Blog: Mark Tucker

Are you visually illiterate? Don't know what that means? Mark Tucker, founder and Creative Director of the Street Theater Art (START) Project and the annual Festifools event, would love to explain it to you. He blogs this week about public art, community/university engagement, and improving Ann Arbor's visual literacy.

Mark Tucker - Post 1: What's Your Visual Literacy

I'm writing this just a few days before our 4th annual FestiFools event takes place again on Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor.  On the surface, this town/gown event has become a combination Spring social outing and Giant Puppet public art extravaganza (this year FestiFools takes place Sunday, April 11th from 4-5pm).

However underneath this fun, exuberant exterior exists a unique mission of public art creation and accessibility. A mission which takes a merely decorative idea --"Let's make a giant puppet!" -- to a more imaginative level by using tools of visual literacy to deliver a message, or variety of messages (as opposed to just making a pretty object) through the creative medium of large scale puppetry or "animated actors".

When Jeff Meyers called me up and asked me to write a blog for this publication, I was hesitant. I rarely blog, and I really didn't think FestiFools was a bloggable (is that a word?) topic. I mean, where's the controversy? But when Jeff said this was an opportunity to write about any kind of "Big Idea" that I might want to open up for discussion, I took the bait. I've always wanted to address a topic that's rarely discussed, but which formed the basis for one of the main reasons why FestiFools was created in the first place; to help shine a spotlight on visual literacy. Or more accurately, to help find a cure for visual illiteracy. Yes, a cure.

Visual literacy has never been measured on a large scale in the way that verbal literacy has, and I don't know why, especially since it's so easy to do. For instance, here's a simple visual literacy test that almost any 5-12 year old can accomplish with ease: Pick up a piece of paper and a pencil or crayon, look in the mirror, and draw yourself. Most adults, however, will balk at this request and say something like, "I can't even draw a stick figure." (Sound familiar?) I've even heard professors and deans at the university level say this. What they think they are saying is, "I don't have the hand-eye coordination, nor 'talent,' to be able to accomplish this task (but I applaud those who do.)" In fact, what they are really saying is, "I am visually illiterate."

Conversely, if a disproportionate number of top brass at major universities were to stand up and say, "I don't know how to write a complete sentence (but I admire those that can)," I guarantee you that this would get some attention. In fact, if just one president of a university were to claim to be verbally illiterate, it would be unfathomable. But mention visual illiteracy and most people don't even know what you're talking about. Just like someone who can't read or write would have difficulty imagining what it must be like to get lost in a book, people who aren't able to understand their visual surroundings cannot begin to comprehend the vital parts of their imaginations which they are simply not able to access.

FestiFools is a tool through which  community members and students get together to create and appreciate the magic that takes place when one's growing visual literacy spurs the imagination necessary for traveling to uncharted creative territories. Creative tools, like FestiFools, are necessary more than ever now that arts programs are being eliminated from most school budgets and individual and collaborative creativity in our communities continues to dwindle--all of this makes fertile ground for corporations who make creative "stuff" to swoop in and capitalize on our innate need to "own" creativity, even if we can't make it ourselves anymore (or don't think we have the capacity to do so).

Instead of actually being creative we're trading in our true creative potential, abilities, and identity for an imitation creative experience (via  expensive plastic boxes, controllers, and video screens, for instance).

Handing over our creative potential to someone else can have long term damaging effects. FestiFools sets out to try to steer the creative boat in the opposite direction, to give back to our community our creative ability to speak, to express things about our culture that are important to us, and to hopefully cure the ills that occur when we only allow others to "speak" for us.