(Hyperlinked version: http://tinyurl.com/dx5dwsb Images discussed:
New Literacies for a New Aesthetic?
by Trebor Scholz
As a ten year-old, passing by the Forbidden City of the East German
Head of State and his functionaries sparked my imagination. The walled
complex, tucked away in a forested area near Berlin, was guarded by an
armed division of the Stasi, named after the founder of the Soviet
secret service Felix Dzerzhinsky. Back then, you couldn’t Google for
images of this residential compound; Pinterest, Google Earth, and
civilian drones were not around. And even if they were available,
there was no grassroots way of mass-reproducing images or texts. After
the implosion of the German Socialist Republic in 1989, however,
reports about this forest settlement surfaced. My top pick of all
stories is that about one apparatchiks’ secret closet filled with
Salvador Dali paintings, financed by public funds.
Months later, early in 1990, those who celebrated their newly found
freedom of movement by grabbing a map of the German-German border
region to hike westward found themselves led astray in mysterious ways
as the border area was purposefully misrepresented on East German maps
to deceive those who wanted to escape.
Images invade our consciousness. They can bear witness when words are
used up. They can mobilize, gratify and inform. They can be put to
work as evidence, argument, accusation, and proof. Images can help us
to make sense of our surroundings. We surrender to the onslaught of
images; sometimes the anti-punctum: senseless, lackadaisically
composed, and extraneous. But images also fail us: the overabundance
of visual material desensitizes.
In 2006, Ethan Zuckerman investigated a 45 page PDF that circulated
among Bahrainis. It uses images from Google Earth to ask uncomfortable
questions about land allocation in Bahrain, you know, the small island
state east of Saudi Arabia. One image in particular shows the
extravagant palaces of the King, built on confiscated public land,
next to the packed living quarters of citizens. Protests ensued and
the Bahraini government temporarily blocked Google Earth.
Over the last five years something has changed when we consider
digitally-produced images. Many claims to pictorial novelty have been
made. And they concern more than a bunch of cool-looking stuff on
Pinterest, an online pinboard. I remember going through shoe boxes of
photos in my grandmother’s house, noticing that the black and white
photos of my grandfather had a tiny cut-out circle on his jacket,
dubiously just in the place where he may have worn his party pin.
Visuality in the early decades of the 21st century is not merely about
image manipulation software though, it is about entirely new attitudes
In the early years of the 21st century, the collection of essays
Imagery in the 21st Century, edited by Oliver Grau with Thomas Veigl
sets out to understand what will constitute an image, and what are
novel ways to generate, project, and distribute pictures.
Imagery in the 21st Century resulted from a conference that Oliver
Grau convened. It traverses the disciplinary divides between art
history, anthropology, and cell biology, focusing on: the ecological
and ethical dimensions of screen technologies (Sean Cubitt), a course
on image practices in the university (James Elkins), machinima
aesthetics (Thomas Veigl), medical illustration (Dolores and David
Steinman), the obsession with source code (Wendy Hui Kyong Chun),
novel cultural interfaces (Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau),
the museum as Noah’s Arc (Peter Weibel), and the Warburg Image Atlas
for a digital age (Martin Warnke).
At first, I asked myself, what holds the twenty chapters in this book
together. What do all the puzzle pieces add up to? An analysis of
contemporary imagery felt like an uncomfortably all-embracing
ambition. John Berger, for example, focused on the way oil paintings
primarily reflected on the status of those who commissioned the
artwork. What are we talking about when we are thinking about
contemporary visuality? The advent of infographics, games, CCTV,
animated gifs, art generated by algorithms, histograms, 4D
visualizations, or Instagram? Constructively, the authors reflect on
imagery not merely through the lens of a specific device, genre,
social practice, or social function, and it becomes clear that image
literacy can no longer be the exclusive domain of art historians. But
are we really, as the book suggests, amidst an image revolution? “The
curse of the ‘perpetually new’ is perpetual,” Bruce Sterling writes.
What, then, is so subversive or new? A Tumblr image collection might
help to answer. Curated by James Bridle, the tumblr received quite a
bit of attention recently with articles in the Atlantic, Wired and a
panel at SXSW titled The New Aesthetic. Beyond the claims to newness,
it is self-evident that many of the eye-catching images in the
collection could not have been created in, say, 1993. In Bridle’s
collection, Ian Bogost discovered a screenshot of a “list of tweets
announcing the surprising discovery that the Titanic was a real
ocean-liner and not just a film.” But there are also maps: Planned
Parenthood gave out sixty thousand condoms with QR codes that lead you
to a website which asks you to check-in with information about how and
where the condom was used.
Many of the technologies that generated the images on Bridle’s tumblr
are still emergent. Unsurprisingly, they show that digital aesthetic
is seeping into architecture and fashion.
Over the weekend, my colleague McKenzie Wark fired off a series of
tweets about the “new new aesthetic of the tumblresque.” He tweets:
The #tumblresque is not John Berger’s Ways of Seeing but sprays of seeing.
The #tumblresque wants to see you naked.
The #tumblresque is a bedroom wall big enough for every teenager on
The #tumblresque is one, two, a thousand Cindy Shermans.
Wark shows what is at play in this “#pinteresque” image collection.
Thinking about contemporary visuality, there is something lost in
comparison to the quirky online aesthetic of the 1990s. With the
emergence of centralized platforms like LiveJournal and Blogger, net
aesthetics became a big mush of networked sameness, facilitated by
template mania. No more experimental, handmade, and surprising
buttons to even enter the site. Today, creativity and experimentation
on the Internet are not dead but they have moved onto platforms like
Today, visual culture invades societies that are largely unprepared.
We surrender. Appropriately, one important axis of discussion in
Imagery in the 21st Century concerns the question of much-needed image
literacies. The editors aspire to extract a crosscutting literacy that
can catch the elusive phenomena of contemporary visuality. Grau calls
for an image competency for our culture that is still largely
dominated by writing. Do we speak the language of the image?
Illiteracy, Grau suitably suggests, has largely been overcome in most
countries but the inability to interpret images adequately, has not
been sufficiently considered.
For me, a cohesive program for image literacy would comprise seven key
competencies. It’d entail an understanding of 1) the material
foundation of digital images (and its ecological implications), 2) an
understanding of the
technical processes involved in their making, 3)
their historical references, and 4) the fundamental data literacy (the
ability to interpret scientific imagery). It’s time to look under the
shiny hood of images. And that includes the capability for a political
decoding of long tail images, which is my fifth point.
Image literacy needs to be more than fuzzy judgment. Can you give
nuanced interpretations of QR codes, 3D renderings, complex graphs,
visualizations, technical pictures like x-rays, face detection, MRIs,
mammograms or mathematical images? With the gaming industry
economically outperforming the film sector, it becomes harder to
ignore image practices like machinima (i.e., technology to produce
films in computer games).
Images become findable if properly tagged but which images can we
access, copy, or use? Image literacy is also about intellectual
property and fair use; that is my 6th bullet point.
Images and code, both have a tight grip on us. 7) Image literacy
should also be about a basic understanding of the principles of
programming. Douglas Rushoff makes an eloquent case for that in
Program or be Programmed. “If you don’t understand the software, you
are the software,” Rushkoff poses. Students don’t have to become
industry-strength programmers but they should all be able to converse
with programmers. On a foundational level, they should comprehend the
workings of information architectures.
With the proliferation of digitization, we are inundated with heaps of
information. In this Age of Big Data, the ever growing pile of data
becomes unknowable as David Weinberger and others have pointed out.
There are ever more data but fewer theories to make sense of them. The
world has become harder to know. Visualization, aggregation, curation
and the filtering of data become core competencies not only for
designers but also for journalists, scholars, artists, and scientists.
There is no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter
failure, as Clay Shirky declared. This is also true when it comes to
“abuses of the visual,” as James Elkins put it referring to
compulsively created, senseless images. Oliver Grau and Thomas Veigl
demand new forms of visualization to face this explosion of knowledge.
The artist Robert Smithson in the narration of his series of
photographs titled “Hotel Palenque,” most insightfully and poetically
demonstrates image literacy, for me. In his quick-witted and
perceptive talk to architecture students at the University of Utah’s
School of Art in 1972, Smithson discusses a peculiar hotel in
Palenque, Mexico that decayed on one side while still being renovated
on the other. In his talk he put forward the notion of “ruins in
For me, the visual should not merely connect us to the sciences, as
Elkins suggests, but also to the political power of images. Think of
the work of the British cultural critic Judith Williamson (e.g.,
Decoding Advertising), the artworks by Alfredo Jaar, Emily Jacir,
Trevor Paglen or Alan Sekula. Or, take the recently published book
Right To Look, in which Nicholas Mirzoeff argues that “visuality has
been central to the legitimization of Western hegemony.” Such
discussion of global image power as political force is indispensable.
In his chapter in Imagery in the 21st Century, “Visual Practices the
University: A Report,” James Elkins suggests that today, learning
mainly happens through images.
Already in 1924, the German art historian and cultural theorist Aby
Warburg used arrangements of images from distant times and places. In
his Mnemosyne-Atlas he combines images to create meaning. In fact,
Warburg’s writing is hard to understand without comprehending his
James Elkins quotes Henry Hutchens, one of the principal founders of
the University of Chicago who in The University of Utopia (1964)
argued that nothing should be taught in the university except
philosophy. I concur with Elkins here, the study of the visual is
erroneously sidelined, shelved in art history departments.
Do images really push themselves in front of words, as Elkins
claims? Have words hopelessly deteriorated? The editors argue along
those lines: “It would appear that images have won the contest with
words.” (p6) Indeed, long-form platforms like WordPress grow slower
than short-form writing and image sharing through micro-blogging
services. The image sharing board Pinterest grows at an explosive
rate. An Instagram photos make sharing even faster than tweets. But
thinking of the media representation of the Rwandan genocide in 1994
or the Kosovo War in 1999- images failed to make these atrocities
vivid enough; they did not do very much. Susan Sontag concludes that
narrative and contextual framing establish more meaning than images.
But luckily learning in colleges and universities is still largely
based on texts. Part of my responsibility as a professor is to bring
students into the intimate, delicious sphere of reading. The visuality
of Khan Academy’s hand-written lectures on videos is an interesting
hybrid. But still, we largely discover the universe through words. The
long sentence is worth defending against the click-click moments of
the networked cacophony.
There are many accounts that professors assign shorter readings than
they used to five years ago. This does not indicate, however, that
today’s students are simply sub-standard but it does signify that
there is more going on in students’ lives. Reading habits change when
students have to work longer hours to keep their student loans at bay.
Sean Cubitt’s in his chapter “Current Screens” instructs us to
consider specifically the ethical-ecological layer of discussions
about screen technologies. Her emphasizes that our culture is highly
material, especially when you consider the ecological footprint of the
raw materials. LCD screens, for example, are poorly biodegradable and
potentially significant water contaminants. Sean Cubitt demands that
next steps cannot be achieved without respect for the poor and for the
Sean Cubitt suggests that in the haste to populate our lives, the
screens we have opted for are good enough instead of the best
possible. Which trajectories of technological development become
abandoned and what kind of social and political capacities and
performances would they have suggested? Cubitt’s essay also reminded
me of the fact that an avatar in the virtual world Second Life
consumes as much electricity as a real life person in Brazil. The
“immaterial” can’t escape the burden, the solace, and social costs of
the material world.
In this discussion of visual culture, media art has a role to play.
How can we rescue digital artworks from oblivion? Oliver Grau’s warns
of the total loss of our cultural memory of digital art of the past
ten years. Most definitely, hardware and operating systems change and
without explicit, thoughtful, and well-funded efforts, most works will
indeed be lost. There is no one-fits-all preservation solution. Oliver
Grau, who is also the author of Virtual Art: From Illusion to
Immersion, provides impressive examples of indispensable media
artworks like Jeffrey Shaw’s T-Visionarium. Already in 1999, questions
about preservation of media art were at the center of Jon Ippolito’s
important exhibition Variable Media at the Guggenheim Museum.