Reading Madrid as text: City’s spaces speak volumes about its people, culture

June 29, 2014
bear statue

A bear stretching to eat berries is a symbol of Madrid, found on its coat of arms, among other places.

Berry College multimedia journalism project finds “a society that lives in the streets”

I just returned from Madrid, where Kevin Kleine, Curt Hersey and I led a team of 10 student journalists to report, produce and publish a multimedia online magazine that reads Madrid’s spaces as texts. Some of the 25 or so stories use primarily text, others use video, still others deploy photo slideshows with narration to tell the story, but all of them combine media.

And all of the stories seek to read the public spaces of Madrid as texts in an effort to understand at least part of what makes Madrileños and their vibrant city tick. (We did a similar project in Florence in 2012.)

What we found is a dynamically democratic society that vibrantly, vitally expresses itself in myriad ways. From protests to street art to rallying cries at the city’s many, stadium-filled soccer matches, Madrileños live, work, play and express themselves in utterly, joyfully public spaces.

“Madrid is a city that lives in the public space,” said Javier Malo de Molina, an architect in Madrid and a lifelong resident of the city. “Everybody lives in the streets. We are a society that lives in the streets. We share a tradition of living in the public space.”

Victor Gonzalez, a native of Cuba but a resident of Madrid off and on for the past 17 years, warned our group that we wouldn’t be invited into the homes of Madrileños. The Madrileño home is an intensely private space, and what American would consider the purposes of the living room and family room, Madrileños believe should occur outside the home – in tapas bars, jazz clubs, public parks and plazas, cafes and restaurants, and above all in the city’s streets and sidewalks.

“Maybe, for example, you (Americans) probably have homes or dwellings that are bigger,” de Molina explained. “People here, though not the rich of course, live in pretty small apartments, and we accept that. If we have a public space, that is worth it, because most of the time the weather is very good here in the city. So we spend it in the public space.”

Our group witnessed a coronation (of new King Felipe), a World Cup (in which top-ranked Spain found itself humiliated a hemisphere away in Rio de Janeiro), a series of protests and rallies both against and in favor of the monarchy, and several Corpus Christi miracles. (Corpus Christi is an important Catholic holiday here, commemorated by the religious and non-religious alike.)

Vive la expresión

The common theme in these otherwise wildly disparate public events: First Amendment-style expression and democracy like America’s founding fathers perhaps envisioned them.

Ironic? To travel so far from America to find such vibrant, unfettered expression? And to find it in a Catholic church-dominated society still shaking the shadows of dictatorship and oppression? Yes, ironic, and eye-opening.

Our “Madrid as Text” online magazine will show you how street art has been legitimized in the colorful Lavapiés neighborhood in southern Madrid, how “protest culture” parades the people’s views through Madrid’s main arteries and plazas to the tune of 4,000 protests per year, how monuments and memorials have been removed to diminish the memories of the Franco era, and how Madrileños eat, drink, live and die for their favorite “futbol” club.

You will witness the transfer of the crown from Juan Carlos to his son Felipe; learn about how a nation grapples with an unemployment rate of 26%, an eye-popping number that includes as a subset a rate of more than 50% among those 25 and younger; and discover how Madrid buried a 10-lane superhighway to make room for a sprawling urban parkland.

The project would not have been possible without the invaluable help of several people in Madrid who were very generous with their time and expertise. Berry College, its Department of Communication, and the faculty and students of “Madrid as Text” thank Victor Gonzalez, director of ACCENT Madrid, our logistics provider, and his very capable staff; professors Jonathan Snyder and Francisco Seijo; Javier Malo de Molina, lead architect on the Rio parklands project; and the friendly bartenders at the various Museo de Jamon locations throughout central Madrid.

We’ll get to work on post-production this next week. When it’s up on Viking Fusion, I’ll circle back and add a link to the whole package.

futbol photo

Some of our student journos at a Real Madrid match.

Student journalists:

  • Natalie Allen
  • Sarah Carroll
  • Kelsey Dedels
  • Glenn Garrido-Olivar
  • Jason Huynh
  • Lizzy Jones
  • Taylor Patterson
  • Bailey Powers
  • Chris Scott
  • Brittany Strickland


Finish the sentence: “Photography is (most) like . . .”

April 14, 2014

To continue and extend our conversation, this blog entry asks you to finish the sentence in the headline, with a little elaboration and explanation. I’ll go first, to get us thinking and to model the kinds of thoughts I’m looking for.

I love poetry; I love playing with words, and poetry is essentially wordplay. In a similar way, I think, photography is ‘imageplay.’ Both poetry and photography “intensively see,” as Susan Sontag put it in her seminal work, On Photography. Much of poetry is concerned with the visual, getting us to really “see” a flower, a tree, pain, loss, love, the wrinkles in a woman’s face, a piece of driftwood washed upon the shore, and to see these otherwise ordinary artifacts as we have never seen them before.

  • Think of a photograph of a rotting, wrinkled, old pumpkin? A poem about aging and decomposition, and an eloquent poem at that.
  • A sutured eye socket? Vision, seeing, window to the soul? Abuse? Tragedy?
  • The South Korean soldier executing the Viet Cong member? Death, violence, the vagaries of war?
  • A tulip about to bloom? Life! Love! Potential and Spring!

Think about how photography turns living beings — like a water buffalo or a pumpkin or dead grass — into a thing, a thing to look at. (Is the photo a record of that water buffalo or leaf, or a record of how the photographer saw that water buffalo or leaf?) And how photography turns things into living beings —a dead leaf with veins running through it, or a water fountain. (Sontag talks about this photographic strategy on page 111, where she discusses photography’s ability to disclose “the thingness of human beings, the humanness of things.”)

Think of how many poems dignify the mundane — a flower, dead grass, a tree, an acorn, a sunset, a pretty girl, a rainy day. By calling attention to it, and describing it in such detail, the poem dignifies that object and makes a virtue of it. The mundane becomes — if for only the contemplated moment — something beautiful. This is true also in photography.

Can you think a poem that is “ugly”? A bad poem, sure, just like bad photography, but a poem or photo of something universally ugly? I don’t think so. Photography, like poetry, beautifies, dignifies, exalts, celebrates . . . even the ugly and the mundane.

The poem cannot explain that object, but it can acknowledge it. Photography does precisely the same thing. A photo of the World Trade Center cannot explain the devastation of 9-1-1, but it can and does acknowledge it. A photo of the sun deck and boat dock behind your grandmother’s house cannot explain the meaning of that place, but it can acknowledge it (and all of its sun-splashed beauty). Again, as Susan Sontag puts it, “photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire” (p. 4).

Ah, this is another possible answer: Photography is like beauty. Fleeting. Subjective. To quote Aquinas, beauty is “wholeness, harmony, radiance.” To quote James Joyce on Aquinas, “wholeness” is apprehending the object as separate from all else — as in apprehending a pair of shoes as separate from all else (editing, choosing, isolating). “Radiance” is the “whatness” of the object, the essence of that object that makes it distinctly what it is and nothing else — like the pumpkin-ness of the “ugly” pumpkins we viewed, or the “water buffalo-ness” of the water buffalo.

I could write about this all day long. But it’s your turn.

Photography is like . . . what?

Next safari: hunting down your favorite design era

April 2, 2014

Some instructions for your presentations.

deco car

1936 Delahaye coupe, from the Deco style

I’ve sent you primer on graphic design eras. You have the open web. You have the library. Your job is to first choose a graphic design era as a group (or be assigned one), then to put together a presentation for the class that gives us a sense of that era and style (or style family). You will have 5-8 minutes ONLY. Make those minutes count.

Mostly from the primer, your era choices:

  • Victorian
  • Arts & Crafts/Mission/Glasgow School
  • Art Nouveau/Beaux Arts
  • Art Deco/Moderne
  • Constructivism, de Stijl, Bauhaus
  • International Typographic Style/Swiss Style (Helvetica)
  • New York School
  • Contemporary/Modern

Please, let’s NOT do psychedelic or digital era.

Your presentation should help us understand the values of the era, the common or repeating elements (vocabulary), what the era was reacting to (i.e., WWII or the style that came before, etc.), how to distinguish or identify the style (genre), and a few of its leading minds, movers and shakers (Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Coco Chanel, etc.). Oh, Shaker is a style, by the way, in the Arts & Crafts era. Include a parade of images of disparate objects and typeface, furnishings and posters, cars and buildings – a selection that helps us zero in on the era.

Let’s plan on these presentations Wednesday, April 8.

Typeface Safari

March 25, 2014

ampersandFor this safari, I’ll divide you all up into three groups.

Group #1 — BOOK COVER: Imagine that you have been commissioned to choose or create a typeface for a 2014 update and adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, Emma. Alexander McCall Smith is re-writing the classic Austen novel as part of a larger effort to revise and refresh Austen’s many classics. It’s your job to choose the typeface for the new book’s cover.

Your graphic design problem: The typeface needs to be both modern and classic. Include with your choice a few paragraphs explaining and justifying your choice. Why that typeface rather than any other? If you can, include the title, “Emma,” in the typeface you choose, so we can see it.

Group #2 — POLITICAL CAMPAIGN: You are running for Emperor or Empress of Berryland, 27,000 acres of unspoiled and yet aggressively mown/blown/weed-eaten/seeded/blown again land in the foothills of northwest Georgia. Choose a typeface for your political campaign signage, bumper stickers, website, etc. This is the display type you will use, like Obama’s Gotham for “HOPE.”

Your graphic design problem: The typeface needs to reflect the essence of what you represent in your campaign and, if elected, as supreme ruler of all that is the Berry Bubble. It needs to communicate, if only implicitly, your core values, but at the same time, energy and vitality, as well. Include your campaign tagline in the typeface you choose, and include a couple of paragraphs about why that’s THE typeface for you as candidate.

Group #3 — TYPEFACE DISASTER: Find the biggest typeface trainwreck you can, but in the natural world, not online. You’re looking for a mismatch, an instance of type in which the typeface choice does not match at all the intended message, or its appropriate tone or visual impact. Extra points for creativity on this one. Include a photograph of the instance and a paragraph or two explaining why the typeface choice is in fact unfortunate.

These safari catches are due noon, Friday, March 28.

If you need places to experiment with typefaces online, there are several on the class page, in the block for this week. You can also visit: for resources.

The ethics of product placement

March 19, 2014

Nebenzahl and Jaffe (1998) called product placement “the least ethical form of advertising” because of its concealment and obtrusiveness. Other critics argue that the public will eventually be unable to distinguish advertising from news or entertainment. Because advertising largely supports media, traditional media outlets offer little, really no criticism of product placement.

Good Will Hunting
Dunkin’ Donuts in Good Will Hunting

For their part, consumers generally have positive attitude toward product placement because, they say, it adds realism. Maybe. Let’s also consider, however, that product placement threatens artists’ freedom in creating and in expressing their ideas.  So I’d like us to consider the moral experience that a film or narrative attempts to shape or provide. If we ask ourselves, does the work cultivate our capacity for moral thinking (think “Breaking Bad”), or does it deform them (think, again, “Breaking Bad”)? As we read, view, or listen to an artistic expression with an eye (or ear) toward its ethical dimension, what is the appropriate moral response? What is the moral value of the expression, and how has product placement or, more broadly, commercialization and commercial colonization undercut, eroded or even prevented that moral exercise? Are our very imaginations becoming commodified and commercialized? How branded have our worlds, even our imaginative or creative worlds, become?

Here’s a different way to look at it: Can you even imagine a world that is not branded, one where the values associated with brands are different than what the brand purveyors would like us to believe?

In terms of product placement, we need to ask ourselves are we better off, are we morally enriched, by such an unchallenged and increasingly supersaturated logic of commodity culture? Of pervasive, even ubiquitous product placement and “brand integration”? Have we confused freedom — real freedom — with merely “consumer choice”? Have we ratified an unbearable lightness of being — an existence so light, so insubstantial, so dependent on a branded view of social worth and “happiness? Are we first citizens, or consumers?

If these questions are a bit too heady, start with the more direct question of whether product placement be taken too far, or done in such a way that it is corrosive or cannibalistic of a greater good, perhaps an artistic or aesthetic good? For examples of this as a possibility, think of the Nascar-like advertising and product placement in TV shows like NBC’s Chuck and in movies like Herbie Reloaded, Dodgeball, Talladega Nights and Austin Powers. To think of this in terms of a spectrum, and with product placement increasing, does culture and artistic expression risk folding in on itself, or being completely hollowed out by commercial interests? Are distinctions between advertising and news blurring? Between advertising and entertainment? Between advertising and culture?

In light of these considerations, do you think there should there be an ethical code governing product placement?

For example, should disclosure should be required? (Should advertisers, marketers and brand “integrators” be required to disclose what’s been bought, traded or donated for “special considerations”?)

Give me your comments, and more than just a quick toss-away paragraph. I want considered thoughts and reflections on this. It’s our culture; what do we want it to say or be?

Your comment due by class-time Friday, March 21.

Who’s your (stereo)type?

March 10, 2014

What’s wrong with this picture?

As we continue our exploration of stereotype, and of race, gender and class bias and insensitivity, I have for you a couple of online surveys that are designed to reveal our attitudes and mindsets with regards to stereotypes, stereotyping, and ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups.

A set of easy-to-take tests at Harvard, part of its Project Implicit, will help us do this. I’d like each of us to take at least two of these Project Implicit tests, and choose any two other than “Weapons” or “Presidents.” Each test takes approximately five minutes.

I also want each student to take two of the surveys at You are going to really like these, I think. After you’ve taken the

four tests (two at each website), comment to this post about what you learned, if anything.

  • Were you made aware of anything useful?
  • Surprising?
  • Did the surveys change your thinking in any way?

Share your experiences with these surveys here, and do so before noon Wednesday, March 12.

I look forward to reading your findings and reactions.

A time when you were the “Other”

February 24, 2014

dave chapelle“Treat me the same but respect my difference.” — Keith Williams

Inspired by our conversations in Visual Rhetoric, I want to leverage the blog to explore what is perhaps a widely shared view: That individuals and groups who feel slighted or offended should just get over it, that they are being too sensitive, that we shouldn’t be so concerned with what we might call ‘political correctness.’ This theme is from our examination of the Popeye’s ads.

Before I ask for your reactions, a few thoughts:

First, as I shared in class, a general principle holds that if a group sees that there is the possibility that they are being insulted by another, it will. This is how we are hard-wired. We are always on guard. We like to think the best of FILL IN THE BLANK HERE (Northerners, white people, the French, whomever), but we don’t.

We will default to our worst fears. For an African American viewing the Popeye’s Annie, he or she will fear you are perpetuating Aunt Jemima. Consider if Annie were white. The black stereotype and historical antecedents disappear. The default fear is gone. (We still might think about the portrayal of gender, too. Annie as the stereotypical woman in the kitchen taking care of us.)

So if we think there is any chance of intent to slight us, we will feel slighted. We live in a culture of indignation. Some are hacked off because we got it wrong. Some are hacked off because we got it right. This is the key: We should care about the first; we don’t necessarily have to lose sleep about the second.

Second, is it up to us to determine when another people group should or should not feel insulted, regardless of intent? When we don’t share that group’s history, culture or even language, how can we judge? We do not relinquish our own “right” to decide when we’ve been slighted, I wonder how it is that we are so quick to decide for others.

Third, our goals in the course are ethical decision-making, ethical image-making, ethical communication. And ethics requires a process. We need diverse people in the room. We also need a process for systematic dialogue and conversation, so we can be deliberate, thoughtful and persuasive. So we can say what we mean, not something else. To discuss how a group or groups might be unintentionally offended, alienated or even victimized by our messages costs very little before the message goes out. As we’ve seen in our in-class examples, it can become quite costly after.

Perhaps a good guide for us is the Keith Woods quote, which gets to the universal sameness of difference and diversity. Don’t we all share this sentiment?

So how do we better appreciate difference? We all are guilty to some degree of staying in our comfort zone, of failing to notice much less engage with the ‘Other,’ with those outside our group, whoever that might mean. I have a trio of exercises that will help us better appreciate difference and what it means to be on the outside looking in, exercises that get increasingly difficult. Don’t worry; all of them should be fun, if you buy into the point or ‘takeaway’ here.

So, to get us started, the first exercise:

Write a response to this post that tells the rest of us of a time when you were the ‘Other,’ a time when you didn’t fit in, when you were excluded. Say something about what that felt like, and about what you wish the dominant or ‘in’ group knew or considered or valued. This exercise is required.

Deadline: 5 p.m., Friday, Feb. 28 (before you leave for Spring Break!)

Parking Lot Safari

February 14, 2014

carThis safari has elements of sociology, psychology and archaeology. Can you dig it? (That’s an archaeological pun — sorry!) Here’s what to do:

Hit the Berry parking lots armed with only a digital camera (or smartphone with camera functionality). Search out in its natural habitat the most exotic, interesting, unusual, or mysterious piece of visual rhetoric as it is displayed on or as part of someone’s motor vehicle. This could be a bumper sticker, window sticker, obituary (i think those are pretty weird), doo-dad, hood ornament, truck nuts — it’s up to you.

Do four things:

  1. Find and record (capture) the artifact
  2. Write a sentence or two about what it means
  3. And another sentence or two about how you know that, how you know what it means
  4. And, finally, cite a power tool in your comments on how

Bring a color print copy of the photo of the artifact to class on Friday, Feb. 21.

Book cover project

October 30, 2013

9780415992015How exciting: One of you might be a book cover designer. Here’s the project: I need cover art for my new textbook, Writing & Editing for Digital Media. The book upon which it is based, Writing for Digital Media, is pictured here. Following are the instructions or helps I got from the publisher today:

For covers, the field is pretty open; often we use a stock photo from an archive like Shutterstock or Photofest to build off of, but if you have any specific images or graphical elements you’d like to use (or even a mockup of a design), please send them my way. I’m happy to investigate securing rights to use particular photos or researching to find similar stuff. Typically, I’ll send Gareth Toye (our designer) a few ideas  and images, then he’ll work with that to come up with a few roughs, which I’ll pass on to you and Erica, and we’ll bounce back and forth with revisions to hash it out.

So this really opens up the field to your creative solutions, which is how we defined graphic design today. Take an original photo, choose one from one of these photo libraries, find one out there somewhere and we can attempt to get republication rights. Create a mockup and we’ll decide as a class (not me, you) which ones are our finalists. Pretty cool, no? They want something fast, so let’s shoot for Monday.

Typeface safaris for Visual Rhetoric

October 30, 2013

As we discussed in class, you are in one of three groups described below:

For the first group, imagine that you have been commissioned to choose or create a typeface for a 2014 update and adaptation of the Jane Austen novel Emma. Alexander McCall Smith is re-writing the classic Austen novel; you are to choose the book cover’s typeface. Your graphic design problem: The typeface needs to be both modern and classic. Also provide a paragraph justification for your choice.

Group #2: Choose or create a typeface for the next-generation iPhone. Your graphic design problem:  The typeface must be readable even when really small. So, be on guard against letters that bump into each other (like the Wells Fargo logo), and make sure “ones” are distinguishable from lowercase “L”s. Helvetica won’t work, in other words. So you will have to do some testing or experimenting. This type will be used for email, texts, etc. Provide a paragraph justification as to why it’s the right typeface for the job. 

Group #3: Walk from your dorm room to your first appointment of the day, taking photographs of any signage you encounter in between those two points. Write up a brief narrative of your safari, pointing out especially effective type (and why) and really poor type (and why). This safari is about typeface as INTERFACE. Interfaces are supposed to help you quickly find what you’re looking for, or intuitively use something. So, ask yourself, does it work? Are there better choices?

These safari catches are due noon, Friday, Nov. 1.

If you need places to experiment with typefaces online, there are several on the class page, in the block for this week. You can also visit: for some resources.


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