Visual Noise & Visual Literacy

My Arts in New York City course had it’s last experiential component to a small gallery on the Lower East Side called Station Independent Projects. This is a tiny space, tucked inside some streets north of the Williamsburg Bridge entrance. I decided to take the students there because an acquaintance from my early days of living in Brooklyn (back in the 20th century!) had a show that had recently been written up in ArtForum Magazine–a real coup in the art world. Vandana Jain’s show, entitled “Shorthand for Luxury,” explores corporate personhood and the corporitization (did I just make that word up?) of our lives. She takes corporate logos and brands and configures them into art.

Our fall freshman City Seminar curriculum investigated the question of conscious consumerism. Students had studied their own consumption practices through charting and writing about them in their Quantitative Reasoning class and their Reading & Writing class. We took a day and looked at the art world’s response to consumer culture in our Arts class to prep for this trip. During that class we studied visual art and music videos. So. much. fun.

Vandana came to the gallery and talked to my class in several rounds (so, so generous). One idea she introduced to us was the concept of visual noise. She explained that we are constantly bombarded with images in various forms, so much that we block them out and they become like white noise for our eyes. Her work seeks to investigate the meaning within this visual noise.

Such an interesting concept. I began to think about my job as a literacy teacher. Literacy isn’t just reading and writing texts, but it’s reading images, too, especially because text and image are so intimately connected. It’s essential to be able to think critically the visual noise in our lives–whether the noise be advertisements, television, product placement, brand names splattered all over all our clothes, whatever.

Here is a still from one of her pieces that my students found fascinating. She took the Top 100 Grossing companies from Fortune Magazine and made them into a mandala. It is a beautiful still image, but it’s actually a piece of video art. You can view it on her website here. I stood in front of the video mesmerized with many groups of students, quietly calling out the companies we knew as they appeared, asking Vandana which logo represented what company (she knew them all, of course). We were all a bit surprised at how few we knew overall.

corporate mandala

Right: Vandana Jain, Fortune 100 animation, The Highest Grossing Corporations of the World for the Fiscal Year Ending in March 2011, According to Fortune Magazine, 3:27, animation, 2012, closing Saturday at Station Independent Projects, 164 Suffolk Street, NY, NY.

Thank you Leah (gallery owner) and Vandana for welcoming my class into your space and treating them like adults. They reported that of all the places we visited, they were most comfortable at Station Independent Projects and with you.