Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Visual Narrative

Visual Narrative (henceforth—‘VN’) is a term taken for granted to mean (quite rightly) -- a combination of the two words ‘Visual’ and ‘Narrative’. If one tries looking up the definition of the term ‘Visual Narrative’, chances are that one may not find it ; and yet VN is a topic under which intensive research has been happening over the past decades. One may not have heard of a specialized field or department called VN but one most certainly must be acquainted with terms such as -- Narrative Art, Visual storytelling, Films, Pictorial stories, Illustrated stories, Comics, Sequential art, History Painting, Animation etc. What binds the above mentioned areas is the fact that they are all essentially explorations into visuals that tell stories. I have in my paper On Defining Visual Narratives demonstrated that individual research areas (such as the ones mentioned above) that conduct independent research are in fact various forms of VNs. In doing so the paper establishes VN as a distinct category of Visual and Narrative Studies. Furthermore, the paper proposes three types of VNs -- ‘Static Visual Narrative’, ‘Dynamic Visual Narrative’, and ‘Interactive Visual Narrative (henceforth—SVN, DVN and IVN) as sub genres of VNs.
In this space I propose to discuss ideas about VNs and their sub types.
I shall begin by first explaining what a VN is

What is a Visual Narrative?

The distinctive feature of the VN is the presence of a story. Thus a VN must be a visual that tells a story. VN can be defined as a visual that essentially and explicitly narrates a story; where –
Visual signifies – something that can be seen using the human eye.
Story signifies – a series of events linked by causality, temporality or sequence or the order of occurrence.
Narrative signifies – the act of telling a story or the story itself or the order of presentation.  
Creation of Adam

The painting from the Sistine Chapel is an example of a VN. The story that forms the content in this VN is ‘The creation of Adam and Eve’. It is narrated over three scenes and one of these scenes is what we see in the image above. Visual Narrative (VN) is synonymous with visual stories, narrative images, picture stories, narrative pictures.

The characteristic features of a VN are:
1. The presence of a story is the most essential feature of the VN. The story itself could belong to any genre: fiction, mythology, fairy tale, folklore, fables, or religious stories. The VN from the Sistine Chapel is a biblical story revolving around the creation of man.

2. The visual is constructed with the idea of communicating a story to the onlooker. 

3. There is a presence of actors (participants). An Actor is a character in the story who performs an action. It is the most essential component of the VN. The most commonly used method of recognizing a VN is through identifying the actor or the situation that the actors in a visual build up. In the Sistine Chapel VN the figures of Adam and God If the actor is absent from the VN the visual would be incapable of representing an event. This rule however is not applicable if the image in question is part of a series of images that tell the story for e.g. comic strips.The entire series of images that from the comic strip is a VN.

4. The VN has a ‘universe’  of its own. The participants or actors exist in a virtual story world i.e. a universe that mimics the real or imagined world but is different from the viewer’s world. The participants of the story exist in this universe that has its own time deixis and spatial dimensions. 

5. The story is composed of events arranged in time.

6. A VN could be expressed on any medium such as on paper, in the form of a stone sculpture, an object or an electronic device.

7. A VN is genre independent. 

Examples of VNs
Alice in Wonderland on the iPad tells the story of Alice's Adventure in Wonderland
Greek Painted pottery that tells the story of Hercules, show here is the scene where Hercules wrestles Antaeus

Sculpture from Ellora India; showing Ravana attempting to lift Mount Kailasa, story from Hindu Mythology

A still from the film Harry Potter (fantasy / fictional story) viewed on TV

To elucidate further we can say that any visual that is represented with an idea to communicate a story to the onlooker qualifies as a VN. In some cases the onlooker may fail to relate to the story presented due to a number of reasons such as differences in culture, context, language, etc. The fact that the onlooker does not know the story does not nullify the narrative quality of that visual. A good example to illustrate the point being made is a sculptural relief on a Hindu temple. A person coming from a different religious background may not be able to identify the story depicted but the sculpture will still be called a VN as it does tell a story. Similarly certain cave paintings could be VNs as they may have had oral stories (for instance -- about how a group of hunters succeeded at capturing a particularly difficult prey) attached to them which are now lost. 
By defining the VN we wish to mark the peculiarity from other visuals where a story can be imposed onto the visual. Visuals that fall under the VN Category are-
1. Visuals where the story depicted is expected to be so well known within the context that it does not require an accompanying text. For example murals & sculptures in temples, churches, paintings / engraving on objects. 
2. Visual where the story accompanies the visual in written or aural form. e.g. comics, animated films, illustrated books, motion pictures.

Visual Narratives are a universally occurring phenomenon. They exist across media, history, genre and culture.

Visual Narratives can be further classified into three main types.
1. Static Visual Narratives - SVN
2. Dynamic Visual Narratives - DVN
3. Interactive Visual Narratives - IVN