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Symposium: The Aesthetics of Catastrophe

Symposium: The Aesthetics of Catastrophe

Northwestern University
Friday, June 5, 2009
Annie May Swift Hall Auditorium

This symposium addresses questions of visual representation and public advocacy as they are evident in contemporary economic, environmental, and political disasters. Events such as floods, fires, terrorism, and genocide generate heightened media coverage, compelling images, and questions about the limits of photographic representation of events that involve massive disruption and loss. In the US, a series of disasters including 9/11, Katrina, and the economic crash have pushed photojournalists and media scholars alike to ask whether the available conventions for documentary witness need to be extended or reworked. This symposium provides images and arguments dedicated to provoking and guiding extended discussion of topics such as the violent image, visual fragmentation and political distribution, emergency status and citizenship, and the iconography of a “catastrophile” society.


9:00 – Coffee

9:30 – Ann Larabee, Michigan State University, “Brownfields, Ghostboxes, and Orange Xs: Reading Disaster and Catastrophe in the Urban Landscape”

10:45 – Robert Lyons, Photographer, “Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide”

1:00 – David Campbell, Durham University, UK, “Constructed Visibility: Photographing the Catastrophe of Gaza”

2:15 – Aric Mayer, Photographer, “Representing the Unrepresentable: Disaster, Suffering, and Locating the Political in the Viewer-Image Exchange”

3:30 – Lane Relyea, Northwestern University, “From Spectacle to Database: On the Changed Status of Debris and Fragmented Subjectivity in Recent Art Culture”

4:45 – Reception

Free and open to the public. Organized by Robert Hariman. Sponsored by the Program in Rhetoric and Public Culture, the Center for Global Culture and Communication, the School of Communication, and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, Northwestern University. For more information, please contact Patrick Wade at


Symposium: The Aesthetics of Catastrophe


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