of creative input into the process, but I wasn’t satisfied with that as a finished product by a long shot.

So, I added some little bits of distortion through the piece. This took the form of sporadic areas of white noise. There was the Mac TTS voice at the beginning saying “load ambience file. WARNING! this audio file is corrupted” type deal. I wanted to solve the problem of people passing through and not really engaging the piece as anything more than ambience.

During an in-progress critique I was basically advised to pick a direction: I could either focus on the distortion or the technical aspect of recording the very rich stereo audio. I was having more fun with the distortion and didn’t want the effectiveness of my piece to hinge on my ability to record audio, so I picked the former to focus on.

At first I just used Audacity to generate and then distort audio, basically chopping up and distorting dialtones and various white noises and tones Audacity cooked up for me. However, while this created a nice noisy effect, I really wanted the effect of garbled noise, reversed noise, really choppy nasty aggressive noise. I realized I needed some kind of spoken text to get that, because without that meaning, an understanding of what something was supposed to sound like, I’d just be creating various interesting colored tones. But what should the text be?

I sifted through a lot of creepy writings, pondered over just picking out random text in a dada style, nothing really sat well with me though. That is, until I found the story “Lessness” by Samuel Beckett. Here is an excerpt:

In four split asunder over backwards true refuge issueless scattered ruins. Little body little block genitals overrun arse a single block grey crack overrun. True refuge long last issueless scattered down four walls over backwards no sound. All sides endlessness earth sky as one no stir not a breath. Blank planes sheer white calm eye light of reason all gone from mind. Scattered ruins ash grey all sides true refuge long last issueless.

In the little bit I’ve been able (literally able, it’s very late and I’m very tired) to read about this piece, it was a piece of writing whose writing depended largely on chance. I knew this would be my source text.

From there, I heavily distorted sections to my enjoyment and created a very, very disorienting piece. And that was my goal for the AFO elevator, I wanted to disorient, to confuse and to create general discord. I’m not totally happy with this piece to that end, but overall I’m fairly happy with what I turned out and really enjoyed the process of distorting this sort of spoken word.

Many interesting occurrences popped up in the editing process.

Some interesting things happened

  • Taking a single word and reducing it into a non-lexical communication of the semantics of a word through audio manipulation. For example, a sentence ended on “breath” and the next sentence started with the Mac’s TTS inserting a breath in. So I grabbed the breathy end of “breath”, stretched it out, and played it off of the inhale right next to it. Or taking the end of “endless” and stretching it out to be 20 seconds long and playing with the sounds in that space.
  • Picking apart and repeating sections of a word in order to create this sort of rhythmic and melodic occurrence.
  • Layering. Layering audio and spoken word. Layering a phrase or word reversed in the left channel and forward in the right channel. Layering two types of echoes on top of eachother. Breaking things up across multiple channels to create aggressive sorts of sounds.

Those are some of the things you’ll hear in the piece. The piece is pretty weird. I hope you enjoy it, or at the very least react to it: link

What I hope effectively conveys the idea of this piece is the in the very beginning: “This audio file is corrupted, and may unintelligible.” the idea is that, it’s not the distortion that creates the unintelligibility, but rather the fact that the words being said, while not outright a list of random words, have very little or no meaning carried with them to begin with. The distortion only serves to underscore the lack of meaning and lexical distortion in the text itself.

Photography? It’s a conclusion.
It’s now 2am, and I can feel myself making less sense as I continue to write this. Allow me to wrap this post up by tying it back to photography in some useful way. I often feel like times this early/late can still be very productive: It’s when I come up with some of my most off-the-wall ideas, at least if I can make sense of it after the fact.

This is an inherently difficult idea to express through photography, considering the fact that photography is largely concerned with the portrayal of the world (generally) as it’s seen. The closest work to what I’m thinking of is Jerry Uelsmann’s:


However the difference here is that Uelsmann works with clearly identifiable images to create very surreal images that still have meaning. The thought of using photography to create work that has internal structure but conveys no meaning? That’s a problem I’m certainly not awake enough to solve, and I doubt I’ll even be able to tomorrow morning.

In any event, goodnight. I’m certainly going to enjoy my bed tonight.


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