Saturday, December 27, 2008

Communication Breakdown

Among the frustrations related to my lack of a devoted studio space and time to work on a new series of altarpieces during the past few years, is the overwhelming urge to share the concepts of these proposed pieces with an audience. Lack of time never prevents me from dreaming up new pieces. In fact, the ideas are constantly coming to me (see the previous posting entitled Contemporary Altarpieces and the Italian Tradition). One fear in prematurely revealing the ideas is that it will steal some of the thunder from the finished piece. Recognizing that each of these works is so multilayered that there will be plenty to keep the viewer returning to consider the works’ implications, I want to give a preview of what will be appearing over the next couple years.

I won’t share the working title since my titles often mutate a bit over time—as do the pieces. The concept is what is most important anyway. I have already written about my interests in text and semiotics as they relate to my work. Communication in a contemporary context interests me in other ways, too. It is current conditions of public and private communication that form the basis of the sketches included above.

My former position as the director of an art non-profit involved a fair amount of travel. It also produced an average of fifty to one hundred email messages in my inbox each day. For these reasons, and more, I spent a considerable amount of time working on my laptop in coffee shops at various locations throughout the US. People often assumed that I was connected to the internet through a local wi-fi service, but I actually went to coffee shops to avoid the unending email and the office phone. I could actually complete the tasks associated with previous emails in a comfortable environment that did not produce the same distractions found at home.

That is not to say that coffee shops are devoid of distractions. One particular distraction that did confront me was people watching. Let’s admit it. We all do it. However, I performed this activity with the discerning eye of the artist. I was astonished to observe that the distinctions between public and private communication continue to breakdown, blur, and blend. This isn’t peculiar to coffee shops, but they seem to be conducive to the multiple forms of communication alterations.

The use of the computer in public is best observed at a coffee shop. While dozens of people are engaging in actual interpersonal communication (i.e. customers ordering drinks from baristas, friends chatting over coffee, etc.), there remain a handful of people involved in virtual conversations on their laptops. This is common place, yet it is paradoxical that we make public places a destination at which we ultimately seclude ourselves in order to engage in forms of pseudo-communication. The introduction of ipods/itunes and headphones for laptops only complicates the matter because we are able to fully shut off the external environment as we create our own interior realm.

There is something comforting about being in the presence of others, even when we are isolated within that setting. Surface communications have stunted the growth of interpersonal relationships. Yet there remains a need for deep connection with others and one way to temporarily fill that void is to be in the presence of humanity.

These surface communications are alive and well in nearly all public settings, though the coffee shop provides a particularly beneficial Petri dish for evaluating them. The cell phone, whether for talking or texting, is the primary medium. It is now unusual to not find a person in line for a drink talking on a cell phone. The conversations tend to be insignificant, but they are apparently more important than talking to the barista who is taking drink orders two feet away.

The converse is the cell phone conversation that is far too intimate for a public setting. Individuals engaging in these conversations have no appropriate boundaries. They may be in the throes of an argument and utilizing profanities that would embarrass even hardened prison inmates. They may be divulging the personal details of a relationship in what nearly approximates phone sex. They could even be gossiping about a third party, creating a new twist on an old pastime by making information (true or otherwise) available to an even wider circle of listeners. This is all a form of misplaced communication. The intended receiver is but one of many and the boundaries between private and public have been crossed.

The coffee shop also lends itself to being a neutral zone at which personal conversations are undertaken so that neither party holds the upper hand. I recall overhearing—and one didn’t need to eaves drop to catch this conversation—a conversation in 2002 or 2003 between a husband and wife. The gist of the conversation was that the husband was having an affair, the wife knew and wanted him to end it or grant her a divorce, but the husband refused to both give up the mistress and to divorce the wife.

Friends who have worked at various coffee shops assure me that marital unfaithfulness is one of the foundations of the business. It seems that all those people who answer personal ads lack creativity and discretion when it comes to finding places to meet. It is not unusual for a regular customer to carry on in an affectionate manner with an extra marital lover one day, and then show up the next with the spouse. This becomes awkward, at best, for those working there. What was once kept under cover (literally) is now displayed unabashedly in the public arena.

All these are just some of the more obvious messages and ideas that I intend to explore. The communications, miscommunications, and hidden communications of the public sphere are intensely interesting. Communication has been fraught with challenges from the first grunted syllables of humans, yet we have refined it so that at least the essential elements can be conveyed. Why then, after thousands of years of seeking clarity, have we moved in a direction that limits the reception of our messages? How have we confused the public and private, the proper and improper? Keep watching this blog for my visual responses.

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