On Pegs, Plagiarism, Copying, and Creativity
Until I worked at a magazine here in the Philippines, I had no idea what a peg was. "Bring pegs" was the usual mandate for editorial meetings, at which I realized that pegs were simply mood boards, visual inspirations evoking the look and feel one was hoping to achieve. I came to learn that pegs were a necessary communication tool when you're trying to explain something to your colleagues or your clients. Why struggle with painting a scenery of words like, "an artless, in-your-face, almost point-and-shoot style, with models who look like they've had the privilege of fellating the photographer," when slideshowing a Terry Richardson shoot would do. Or coming up with a complicated backstory when stills from a '70s art film already tell you everything that's involved, from the lighting to the hairstyles to the pose.
Still, there is a fine line between inspiration and outright copying, and everything in between is still around fifty shades of cliche.
Those whose lives are run by social media are all about the peg. Tumblr is dedicated to the reblogging of pretty pictures, popular amongst the Millennials, while Pinterest exists for the frustrated homemaker/future bride/cupcake baker in us women. And Instagram gives us realtime access to the contents of our favorite people's iPhones. We have an idealized vision of ourselves, as we always have since we started pinning up posters of our heroes. The kids who go out to party these days are preternaturally camera-ready, in fact entire nights out are planned around the Facebook photos that will surface the next day, and they're plotted and set-designed and posed to look like a Lana Del Rey music video. It's all in the name of fun, and it's a way of creatively engaging with the tyranny of the digital image. Life is art, and art always references that which has come before.
Still, there is a fine line between inspiration and outright copying, and everything in between is still around fifty shades of cliche. Some people took exception to an Esquire Philippines cover that was styled like Esquire US' Robert Downey Jr. cover. It was a visual reference as well as branding extension, in the way that McDonalds has localized versions of the tagline "I'm lovin' it," as artist JP Cuison pointed out on an online thread. I am loathe to use a McDonalds analogy so I'd like to think of it as mining an archive, like how a new head designer of say, Lanvin or Givenchy would bring back certain designs, prints or silhouettes that the house has used in the past. It's not "original" in the sense of being totally new, but it still reinvigorates and strengthens the brand's identity.
It is true, however, that the image-making industry has become too dependent on pegs. I was at a shoot where the photographer and stylist were directing the talent on how to pose, what to do, what to wear, as they do. At one point, the talent pulled out of the shoot, claiming that "this wasn't in the pegs." Whoa, I didn't realize that pegs were grid-iron rules that had to be adhered too. How would creativity flow? Another instance, a photographer asked me for pegs for an assignment. I told him, "Bro, you got free rein. Just shoot it well," and he was very happy to hear that. But now even writers are asking for writing pegs. Which is understandable in that they would like to reduce the amount of rewriting asked by their editors, but will they really be able to deliver Norman Mailer-meets-Tom Wolfe, and should editors even expect them to?
Just leave your TV on for a bit and you'll see local ads very obviously predicated upon the latest trendy international music video. They're tapping into the zeitgeist, yes, but they're also just lazily riding on the wave of something that has already proven hopelessly catchy.
Just leave your TV on for a bit and you'll see local ads very obviously predicated upon the latest trendy international music video (Call me maybe much?) They're tapping into the zeitgeist, yes, but they're also just lazily riding on the wave of something that has already proven hopelessly catchy. When cultural artifacts become cultural memes—and can I just add, apropos of nothing, that I also greatly dislike the use of the word "viral" as a verb—the origin dissolves into the distance. The question then to ask is not who came up with it first, but who did it best. Versions, inversions, subversions.
A noted commercial director who works here and abroad tells me that he uses pegs mainly to sell something to a client, since clients usually cannot visualize the director's presentation. It is rare when they completely trust the director, so pegs are important for clarification. "I do a lot of research with pegs, even when I'm not on a specific project," he says, "just to see what other people are doing, how some brands are developing. It's part of a 'greater conversation,' and it also helps understand where one stands and can go."
We don't work in a vacuum, and we know the average troller on Google can call any guilty parties out on plagiarism. It has in fact become some sort of an easter egg hunt of spotting the similarities, or checking off the allusions, if the piece is more arty/literary. (I am not condoning plagiarism by the way, I think it's pretty obvious when something is plagiarized and when something is given homage). Pegs are the wooden leg we stand on—take them away and we will float off in a world with no signifiers. It just so happens that if you create something awesome, people are going to want to try and copy it, over and over. In the act of copying is the process of recreation, and thus learning. We learn by repetition, but we become by the differences within these repetitions.
We also like to talk about life pegs—people, usually celebrities we would like to mold our lives, bodies or wardrobes after. I haven't really decided on mine yet, but sometimes I say Angelina Jolie, because I think I should strive to be a skinny UN Ambassador type with a dark past and a hot babydaddy. Of course, it's probably more realistic to peg my life on someone more accessibly human, like Lana Del Rey. Hey, I'm just taking part in the greater conversation.
This article was originally published in the August 2012 issue of Esquire Philippines.