Visual Literacy & Visual Language in a Digital Culture

Newton Virus, Prototype, 2005/2007

This is a blog entry in response to readings and discussions in a graduate course at UBC: Theory and Research in Digital Literacy…

In “Visual Aspects of Media Literacy” (1998), Paul Messaris discusses why those who are highly educated and interested in visual media seem to be unaware of paraproxemic devices by hinting towards a broader conclusion: “If we ask why paraproxemic devices are so transparent to the average viewer, a likely answer might be that it is precisely their analogical quality, that is, their nonarbitrariness, that makes them transparent. Because they appear to be simple extensions of our everyday, real-world perceptual habits, we may interpret them without much conscious awareness or careful scrutiny.” (p. 74) At the end of the article Messaris suggests that the aim of education about visual literacy should be to “denaturalize” visual syntax and for students to realize how they have accepted the implications of that syntax and how they can apply this understanding to their work: “A visually literate person can use these properties either as tools of creative thought and expression or as foundations for resisting the potentially negative influences of visual media” (p. 77). I incorporate these ideas into how I teach art and design. I may not use the exact same language as Messaris (paraproxemic, denaturalize, syntax) but usually everything I teach in art involves breaking the image/text down to the components that create the composition in order to understand its affect on the human psyche.

I can definitely relate to what Erin wrote in this week’s forum discussion, how it is impossible for her to watch a film “without being acutely aware of the visual messages being sent.” As an art educator, I constantly pull inspiration from the visual culture that surrounds us, all media forms that we encounter in our daily lives, and I often find myself doing what I tell my students to do, which is to analyze and disect that which they see. Hence, it’s difficult for me to just take in something visually without being inspired to think about it, even if what I am looking at is completely abstract colours and shapes. I sometimes blame this on my graduate schooling in fine art, which was disproportionately balanced in terms of theory and practice.

I have been teaching a first year university studio-based course called Visual Communication for several years now. It is a wonderful course that allows for exploration of a range of media since the course focuses not on the media being used by the students (at least not primarily) but rather the elements and principles of art and design, including composition and narrative structures. Since visual literacy is a topic of discussion this week, I thought I would share an overview of what I teach in Visual Communication:

This course is an introduction to the many components of visual communication. Students will learn how visual communication works, in other words how form communicates, and how they can apply this understanding to their own projects. Through studying colour, composition and form, visual language, and conceptual development, students will be taught to think critically when creating their artwork. The course will center itself around the idea of understanding our relationship to what we see in visual culture. Students will become conscious of the psychological aspects of colour and the strategic use of forms in visual culture. Through exercises and projects, students will observe and analyze the basic visual elements – points, lines, shapes, patterns, colour, and texture. These elements will be applied to several types of compositions, acknowledging the principles of design, in order to achieve a variety of results and meanings. Students can expect to combine this experimentation with projects that acknowledge more advanced conceptual thinking, deciding how to express their ideas through visual form. Assignments will incorporate creative problem-solving inspired by art history, everyday life, and contemporary visual culture. Projects will be created with digital technology, and will also employ conventional techniques such as drawing, collage, and painting.

A main objective of the course is to have students become more aware and conscious of the forms that exist in visual culture and why they have the affect that they do. In a way, it is about deconstructing the visuals to understand the power of the basic elements and their relationship with one another. Every form can be broken down to the basic visual elements – line, shape, colour, and texture. One could consider these elements as units of a language. How the units are combined and arranged in space – the composition – can determine the feeling produced and can have an impact on a particular concept being conveyed. When analyzing examples from visual culture such as advertisements, students are often surprised about how much there is to discover and interpret within what may first appear to be a simple ad. It is also interesting to note that older students, those between 35-60, are more willing to acknowledge their naivety when it comes to psychological strategies employed in advertising.

When it comes to having the students apply this understanding to their own work, they begin by working only with abstract forms of the elements, meaning the lines and shapes do not indicate objects from representational life, they are only what they are. This allows them to focus more on the subtleties of the elements and the media used, the elements’ relationship to other elements within the visual space, and the positioning of the element within the larger composition. Students can often be distracted by the content of an image, what the picture is of (ie. a person riding a bicycle), rather than seeing the elements that construct the composition. So the projects I assign towards the beginning of the course require students to communicate an emotion/idea/concept based solely on the lines, shapes, colour and/or texture. An example would be to visually represent an emotion using only black and white line, incorporating suitable texture and media, yet not relying on literal symbolism such as facial gestures. I’ve got many student examples of this project on hand, and other similar projects, if you are at all interested.


“When we see images, we take part in visual forming (or ordering). An object is reduced to elements. A chair might be seen as a shape or a group of lines, a wall as a value, and a floor as a colour. In this act, the eye and mind organize visual differences by integrating optical units into a unified whole. The mind instinctively tries to create order out of chaos. This ordering adds harmony to human visual experience, which would otherwise be confusing and garbled.” — (Art Fundamentals, p.33)

A good resource for those beginning to form an understanding of visual literacy, specific to how our brain actually creates what we see, is this video on Principles of Gestalt:

Learning from Artists

Art is sometimes said to be able to express things that can not be easily put into words. Perhaps we need to attend to the “research” of artists while also examining the texts of educational theorists in our pursuit of understanding digital/visual/multiliteracies. Raymond Williams, author of Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974), is known for coming up with the word “flow” to describe the incorporation of interruption within TV until it becomes naturalized in the steam of images. The word “flow” first emerged out of Williams’ writings after visiting the United States and witnessing the difference between the extremely interrupted style of American television and the more subdued nature of the British television experience. In Britain commercial breaks, with the inclusion of a visual signal, had become common but in America commercials were inserted into programs much more frequently and advertisements for upcoming shows disrupted current programs on a regular basis. Williams writes about the difficulty to respond and to interpret television’s intrinsic visual experiences and how there is a lack of description surrounding the topic. Despite this unwritten account of the visual experience, Williams states that the attentive moments belonging to the viewer may be one of the most significant aspects of the medium’s power. He states,

“To get this kind of attention, it is often necessary to turn off the sound, which is usually directing us to prepared transmissible content or other kinds of response. What can then happen, in some surprising ways, is an experience of visual mobility, of contrast of angle of variation of focus, which is often very beautiful …. To most analysts of television, preoccupied by declared or directed content, this is, if seen at all, no more than a by-product of some other experience. Yet I see it as one of the primary processes of the technology itself, and one that may come to have increasing importance. And when, in the past, I have tried to describe and explain this, I have found it significant that the only people who ever agreed with me were painters.”

This ‘primary process’ of the technology is an important area to analyze since so much of the visual content of TV has been carried over to information technology. One could say that television is the base structure for the current state of digital culture.

In previous writings I have examined how artists have used video to explore the relationship between the television viewer and the medium – working with the technology to raise questions about the technology. This is a list of some of the works I have examined…

Art that Examines our Relationships with Technology

> television…
Nam June Paik, TV Magnet, 1965
Richard Serra, Television Delivers People, 1973
Dara Birnbaum, Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1978
Elizabeth Vander Zaag, Thru the Holes, 1981
David Cronenberg, Videodrome, 1983
Tom Sherman, Exclusive Memory, 1987
Stan Douglas, Television Spots, 1987/88
Ruben Ortez-Torres & Aaron Anish, How to Read Macho Mouse, 1991
Kristin Lucas, Cable Xcess, 1996
Kristin Lucas, Host, 1997
Juban Brown, The Blog, 1999
Istvan Kantor, Accumulation, 2000

> visual literacy…
In terms of contemporary art that addresses visual literacy/syntax, a couple works that come to mind are:

Barbara Kruger, Installation at Mary Boone Gallery, 1991
KenLum, sign work from 2000 and 2001

> physical embodiment…

Camille Utterback

> the internet…
Vik Cosic
Olia Lialina
Perry Hoberman
Eduardo Kac
Evan Roth

> public space…
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer
Daniel Sauter

I intend on adding to this blog post throughout the duration of the course…artwork that explores digital literacy/culture in a critical way (an archive for myself). I hope to go back and provide more details or links to the artworks when time…Please add to my list and comment when the inspiration hits you…please!


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