Without Context

You may be familiar with the phrase, content is king, and now others may suggest that curation is king. In this proposed hierarchy, where does context stand? Is the context of a piece not what makes the content or act of curation even possible? While I’d love to suggest context is king, I so often experience its very transient nature.

Context seems to be omnipresent, always there and bounded to the work but only choosing when and who to present itself to. Firstly, what is context? I often regard context as the ideal because it holds with it the evidence or necessities for understanding. It’s defined as “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.” Similarly, context in a literal sense is the immediate surroundings which inform the whole so it may “clarify its meaning.”

Everything you create, write, say, speak or even think, is bound in context. Nothing exists in isolation, thus it’s the context—the intention, the motivation, the meaning—which ultimately defines our work. With that being said, context’s transient nature derives from its ability to take on new context, leave some behind, or to change context entirely.

Your work will be taken out of context. That is the nature of our world now. Rather than babying your work and insisting the proper context for it everywhere it roams, you must learn to let it go and to experience the world. While I dish out this advice, I admit I’ve struggled with exactly that. Much of my work is deeply rooted in personal experience and expression, so when it’s digested or shared without it’s intended context, I fear an integral piece of that work is missing.

Last year I had created a piece which read “Watch the sunrise every day,” and had written about how watching the sunrise is a kind of worldly experience we can all have daily. When other accounts went on to share this piece, they didn’t include my writing. Instead, the piece was left to be digested without context. As a result, people scoffed at the sentiment.

In similar fashion, I created another piece one year ago which read “Don’t be fooled, time is worthless.” Most are familiar with the phrase, “time is money,” and this piece was in seemingly direct opposition of that. My writing which accompanied the piece explained how time which isn’t utilized isn’t of monetary value, thus making the utilization of time valuable not time in an of itself. As the story goes, the piece is shared but my writing which provides the context for the piece isn’t. Once again, people scoffed at my message and addressed me as the fool.

More recently, I created a piece which read, “Growth is a love poem and you are a garden.” This piece is a derivative of my heart—something very personal. Admittedly, I shared no context with it when I posted it. Considering this was intended to be read as a line of poetry, I had made the decision to leave it upon the readers to decipher and interpret it—for them to establish their own context around it. When it was shared elsewhere, most people shared a similar reaction as the previous examples. “This doesn’t make sense,” was far too common.

As a piece which I hold so dear to my heart, seeing things like this was difficult at first, but rarely is my work ever shared with any sort of context and so I’ve grown comfortable in seeing how my work reacts to the world without me there to hold its hand.

With this all being said, what I’ve learned is that you can’t take context for granted. When it comes to your work, you may not always be able to control its context, but it’s still very important to take the time to contextualize it. It’s a very rare occasion that you get to control the context in which your work is delivered or digestion, so when you are given that opportunity it becomes ever important to do so with care. When you’re sharing your own work, give context. When you’re presenting work to a client, contextualize the work. When you present a case study, context delivers intention.

So is context king? No, context is far from king. With that, why in history is the king rarely and truly held in such high regard? Instead, I’d suggest that context is more jester—always changing, eyes and ears on the inside and out, devilishly smiling, and at the end of the day, a source of laughter. Whether our laughter is a means of commentary about ourselves is for us to decide.