Portrait of a Transmedia Designer: Interview with Kevin McLeod (Part Two)

tibetangum.gif Yesterday, I introduced my readers to transmedia designer Kevin McLeod, whose career has moved from film to alternative reality gaming to magazine publishing. Everything he has done has been informed by a unique analysis of our current media landscape -- He refuses to make distinctions between high and low, old and new; He has tremendous respect for the intelligence (collective or otherwise) of the media consumer; His work reflects his fascination with the intersections between different media and the opportunities for creative expression which stand at the borders between different modes;His work displays a fascination with stretching the limits of visual intelligence and challenging us to look at the familiar through fresh perspectives.

When I first got my hands on Mstrmnd, I have to admit that I had no idea what to make of it. I couldn't even tell what kind of magazine it was supposed to be. Mstrmnd was a seemingly random assortment of stuff -- old etchings from 19th century books, essays on popular cinema, eye-catching charts, graphs, and photographs, mock advertisements, and long stretches of comics.


It was the kind of magazine that you notice on the coffee table at the home of your most pretentious friends. When they leave the room, you pick it up furtively, flip through it nervously, twist your lips skeptically, and then shove it back on the table, hoping nobody noticed you moved it. You don't understand and you don't ask. I will admit that I have a low threshold for avant garde experimentation in all forms. I am a fan boy at heart and I like my reading pulpy not pretentious. But then the more I looked at the publication, the more I started to see elements there that spoke to me on a different level. It was clear that McLeod was interested in many of the same works that I was. Indeed, many of the works which are repurposed and remixed in Convergence Culture make their appearance in this magazine -- suggesting someone who has been thinking along parallel tracks. And that's what compelled me to reach out and interview him for this blog.


You write, "Mstrmnd is not an art or a design magazine but it is often mistaken for one." Explain. It is clear lots of thought has gone into the visual design of this publication. Behind the design choices, I see an interest in visual literacy -- in communicating as ideas as much through pictures as through words. Does this approach grow out of a particular understanding of how people are living and relating to information at the present time?

There is a ghetto of magazines that deal with art and design. Generally they're limited by aesthetics without complexity which are fashion, or they support a very primitive idea about art that is single creator in a primitively limited audience. The gallery-collector-museum relationship. Neither of these genres really wants to reach a mass audience but instead cater to a privileged group of users. There's an academic tone to many of these magazines, reaching brains that have been designed in colleges, where information has a pedigree that may not assist in consciousness but instead are there to reinforce the power modalities of education. And the idea of the critic, the individual critic gains power over an artist by illumination through obscurity. The defeat of images by text. Academia's manner in codifying a fluidly composed art form like film is to write text about it, it doesn't invent a new medium or genre to evolve it, it becomes a scribe system with many illusory chambers. The point of mstrmnd is to allow the images supremacy and let the audience do the perceiving. Lure, dare, induce. If we avoid text or use it in an unstable manner, then we can evolve with language rather than let those who command it lead. There's a whole arena where I say question the notion of structuralism, English is far from a great language, if left to its own democratic/academic growth, it's a slow cancer that will keep growing.

Well, yes, you hit the nail. The images and text and their progressions are provocations in visual literacy. We live in an age of vast literalness in mass media yet our censorship is innate, self-created, not the product of any conspiracy. Just look at captioning and the variations through magazine/news. One image can have three basic states of captions: the newspaper, the sly news journal (like The Economist), or the parody (The Onion). If you deform in any direction just this idea, the caption, you can reinvent a facet. What if a caption were hidden?

You make extensive use of found or borrowed materials which you have appropriated and recontextualized. How does it relate to earlier efforts by the avant garde to deploy "cutups" or "ready mades"?

I am not a visual artist by training or historian, so my knowledge of the backstory is limited, but I am retroactively aware of Max Ersnt's collages, and actively the work of the painter Vuillard who was a master of patterns, as well as Rem Koolhaas' Delirious New York which was a new form of literature with images. I mention these three only because they are in the foreground for the moment and seem to illustrate what you are suggesting.

You create some pretty interesting juxtapositions between contemporary and much older materials. What status do these older images play in your work? How do the older materials fit within your call to readers to investigate "mythologies", a concept you seem to be taking from Roland Barthes, I take it?

I have only read fragments of Barthes and found him bland, like a self-parody. I look more at myth through sociobiology or sociology. Like Dorfman's 'How to Read Donald Duck' which is a manual more than it is a piece of academic research. Older images are essential in exhibiting how the visual cortex is evolving, devolving or maintaining status quo. Images reveal much more about the state of humanity than text, which can be endlessly translated, interpreted, converted into rhetoric. H.M. Stanley's ground glass images from 'Through the Dark Continent', which we caption with subtlety, relate uniquely to the first issue's content in a myriad of ways and also to some synonyms in the second issue like the 1936 Olympic images. That they have current parallels and antonyms is entirely up to your perception. In effect the magazine is half finished, you complete the relationship unknowingly by being aware of the interweaving. Now in terms of mythology I would borrow Cassirer and use his perception that the Nazis were the first synthetic myth and you have a subliminal non-linear history lesson you were probably unaware of. That we duplicate this synthetic state without thinking now is rather incredible, but wholly understandable since the medium of television is designed for this.

You seem to be very interested in popular art forms such as comics and advertising but you also make use of avant garde photography and graphics techniques. What do you see the value of juxtaposing high and low forms of expression in the same publication?

I guess I see no difference in that valuation or scale, or maybe just the danger in applying it. The contrast you exhibit is a border that restricts perception. To eliminate these 'class' distinctions is to evolve media and perhaps cognition and consciousness. A magazine ad for Tron suggests a depth provided by seeing the film, playing the coin-op or intellivision game, even logged onto a fansite, experiences stored or to be stored, whereas a reproduction of Church's 'Cotapaxi' (a vast canvas landscape of a massive Ecuadorian volcano), with its numerous light effects, optic distortion and message illuminates us to Church's eye opening experience of witnessing it. In which of these does an audience participate more? Ads in magazines are also in an unnecessarily conservative state of being, how many times will you see bizarre redundancy, a magazine editorially showcases a product or a person who also appears in an ad for a film in release or a product that is being launched. Another part of the Paradox puzzle. Ads are necessary for magazines but advertisers need to comprehend the next stage of ads requires their active conscious participation in a community, not their blank dictation of brand. That is the notoriety of the 20th century: a dictation of image. Also, are art forms like the 'Black Nationalist' sketch by Richard Pryor, "Back Orifice" the hack of Windows 98 by the cDc, or "Formulary for a New Urbanism" by Ivan Chtcheglov, a luminous but crude manifesto, are they high or low, as new genres appear or are discovered retroactively, doesn't this line blur? Comics are a stage above this ad business, the nuances are insanely dynamic, the name of the first serialized graphic novel in mstrmnd is called Wooden Mirror, a play on the material of paper and the first complex narrative offshoot, one of three in process for serialization in future issues.

You seem very interested in films -- especially films which are part of larger franchises or works that fit within what I have described as transmedia entertainment (such as The Matrix and Star Wars). How have you carried over this interest in media franchises into your thinking about MSTRMND? In what sense do you see such works as, in your terms, "large-scale mythologies?"

These films are part of a new level of superart coded for children to sense, feel, maybe even read. Adults are necessarily left behind in experiencing the complexity of these series' if only because of a literalness in western education that relies on text and math as primary statuses in intelligence. While children explore text and math in school (and regulated forms of art and code), they are enveloped alternately by mass media that relies only invariably on text or math. Visuals connect ideas to ideas in film, TV, games and in certain browser environments. Key to this era's awareness in context: Star Wars and The Matrix are both vast illustrations of Paradox, not irony. A religion in which men fight and kill to become fathers while denying themselves the ability to procreate. A simulation designed to both find a messiah of change and then make a deal with him or her to neutralize their ability. One need only to look at these films and see they are complex mirrors we cannot recognize because we hide the same properties from ourselves. Films like Kill Bill, Cache, Primer, A History of Violence, The Aviator, Ghost in the Shell are all deeply coded consciousness playgrounds, tempting audiences to comprehend their inner meanings and this playground is malleable into other media, it can locate tools to perceive and leave them for others to use. To me most of these films, despite their philosophical challenges, are still resolutely primitive and the allure is to evolve these ideals into 21st century simulas with even wilder nuances and optics and heroes and villains, and mstrmnd is a growth medium for this. How you converge the narratives and symbols in mstrmnd depends on both the editorial and the audience working in a commonality. How this evolves will depend heavily on user awareness and participation.

In our correspondence, you have discussed the complexity of contemporary cinema, even the complexity of very popular films. You seem to be picking up on Steven Johnson's arguments about the cognitive challenges posed by contemporary popular culture and the ways that it can be complex and still accessible. How does this interest shape the forms of complexity you are building into your publication?

While I agree with Steven Johnson on certain level, I am uneasy with his perceptive buckshot. When he claims media is evolving because certain films have extensive casts to absorb, forcing desire for cognition and repeated viewings, I shudder slightly. Perceptions must come into play. I see the Lord of the Rings as a terminally conservative text, with evil that is character-less (an all seeing eye), with a desire to wage wars that are good and defeat the loneliest of metaphors: darkness. Now this is a fear filled narrative that is strangely uncomplex, with a violent unease with a metaphorical east of exotic skins and animals. Although it is complex on a number of design and graphic levels, it is anti-evolutionary since it isn't self-aware of faults in its message, it hasn't been updated since its WWI origins, a film as wooden as Spartacus has more nuance than LOTR. I think Johnson has the right idea, he just recognizes the surfaces of the media he evaluates, not the underlying symbolic structures, a skill arguably necessary for future minds faced with our messy behavior both interspecies and intra-biome and soon, interplanetary.

You make use of a lot of subtle visual echoes between the first two issues of your publication. You seem to be daring readers to find the patterns on their own. What assumptions are you making about how people will read between the issues rather than simply reading each issue individually?

Yes I'm glad you put it that way, there is a dare involved that is about patterns and beyond. The challenge is on a few levels just a weird form of fun. Inside one bound object is a story, between them is their power of channeling multiple overlaps. The way a mad-lib book was or a choose-your-own-adventure is bound temporally by staples or glue. Then step outside that boundary, what are the possibilities? I make no assumptions but hope that the user will observe all this on some cognizant level. The mag develops its aura by the reader sensing these similarities. The reader sees them slowly, connects multiple patterns, colors, etc, grows a lexicon visually, utilizes this to discern other hidden narratives, even flaws in other media. This is obviously meant to be consciousness inducing in stages. In example: The 2 yuan note in the first issue is related to both the US 10 dollar note in the 2nd issue as well as the satirical Tibetan Gum (as well as a few others). Scale matters, as well as shape.

In many ways, you seem to be constructing what Convergence Culture calls a cultural activator -- that is, a work which sets a collective intelligence community into motion. Yet, is it possible to be a cultural activator without being a cultural attractor. In other words, Lost or The Matrix work by creating a large scale audience and providing them with things they can do together. How does this work with a smaller scale project like your magazine?

A great question. Stanley Kubrick, whose films are composed of incredibly secret plots inside what appear to be very strange, stilted major studio releases, never explained them, though this lack of awareness on a mass scale doesn't diminish their powerful hold on users, in fact, The Shining finds a larger audience today than the summer of 1980 when it was released to a maximum theater count of 600 screens. The relative scale of the initial audience seems puny now (though certainly they experienced it more intensely, projected in a communal darkness). What draws new viewers to The Shining? What draws them to repeatedly view it? What is hidden, are they aware of it on a level they are not entirely conscious of? Someone, a cinematographer, recently explained to me why watching it numerous times was so riveting: he could never remember certain details or the order of the story. Why is a visual thinker forgetting details in a film he's watched many times? This model, the activator, perhaps can take many forms and start at unusually small scales, increasing its usability and longevity, and it can evolve with its audience until it approaches the level of attractor. And key is the cost effectiveness of beginning at a selective level in a medium that has a built in audience searching for new formats. The magazine is the perfect medium to develop a set of users in the age of the internet.