Meanderings on the Age of Blur and Blah, Blah, Blah
Dike Blair

Recently, I've been thinking about blur. Blur is everywhere; it's a band, it's a skateboard magazine, and I've never seen so many blurry images in advertising. In typography, it was last year's hot font treatment. So why is blur the visual effect and graphic metaphor for our time?

In graphic design there is a technological reason--because it's there. Almost every graphic designer and artist with a computer have the program Adobe Photoshop and have clicked their mouse on Photoshop's effects menu and found: Blur, Blur More, Gaussian Blur..., Motion Blur..., Radial Blur.... But why do so many continue to use this effect in preference to, for example, "Crystallize...?" Because with an easy way to blur font and image, the designer finally has something, focused-and-blurred, that is as comically antithetical as light-and-shadow or positive-and-negative. This contrast has always been available to painters and photographers, but it simply wasn't cost effective for such a fast medium as graphic design to blur type face by hand (airbrushing). The computer changed that. Remember that fractals existed as mathematic equations for over a century before the computer made their graphic manifestation a commonplace thing. To be sure, most all Photoshop effects are recognizable in graphic design (and most obvious, and bad, when used straight-from-the-bottle) but blur was the effect that resonated for a moment.

Type melted in the sixties, got cut-and-collaged in the seventies and exploded into a glutted font-renaissance in the eighties. Now type blurs. It was LSD that melted type face in the sixties. Nihilism and irony that "razored" type in the 70's. And cocaine-computer-consumerism that gave us font-glut in the 80's. Then whence came blur? Maybe the drug shorthand for blur consciousness is alcohol, Ecstasy and Prozac. The friendly blur of booze and the glow of up-all-night Ecstasy. The T-shirt with the blurry, I THINK I'LL HAVE ANOTHER BEER printed on it makes stupid sense. But the blurred, PROZAC, T-shirt doesn't--Prozac doesn't blur vision and Prozac is really the drug of the decade. This T-shirt must come out of metaphor and misunderstanding. The misunderstanding is that people equate Prozac with the 80's drug, Valium, and Valium does make one feel blurry because it's a depressant. Prozac doesn't effect vision at all, but it can have the effect of making one feel like their sensations are wearing a sweater--that sensation could be a metaphoric of blur.

Blur is kind of like the expression, blah, blah, blah. (*After reading this piece, my editor informed me that there is a new English magazine which I haven't seen called Blah, Blah, Blah and that a piece on the band Blur was in their first issue.) Blah, blah, blah means that the speaker knows that the listener has heard what the speaker is saying, has "been there--done that." It suggests that we've reached the saturation point of what can be done with words--just as blur is about having reached the saturation point of images. Blah, blah, blah means that talk is cheap--everything has been said before, you know it and I know it--it is about the exhaustion of speech. Blah, blah, blah is European intellectual ennui meeting American laziness. Blah, blah, blah is discontent with the power of the word and the cynicism of consumer sameness. Speaking of speaking, blur is related to slur. The slur of booze--the slur of dialectic English. You slur and blur when you're drunk and tired. We've been through almost a century of New Years--how could we not be exhausted? We're certainly exhausted with observations about the ending of our millennium but I need to re-note that these periods are prone to Romanticism and the Spiritualism: The photographer smears Vaseline on his lens for romance and we blur and glow images to represent the otherworldly.

Blurred images and the arts? Gerhard Richter would be the Baron of Blur--he blurred before everyone else. For sure, Richter's blur was a formal solution to the problem of how to paint an image in a way that makes sense. But, inherent in his solution was an understanding of photography, image, memory and exhaustion; "I blur things to make everything equally important and equally unimportant. I blur things so that they do not look artistic or craftsmanlike but technological, smooth, and perfect. I blur things to make all the parts a closer fit. Perhaps I also blur out the excess of unimportant information." The state of painting (to a visionary like Richter) in 1965 may have been prophetic of our fin de si├Ęcle, image-overload blur. The history of blur in photography is too big a subject for this fortune cookie critique. Suffice it to say that blur is the camera out of focus and the camera lens has became our vision and the photograph our memory. Because of focal depth, the background of photos are blurry--so blur is the background becoming the foreground, but more on that later. In music, I suspect (I have a tin ear and no musical aptitude) that ambient, techo and, to some degree, house reflect a kind of aural mush that would be equivalent to blur. And the computer, the mixing board, makes this mush. The Godfather of Ambient, Brian Eno, told me that the history of most everything was a move from figure to ground. As I understood him, he was saying that modernism was the march of all hierarchies--politics, melodies, voices, images--toward a kind of structural democracy. He described modern history as a move from the vertical to the horizontal. Ambient music is just this kind of leveling of foreground and background, so ambiance is analogous to blur. Art in this century--it's the Greenbergian flattening of space in painting, Cage's dissolution of organized sound, Brecht's demolition of theater's 4th wall--can all been seen as the dissipation figure and the accretion of ground.

But, I strongly suspect two things: One, we already reached full solution of figure and ground. Two, that this democratization of focus was an illusion all along. The relationship of figure and ground has not changed, the context has simply gotten larger. Richter's paintings not only rely on the crisp lines of the canvas frame but of walls and rooms. When Richard Prince blurred his photos of photos he enlarged the context of the photographic image--he added another layer of illusion. House and techno rages are all the more Dionysian because day jobs have gotten even more stultifying. Ambiance plays best as antidote to the relentless production of pop tunes. In other words, the context must be clear for blur to work. [The band Blur (visual nomenclature applied to an aural phenomenon) has an antithesis--the band Everclear. Everclear is also a brand name for grain alcohol--grain alcohol, improperly distilled, will not only blur your vision, but could blind you.] What I'm suggesting is that if this is the Age of Blur, there must be a larger context that is about clarity. I think the backdrop for all this blur is the high resolution in which we now see the world. We can read license plates from outer space for Christ's sake. We've learned that the brain is capable of assimilating more information than our factory equipped senses can deliver, so we watch things like the Bloomberg Information Television (this is a television news grid seen on CNN with everything from weather, stock indexes, horoscopes, celebrity gossip and trivia scrolling in boxes while a talking head delivers the "news").

This brings me back to blur and Adobe Photoshop. Blur is an effect encoded in soft-ware and nestled in my computer. The larger context for the blur effect is the starkest most resolved contrast we know--the black-and-white of binary code. There is a monstrous camera behind the Vaseline coated lens, a mammoth machine around my ghost. Blah, blah, blah.