Olive 8: Visual Grammar vs. D&G’s Approach to Semiotics

Olive 8 is a luxury condominium and hotel project that sits at the edge of Seattle’s central business district and is adjacent to many of the major retail outlets located therein: Pacific Place Mall is home to Barney’s and Barnes & Noble; Nordstrom, the Gap, and Sephora are all nearby. I was working in downtown Seattle as a structural engineer when construction on this building began and I walked by it frequently. Since its completion, it has come to represent one of the major thrusts of my academic work.

One of the main theorists I use is Lefebvre, and I’m especially interested in his division of social space into Global, Mixed, and Private levels (cf. The Critique of Everyday Life, The Urban Revolution, The Production of Space). In my understanding, the forces actively producing buildings like this function on the global level: that is, the financing, planning, design, and construction are all operating ‘above’ what constitutes most people’s daily lives. Conversely, on the private level, the impressions we have of spaces and places exist. If I look at this building, and wish I could afford one of its units or find it exciting, luxurious, or horrendous, that is a private sentiment. Lefebvre insists that everyday life in the built environment — the physical space through which we move and operate — occurs at the intersection of these two levels, at the mixed level.

One aspect of such projects is the marketing blitz that accompanies the, which blitz we experience in our everyday life. In Lefebvrean terms, I consider the advertising campaigns to be an effort by the global level to influence the private level perceptions of the project. In the Spring of 2010, I took a discourse analysis class in the English department and analyzed a few of the ads for Olive 8 using a visual grammar proffered by the linguists Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen. Though my thoughts have shifted somewhat since then — and I even rewrote part of the paper for the International Herbert Marcuse Conference this October (the original is also available here) — I still find the advertising images to be incredibly interesting, and think they are especially relevant to blog with the word ‘desiring-machine’ in the title.

Here are the images in the order in which they appear on Olive 8’s website.

Obviously no critical theory is necessary to ‘get’ the narrative constructed by these images, but Kress and Van Leeuwen provide an incredibly incisive — if  structuralist — way of understanding how these images might be interpreted. For example, in the first image, they understand the woman’s gaze toward the building rendering to be an avenue by which her characteristics are determined: if she is stylish, successful, or desirable, these attributes come from the building. The fact that the dark and light tones of her dress correspond to the glazing of the building, that the twist of her torso hints at the broad side of the building, and that her leg positioning resembles the shape of the lower portion of the building amplifies this notion.

Per Kress and Van Leeuwen’s grammar, the second image connotes success not only by the man’s appearance, but by his compositional relationship to the horizon in the background (for them, images that appear above the horizon are in the realm of the ideal, as opposed to the merely earthly). His positioning at the left side of the frame also suggests a ‘given’, while the right side of the frame indicates the future, as in a timeline. In this case, one might see the empty chair facing him as the perfect place for a lady to repose. Or, as someone once said to me after seeing this image: “that chair is definitely a vagina.”

The third image largely speaks for itself, as does the fourth, but the latter is also especially interesting from Kress and Van Leeuwen’s perspective. The orientation of the woman’s legs is essentially understood as a verb; they are reaching toward an empty spot on the couch, which is illuminated to draw one’s attentions toward it. In terms of horizontal composition, she can now be taken as a ‘given’, while the empty spot next to her represents the condo-buyer’s future. Vertically, both the woman and the empty seat on the sofa are below the horizon, suggesting that this situation is a realistic possibility.

Of course, Kress and Van Leeuwen’s grammar covers many more aspects which could be applied to these photos. The point here is just to present a quick overview of what they are up to. One aspect that has been bothering me, however, especially after having read Deleuze & Guattari, is whether or not such interpretations should even be made. For them, there are as many ‘meanings’ as there are viewers of such images. Everything signifies, they say, whether or not it means anything in particular. What matters, in their view, is how the viewer is materially affected, how their potential for acting into the world has changed by being confronted with any sign. Part of my project at present — as I write my dissertation proposal — is to try and make sense of both of these two semiotic approaches for understanding imagery used to market a changing built environment.

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2 Responses to Olive 8: Visual Grammar vs. D&G’s Approach to Semiotics

  1. Jayde says:

    A worthwhile endeavor indeed. One thing that I continue to grapple with is how certain images (very much like the ones you posted) exercise such a strong pull in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, and other Asian places that would seem to have different cultural norms. I need to observe and think some more but there is definitely something that reaches across multiplicity to pull “universalize” or transnationalize desire.

  2. Absolutely. A few years ago I read an article about increased milk (and maybe beef too?) consumption somewhere in Asia (China, I think?), and it pointed how this was a really paradoxical indicator of ‘westernization’, given that a large percentage of the country’s populace in lactose intolerant. In spatial terms, I’m also reminded of some photos I saw recently showing uninhabited tract housing developments in China. I find myself wondering how this can possibly seem like a good idea…

    You’ve probably read Castells’ chapter on The Space of Flows and Space of Places from The Rise of the Network Society, but if you haven’t, it’s an excellent place to start thinking about expansion and homogenization of luxurious lifestyles. Oddly enough though — and thanks to D&G — even as I type the word ‘homogenization’, I immediately pause, and ask if this is even the right way to conceptualize the proliferation of conspicuous consumption (I’m thinking about their hesitation to lump human practices into abstract groups, and their argument for exploring concrete events, in all their complexity and uniqueness…).

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