It’s contrast that makes art interesting. Chiaroscuro, juxtaposition, or as Charles Atlas might call it, “Dynamic Tension,” whether in visual art, writing, or music. I noticed this recently in a superb story in The Atlantic — Earth Station: The Afterlife of Technology at the End of the World, by Alexis Madrigal.
Contrast is the basis of nearly all humor. We love it. Subversion, exaggeration, things that should not be but for some wacky reason are — it all works thanks to contrast. Three Stooges? Ridiculous. Grown, yet idiotic men slapping each other around? Pure genius.
It’s this kind of juxtaposition that establishes scale in our minds’ eyes, and it’s a very efficient way to deliver a punch. Why is it so dramatic when a rock band takes things down for a minute? It makes the heavy parts heavier. Just ask Black Sabbath. They weren’t known for being fast, but no one wielded mightier riffs for that time (and not much since). And when they did it slow, it had maximum impact.
Many times, Madrigal works contrast into the text: describing how small he is in the photograph he has his fiancé take of him outside the station (“at its base, I was almost too small to see”); showing some genuinely human yet long forgotten documents emerge from a backpack then go back again, across the creek with a couple of scavengers — or rather, heroes.
The contrasts in this story drive home the underlying theme, as Madrigal himself states:
That story is about how jagged technological advancement is. People received images from the moon feet from a saloon locals rode horses to.
From the moon to a saloon. There you go: contrast. (Also my favorite dive bar).
Yet in this contrast Madrigal shows a real connection, bound by geography. I would add to his description above that the story is also about connections: past-present, Chinese-American, lunar-saloonar… and as Madrigal elegantly phrases it, society and technology:
No technology stands outside society, and no society exists without the people who build it.
This point about connections is illustrated with the example of a utopian space colony described alongside the boring tedium required to make it possible:
Again: contrast, making connection happen as we take in the details.
It really hit me when I laid eyes on this photograph:
As I state in the article’s comments:
My jaw dropped upon scrolling to the image of the Chinese visiting. With the scene painted so vividly by the preceding text, I fully appreciate the enormity of what those files revealed, as I can imagine Mr. Madrigal also did, seeing through his lens what another photographer captured four decades ago. The contrasts between then and now are astounding, as are the connections.
-Wow, did I say that? Huh.
This is a fascinating read and I highly recommend taking a moment to enjoy it, noticing the contrasts and connections as you go. It’s great writing and an inspiring story. It certainly got me appreciating how far we’ve come with technology and how human we will always be.