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Commutation test

An easy but efficient method to recognize and analyze the meaning of images

Paper presentet at the INSEA Congress in Osaka august 2008
attention economy

We use pictures for the purpose of communication, entertainment and decoration. This presentation is mainly focussed on pictures used in communication; but the same method can be applied to all kinds of pictures.
When we talk about pictures today, then we usually mean photographs. Photographs or photorealistic digital images make the main part of all pictures used privately and in mass media. We usually recognize photographic representations (and understand) at once – seeing a picture means to recognize the representation – and we remember images much better than verbal signs. Pictures are fast shots into the brain; this makes them so attractive in mass communication. They are important instruments in the competition for attention, which is limited resource in this business (“economy of attention”). Pictures illustrate messages and draw attention and interest: in advertising, in print media, in television and on the internet.
To quickly communicate the meaning of what something is about, it is essential that the representation can be recognized and decoded instantly. It works best, if the decoding is done automatically. This happens when similar pictures are used for similar purposes or themes. Tow examples used on the covers of travel guides: Japan – Austria

Mass communication is dependant on stereotypes because of structural reasons. Stereotypes are images causing similar associations for a wide range of people. Stereotypes play an important role, when we construct our common social reality. They are the basis of culture, as described in sociology. They determine our personal and social perception of the world. They are the norm; they are routine and therefore not recognized as pictures.
enlightenment School is an institution of enlightenment. In this role school has to take care of the foundation upon which our understanding of the world is based. Media and picture theory today are important elements of the theory of cognition. Education has a responsibility with regard to enlightenment.
The commutation test

the transmitter is responseble for creating the understanding
The pictures, which our reality is based upon, are generally easy to decode. They are designed in such a way, that we can understand them quickly and easily. In mass communication as well as in politics the transmitter is responsible for creating the understanding. We understand those pictures automatically – the understanding and the meaning connected to the understanding are invisible.
sun - fun - run - done - gun - none  The commutation test was developed in phonetics. It is used to define phonemes of a language. Phonemes are sounds which make meaning by making a difference but do not have a meaning of their own. Examples: Sun– fun – run – done – gun – none. Those differences are to be found by experiments comparing pairs of words.
I would like to show you, how this simple test can also be applied to pictures and what benefit we can get out of it. In contrast to language it is not possible to isolate the smallest signs, which carry a meaning: neither on the level of representation, nor on the level of meaning. The distinction between representation and meaning cannot be maintained all the way; it is more a construction which is used in our investigation.
The test can also be used with benefit on all forms of design: architecture, product design, film &c.
personal and cultural associations make the meaning. But who determines what is a meaning that makes a difference, or what is a difference that makes a meaning? As far as language is concerned it is the speakers of the language who are deciding. It is not the individual but the community. The “manuals” for the language are stored in the brains of the members of the community using / speaking the language. We interpret pictures by using “associations”; we use similarity. However since there is no handbook, no dictionary defining the meaning of pictorial signs, no exact definition can be given. We distinguish between personal and inter-subjective or cultural associations. Visual communication is dependant on cultural associations. Advertising and politics even try to get our personal associations activated. The meanings used in such presentation cannot be 100% verified. Probably the meanings even change faster than verbal language.
image education

The purpose is not to find or give plain answers
In art education – I prefer to call the subject “picture or image” education – and in the teaching project, I would like to demonstrate that it is not the goal to find the one and only meaning, but to give the students instruments enabling them to encounter pictures in mass media critically. The purpose is not to find or give plain answers – this is a task for advertisers and scientists – but to prompt the process of critical thinking about pictures and images of the world.

How does it work?
The simplest and easiest way to do the test is by using imagination. Certain elements of the representation are substituted by others just using the language, just mentioning a different thing with a certain word. Of course you could also do these mental operations or exercises by using gimp or artweaver software, but often this is time consuming and is not really necessary.

klick on the image to get it larger
Example wine taster

This picture the monopolistic Swedish state-owned alcohol trading company (Systembolaget) used in advertising. We see a man holding a wine glass in one hand and spitting out some liquid. Underneath we read the word or meaning “utsökt” which means “selected”. Apparently a contradiction: we see an advertisement, which we expect to give a positive message and tell us: we have good drinks, therefore buy them. But someone is spitting out a liquid – judging by the glass – it is wine. We still stick to the idea, advertising gives us positive messages. So we try to get image and text in a meaningful context… we can do this and understand the message, because we know, that spitting out is part of a wine testers work. So here we have a wine taster working to find out the best wines for the customers.

Images have a complete / holistic meaning.
Let’s have a look, how the meaning of the picture is changing, when we change what is represented. – If we DID this systematically, we should start on the pictorial level, and then work with the image structure and the context. But this does not make too much sense, because we see and understand the image more or less instantaneously. We want to know what the picture is about. What works for us works for the students even better.
Images have to begin with a complete / holistic meaning. They have a subject, which usually is mentioned. In most of the pictures there is only one moment in time or one subject represented. This is western art tradition which already started in the baroque age. As it is here. The picture shows one event: a man – we know he is representing a wine taster – is spitting out some liquid.
Let’s take this sentence and have a look at the several terms that can be seen in the picture:
A man is spitting out some liquid.

What if a woman was pictured instead? In that case an additional mental exercise would be required in order to understand the message. Usually we associate drinking wine and liquor with male behavior … not that long ago drinking alcohol in public was not common for women. If a female model was being used we would have to think: oh yes, sure, today’s women, too are drinking and tasting wine… it means one more operation, which is not economic, even if it is correct.

spitting out?
The alternative could be drinking, sniffing, looking. Drinking wine means tasting it; sniffing and looking are only side products… we do not buy wines for sniffing or looking at only. Drinking could imply the man is interested in getting drunk and therefore loosing his sense of judgment. But first of all, the joke would work no longer.

spitting out bread or stones … would be something else.
From the point of view of the advertiser we could ask what alternative would be o.k.: I think a woman or maybe smelling could be used but would not fit very well.
Part meaning

The whole meaning is a result of combination of “part meanings”.
We accept that it is a male tasting the wine.
The question now is what type of male suits best wine tasting.

youngsters have a reputation for only being interested in getting drunk
The man is between 40 and 50 years old. What if it was a boy? Impossible: boys are not allowed to drink and because of their age they lack experience with wine. A boy in this context could be used in a takeoff or as a warning against underage wine drinking. A young man, let’s say in his early 20s, has not had enough time to get the experience which is essential for understanding wine. Furthermore in the eyes of many, youngsters have a reputation for only being interested in getting drunk and not in refining theirs taste buds. So in this case a woman between 40 and 50 would fit better.
And how about a man over 65? He is no longer working and likely to be past the prime of his physical and mental abilities.
The character of the male – his credibility: if someone recommends a wine, you have to know him so you can decide IF his recommendation is good for you. To judge someone we do not know we interpret external signs.
The hair is A little curly, maybe there are some gray streaks. The hairstyle is not too proper and not untidy. It looks natural.
Shortcut hairstyle could look military style or ascetic – not very good for wine tasting. A very tidy hairstyle could look pedantic, long hair is unfashionable.

we can see the components of our stereotypes
We can do similar investigations on the glass, the outfit and the location.
With the different alternatives we can distinguish the meanings in an actual image. Some meanings are more susceptible to changes, some less. So very easily we can see the components of our stereotypes.
We need information about the context, the transmitter, the purpose ...To understand pictures we need more than to see the representation. We need information about the context, the transmitter, the purpose and so on. Very often we know something about the context and the circumstances before we recognize a picture. Anyway we are crosschecking our hypothesis about the context when we look at a picture. It makes a difference if the picture is in a private photo album, in a newspaper or in a museum. If picture and context match our expectation, the context is not apparent…
Pictorial level:

Our scriptural tradition is based on written text, independent of the layout. It is essential that the content of a text is not changed by its form. This is also true for the way we do art history in classrooms. All pictures look more or less the same. On a screen they even have the same size and nearly the same type of colors.
But the pictorial level is very important when we crosscheck the ideas of the context.


Paper, same as the rest of the magazine, special paper, metal, textile, parchment…
Other parameters:
Size, technique, medium, place (wallpaper, magazine, wallet)
Composition and structure
Playful, realistic, idealistic, documentary, hyper-real,
Grade of abstraction
Camera position: subjective – objective,
Focus: sharp, soft, depth of field
Technique: painting, photographs, prints … hand or machine made, unique, original,
All these factors influence how we see the pictures: poetically, documentary, illustrating, ironic,
Can we find a susceptibility factor for pictures? What I have in mind here: can pictures which in their meaning are more susceptible to changes than others, be considered to have more (higher??) quality.
Franz Billmayer, 20080926