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Context Really is Everything
How changing the environment of a creation can change it completely
This is part of my “Art of Noticing” series, in which I learn, find, or discover the things around me that usually go unnoticed and turn them into an endless source of creative inspiration.
Today, I noticed that a band I’d pigeonholed as “funny,” thanks to their offbeat videos, actually comes off as aggressive (and not at all funny) live, even with the same music. It made me think about how context is everything.
A while back, a friend introduced me to a Russian band named Little Big by showing me some of their videos, which are hilarious and … um … “bizarre” might be the best word for it, but that doesn’t really do the whole thing justice.
Later, though, the same friend showed me live footage from one of their concerts. It was all flashing lights, a dark and angry atmosphere, and a thrashing mosh pit … and sometimes, they were even playing the exact same music as in the nutty videos. After pigeonholing Little Big as “funny,” the mood shift was uncanny for me. New visuals changed everything. What used to be hilarious became aggressive onstage.
But we know this phenomenon already, right? A joke might be funny in one setting but fall flat in another. The phrase we use is “I guess you had to be there.” It's not the joke that's changed, but the context surrounding it … just like quirky Little Big became a force to be reckoned with when playing in front of a big Russian crowd.
As storytellers and artists, this kind of context-dependent phenomenon is something to keep front-of-mind. The environment in which we “perform” (a literal venue, or the larger backdrop of a novel) can dramatically alter its reception and interpretation.
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Here's how this "noticing" can benefit my stories and art:
Music isn't just about sound, and stories aren't just about words. That’s good news. It means that even though you may consider yourself a “single sense” artist (i.e., paintings are about seeing, right?), you still have all the other senses to play with. Even for paintings, the background music playing in a gallery where they’re displayed can change how people see them.
By adjusting the setting, background, or accompanying visuals, we can craft layered experiences, guiding our audience to feel specific emotions or ponder certain ideas. It’s like taking a single piece of art and giving it a bunch of different faces.
But don’t let the above be accidental. You don’t want to create something that’s intended to be taken one way and end up presenting it a different way by mistake.
In the example of a painting, even the frame something is put in (or the conscious omission of a frame) can change how the painting comes across.
Stories have settings. A different setting for the same story actually means a whole different story. Movies have scores. Showing a horror film in a darkened room, with just one or two people, is a very different thing from a group watching the same movie in the light. As the father of a teenager who likes her scary movies presented safely, this is something I know well.
Experiment and Have Fun!
Who’s to say it has to be strategic or accidental? Can’t it just be about experimentation? Creativity is all about trying things, so for me, this is a reminder to just try stuff and see what happens.
A story or other piece of art can be reimagined in countless ways by merely tweaking its environment. Challenge your audience, surprise them, or give multiple interpretations by changing the setting or other bits of context.
While the primary thrust of our art matters most, the context in which we place is powerful as well. By using both elements, art can be many things instead of just one.
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