How Much Do You Think About Context?

How Much Do You Think About Context?

After discussing titling last week, it’s time to move on to the topic of context:

How much do you consider the context/setting surrounding someone else’s experience of your art? Does it vary greatly from the setting you created it in? If so, do you consider this difference during the creation of the work?

I deal with recorded music and live music which carry different aspects surrounding context. Recorded music for the most part is trying the strip the environment away (or creating a fake environment with reverb and other tools) so that the listener is getting a different experience than I am when playing it for myself. Beyond cutting out the noise in my surroundings for my listeners, I also am layering multiple instruments on top of one another. This is to create the illusion for the listener that there is one fluid performance. I also mix instrument levels, add effects, and make other sonic decisions that create a different experience for the listener.

Then there are things I don’t have control over with the listener’s experience such as what device they’ll be using to listen to the music (earbuds, laptop speakers, nice headphones, etc). There are drastic differences between these options in terms of the sound levels and tonal quality. This makes it impossible to have a mix that sounds best and captures the music as I truly imagined it on all the different options. Ultimately I mix the song to what sounds best on my nicest headphones. After I’m happy with that I’ll listen back to the music on all the different listening devices I have (even different headphones can be drastically different) and make small tweaks to try to compensate, but not too much because in the end I want it to be sounding best in the preferred context I have control over (my nicest headphones). There are even things like which song the listener heard before mine that can have a large influence on how they experience my music. I find this interesting to think about, but since I have no control over it, it doesn’t influence the creation of my work.

Live music is a different beast. The listener is sharing the space with you. The listener does experience one fluid performance (I don’t use loop pedals with any of my live projects). I don’t have to worry about different listening devices. It’s true that depending on where a particular listener is positioned in the performance space they will hear things differently, but the range of experiences is much much smaller than when left to make their own choices with recorded music.

So with recorded music, the differences in context are larger and I play off of what I have control over. With live music, I’m focusing more on my experience and just playing since there’s not as much context difference to be concerned with or to be used as a tool. It would be interesting if this dual existence with context was seen some more in other creative fields as well (for instance photographers don’t have a “live” context that they’re sharing with an audience).

Matt Hanna
Musician/Composer/Teacher/Ecommerce Strategy Consultant/Personal Coach/Lover of Thinking and Learning
Boston, MA

I like to think there is an element of art direction in setting up your work for your audience’s experience. Great art shouldn’t stop at the piece itself; a successful piece lives in its environment in a way that adds meaning to the work and captivates its audience. To me, it’s important for my audience to see my work from a similar perspective from which I created it. I do a lot of detailed colored pencil drawings, and I like to present them in a way that allows the viewer to observe and appreciate each pencil stroke that makes up the piece as a whole. This requires the viewer to get up close to the drawing, the way that I did when creating the piece. I post most of my work online, so in order to invite my audience to see these drawings the way I want them to I need to make sure the viewer can zoom in or click to a larger view of the image.

Because the majority of my recent work is graphic design created on the computer, I hardly need to tailor my work for my audience’s viewing experience online. Instead, it’s more important that I present my work in a way that 1. flows cohesively from one piece to the next while 2. showcasing the diversity of my skills and styles and 3. appeals to my target audience: other artists, potential clients, and art enthusiasts.

Lily Patterson
Graphic Designer
Seattle, WA

I consider the context and setting surrounding someone else’s experience of my art in many ways. I primarily compose music for films – feature-length, documentaries, commercials, etc. I have been a musician for most of my life – playing in punk bands, jazz quartets and many things in between. When I was a freshman in high school, late into a fuzzy night, a friend played Papa M’s “Live from a Shark’s Cage” and I was instantly entranced. The ambient, solo-guitar record made an indelible impression on me. Ever since, I’ve felt most at home playing and recording instrumental, guitar-based music. Oftentimes the mood is melancholy. Here’s an example of what I chose to write when I was just playing and recording for myself…

I’ll Miss You

However, now that I primarily work with filmmakers to craft custom soundtracks, I write and record music in a variety of styles/genres, with a variety of instrumentation and moods. Here a few examples of what I mean…

My Mind’s in London

Looking Up

One of my favorite things about working with filmmakers is that they push me outside of my comfort zone musically. I probably wouldn’t write and record the music that I do without the partnerships developed with the filmmakers. I write music to support the particular moods, story arcs and instrumentation that help push the story forward.

Will Bangs
Composer and Founder of Music Box Licensing

The art I make at this time is done away from any kind of controlled studio setting making the surrounding an integral part of the piece. So, in general, my photographs are affected by the surroundings at the time of initial creation even when I’ve gone out with a specific outcome in mind. How someone else will view it, and their surroundings, is not my concern.

But, and of course there’s a “but”, I will sometimes shoot something with a final in mind to be placed in a certain setting. An example of this is right now I have a solo exhibition approaching. The space I have is a spectacular 15th century chapel. I am making a special curved 10′ panorama that can be walked into. It is being placed encircling the pulpit area and I’m preparing it specifically for this space. When I think about it I think of myself standing and experiencing it, and not other viewers.

Chuck Baker

Does it matter that the piece was created in a poorly-lit basement if its destiny is to hang framed and matted on a wall? I guess the hope would be that the piece would survive spatial and temporal differences unscathed (except in the case of, say Rauschenberg’s White paintings where the changes in the play of light and shadow is central to piece), while—on the contrary—I can’t help thinking that truly great art invites and thrives under the imposition of different perspectives projected there by individual viewers. Art shouldn’t be passive but catalytic, inspiring novel responses based on the specific reaction of its physical, sensory attributes with a diverse range of minds. Art is perhaps most successful when it does not seek to constrain these reactions, to impose them. So I suppose where I land on this topic is that a) I’m not generally interested in the ways a piece changes as its surroundings change (viewed in private, viewed in public, viewed outdoors, viewed at night, etc.)—maybe I should be, and b) I am hugely interested in the ways art changes with the context that accompanies the way of seeing that each person carries. I’m not sure an excessive consciousness of this would be fruitful during the creation of the piece. I don’t know that we need to be made to think our own thoughts, you know? The artist creates the work, has thoughts and intentions that accompany it, and these interact all on their own with the viewer’s idiosyncratic response. You need not try to predict, compel or foster. The only bad thing would be to refuse the right of personal interpretation, but even that is not much of danger because it would inevitably be a pretty futile refusal.

Colin Glanovsky
Art Educator

I think about the state of mind my readers are in while reading my articles and try to write in a way that reaches out to people of all interests. When I write an article I am completely submersed in the interviews and topic, while when the reader reads it they are skimming through the internet or newspaper casually deciding to read or not read an article. I need to remember that I have more research knowledge context in the back of my mind than the reader will when reading the article. The approach I take to creating is much different and intense than the approach a reader takes to reading it. Knowing this, I try and keep the words relevant and remind myself of some of the best advice given to me which was, “someone can always stop reading.”

The actual setting a reader is in could be anywhere from a train ride to a coffee shop or at their desk. Because most people read their news on the go, I keep this in mind while writing and keep my articles short, packed with information, inspiring and engaging at the same time. Seems nearly impossible and honestly I’m not sure how many times I actually get it right! My articles would mean nothing if no one read them, so I must think about the reader as I write. I imagine the reader asking, How would I want this information presented to me and what information would be most important to know? And sometimes that means cutting things I don’t want to cut for the sake of a well rounded article that people will read.

Naima Montacer
Environmental Adventurer
Dallas, TX

As a photojournalist, it is my goal to include all the context the viewer would need in one photograph. If one photograph is not enough to tell the broader story, I use a photo essay with captions to flesh out the story line.

Sometimes, the absence of context drives the interest in the subject of the photograph. Consider travel photography. The more remote the subject, the more the photograph elicits questions.

I recently went to Thailand on my first trip to Asia. After learning that Thailand’s nickname is the Land of a Thousand Smiles, I challenged myself to make pictures of 1000 smiles. In one photograph, two older Thai monks, draped in orange robes, sit on a bus smiling at me. There’s Thai lettering on the window frame above their heads.

All the context the viewer needs is contained within this photograph. I want the photograph to stimulate the viewer’s imagination about typical practices halfway around the world. As the photographer, I am trusting the viewer to use their imagination and ask their own questions.

Emily Falcigno

What do you think?


Photo by Matt Hanna