an essay on clouds
My twin sister and I were around eight years old; at this age we were both incredibly curious and both very stubborn. My mother knew better than to leave doors unlocked or us unsupervised for extended periods of time, and we often gave her good reason to take these precautions. I even recall my sister and I locking our relatives out of their cars if they left us inside even for a second.
This particular day we were engaged in a much more innocent activity; cloud-watching. Sitting on the metal swingset at the local park (I still recall their animalistic squeaking and screeching from a lack of oiling on their joints), we both stared at a large cloud looming overhead.
“What do you think that cloud looks like?” I asked. I at this point already knew that cloud was a dog curled up in slumber. I could even make out its tail curled around its bulbous nose.
“A frog with its tongue sticking out,” she replied plainly, “Look; there’s its tongue and its one eye.”
I remember feeling a twinge of anger; how dare she? That cloud was clearly shaped like a dog; how could she not see what I was seeing?
Looking back on that experience, I realize that trip to the playground was my first remembered encounter with semiotics (the study of signs, and basically of ‘meaning’). This study investigates everything from social symbols in advertising to the meanings of words. I personally began my study in this... well... study in 2009 when, as an art major at a conceptual-based school, it was required of me to incorporate the theories of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault in the process of creating my work.
The basic of basic way to explain the concepts of semiotics is in the signifier and signified (this dyadic system is according to Ferdinand de Saussure).
The signifier can be reduced to the term ‘sign’ and is the actual object or concept or word. The signified is everything that makes up that object in a symbolistic sense.
For example, think of the first thing that comes to mind when you read the word ‘cat’.
Most people will see a small, four-legged carnivore with a long tail, short face, and whiskers. They may think of its meow or purring, or of its status as being closely associated with people or being chased by dogs.
‘Cat’ is the signifier, and the amassment all of those characteristics are the signified. This two-part system is the basis of the theatre movement called Structuralism, and was reversed and otherwise manipulated during the Post-Modern movement (in that the signified became detached from its signifier)
This is where it can get tricky; ask someone in your close circle (or strangers) to describe what their mental image of the word ‘cat’. Most likely you will get similar answers, but they will all be different. They may be different colors, sizes; some may not even have tails. But they all describe that word to form a mass representation of a ‘cat’ that all in that culture can recognize. Saussure also argued that the signified and signifier’s difference was arbitrary; they can be the result of the same mental process.
Differences in the signified can explain culture and personal variations; there is the commonly shared fact that native Alaskan communities have over fifty words for the word snow that describes snows of types that our culture, for example, does not even recognize. We can even go as far as to say that these differences can account for differing standards of beauty and other qualities, and can be manipulated (such as the overall view of a political leader/system, etc). I will not go as far as to say that this system can define an entire culture, but it is not too far of a stretch.
What I love about this system is that the signified is a mass process; every person involved throws in their experiences, memories, and knowledge. Combine that with the culture and history in relation to that object, and that population can agree on what a ‘cat’ is. The word ‘cat’ does not have to look or sound like what we see a ‘cat’ is, but because of that relationship between the signified and the signifier they appear as the same image.
The same experience, in a sense.
Despite every individual’s personal symbology, we can come to an agreement that even though my signified ‘cat’ is white and yours may be black, it still fits this cookie-cutter shape for a cat.
Now, back to the problem of clouds.
What I saw that dog in the clouds, I associated its features to the signified of a dog. That mental image I was able to impress onto that amorphous shape was a result of seeing certain features that, to me, were enough to see that as a dog. It conformed to that shape, feel, and experience that is a ‘dog’. It just so happened that my sister had just seen in that cloud the signified features of a frog, it fit her mold for that and not a dog, and that cloud had the feeling of a ‘frog’ and not ‘dog’; the differences in our personal culture influenced the differences in signifiers.
The most beautiful part of this, however, is not that we can have such differences, but that neither of the signifiers were ‘cloud’. Both of us were very aware though that they were clouds and carried all of the characteristics for clouds in our culture. One of those just happened to be that clouds are a vector for other signifiers. They can appear like anything and everything else; clouds are arguably one of the best mirrors to reveal our own personal cultures and symbology.
Funny thing is, clouds are not the only vector for signs.
One could mold a shape out of clay, draw something on paper, glue items together, carve out of stone or wood, weld, paint, etc.
A part of the Post-Modern movement was the recognize the materiality of the medium in art; to see a painting of a vase not just being the result of a signified ‘vase’ but instead as paint on canvas representing...well... paint on canvas. A Post-Modernist would look at a cloud and call it a cloud; that sign represents ‘cloud’, not ‘dog’ or ‘frog’ or anything else. Whether it is more correct to see material as material and destroy the veil of symbolism and representation I am not sure (and am open to debate about).
So, the next time you see something in a cloud or wisp of smoke or sculpture, take the time to think of why you think that thing appears as what sign it comes to you. Experience the entirety of that word or image or sign, and the mass collective process that resulted in that sign coming to you.
Some artists and authors to read on this subject:
the works of Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson, Andy Warhol, Robert Indiana, Bruce Nauman, Joseph Kosuth (One and Three Chairs), and Lawrence Weiner
Ferdinand de Saussure and Structuralism
The hitRECord Academy has sprouted an academic wing! This is a place to gather up critical reflection, theory, analysis, art history, philosophy, criticism, musings on spirituality and the arts - anything you feel falls under the category. There will probably be some overlap between this and the Academy. My intention isn't just that we have a place to chat about this stuff, which is valuable in itself, but that this can all feed into creative work. The caveat, of course, is that creative work is always primary. All the critical categories, "ism"s, and such are analytical. They can serve artists as a starting point, but are always transcended by great artists. I had the privilege of taking a class with Peter Selz, curator of NY MoMA's famous 1959 exhibit, "New Images of Man." A fellow student asked him, as a curator, how he determines which artworks are worthy of exhibition - in other words, what, to him, makes for "great art." He thought about it and came back the next week with his considered answer. A great work of art, he said, is "a visual metaphor for significant human experience." (If anyone needs to cite that I can dig up the date he said it & give the course info.) That's the kind of critical analysis I think can actually help artists. Note that he said nothing about beauty, originality, or anything like that. His definition is open enough to include those things, but it doesn't require them per se. So... contribute your thoughts in whatever form they take (sometimes theory is best done in visual art or poetry!). Link stuff here that you did for another project on the site but that fits this theme. IMPORTANT NOTE: This is a place where we probably have to be extra careful about plagiarism and all that. It's not a real university, so we probably don't need to adhere to any really strict citation standards, but please give the sources of ideas that aren't your own, and/or reference where others might look to dig in deeper. For citation purposes, I would tentatively suggest we use standards similar to those for the popular (v. specialist academic) book market. In other words, name your sources, but you don't have to give bibliographic citations unless you want to. We don't want to give the good folks who run this site any more headaches!!! Some RECords can serve as conversation threads. I'll start one or two of those, please add more if you like.