Saturday, November 12, 2011

Who gets to tell our stories?

All the discussion about Wellington's Wellywood sign brings up deep questions about identify. The controversy touched a raw nerve with many and prompted questions about who gets to define us now, to tell our stories. Symbols are pieces of story, suggest a wider and deeper narrative. The people of Wellington rightly complained about a sign that not only was derivative (Hollywood - Bollywood - Wellywood) but gave out a covert message that the entire city had now been kidnapped by the film industry, in particular Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop. There is a difference between recognition and visual ownership.

Corporate entities (which are what Jackson and Weta are) have many means of public relations and marketing at their disposal, to be bought and paid for. A city and its people are more than just a 'thing' to be captured by business interests. They are a history, a culture, a whakapapa, a million stories that all weave into multi-layered narrative of everyday lives and struggles and challenges.

If a corporate wants to pay to put up a sign, they can, just as any of us can advertise. It's the covert kidnapping of the wider public's identity that bothers me, the automatic association that says that we are all now employees or mouthpieces. It's like the separation of church and state: an individual is free to work for both, to move between both, but does not have the right to force everyone to blur both into one.

It reminds me of Jean Baudrillard's book Simulations, 1981, when he speaks of the four stages of the sign. This is part of a recurring narrative in Baudrillard, which he calls 'the loss of the real,' the view that modern film, television and advertising has led to a loss of distinction between the real and imagined, reality and illusion, surface and depth. (from Barry, 1995).

Baudrillard's four stages/orders consist of:

1) Attempt at realism - a sign (painting, poem, story, film etc) that is made to capture the world as it is

2) A misrepresentation or distortion - a romanticized version, soft focus, or hyped up (an example would be some of the pseudo-heroic and patriotic narratives we're often prompted to adopt)

3) A sign that disguises that there is no sign underneath - where the sign is actually all there is. An example is the Rene Magritte painting seen here. Where the painting on the easel and the view outside are one and the same.

4) A sign that bears no relation to any overt reality at all - e.g an abstract expressionist painting where the connections the viewer makes (if any) are entirely subjective and sometimes come from the unconscious.

In Peter Brooker's book Modernism/Postmodernism, (1992, p.154) he analyses the role in the collective imagination and identity of Disneyland, questioning first whether Disneyland is a sign of Baudrillard's second type. (A misrepresentation.)

All its (the U.S.A's) values are exalted here, in miniature and comic-strip form. Embalmed and pacified...digest of the American way of life, panegyric to American values, idealised transposition of a contradictory reality. 

But he decides that Disneyland is in fact a 'third order simulation.' A sign which conceals an absence. (Barry, 1995.)

Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it IS the 'real' country, all of 'real' America, which is Disneyland... Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real. 

Food for thought.

If nothing else, the whole issue got people talking about ownership and identity and who has the right to define it. So it's served a valuable purpose in the end. 

Here's an article with the two most popular entries for the contest to fill the space overlooking Wellington airport. The 'blown away' version is okay, though I baulk at it being designed by Saatchi and Saatchi. I prefer the Taniwha, at least visually.

But all that begs the question: where did this perceived need for a sign come from? Does there need to be a sign at all.

A grove of hardy trees would do it for me. Or just the hillside.


  1. the natural seems not enough - which is a huge commentary on the commercial nature of our identities

  2. Hi Kate. It is, isn't. And how we often now allow ourselves to be led into re-branding ourselves when we'd never actually signalled we were unhappy with our own identity in the first place.