Outside the window, there’s a hive of activity. There are flashes of black and yellow, the sound of buzzing, the interweaving aerobatics of the paper wasps are complex as they maintain a personal airspace around the hive. I’m not going to get close enough to observe this, but I’ll take it as read that each individual wasp has taken a rest from making paper out of the fence and is gesturing with legs, antennae and mandibles to tell other wasps about stuff – you know, whatever the vespal equivalent of office gossip is.
The hive, analysed or viewed as a work of art, uses the technique of multimodality. In art, or at least that part of the art that communicates, there are five modes of communication: visual, aural, gestural, spatial and linguistic. Visual refers to shapes and colours that you can actually see, aural refers to sounds and music that you can actually hear, gestural means gestures such as body language and interpretive dance, spatial refers to the placement of objects within the artwork itself and linguistic refers to language, either written or spoken.
There is some overlap between the modes. For example, the spoken word is both linguistic and aural, since it uses language but you have to hear it to make use of it. Writing uses language and is thus in the linguistic mode, but the format of the text is visual, because if I change the font I can change the effect of the words, and spatial because words are ordered in paragraphs, and you can have inserted quotes in separate text boxes.
Even if there is some overlap, art or writing in the digital age can be intentionally multimodal. Have a look at this famous article by Lee Martin. There are three modes in operation here: linguistic, because the article has to make some sense (even if its analogies and metaphors are just insane); visual, because there’s a picture of a wasp up there and the letters are in a nice serif font as determined by your browser settings first, then the webpage; and spatial, because of the way the story is laid out on the page. You can add another mode to that, aural, if you’re using a screenreader of some type.
Not all modes are equal however. Or, to put it another way, all modes are equal but some are more equal than others. For example, up there I used the word ‘hive‘ to describe where the paper wasps were doing there art. If I had put a picture up there of their ‘place of business’ you might have used the word ‘hive’, too, to describe it. In fact, and more precisely, it’s not a hive, it’s a colony. The linguistic mode is more precise and, since language functions to communicate ideas, it leaves less room for interpretation on the part of the viewer or reader, and thus less room for inaccuracies. Of course, the linguistic mode is not as emotive as, say, the aural mode, where music and sound effects can convey an emotion.
Many of our activities can be multimodal, too. Some friends and I visited the Mail Exchange on Friday the 13th and there constructed a group artistic project with all five modes in operation. We talked, made gestures, seated ourselves around a table that was in a specific position in the pub. The Fluxus movement in art suggested that we humans make art all the time, and this was our little coterie’s contribution to art. You could see it as a reaction to the digitalisation and virtualisation of art, and since it was at a specific time (or date) and place, it also satisfies Walter Benjamin’s ideas on authenticity. It has an aura that was not only irreproducible, but was as effective as ten schooners could make it.
As yet multimodality is limited to the five modes listed above, but there is a potential for even more modes to be create in the future. The first one would touch on the other of the five traditional senses, which we could call the olfactory mode. One example of this occurs in Gentleman Jol and th Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold. The Cetagandans use very sophisticated forms of art and perfumes are a part of that.
Aral was getting more and more impatient with this ghem ass, and as I was trying to decode the most recent, he finally said, ‘Just give me the damned thing,’ twitched it out of my hands, and took it into the lav. Where he proceeded to amend it with, er, his own personal scent mark.”
I have no way to reproduce the olfactory mode of the wasp colony, so you’re spared the whiff of geraniums – for now.
A more topical possible mode is viral, but I don’t know how it would be expressed.
Improvements in virtual reality may add other modes of expression, such as forcing gestural responses by direct control peoples’ movements.
Fiscal, wherein the movement of money is not just in trade for the art, but is part of the art itself.
Meteorological; if I write ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ and it actually is.
Vespal. But you’ll have to ask the wasps about that.