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Glassco Explores the Power of Images

Graduate student Michael Glassco studies mish-mashed simbolism and culture jamming common to modern media

Images and sounds bombard us from the moment our alarm goes off in the morning to when we close our eyes at night. With a world’s worth of information at our fingertips and a culture of media consumption, it becomes hard to separate fact from fiction, opinion from information and advertisements from resistance.

Michael Glassco (graduate student, Troy, Mich.) is intrigued by this problem, even more intrigued than a hallway voyeur might be by the bizarre collection lining Glassco’s office’s desk-shelf. A 24 by 18 inch poster of Rosie the Riveter backs a collection of packaged wrestling ‘Havoc Unleashed’ action figures, stirring up images of a warped opening scene in the movie Patton.

Analyzing imagery Glassco explains war propaganda posters in his office

The twin set of nerf guns on his desk might also provoke questions. What is Glassco, a Social Scientific Foundations of Communication TA, doing with all of these toys? Well, its research really. All of these objects convey something to us with their image, and it is what they don’t outwardly show that he is interested in studying.

With the nerf guns for example we see a child’s toy, maybe even an imitation of violence. What we may not see is a toy that was made on a different continent, perhaps even a toy made in a sweatshop. Even more intriguing is the vast array of possible meanings that this inanimate object could come to convey with the use of a practice called culture jamming.

Culture jamming is the use of techniques and images, rearticulated to incite a different or opposing meaning. For example, street artists who use popular images in their art to make a point are culture jamming those popular images.

A fairly well-known example is the HOPE posters featured in the Obama campaign. The artist Shepard Fairey, used an Associated Press photograph of then candidate Obama, and manipulated the original image to create his own version. Fairey used the same design techniques as propaganda or advertising campaigns would use to create an iconic image.

Glassco defines his interests as, “Utilizing a critical and cultural studies perspective to study the intersection of semiotic disobedience, (often referred to as culture jamming and guerilla semiotics) government propaganda and commercial advertising.”

This provides us insight on the processes of power that enforce social and political structures. Glassco feels this topic needs to be studied because it can highlight the issues central to democracy: the ownership, control and the access and use of mass media. All of which fall under the sphere of culture jamming or semiotic disobedience.

Explaining the intersection between the varying forms of expression involves a dizzying array of factors including: the visual rhetorical practices and techniques of dissent, propaganda and advertising, the socio-historical and political-economic conditions of possibility and the process of commercial and ideological incorporation or co-optation.

“Culture jammers are rooted in the France based Situationist International, the avant-garde art movements, surrealism, Dada, anarchists, punk and other social agitators who have challenged the dominant structures of power and inequality,” according to Glassco.

Turning the mundane images of every-day life into the means for expressing resistance is a long standing practice. Distorting of original messages to contradict themselves gives the artist a powerful platform to disseminate otherwise suppressed ideas and is a vital organ in the continuance of free speech.

“Culture jamming has included parody and the re-articulation of visual forms to the interception of mass communication signals. It is a way to hack into and use the methods of corporate communication to send messages that are at odds with the marketing flow of one way communication,” Glassco explained.

The study of culture jamming is important as a measure for confronting the systems that govern expression, and the challenges that free speech can face as different media emerge. Systems that govern expression can be anything from copyright laws to the standards of cultural norms.

Glassco has not yet found a satisfying way to narrow down his interest in culture jamming to a manageable thesis. He plans to try to do so in the coming months, so that he can work towards a greater understanding of how people react to images and their intended or unintended meanings.

“This is important (to study) because structures (that govern expression) and one-way flows of mass communication have a tendency to hinder the necessary requirements for a democratic society,” Glassco said.

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