Department of Rhetoric and Writing

The University of Texas at Austin

Searching for Wildflowers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

(Image Credit: Jay Voss)

With spring now fully upon us, and the last frost finally out of the way, plants are starting to leaf in the Texas Hill Country. And aside from appreciating the odd dogwood tree early in the new season, this means that it’s time to go out and appreciate Texas’s extensive native wildflower population. There’s nowhere better to do this than at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Located several miles south of town, just off of MoPac, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a great place to spend an afternoon in the sun (especially if Barton Springs is on your way home). I could go on and on with Lonely Planet-like copy about why you and yours should make time for a visit this weekend, but instead I’ll just jump to the chase: the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is probably one of the most thoughtful public urban landscapes in the Austin metro area. It’s a very, very smart example of landscape architecture, and it ultimately serves a civic purpose.

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The LEGO Movie, Narrative, and Children's Play

A girl holds up a chaotic lego set. Text across the image reads "Look what I built with LEGO." Smaller text reads "And look at that look on her face. That's pride smiling" and "LEGO is a toy they never tire of, a toy that stimulates creativity and imagination for years."

1978 LEGOS Ad. "a toy that stimulates creativity and imagination for years." Source: Ourlifeintoronto.com

Sometimes, it’s hard to separate a film from the circumstances in which you watch it. In my case, I saw it as a father of a 1-year-old, sitting at the Alamo Drafthouse, following a preshow that included one of the early advertisements for LEGOs, then a European import newly reaching America’s shores. On multiple levels, I kept thinking of how much The LEGO Movie might represent a low point in both how we imagine children’s entertainment, and how we imagine children themselves.

The Most Democratic Selfie?

 

Image Source: eonline 

"By bringing together and posing a pack of rascals, male and female, dressed up like carnival-time butchers and washerwomen,  and in persuading these ‘heroes’ to ‘hold’ their improvised grimaces for as long as the photographic process required, people really believed they could represent the tragic and the charming scenes of history" -Baudelaire

After last week’s Oscar’s ceremony, a number of critics lauded Ellen DeGeneres’s performance as “warm,” "accessible,” and most interestingly, “democratic.” The gimmick, of course, which earned her the most attention was the big Oscar’s Selfie. After all, what could be more charming than everyone’s favorite celebrities acting like ordinary people; seemingly thrilled at the mere chance to be on television? Thinking about this selfie, and the comment that Ellen was so “democratic” brought to mind the oft touted expression that photography is “the great democratic medium.” In an interesting way, the Oscar’s Selfie is the perfect encapsulation of that saying.

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Militant (Feminist) Grammarians

Markson diagram

Cropped from image below

You know you’re a huge nerd when multiple people from various corners of your life all forward you the same link, and that link is a bunch of diagrammed sentences.

This snazzy, minimalist new print from "renowned" infographic artists Pop Chart Lab satisfies the demands of everyone's favorite niche demographic (all those grammar-fiends/”classic-literature”-snobs/data-visualization-enthusiasts/fans-of-quality-design in your life) to a T. But before you place your order, let’s take a closer look at what this “Diagrammatical Dissertation” actually visualizes.

Questioning the Gaze and Studying Ballroom Culture

cover of Paris is Burning, depicting smiling ballroom participants

Image Credit: Wikipedia

I was initially going to begin this rumination with the pretty dull introductory phrase “In Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary film Paris is Burning, ” but before the virtual ink had dried on the virtual page I was struck with pretty massive doubts. In what sense could Paris is Burning really be solely attributed to Jennie Livingston when the movie's energy, its drive and message, clearly came from the lives of the New York City ballroom scene participants Livingston interviewed? So would calling Paris is Burning a collaborative documentary effort solve the issue of artistic attribution? Well, kind of, but that seemed to s omewhat cheapen the lived experiences of the ball culture community by reducing them to stylized components in a cinematic production. Calling an interviewee an artist leaves over some troubling remainder, a residue of “real life” that doesn't make it into the credits. Even more troubling was the threat of de-centering Livingston's gaze as the focusing lens of the documentary. If it felt wrong to implicitly give Livingston all the credit for the film, it felt worse to call the piece a purely collective effort when Livingston's preferences, questions, decisions and selections dictate the entire film. 

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Convicting Capital Punishment in Art

 A black screen with white print that says 'I love ya'll.'

Image Credit: Screenshot from Tiny Subversions

When you live in Texas, you get used to people asking you to verify certain popular stereotypes: cowboy boots, country music, ten-gallon hats, and conservative politics. And—a belief in the capital punishment.

Small-Government Urban Planning Sometimes Negates Itself

Texas State Capital

(Image Credit: dfwfoodtrucks.com)

There’s no doubting that Austin’s a great example of urban sprawl. Anyone who’s driven up Burnet Road on a shopping expedition, or down South Lamar looking for a romantic Saturday night dinner, has probably wondered at some point: Why can’t these things just be closer to where I live? Fortunately, I don’t think this question is born out of narcissism. Things are far apart in Austin. And given the town’s expanding population, they feel as though they’re getting farther and farther apart, with all the increased traffic and whatnot. Over the decades, this city has grown and expanded without any apparent civic regard for urban planning. Which makes the Capital Building a really interesting monument. The roads leading to the Texas State Capital are reminiscent of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s planning of Washington, D.C., and they convey a confidence in American governance that would make Governor Rick Perry blush. Either that or the eyes of Texas are upon us.

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Journey and Non-Referential Iconography

In a cartoon-styled image from a video game, a red-clad figure looks forward in a blue, shadowy environment.

Image source: Thatgamecompany.

Probably all illustrations, and certainly the animated images I’ve discussed in Frozen and Lilo and Stitch, come freighted with a vast history of associations. Striking images can literally provide worldviews—complex perspectives from which to view matters ranging from gender roles to cultural identities to ideal body types. Frozen’s visual aesthetic offers a triumphantalist account of traditional images put to new uses, while Lilo and Stitch offers a harder-edged criticism of our lazy, self-indulgent ways of looking at the world, for instance. Yet both deliberately and meaningfully comment upon the mediating power of their own iconography. Both films are, in short, particularly focused on understanding how images have worked in the past, and how they can be made to work differently in the future.

Journey is a video game whose cartoon-like visual aesthetic draws strongly from the same animated tradition as the first two films, yet its aims are quite different. In both its gameplay and its visual design, I will argue, Journey is not focused on what it means, but rather on the raw experiences it can provide. The game reminds us, in short, that while images have deep and rich rhetorical histories, they are also something more than mere arguments.

A Posthuman Selfie?

Image credit: Wikipedia, Mars Curiosity Rover's first selfie

In my last post, I recounted a history of some of the most iconic images of space which primed my reaction to the Mars Rover’s portrait of Earth. This led me to offer a short curation of ways key figures have pathologized space, and their eco-critical views of space inflected by Earth, but all of this talk of Earth as “home” begs another question: If photos of Earth from space are photos of a shared home, are they a kind of self-portrait? More importantly, if robots are taking these images, are these self-portraits of humanity, or something posthuman? Lastly, why do those rovers have to be so darn cute?

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Pictures from Sochi

Pussy Riot Sochi

Photo credit: Morry Gash/AP via The Guardian

Earlier today, members of the band Pussy Riot were attacked while performing in Sochi in front of an Olympic banner. According to The Guardian, none were arrested, one was left bloody, and we, U.S. viewers, were given the image above to process. Women in bright colors, women without faces, one woman with a defiant arm raised, one woman holding a microphone and then a man, in an overstated paramilitary uniform, taking a black horsewhip to them. So far, the New York Times is sticking with their skeptical headline “Protest Group Says Cossacks Attacked Them”—uh, says?—despite the volume at which this photo speaks otherwise. In a video that I don’t recommend you watch, more men in uniform arrive to rip the performer’s balaclava masks off, throw them by the elbows to the pavement, beat them with nightsticks on the ground, and attempt to break their guitars.

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