Visual Voices: This is What a Human Looks Like

Creative DIY Cultures and Participatory Learning
Prof. Nitin Sawhney, Ph. D
Fall 2011
Proposal and Concept Document
Curators: Ariana Stolarz, Stephia Madelyne Kascher and Athena Baraat

Visual Voices: This is What a Human Looks Like


I. Background

On Tuesday November 1st, we presented to the class our initial proposal of a collaborative project for the DIY Cultures seminar. We called it the “Switch The Song” project. After digesting and assimilating all the valuable feedback we received from our classmates and professors during the peer-review session, we have processed all of the critique and hope to address them on this revised proposal. We feel strong about pursuing the Switch The Song initiative and we will continue to work on an iteration of this platform in the upcoming year. For the moment we have identified “Visual Voices” as the main platform where Switch the Song, as well as all of our creative ideas and projects, will live. The first manifestation of this platforms is called “This is What a Human Looks Like”.

This document outlines the intentions behind the This is What a Human Looks Like project, as well as the foundations of our collaborative efforts for the rest of the semester. We would like to thank the class for offering such valuable comments and for helping us guide our class project into a more focused venture.


“Have a healthy disregard for the impossible”


“You need to aim beyond what you are capable of.  You must develop a complete disregard for where your abilities end [and] try to do the thing that you’re incapable of.  Make your vision of where you want to be a reality.  Nothing is impossible”. ~ Paul Arden

II. Purpose

This is What a Human Looks Like is a project intended to amplify a revolution of humanity, by humanity – a revolution we are witnessing occur all around us, in NYC and throughout the world, spurred by Occupy Wall Street. For the past weeks, our group has connected through the magnetic power of a shared belief: the ideals of collaborative unity and the desire to broadcast and amplify the voices of unity, humanity and hope. We have recognized image and sound as the elements that bring to life our main intentions. This is how “Visual Voices” originates – as a platform to host all of echoes of unity.

This document provides the foundational outline of our collaborative efforts for the rest of the semester. It documents the project goals and expectations – reshaped based on the feedback we received on November 1st – our combined ambitions, and a road-map to help us achieve our aims.  Our first project,  This is What a Human Looks Like,  is an attempt to provide both reflective grounding and a concise framework for potential further explorations with the Visual Voices platform.

III. About the Project—Create With a Purpose

“Creativity is imagination, and imagination is for everyone”. ~ Paul Arden

Visual Voices: This is What a Human Looks Like connects and amplifies the similarities and unifying essences of humanity.

a. The form of participation and DIY culture that our project is investigating

This is What a Human Looks Like is a storytelling project that collages the humanity inherent in the current social awakening. While there are many aspects to be explored in terms of economics, we are focusing on the revolution of humanity:  how to see all people as human and worthy of the same freedoms. By critically excavating the various occupations world wide for shared voices of humanity and equality we will create a collage of images and literature  that will manifest in a booklet, a manifesto based on these images and voices, and finally a song to encapsulate the essence of these voices.

In future iterations of Visual Voices, such as the Switch the Song project, we may look for voluntary contributions from strangers around the globe. In this current stage however we will focus on collecting existing data. These collections will take the form of an excavation of the city via photographing signs and imagery – with particular attention paid to messages that project positivity, unity, hope and other powerful life-changing concepts. We will also include some famous quotes from authors and scholars we feel embody our message. In sum, we will be appropriating, remixing, and cutting-up existing work. The final form will be a composed and complete song. We will curate the lyrics, collaging the messages we have captured during our excavations.


b. A few of the critical concepts we are engaging or questioning through our work


Achievable Utopia

In Collective Intelligence, Pierre Levy proposes what he calls an achievable utopia.  “He asks us to imagine what would happen if the sharing of knowledge and the exercise of grassroots power becomes normative.  In Levy’s world, people from fundamentally different perspectives see a value in talking and listening to one another, and such deliberations form the basis for mutual respect and trust. The challenge is to create a context where people of different backgrounds actually talk and listen to one another” (Jenkins 246).


Standpoint Theory

       Patricia Hill Collins asserted the importance of positional stance, which she termed standpoint, to influence perception and experience.  A standpoint is a particular site of entry into the world that ultimately influences how the world is viewed and constructed socially.  A person’s particular standpoint, defined by how they are labeled within the larger language structure, impacts their angle of vision. For every category there exists a separate angle of vision, each distinctly different.  Further, no single group possesses a clear, all encompassing knowledge pertinent to all.  Collins proposes that to counteract ingrained socialietal bias, and ensure that all partial perspectives are given voice, we must essentially engage in ‘pivoting the center’ (477).  Standpoint theory, then, asserts the necessity that each group speaks from its own situated context and contribute their particular partial knowledge to the larger whole, centering upon the importance of open dialogue.  Varied experiences, and the countless ways in which the world is understood, illuminate the multitude of frameworks in operation.  The aim of standpoint theory is to actively avoid common impositions regarding the normative, through the sharing of language and thought particular to many groups.  Collectively, the constant shift in focus will give rise to a stronger and more complete outlook under which to effectively operate (477).

 “We don’t see things as they are.  We see them as we are”. ~ Anais Nin


The Ties Between Speech and Action

In her work The Human Condition, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote extensively on the primary link between knowing and doing, and speech and action. Arendt views the use of language as a qualitative tool that brings humans into existence as humans.  In silence we exist as mere scaffolding upon which others project themselves.  Mute, we lack the assertion of who we are, and remain, as such, unknowable.  It is through the use of language, written, verbalized, or otherwise, that we reveal ourselves to the world – it is the very vessel by which we come into being.

Acts of communication have strong inseparable ties to deeds.  Arendt postulates that speech, being the actualization of the human condition, is invaluable to the human performance of action.  Without the accompaniment of speech, action would lose all revelatory character (178). Through the coupling of articulation and performance, individuals more fully reveal who they are, as they are.  It is by means of these formulative collaborations that humans may dynamically unveil their unique personal identities and construct their appearance – casting it into the physical world (179).

Language must precede exertion; it acts as the conduit through which meaning is attained. “A life without speech and without action… is literally dead to the world,” Arendt writes (176).  We lack the insertion into the world that is necessary to begin being, when we fail to interact.  In silent stasis we cease existing as separate individuals among collective individuals.  Arendt asserts that to come into being is never possible in isolation, that we are deprived from this capacity in solitude.  “Action and speech need the surrounding presence of others…  action and speech are surrounded by and in constant contact with the web of acts and the words of other[s]” (188).  Our interrelatedness, and our interaction, allows for us to exist as we are.

Speech and action work to establish relationships, and as such have the expressed ability to counter-act limitations and “cut across boundaries” (190).   Together, the word and the act work to connect individuals to others.  Arendt writes:  “Interests constitute, in the word’s most literal significance, something which inter-est, which lies between people and therefore can relate and bind them together.  Most action and  speech is concerned with this in-between… this in-between is no less real than the world of things we visibly have in common. We call this reality the ‘web’ of human relationships, indicating by the metaphors its somewhat intangible quality (182-3).


Susan Sontag writes in Against Interpretation, “Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience.  All the conditions of modern life – its material plenitude, its sheer crowdness – conjoin to dull our sensory faculties (…) What is important now is to recover our senses.  We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more” (13-14).



All sound is inherently powerful. Speech is a form of sound that shares this common power. Like other sounds, it comes from within a living organism and is quite difficult to ignore.  Moreover, speech takes many forms.  Both McLuhan and Ong document the apparent re-emergence, in the electronic age, of a kind of ‘secondary orality’ that displaces written words with audio/visual technologies like radioTV and telephones. Unlike primary oral modes of communication, these technologies depend on print for their existence. Mass Internet collaborations like Wikipedia rely primarily on writing, but re-introduce relationships and responsiveness into the text.  However, in a truly oral culture the most reliable and trusted technique for learning is to share a close, empathetic, communal association with others who know. This hallmark principle of orality, that truth emerges best from communal process, continues to resonate today. 

Inspirational Quotes

On our blog you will find a varied and expansive running of collection of quotes that we have been compiling for our purposes.


c. The inspiration behind the name and message of the project

After much deliberation over the purpose and scope of our project we have reached the conclusion that for our class purposes we wished to create and design a storytelling project, an art project, whereby we do an excavation of the city and of literature (quotes and theory) – documenting as much as we can through photography.  In this approach we wish to go deeper into the myriad iterations sound and standpoint as our guiding theoretical principles, while using remix/cut-up as our techniques.

Our blog will serve the purpose of collecting all these inputs without requiring others to contribute. However, we still wish to leave the door open for contributions – be it to help us collect images in the streets or quotes and other inspirational material.  We decided to start with an emphasis on humanity and branch out from there.  Our guiding principles on this are mentioned throughout this document.


d.   The original and creative in the way we are approaching the project

Multi-sensorial experiences

Our starting point lies in the essence of sound. The universe is created by sound, our bodies and all form that inhabits the world are the material result of sound and vibrations that pulsate through the body. Sound creates physical reality. Even for the ones that cannot hear sound, the vibrations caused by sound resonate through the body and the mind’s amazing power fills in the rest.  Sounds are created by humanity in many different ways.  We wish to document this and remix, or curate our collection into a song the defamiliarizes the listeners.


“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with their song still in them”.  ~ Henry David Thoreau

Sources of Inspiration
Various artistic and grassroots projects have inspired us to create the This is What a Human Looks Like storytelling project. What all these examples have in common is a way of composing one meaningful end product through the collection, appropriation, and curation of small pieces of existing work from isolated individuals.  The Categorical Classifications  we use often interweave and overlap.  More sources of inspiration can also be found on our blog.

From Non-for-Profit Initiatives

From Literary Examples

  • The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin by William Burroughs, 1963. This is a cut and paste editing technique that allows writers, poets and artists alike to create collages of random thoughts. (
  • The Cut-Up Technique. ( “The cut-up technique is an aleatoryliterary technique in which a text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text. Most commonly, cut-ups are used to offer a non-linearalternative to traditional reading and writing.  The concept can be traced to at least the Dadaists of the 1920s, but was popularized in the late 1950s and early 1960s by writer William S. Burroughs, and has since been used in a wide variety of contexts. The cut-up and the closely associated fold-in are the two main techniques:
    • Cut-up is performed by taking a finished and fully linear text and cutting it in pieces with a few or single words on each piece. The resulting pieces are then rearranged into a new text.
    • Fold-in is the technique of taking two sheets of linear text (with the same linespacing), folding each sheet in half vertically and combining with the other, then reading across the resulting page.

From Artistic Examples

From Participatory Examples

  • New York Writes Itself is a storytelling platform that bills itself as “a production by the people of New York.” Based on the idea that NY is an ever-changing story, the site invites citizens of the city to register as “scribes.” Scribes are then asked to record conversations and observations about the city; these written records will then become part of the larger “script,” which will in turn be used to inform future productions, be it videos, art installations, posters, etc. (
  • The Global Lives Project is working to collaboratively build a video library of human life experience that reshapes how we as both producers and viewers conceive of cultures, nations and people outside of our own communities.(
  • We Feel Fine. An Exploration of Human Emotion, in Six Movements We Feel Fine is an exploration of human emotion on a global scale. At its core, We Feel Fine is an artwork authored by everyone. It will grow and change as we grow and change, reflecting what’s on our blogs, what’s in our hearts, what’s in our minds. We hope it makes the world seem a little smaller, and we hope it helps people see beauty in the everyday ups and downs of life. Jonathan Harris & Sep Kamvar May 2006 (

From Data Visualization Examples

IV. Semiology of the Project—Methodology, Project Mechanics,  Media Assets, Scope & Scale

After taking a step back and reflecting upon our project we began to brainstorm more refined ways of approaching our collaborative endeavor in light of this class, while looking for a an approach that would better help to ground us in our further pursuits. We have identified two main ways of using the various contributions of strangers. On one hand, you can request for voluntary contributions. Provoke them. Ask them to contribute to your project. What is called “User-generated-content” or “crowd-sourcing”. Here, you have an assignment. A task to be completed specifically for the project. Therefore, you should give them something in return. On the other hand, instead of requesting you appropriate you curate existing content, assigning new meaning. Your meaning. Your point-of-view. Remix, mash-up, cut-up. You don’t necessarily give the original creators something in return. In the end, theirs where involuntary contributions. They created their work for something else. You merely appropriated their creations and rearranged them to serve your own creative purpose.

Thinking about the way in which we sorted out our original project, we had a mix of both: 1. Request for voluntary contributions: The Twitter Hashtag, The stickers and provocative questions, and the main name of the project “Switch” – a call-to-action, an invitation; and 2. Appropriation of content: The photographs from the streets, and famous quotes, etc.

For this class we propose to focus on an excavation of the city and books:  collecting and curating (essentially appropriating) existing knowledge in order to amplify a positive meaning.

The This is What a Human Looks Like project will collect messaging by photographing signs of unity and humanity. The authors and curators of the project will navigate the streets of New York and beyond and will capture images containing messages of unity.  We will capture thoughts and hopes via photographing organic manifestations and graffiti art. We will also surf through books and literature capturing phases that represent our shared-belief.

The blog that was created for the long term manifestation of the project,, will still act as the sketchbook for these found images and literature. Eventually we may consider changing the name of this platform, however, this, we feel, is secondary. The blog is a medium, not an end to itself. It is our living archive: a gallery of messages, a place to store our co-findings, to share and to amplify. The blog is and will remain a wonderful, curated archive of our passions and discoveries.

V. Final Form

a. Expectation: a space to enable continuous collaboration and grounded in the principles of participation.


For our final project, we will count with a blog rich in content. This will enable us to curate all inputs and compose the song. The lyrics of the song will be the result of a collage of messages imprinted in photographs, and merged with famous quotes. We are also hoping to compose a melody for the song and potentially record a version – which will be posted to the blog.  Finally, we will explore the possibility of displaying some contents and the lyrics in a book format.

As we mentioned above, we very much wish for this to be a participatory project. We look forward to spurring interest, and thus feedback and creative contribution, from the class.  We also plan to collaborate with other visual and musical artists that we are connected with.  Eventually, this project could then potentially be submitted to other Visual Voices initiative platforms, in order to for us to garner further support, advice, feedback and amplification.

We will build and continuously populate the project’s blog, which will collect and showcase the messages captured through the above-described techniques (gallery of images, and gallery of quotes). The blog will also serve as a platform to track the progress of the project throughout the semester.

In addition, we have other exploratory and collaborative methods in mind that we might seek to implement.  For example, we are enthralled with the idea of projecting our Manifesto and/or Song Lyrics onto the walls of the city in order to document the reactions of those individuals who happen upon on our guerrilla communal space invasion.  This initiative might open up for us exciting and new dialogues around our project.

VI. Bibliography
An expansive working Bibliography can be found on our website  Our literary inspirations are quite varied and the list is lengthy.  For the purposes of this document we opted not to include our running database of texts.