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What does High Concept mean for Ecomedia Studies?

2011 December 9
by Shared by Steve Rust

 Can you make out this image on your iPhone? How about on your 72″ LCD HDTV?  Could you tell immediately that it was a gun wrapped in a rainbow (or candy twizzler)? Did you think “Peace and Love” or “No more guns”?  Did you see Ringo?  Certainly it’s hard to imagine anyone choosing the “go Army” option.  What we have then is a seeming effective example of high-concept marketing – the same idea used by the film industry to promote blockbuster films. Just as most of us can immediately recall the images from our favorite movie posters for Jaws, Star Wars, and the like, or the golden arches of McDonald’s, so to do most of us immediately associate the peace symbol with “the 1960s”.

Among environmentalists, the flowing triangular image intended to convey “reduce, reuse, recycle” has been successful as a means of communicating a concept among a wide audience. It makes one wonder if perhaps climate change initiatives could use a similar ‘high-concept’ model to convey the immediacy of the situation and need for action.  I think Ringo’s new initiative, meant to honor the work of his fallen comrade John Lennon, demonstrates the ability of images to invite viewers to think – and although what the viewer thinks is determined individually it’s hard to deny the ability of images like Ringo’s to convey “meaning” almost instantaneously by tapping into shared awareness among an audience.

This week the climate conference in South Africa has received barely a mention among the major news outlets in the United States.  Representatives of the Obama Administration have gone to the conference and taken the position that unless China, India, and other “developing” nations agree to the same rules as the US and the Western World there will simply be no bargain and the US will continue the status quo – ie doing nothing.  A delegation of so-called “environmentalists” (in other words that’s how NPR and other outlets referred to them) failed in their attempt to force the US to leave the conference. This delegation included delegates from island nations and other regions facing more direct and immediate effects of warming and sea level rise.  It really makes you wonder if they should have spent more time coming up with a “high concept” image – something that would convey the seriousness and scope of the problem. Of course, part of the reason why the gun wrapped in glass is such an evocative image is that it sends a message that is beyond “no” or “stop”. The swirling colors and smooth line suggest “yes” we can do this and here’s how we do this.  Can we imagine an image that conveys both the problem of climate change and a solution. Is there one solution that can be conveyed in a single image?  To my mind it starts with an end to fossil fuel consumption. But as Ringo’s image suggests as well, and as the Beatles music suggests, is that climate change, like the peace movement, requires a change of heart and mind that goes beyond simple solutions – especially if we’re to avoid species extinction and war as well.  Just some thoughts on a Friday. Big picture, one of the debates at the heart of ecomedia studies – as it is for feminism, cognitivism, marxism, and post colonialism – is whether or not certain aesthetic choices on the part of the producer of media can have a measurable and predictable impact on consumers.  While many viewers might not “get” the broader implications of a film like March of the Penguins it is also true that many express disgust at being lectured to, even when it’s by someone as earnest and reliable as Al Gore.  High concept art, however, conveys a message immediately, or at least it seems to. And so relativists and pluralists must also remember that branding and marketing are so pervasive in our culture precisely because extensive analysis and research have proven to businesses that it works in some way on consumers minds.  However, this also does not mean that viewers perceptions cannot be retrained to some degree by engaging with media that does note immediately communicate its ideas to the viewer (ie avant garde).

If I am able to recognize Ringo’s candy gun as an argument against weapons, it is because I have been so well trained from birth by my culture to recognize high concept art and advertising.  Its codes, such as the color choices, composition, and display of Ringo’s art, have been imbedded in me as a child of the blockbuster era and cable television. I remain ambivalent about such questions and the power of ecomedia to move audiences to action or the power of scholars and cinephiles to somehow “get something” about certain films or images.


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