Word of mouth and pepper spray parody

For better or worse, a decade of development in web technology enables the fast sharing of imagery. “Word of mouth” used to occur verbally, but some part of it now occurs online.

What has moved online soonest? Things that are easy to share with one click. It tends towards the quick hit: Pictures that tell a story, recommendations that require little elaboration, snappy and quick quotes or retorts, and other self-explanatory links.

I reserve a special place for parody, or humor with wide appeal, or sarcasm with gotcha-to-it. This happened during the Royal Wedding, for example. That was a situation where an event captured the attention of virtually the entire online world, and the parodies of the pictures spoke to a common perception.

A new image has recently made the rounds. It is interesting because it speaks to an event that occurred at University of California, Davis, in a protest that grew from the occupy movement. Some of the police used pepper spray.

Now, to be sure, police using pepper spray does not lend itself to parody, at least, not on first blush. Look at these photographs of the incidents. Despite being a very local story, the images went global. (Do most people know where Davis is? It is just outside of Sacramento, California, in case you did not know. Of course, that just begs the question of whether most people know where Sacramento is…)

My first reaction to these pictures was simply “ouch.”

Ah, but that has not stopped a range of satirists from taking the image, removing the context, and making a delicious parody of the situation.

If you search for them, they are easy to find. Here are a few of my favorites.

This first one takes the iconic Seurat painting, which hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, and adds a new participant. The contrast with the visual calm of the painting exaggerates the disruptive violence of the pepper spray.

But other satirists saw something else. Here is a play on the use of force, matching Yoda with the pepper spray, making a pun of excessive force.

Are you fond of the art of Michelangelo? We have a parody for you! Feast on this combination of pepper spray and the hand of God from the Sistine chapel. It makes a rather bold statement, as if the use of force violates moral precepts.

For my taste that is a bit too sanctimonious and heavy handed (get it?), but I can appreciate the imagination and cleverness that went into making the message. This image will garner strong reactions from a viewer — both positive, from those who oppose the use of such force, and negative, from those who would find it offensive to use such an iconic image for this purpose, I would guess.

Now that you get the idea, there is no end to ways one can combine pepper spray with images. That is my final observation. Look at the extraordinary range of the messages.

Combining pepper spray with the iconic painting of the Declaration of Independence makes for a strong political statement. It seems to suggest that such behavior is out of place, inconsistent with Democracy.

But it is quite possible to make a point without bringing up the politics at all.

Consider this combination with an iconic MC Escher drawing. It gives the pepper spray a different meaning, a more contemplative one. Placing pepper spray inside the reflective mirror twists the meaning. What does the artist mean to suggest?

I cannot get a precise message. That ambiguity stands in contrast with the precision of the image. Notice how the policeman’s image has been curved to be consistent with the refraction of the crystal ball. It gives the composition more authenticity, making it appear as if the spray is in the room with Escher.

Lets finish this off with one more, something lighter. This last picture combines the policeman with the iconic cover of the Beatles Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. Let’s give some due to the creator of this one. First, the pun on pepper is brilliant. It is ok to groan. Second, the album combines the faces of so many different icons. It is visually jarring.

Ah, but it takes on new meaning by adding two (not one, but two!) pictures of police with pepper spray. It is almost funny, as the police belong in crowd. And the offensive image is muted because they spray the drum, not any band member, or part of the entourage.

Summing up, what was the point of surveying all this parody? The web has changed word of mouth. Where will it take global culture next? I do not know any better than anyone else, but the process works quickly and unexpectedly.

Maybe this example illustrates one thing. If a small incident in one little city can go global, just imagine what might happen to a sanctimonious authoritarian government in a high-profile situation. They do have much to fear from the freedom the web offers.

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