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‘Now! Visual Culture’ at NYU

Now! Visual Culture

A conference at New York University

May 31-June 2, 2012


One Dozen Lightning Talks on the future of the field
Workshops on multi-media software and film
Open discussions on debt, academic publishing, and interdisciplinarity
Graduate student forum and a general assembly
Practice, performance, and diasporic art

Participants include: Safet Ahmeti, Giuliana Bruno, Wafaa Bilal, Jill Casid, Patsy Chang, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Beth Coleman, Jennifer Gonzalez, Raiford Guins, Gary Hall, Max Liljefors, Mark Little, Tara McPherson, Nicholas Mirzoeff, W.J.T. Mitchell, Lisa Nakamura, Paul Pfeiffer, Amanda du Preez, Martha Rosler, Joan Saab, Marquard Smith, Sina Najafi, Øyvind Vågnes, McKenzie Wark, Jason Wing, Joanna Zylinska, and many more.

There can only be a relatively limited number of delegates both for space reasons (only certain spaces can be used cost-free at NYU) and to create a strongly interactive conference experience. These sessions will take place at 20 Cooper Square, New York, 10003 in the Humanities Initiative space, a beautifully designed space overlooking the architectural drama of the Bowery.

On the website you will find a registration form: please consider registering!

Full event details are at

Photo by Michael Pierce.


Apertures into Mortal Time

The news was largely theatrical yesterday–the Pope in Cuba, protest and prayer outside the Supreme Court, a new Madonna album–but not much to get excited about.  And speaking of aging, there was this image, which poignantly evokes a different kind of drama.

An old man looks though a crack in a door.  The door is in a nursing home, the nursing home is in China, and he is going to die.  Until then, however, he has a beautiful combination of good humor, intelligence, and gentleness.  His eye may be dimming, but he still absorbs, considers, and responds rather than merely see.  The door of perception may be narrower than it once was, but the slender space, like the eye itself, remains an aperture through which light and thought can travel.

The humanism of the image may be helped by much of his genetic and cultural inheritance not being visible.  What strikes me, however, is how he looks simian.  Rather than reverting to childhood, he seems to be aging into the prehistory of his species.  Photography recapitulates phylogeny, you might say, and like a mirror image reversing the evolutionary process.  We can see not a single individual but the human being as it is a thinking primate.  But no more immortal for that.

This is another photograph that takes us back in time.  The ultraviolet image of Cygnus Loop Nebula captures the remaining gases of an explosion that occurred about 5000 years ago.  It, too, is poignant.  Although nothing but inanimate matter, the beautiful tracery becomes a mirror image, inviting recognition as if it were the remnants of a mind, an intelligence still somewhat structured even as it fades into nothingness.  Such allegories are not science, of course, but why then create the image, itself a work of artifice, and why give the galaxy the name of a swan?  Myth and science need not be far apart, and so the astral form suggests a life form, and in any case, the pattern is an aperture into the history of the star system.  Stars are neither mortal nor immortal, but they, too, are subject to the relentless passage of time.

Which is why I like the rest of the photograph as well.  It’s easy to satirically intone Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions of stars,” but there are billions and billions of galaxies.  Each one is a field of light that will some day be extinguished.  But until then, perhaps a source of perspective on the minor dramas of the news cycle, and maybe even something that might make an old man smile.

Photographs by a stringer for Reuters and by NASA.


The Invisibility of Slow Violence

With global demand on oil at an all time high and with the current volatility in the Middle East it is not hard to understand why oil is understood as the natural resource most likely to lead to increasingly pronounced international instabilities, including war and terrorist activities, in the coming years. And yet there is an equal if not more serious global scarcity facing us: a shortage of fresh water. The problem seems to exist primarily outside of the U.S., as indicated in the photograph of a cow carcas from Mexico which is suffering its worst drought in 70 years, though the Drought Mitigation Center reports that 12% of the U.S. experienced “exceptional drought conditions” in the summer of 2011 and more than 40% of all states faced abnormal dryness or drought.

Photographs of carcasses are something of a visual trope for drought conditions, and images like the one above are numerous.  Collectively, they function as a spectacle that directs attention to the sense that drought is the major problem that faces us with respect to water shortages, and given the effects of recent global warming patterns it is not an altogether unreasonable concern.  But equally problematic—and maybe more so—is the more invisible, and thus less spectacular, “slow violence” produced by usage patterns that place stress upon both ecosystems and socio-economic relations.  It is notable, for example, that the average U.S. citizen is responsible for the consumption of 2,000 gallons of water a day, twice the amount of most citizens in other parts of the world, and that a pound of beef—a staple of U.S. diets—requires close to 1,800 gallons of water, while a pound of chicken requires approximately 460 gallons of water to produce and a pound of soy beans requires only 216 gallons of water.  The effects of such dietary choices on both the ecosystem and worldwide social economies are notable, but of course they defy easy visual representation let alone the spectacle of dead carcasses and dried up and cracked river beds.

Of equal concern are the pollution effects produced by neoliberal economies.  Hydraulic fracking is a process used to extract natural gas from reservoir rock formations and shale.  It is an effective method for tapping deep natural gas reserves, but it comes at the cost of injecting millions of gallons of chemical-laced water under high pressure into the earth. Notwithstanding the pressure that this places on demand, there is the question of polluting the aquifer and in particular of contaminating private wells and reservoirs with high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen.  The issue is currently being contested by the natural gas industry and the EPA but clearly part of the problem is how does one know the problem when one sees it?

Perhaps the answer is to just look!  Take for example the photograph above of a woman in western Pennsylvania who fears that her water has been contaminated by a nearby natural gas drilling operation.  State officials report that tests show the water to be safe, and the local gas company which had been delivering drinking water to local households has indicated that they will no longer be making such deliveries.  And perhaps they are right, though judging from what we can see coming out of the tap I’d be inclined to invite them over one afternoon for a tall cool drink of tap water to discuss it.  The resulting photo op might not prove to be spectacular in the manner of a dead carcass, but it might nevertheless make the point.

Photo Credit:  Stringer/Reuters; Keith Srakocic/AP


Spring Break at the Blog

We’ll be taking a break to get away from and get caught up at our day jobs.  Regular posts will resume on Monday, March 26.  For those many readers who will be wandering around despondently until our return, spend some time with the artwork below and ask yourself what it might add–justly, misleadingly, or insightfully–to the idea that photojournalism is a public art.

If you get it worked out, do let us know.

John Baldessari, “An Artist Is Not Merely the Slavish Announcer . . .,” 1966–68. Photoemulsion, varnish, and gesso on canvas, 59 1/8 × 45 1/8 in. (150.2 × 114.6 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee and gift of an anonymous donor  92.21.


The Modern Condition

It has been a full year since Japan was overwhelmed by an earthquake and tsunami and like clockwork the major media slideshows have responded with a series of “then” and “now” photographs (e.g., here, here, and here) marking the slow but steady progress of an advanced society—in many regards a society much like our own—as it returns from utter devastation to a bustling, self-sustaining economy.  It has not fully returned, but it is on the path to recovery and the comparisons surely invite our sympathy and admiration.  In January we saw a similar set of visual comparisons (e.g., here) on the one year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, but with this difference: while it appears that Haiti has recovered some from the disaster, it continues to be an impovrished, utterly dependent, “other world” nation that invites neither our identification nor our sympathy so much as our pity.

The differences between Japan and Haiti are signified in a multiplicity of ways, not least in how the devastation in Japan seems to have been largely structural, effecting roads, bridges, buildings, and other forms of physical property, whereas the devastation in Haiti has been more social and economic, exacerbating an already starving, unemployed, uneducated, and generally impecunious population.  The above photograph is telling in this regard.  It is a photograph of lost photographs collected in a local school gymnasium in Natori, Japan, waiting for their owners to seek them out and recover them.  Some are quite obviously old, perhaps even antique, and thus mark a sense of historical continuity that spans generations and thus mitigates the impact of the more recent and comparatively minor “then”/”now” dialectic that commemorates no more than a span of twelve months.  But perhaps more importantly, these photographs are obviously cherished items, their value signified not just by the fact that they are framed and were thus objects of display in the home, but because they were patiently and laboriously culled from the detritus left behind by the earthquake and tsunami and collected with the hope that they would be found by their respective owners.

Collection centers such as the one above can be found throughout Japan, and some are down right enormous as in the photograph below which identifies a site that contains more than 250,000 photographs .  And the point should be clear: more than lost property, these lost photographs are quite clearly significant momento mori, cultural artifacts that identify the society that takes them and preserves them as a modern, technologically sophisticated, bourgeois civilization (not that one has to be bourgeois to take and keep photographs, and the practice of snapshot photography cuts across all economic classes where it is an established cultural convention, but it rarely occurs in societies that lack an established middle-class).

And so it is that when we turn to retrospectives of Haiti we don’t find the preservation of family photographs at all.  That is not to say that photographs are unimportant, but as with the image below, they signify not an established, modern cultural practice, but rather a modernist intervention of sorts.

Here a Haitian woman shows a photograph of herself as she was pulled from the rubble of a house that had fallen upon her. The photograph was taken by an AP photographer and then given to her.  It is clear that she values it, but importantly it is more a curiosity—or perhaps a marker of humanitarian aid—than a conventional cultural artifact, and as such it designates the society in which she lives as pre-technological if not in fact premodern.  One finds a similar curiosity and intrigue displayed and accented in photographs that show Haitian children (here and here) being introduced to cameras and photography by the Art in All of Us project.

The simple point would be to notice how two societies are distinguished by their attitudes towards photographic technology: one modern and mature, the other premodern and either immature or innocent, but in any case defined as childlike and needy.  But perhaps more important is the way in which the photographs above function in each instance as media that model social relations, inviting us to see and be seen as members of a social order driven by the differences that simultaneously separate us and connect us. That, perhaps more than anything, defines the modern condition.

Photo Credits:  Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images; Toru Hanai/Reuters; Dieu Nalio Chery/AP Photo

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Labor Among the Ruins

It can be quite a revelation when the veneer of ordinary life is suddenly ripped away.   Instead of the banal brick and mortar surfaces of a middle American high school, this:

Twisted metal, shredded drywall, crumpled ventilation ducts, broken cables–what was a solid, efficient building has become a rat’s nest of light industrial trash.  That’s what a tornado can do.

The car that once was parked outside is now wearing the building, but it might be salvageable.  Or the insurance company might just “write it off”–as if it could be moved out of there with a dash of a pen or a few keystrokes.  But someone will have to lift that beam, just as others will have to move the chairs, the brickwork, the sheeting, and everything else that is strewn across the parking lot.  And they’ll have to tear that shattered wall down and cart it away, and then begin to rebuild.

None of this work will involve standing in front of a TV camera or giving a campaign speech or writing a blog post.  It’s called manual labor, something that has become all but invisible in a nation that carted up too many of its factories and shipped them overseas.  Marx identified how capital benefits from hiding labor, but even he might be amazed at how much of modern culture has been pitched toward abstractions, sleek designs, smooth surfaces, frictionless interfaces, and other techniques for forgetting about the work involved in making a product.

Until the storm rips your world apart.  When the surface is shredded, then you can see just how much structure there is in a building–that is, just how many different mechanical, electrical, and construction systems were artfully worked into a building, and how much workmanship goes into making use of the building so free of difficulty.  You complain when the copier breaks–but how often does your ceiling collapse?  Skilled labor and government regulation combine to make it easy to take gigantic skyscrapers for granted, as well as the many small structures and hundreds of thousands of products that we use everyday without ever having to make them or fix them ourselves.

Given this society’s investment in smooth surfaces, the texture of things all but completely hides the labor it took to make them.  And that is part of a much larger indifference.  A friend who consults on construction projects commented that it’s hard to generate public support for good wages for working people, “because it’s ingrained that labor isn’t respectable.  Actually, it’s not disrespect….it’s less than that…….it’s  non-recognition.  Folks that don’t do labor don’t get just how thoroughly ignored labor is.  You would be surprised by the number of people that, after having me carefully walk them through the steps of a complicated job, explain to me how ‘it shouldn’t be that hard.'”  As if they would know.  And all too often, they are the same people who expect “$125 per hour minimum to have a shot at a decent life, but can’t see why a mechanic would need the same amount.”

If you are skilled in abstraction, why would you know or care about how tough it can be to get a conduit to fit around a tight corner?  But this discussion isn’t about the value of labor or the labor theory of value or anything more complicated than having a shot at a decent life.

Because that, too, is what the storm reveals when it tears through a town.

Photographs from Henryville, Indiana by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

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Sight Gag: The Absent Presence

Credit: M. Wuerker, Politico

Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic, satiric, parodic, and carnivalesque performances that are an important part of a vibrant democratic public culture.  These “gags” may not always be funny or represent a familiar point of view, but they attempt to cut through the lies, hypocrisy, shamelessness, stupidity, complacency, and other vices of democratic life.  Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think might deserve a laugh or at least a wry and rueful look by those who are thinking about the character of public life today.

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London Festival of Photography 2012 Prize

The London Festival of Photography has announced a new prize for photography on this year’s festival theme of “Insideout: Reflections of the Public and the Private.”

This theme intends to explore the changing boundaries between the public and the private, as both physical and metaphorical concepts, and the social consequences of these shifts. Considering the role of photography as a tool for documentation, expression and collaboration, the festival is looking for work responding to the theme in its broadest interpretation.  Possible topics include but are not limited to such issues as:

  • photography as a means to reflect not only the external world but also the inner self of the image maker
  • the social media revolution and how it has overturned our ideas of personal privacy
  • the changing boundaries of public and private land, what this means for personal freedom and the ways in which people inhabit these opposing spaces
  • the effects and ethics of putting a very private photographic image on public display
  • censorship of images
  • the democratisation of visual journalism and how the public have become mass purveyors of information

Categories, rules, and additional information is available here.  The deadline for entry is March 29, 2012.


A Meditation on Things Lost—and Found

In U.S. culture at least, the homestead is a valued possession, in many ways a marker of citizenship, but more perhaps an indication of one’s roots in a community.  And so it is, that when we face a wave of tornadoes, as we just did in the South and the Midwest, the conventional outpouring of photographs testify not just to the seemingly random and arational forces of nature or to the ways in which communities seem to emerge spontaneously to help one another,  but also to what counts as loss.  And at the top of that list is the home.

Some such pictures are horrifying, as when a house has been literally upended and sits on its roof, and others are simply stupefying, as when we see half of a house thoroughly obliterated and the remainder in pristine condition with books still sitting on the shelf or cupcakes carefully ordered in anticipation of a child’s birthday party.  But most poignant, I think, are the photographs that focus our attention on front stoops and foundations, the remnants of a domicile that are simultaneously absent and present.

The photograph above is an example of what I have in mind.  I have no idea what the house that sat there looked like.  It was no doubt small, but nevertheless substantial, and the cement stoop implies that whoever built it intended for it to last.  That the tornado could destroy everything but the stoop is an indication of its power, to be sure, but in its own way it is also an indication of its weakness and limitations. It could obliterate that which stood in its way, but it could not remove the foundations which remain perhaps to be built upon once again.  And because the foundation remains, one can imagine what the landscape might look like in another year or so when the debris has been removed and a new house has been erected

Photographs, of course, are a record of the past. In their own way they are an archive of death, of things that once were and are no more.  And this is so, no less of a happy family snapshot than of images of violence and disaster—whether natural or manmade.  And when we treat them as only markers of a dead past they can range from being be  richly painful to anesthetizing to melancholic.  But when we look at them closely, proactively, they can be a prod to imagine a different future, less markers of death than of the possibility of rejuvenation and rebirth.

I think maybe that is why I find the photograph below so enticing.  Perhaps not a stairway to heaven, but at least a reminder that however subject we are to the whims of nature and other forces beyond our control there is always at least the possibility of an optimistic future just beyond our sight.  And in any case, if we don’t look for it, if we don’t try to imagine it, it is likely that we will never achieve it.


Photo Credits:  Scott Olsen/Getty; Eric Thayer/Reuters.

Cross-posted at BAGnewsNotes.


Poles Apart: Elites and Masses After the Disaster

I joked about this photo when I first it, perhaps because my wife showed it to me.  “I sure feel sorry for that kid.  Picking a fight with a middle-aged man, what was he thinking?”

But the truth is, it really is a mismatch in just that way.  Even if you notice the shiv in the protestor’s hand, the odds are against him.  If caught, he’ll be charged with breaking and entering, assault, mayhem, you name it.  If he gets away, it’s just to return to the austerity, vanishing opportunities, and grim future being forced on Spain by the European bankers’ neoliberal policies.  As for the fight itself, frankly, the guy on the right has the bigger weapon, good heft, and no fear, and he’s aggressively going for the gut or lower yet.

Just what you’d expect from a banker, come to think of it.  Like once sound economies around the globe, Spain is in trouble because of unchecked greed and recklessness by big banks and other financial institutions–a binge of aggressive mismanagement that was promoted by the same neoliberal ideology that now justifies transferring all of the losses downward.  Sure, there’s more to the story and each country is different, but as Cassandra–that is, Paul Krugman–has been warning for a long time now, there is no sound economic analysis that justifies the austerity policies being enforced in Europe and trumpted by Republicans in the US.  The bottom line is that many who did nothing wrong are being sacrificed to protect an elite that behaved very badly.  In Spain, students were demonstrating because the heat was being cut off in their classrooms, and you can bet that isn’t happening on the 45th floor.

If you take a better look at what is happening on the ground, you can see more of the texture of the political situation.  The bank lobby is a scene of conflict–but the demonstrators will get no farther than that.  The shattered glass suggests that the opulent decor is at least superficially vulnerable, but look at how casually the other banker walks through the mayhem: chaos at the edges is just business as usual, another day in the life of creative destruction.  And however lithe the masked demonstrator might be, his clothes aren’t worth the cost of a tie worn by anyone on the other side.  Draconian policies push the masses to confront the elite, but that’s a rigged game from the start.  And at the finish, if democratic government doesn’t do its job.

Which is how we get to this photo of another pole in a very different place.

A man strains to raise a flagpole in Crittenden, Kentucky, after the devastating storm that swept through the town last Saturday.  Perhaps the photo alludes to Joe Rosenthal’s iconic image of the flag raising on Iwo Jima.  If so, both the similarities to and differences from the original photograph are notable.  On the one hand, a common man labors to plant the national symbol amidst devastation, which suggests that he and his fellow citizens have the same patriotism, determination, willingness to sacrifice for the common good, and similar virtues of those that won the battle at Iwo.  On the other hand, times may have changed: the flag is shredded, the pole is bent and spindly, he is all alone, and now even the wind is blowing against him.

Families, friends, and neighbors are pulling together in the heartland, God bless ’em, and they have to.  As you look through the slideshows on the storm’s aftermath, it becomes clear that these are people who already had been abandoned to economic decline.  Unlike the banker in the the photograph above, for this guy there are few resources at hand, no powerful corporations, connections in high places, or governments that believe in putting your priorities first, last, and always.  Republican governors will call for disaster aid, but try get them to invest in the jobs, education, health care, social services, environmental protection, financial regulation, and other public goods that these people need to live reasonably secure lives.  So it is that a storm has been blowing across the nation for years, wreaking the lives of ordinary people.

Two photographs, both of disasters in the making, neither of which has anything to do with the weather.  The are united by an element of visual composition, but otherwise you might say they are poles apart.

Photographs by Albert Gea/Reuters and Liz Dufour/The Cincinnati Enquirer.

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