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Cham highlights distortion’s role in art in the first of HEIGHTS’ Creative Talks for 2021

Kristine Torrente | Oct 27, 2021

Kickstarting this year’s virtual HEIGHTS Creative Talk Series was comic book creator and illustrator Rob Cham’s discussion on Warp and Shatter: Imagining Distortion and Art held last October 15, 2021. Based on his experience with distortion with his own body of work, his discussion focused on how distortion can be both a tool for good and bad as well as how he uses distortion in his own art. 

Distortion is neutral

For Cham, distortion is “often [a] disruption of original intent” that alters our perception of reality. He further explained that distortion is often associated with technology, as the internet can be used as a tool for misinformation and historical revisionism. Even something as simple as the way people are perceived online and how they really are in person is a form of distortion that Cham believes can be found on the Internet.

Cham extends the discussion on distortion and how it can be used in art through the allegories of Plato’s cave and the story of the elephant, showing the inevitability of distortion. Despite this, he says that there is something at the core of distortion that can be used for good. 

According to Cham, art distorts reality through its own means as it symbolizes what can be seen and what is imagined. Art distorts as it abstracts, condenses, and manipulates human experience into something that is still real. In emphasizing this notion, he shares an idea from Filipino American cartoonist Lynda Barry that our memories serve as a recreation of events, but we don’t get all the details right. “When you think about your memory, it’s sort of us doing recreation,” he says, “When you remember something you’re actually recreating what has happened to you in your imagination. We know it happened, but also it can be distorted in a way.” As a result, distortion breeds creativity. 

Distortion often has a negative connotation, as it is seen as a product of corruption. However, Cham believes that distortion is inevitable and can even breed creativity. (Natania Shay Du/HEIGHTS Online)

Distortion and communication

Ultimately, art is a form of communication. “History of art is how we converse with each other; writing, theater, dance; it is all for us to tell stories,” Cham said. He reiterates that art is about saying something by delivering a message in the most succinct way possible while also allowing varied ways to perceive our reality. In this manner, we distort our reality to tell a story, and this distortion helps us find out truths. He explains, “Distortion is how we glean on an object, see what worth it has and incorporate it on ourselves.”

Going back to how the internet is a tool for distortion, he discusses how the internet has also become a microcosm of art movements through meme history. The worldbuilding present in memes is something that can be understood immediately. This is because, as memes mimic art history, “we latch onto the messages it sends us and we add our own spin to them.” In this process, we distort art into something unrecognizable because we wish to find a deeper truth while sharing a connection with other people. This is done by taking different bits of reality and condensing them into something digestible.

Iterations of "The Treachery of Images" by René Magritte throughout art and meme history are examples of how art can be distorted to add to the meaning of the original work. (Natania Shay Du/HEIGHTS Online)

How Cham incorporates distortion in his art

Cham reminds the audience that there are rules you can break in art. He cites comics as a distortion of reality that emulates those closest to him in memory. He shares that his two graphic novels, “Light” and “Lost”, were about certain points in his life. He shares that communicating with words has always been difficult for him, and as a result, his graphic novels have no dialogue. This is a particular feature of comics he likes: their ability to immerse a reader and form a connection with the audience despite the lack of words.

Following this, he shares how he fell in love with art and comics as a kid. He shares that it gave him something he didn’t get in real life and that the stories were bigger than him. What began as a form of escapism for Cham became his form of self-expression. He began making and sharing his own autobiographical comics to help him navigate life and make sense of what was there and what was not. 

"Lost" started as a commentary on the nature of comics, but evolved into a continuation of the story in Cham's previous book "Light". In "Lost", Cham reckons with his own personal experience of losing touch with the people closest to him. (Natania Shay Du/HEIGHTS Online)

Distorting truths

When  asked by a member of the audience on combating distortion in art used with malicious intent, Cham replied, “There’s a difference between satire and propaganda; you have to understand what distortion is being used. Speak truth to power.” 

Another member of the audience asked if there is such a thing as an artwork that adheres to revealing the absolute truth of the subject matter and not just a distortion or interpretation of the subject matter. “There is no absolute truth you can aim for,” Cham explained. “There’s a distortion but there’s truth to what you do and what people should know about. Absolute truth is not something you should aim for.” 

Cham was then asked by a member of the audience if distortion is neutral. “Distortion isn’t a force that has willpower, it just happens, it’s not good or bad, it’s how people use it that makes it not neutral,” he responded. 

To wrap up the question-and-answer portion, Cham responded to the last question raised by an audience member about whether distortion is a technique or message in a work that has to be thought of purposefully beforehand or if it can also be something that comes up while the piece is being made. He reiterated that art provides you with multiple perspectives of simulating reality. “Distortion is a technique, you don’t have to think of it purposefully. There are a lot of ways that art helps you improve what you want to say,” he said to end the discussion.

Altogether, Cham views distortion as the way individuals uniquely perceive their reality. Distortion is neither good nor bad as there are always truths behind it;  it is up to the artist and their intention to use distortion how they want. Ultimately, he shares that distortion is a technique among many others to help an artist get their message across. 

The talk concludes with a short picture-taking with all the participants who attended via Zoom. (Andrea Tibayan/HEIGHTS Online)

Poster by Eli Alconis

Discourses of distortion are imperative in interrogating truths. The call for contributions for the first issue (Distortion) of HEIGHTS’ double issue is still ongoing. Read the full statement here: bit.ly/Heights69thCFC

To continue this discourse by exploring confrontation in literature, join the last two Creative Talks on this series on Truths. Register here: bit.ly/TruthsCTRegistration

Written by

Kristine Torrente

HEIGHTS Online Staffer, 2021-2022

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Art by

Eli Alconis

Design Staffer, 2021-2022

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