Identity


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At BNP Paribas, an animated ATM within your ATM. Not so different from the incorrigibly peppy first-person of Washington Mutual ATMs. (“Hi! How should we talk today? English? Español?”) As graphics technology evolves, the more complicated the story that may be told. Remember those ugly yellow-on-black UNIX-terminal style ATMs? Or the ones with the most basic graphics and a perpetual bank-logo burn-in?

Abstraction, caricature, anthropomorphization, all in support of a financial transaction. Do these serve to more effectively replace a human teller or to augment an electronic transaction?

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Boardwalk Candy Palace is a candy store in the Main Street USA section of Disneyland Park. The store is an example of the park’s culture of caricature, a result of the park’s filtering of information. Disneyland Resort Paris (1) filters out information incompatible with the resort’s family-friendly image, (2) heightens information in line with the narrative it is presenting and (3) tints the information to make it palatable (or more palatable) to a European audience. You see all of this in Boardwalk Candy Palace—which is essentially just a candy store in a pedestrian mall. 1, incompatibility: The store is decidedly upper-middle class (poor people are very un-Disney, unless they become rich through grit and determination) and the candy presents no health risks. 2, heightening: The neo-Victorian styling is over-the-top, but not out of place in a Disney theme park; the staff wear exaggerated versions of early-20th-century American garb. And 3, tinting:

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American flags in stained glass, wall-sized Atlantic City murals: The store is a testimony to the enduring power of American capitalism (or something). It’s not clear what the store’s message is, just that it is unquestionably American—because America sells. Boardwalk Candy Palace is also an example of the complicated, overlapping influences felt throughout the park: It is a French store (Disneyland Resort Paris) sponsored by a Swiss company (Nestle), selling an American product (Disney candy) to an international audience. Pico Iyer would have a field day.

The entire resort is this weird blend of Europe and America: Ornately and fastidiously detailed (to counter prevailing European concerns that the park would be merely cheap Americana) but selling hyper-Americanism (because cheap Americana sells, and sells well.) It’s a fascinating mish-mash of cultural and aesthetic concerns, manifested as they so often are in architecture.

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At a gift shop in Disneyland Resort Paris, a different take on name mugs: Dealing with an international audience by only providing the vastly-more-flexible letter.

The adaptations our environments make on our behalf; the extent to which we expect them. Adaptations or compromises: The extent to which we accept them. Does one-size-fits-all internationalism detract from the individual user experience?

Previous examples of knowing thy audience.

One paper due tonight, three due in the following week. We’re plugging away.

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Spotted at CDG baggage claim: An example of actually knowing thy audience. How the flow of people can create transnational islands; how global capital follows economic realities instead of cultural ideals. (Interestingly, this ad may be targeted at Britons, not Americans. Wouldn’t Britons take the Chunnel?)

Note the small, light green text in the lower-right corner of this ad. France is famously devoted to the preservation of its language; the Académie française has attempted to slow or halt the anglicisation of French (with mixed success; I attended a dinner where native French speakers all chattered eagerly about le weekend). France’s Toubon Law, adopted in 1994, mandates the use of French in almost all official or commercial communication, and requires that advertisements in English provide a French translation (as protection for the consumer, of course). Most ads provide the translation as unobtrusively as possible, typically in a footnote, whether the ad is targeted towards French speakers or not. 

Ads in English that are targeted towards the French seem to use English to align themselves with international or transnational ideas (i.e., this product transcends nation) or to make themselves seem advanced or cool. (This is not to say that these two functions are mutually exclusive—one often includes the other.) Many international firms market in English; Phillips—while a Dutch company—runs ads in the Paris Metro promoting its MP3 players, displaying both its slogan and the tagline in English. Local companies, French or Parisian, tend to market in French.

How do we code empire into language? How does our verbal architecture become a battleground where we may express our ideals and discontents? The problems and opportunities of marketing to a bilingual audience. The value of the novel, the impact of the alien.

Auto-stickers; auto-mythmaking. Establishing a local identity, forcing the built environment to see us.

Does Vashon Island even have an airport?

(Answer: Yes, although the FAA identifier is 2S1, and not VSH, which doesn’t quite have the same punch to it. Smaller airports serving general aviation (i.e. non-commercial flights and small planes) tend to have number-letter-number FAA codes, because there aren’t enough location-based letter codes to go around. How do we code empire into our basic systems and protocol?)

(Also: Pilots planning flights to 2S1 should be aware that there are OCNL LARGE WILD ANIMALS ON ARPT. Oh, rural Washington.)

I was on a walk last night and started noticing the front ends of cars. Do we anthropomorphize cars, and judge them as we judge human faces? What message do we read in the headlights—the eyes—of this Volvo? Does our preference for eyes that are proportionally large to the face in which they are set (puppies, babies) carry over into cars? 

And if the idea does, does the preference still? Might we prefer cars that are anti-cute? How is this linked to the passage of time and changes in automobile design? Car size varies tremendously with economic conditions and the price of gasoline, but what about the aspect, the personality of the cars we encounter? I think this Toyota looks angry. Do recent cars look angrier than older cars? Does the zeitgeist of each decade show itself in the cars produced?

And what of national origin? Do the Volvo and Toyota have different ‘aspects’, different ‘personalities’ to them than this Ford? This is only further confounded by the complicated ownership structures of multinational corporations—Volvo is owned by Ford; many Toyotas are manufactured in the United States.

Cars sit at the junction of utility and design. They are unnecessary in a way, or less than necessary: Cars simply happen to be the way we transport ourselves, but they do not have to be the way we transport ourselves. And now that they’re here, we will do with them what we will. Like cakes, they have both outside and inside meaning.

[UPDATE: Moments ago, I opened Henry Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things, which I’m reading for my material cultures seminar. In the book’s second paragraph, Petroski neatly elucidates the wider question of this post: “If form does not follow function in any deterministic way, then by what mechanism do the shapes and forms of our made world come to be?”]

How and where and when do we code our beliefs into our ambient environments? The above cakes engage in an active dialogue with individual consumers through their decorations, a dialogue in which each party contributes to the story of the other. For the consumer, the selection of cake decoration is both a public statement of beliefs and priorities, and an internal statement of aspiration; that is, the decoration both defines and is defined by the person who chooses it.

(In a system in which one must present an image, a narrative, an idea about oneself, there is no way to opt out of the system: Even serving a blank cake sends a message, albeit a quieter one than a topped cake.)

Things are, I think, more interesting for the cake, which doesn’t really care what decoration is put on it. For the cake, all messages are equally valid. The same is true for the corporation selling the cake, as long as the message turns a profit. From the cake’s point of view, a cake is a cake is a cake.

(Might some of these decorations have purely symbolic value? For example, how often does someone order the Bible-and-chalice decoration? Is its inclusion in the book—the cost of printing the page and providing that option—contingent upon the cost of inclusion being less than cost of exclusion i.e. boycotts or angry religious groups?)

But these cakes, by being frosted with their used-under-license perfectly reproduced trademarked images, raise questions about consumer preference in the age of mass production. I happen to be reading Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, by the anthropologist Sidney W. Mintz, for a class of mine, and I think these cake decorations are an example of Mintz’s theory of how various forces conspire to compel us to vest the material world with meaning. Mintz writes:

The daily life conditions of consumption have to do with what I called inside meaning; the environing economic, social, and political (even military) conditions with outside meaning. Inside meaning arises when the changes connected with outside meaning are already well under way.

These grand changes ultimately set the outer boundaries for determining hours of work, leisure, and the arrangement of time in relation to the expenditure of human energy. In spite of their significance for everyday life, they originate outside that sphere and on a wholly different level of social action. [… Once these outside conditions are set,] people alter the micro-conditions as much as they can and according to their emerging preferences—the where, when, how, with whom, with what, and why—thereby changing what the things in question signify, what they mean to the users. New behaviors are superimposed upon older behaviors; some behavioral features are retained, others forgotten. New patterns replace older ones. [1996, 20-21. Italics original, emphasis added.]

In this case, the rise of a national popular media culture (shared recognition of sports teams, fictional iconography, television characters, etc.), coupled with the adoption of standardized franchise business models, along with the decline in cost of edible printing technology and its according widespread adoption, conspire to enable a set of circumstances inside of which consumers are ultimately able to vest the end-products (cakes) with individualized and specific meaning.

These cakes take the same form and are put to the same use as earlier, more traditional or conventional birthday cakes, allowing consumers to shift what they consume without shifting how they consume it. New behaviors are thereby superimposed on old as the new type of cake is dropped into an existing paradigm of celebration.

The big question is: How is the idea of the birthday affected by the image on the cake? Does the image co-opt and overpower the traditional meaning of the birthday, or does the birthday simply make a minor adjustment to accommodate a cosmetic change?

Tokyo, 1964

The first Olympic Games to be held in Asia premiered on October 10, 1964, in Tokyo, Japan. The Tokyo Games were rife with symbolism: The Olympic torch was lit by Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima the day the city was destroyed by the atomic bomb, and the Games were regarded as Japan’s announcement of its successful reconstruction following World War II. 

But the symbolism was also literal: To communicate with Olympic visitors who didn’t speak Japanese, the Tokyo Games invented a set of pictograms, a method of communication designed to be “independent of language and culture.” The Tokyo pictograms were regarded as groundbreaking, and every Summer Olympics since has featured its own unique set of pictograms.

The Tokyo pictograms were one of 28 pictogram families from around the world selected for study by the United States Department of Transportation as part of an effort to create a system of unified transportation pictograms. The pictograms used at the Tokyo Games are part of a historical continuum but also represent a shift in modern visual communication, both in the design of the pictograms and the reasons for their use.

(more…)

Click through photo for larger.

The “Sounds of Summer Concert Series” at the University Village shopping center is advertised as “Free Music”. But is it really free? It’s part of the atmosphere; it’s a draw and you’re expected to reciprocate by spending money. So although admission is provided de jure without charge, de facto the cost is hidden. The music is like the trees or the pedestrian atmosphere: A lot of work and money have gone into these things, but not without a greater end goal of maximizing consumer dollars spent per square foot of retail space leased. Providing music, heightening the atmosphere, are just further strategies towards this goal.

What does our public space lose when it’s really private space? There’s a sanitization to it—contrast U Village with nearby public space The Ave (and note the difference in websites: The Ave’s best representation is an entry on a creative-commons-licensed, openly editable, user-created encyclopedia. U Village, while also possessing the requisite Wikipedia entry, puts its best foot forward with the website linked above)—and a hesitancy. We play by different rules when we’re in private space, even outdoor, walkable, could-be-a-village-center private space, because we know it’s not ours.

A related entry is forthcoming.

The importance of regional identity-giving those who dwell together a reason to identify as having something in common with their neighbors. Does the cry to regional identity become stronger in a networked, globalized world? Is the cry a popular backlash or just a last, desperate gasp?

How do we form a regional identity? Is it organic? Can places be branded, and, if so, how successfully? How are nicknames, place names, the local vernacular, formed or sorted out? Does the sticker recognize and thereby popularize an existing nickname, or does it introduce it?

Does Indianola even have an airport?


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