Thursday, April 5, 2007

Tihs is Not a Typo

Many years ago, when I was hanging out on the Compuserve Graphics Forum, I got into a little set-to with the sysops. I was playing with my then new hand scanner, and I uploaded a scan of a sketch/cartoon Dale Enzenbacher had made of me:

The sysop objected to the not-exactly-a-word “Sh*t.” Actually, the asterisk I’m using here was one of those stylized atom symbols, but you get the idea.

I thought the guy was being prissy at best, and censorious generally. Well, anyway, we had an exchange, in public, with me, among other things, observing that he was making it out to be worse than it was, and not letting the other members of the Forum make their own judgments about it. Tough titty, was more or less his response, minus the “titty” part, of course.

So I then proceeded to prepare a series of graphics images, each of which had, one way or another, the word “shit” in them somewhere or somehow. These little rebellions were not, however, easy to spot, and not a single one of them was ever rejected. In fact, for most of them, it was impossible to spot, because I’d camouflaged or otherwise encoded the offensive word.

The easiest way was to put the word in, then change the color palette value for the color of the letters to match the background. In order to see the word, you had to either change the one color, or color cycle the palette.

You can also see the message if you download it, then use something like Irfanview to shift the color palatte.

A variant of that was to take the color difference down to the subliminal threshold, then put a lot of other noise around it. Again, impossible to see unless you were looking for it.

Then there was the image of the brick wall that I made with the words “This is Art” spelled out in differing sizes, colors, etc., except that one of the hardest to see ones had the letters in “This” rearranged.

A more obvious one, but one that still got through:

I did many more of these than I uploaded, because, knurd that I am, I was getting more interested in the process than the actual dispute that had begun it. I’d proved my point, a proof confined more-or-less to myself alone, unless someone else had noticed, and if anyone did, they were obviously on my side, since they never told the sysop. But I was branching out into more intricate and arcane methods of the “secret message” trick.

There are, in fact, a plethora of methods of putting secret messages into graphics files generally. One trick is to modify the least significant digit on a pixel color code, then use that modification to encode your message. You need a “reference” image to get the difference off, and it helps to first do a compression (like the LZW encoding that used on Zip files), which makes your message look like noise. If you want, you can just have the reference be a solid color, so your message then looks like noise or static, or something like it, and if you have an image where that sort of texture is appropriate, then Bob’s your Uncle.

There was a crank book called “Subliminal Seduction” by Wilson Bryan Key (1974) that claimed all sorts of “subliminal messages” were contained in various advertisements, especially subliminal sexual messages. The fact is that subliminal images have less effect than overt, visible images, but there are all sorts of paranoias, and this one fed the notion that people were being all sexed up by invisible images bombarding them from all sides. Think of the children!

After playing around with my secret message images for a while, I had the notion of using some of those tricks on pornographic images, writings, etc. I’ll bet you could get a lot of free publicity for a “Subliminal Sex” art exhibition, where maybe only two thirds of the works actually had any sexual content, even of the subliminal kind, so the prissy folks would be getting headaches staring at a black canvas that contained a subliminal image of a puppy, and thinking it was erotic.

I think it would be more trouble that it would be worth to me, but if there are any artists out there who are hungry for notoriety, you know how to get in touch.


JP Stormcrow said...

A strange variant on this is the poem "The Recollection" by John Bishop Peale. Don't know if it will show up in this format, but the first letters of each line spell out Fuck You Half Ass. He was a legitimate poet, and I have never heard an explanation.

Famously she descended, her red hair
Unbound and bronzed by sea-reflections, caught
Crinkled with sea-pearls. The fine slender taut
Knees that let down her feet upon the air,
Young breasts, slim flanks and golden quarries were
Odder than when the young distraught
Unknown Venetian, painting her portrait, thought
He'd not imagined what he painted there.

And I too commerced with that golden cloud:
Lipped her delicious hands and had my ease
Faring fantastically, perversely proud.

All loveliness demands our courtesies.
Since she was dead I praised her as I could
Silently, among the Barberini bees.

James Killus said...

Ray Russell used a similar trick in his novel The Colony. There's a writer who dies of brain cancer (happy thoughts, happy thoughts), and leaves instructions to carve some poetry on his tombstone. There are seven lines, and the first letters spell out "Fuck You." I should locate the book; the poem is substantially different from Peale's, though obviously of the same ultimate sentiment.