JAC Visual Frictions

JAC Visual Frictions


Visual frictions

Fig 1


Paul Frosh teaches in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research spans visual culture, media aesthetics, media witnessing, and moral concern. His books include The Image Factory: Consumer Culture, Photography and the Visual Content Industry (2003) and Media Witnessing: Testimony in the Age of Mass Communication (2009; 2nd edition, 2011, edited with Amit Pinchevski). He is currently engaged in a large-scale investigation of iconic photographs and Israeli collective memory and is also researching selfies, tagging, and other aspects of digital photography.


Karin Becker is professor emerita of media studies at Stockholm University. Her research centers on visual media forms and practices, and she has studied global media events as mediated through public space. Recent texts include “Celebrating with the celebrities: television in public space during two royal weddings,” Celebrity Studies, 6: 1, 6–22 (2015, with Andreas Widholm); and “Veneration and wonder: the politics of making art in an Oaxacan village,” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, 6: 2014 (with Geska Brecevic). She is currently engaged in the research project Screening Protest (www.screeningprotest.com/), where she is analyzing images of protest as mediated in transnational television news broadcasts.

Citation: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 7, 2015 http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/jac.v7.30347

Copyright: ©2015 K. Becker & P. Frosh. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 8 December 2015

This paper is part of the Special Issue: Visual Frictions. More papers from this issue can be found at www.aestheticsandculture.net


Visuality is an increasingly contested phenomenon. Rarely stable and never “pure,” the visual is always intertwined with other senses and expressive forms and is often implicated in multiple power relations. Whether as part of social and cultural practices, or as utilized in social scientific inquiry and investigation, the visual exerts a power that continues to challenge and be challenged by other ways of knowing. This power is especially apparent when we consider visuality in its digital manifestations: as visually based media expand their purview across social, cultural, and geographic space we find they are often in “friction” with established norms, structures, and modes of expression.

In this themed issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, the authors have been invited to explore these issues, under the rubric of “Visual Frictions.” The authors have responded with a rich array of texts and visual materials, analyzing phenomena ranging from Instagram photographs of the empty pink chairs that adorn LA’s Grand Park, to different productions of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, to the filmed experience of a young man who describes himself not as visually impaired, but as “seeing differently,” to mash-ups of Astrid Lindgren’s stories and characters, to educational settings where different modes of learning and knowledge come into conflict. Before introducing this diverse set of papers, however, we must unpack more precisely the meanings embedded in the notion of “visual frictions” and its implications. Here we raise these as questions, rather than givens.

We begin with visuality, understood here following Hal Foster’s distinctive use of the term, as referring to those aspects of the visual that are socially and culturally constructed. As opposed to vision, the physiological substrate of seeing, visuality is historically reproduced through material, sociotechnical infrastructures, devices, practices, and discourses.1 The argument that visuality is increasingly contested rests on two assumptions: first, that we are concerned with a phenomenon that is continually expanding and, second, this expansion brings visuality into more frequent and greater conflict with other “forces.”

There are several possible dissenting responses to this account. First, as Foster himself points out, there is no clean division between vision and visuality; vision, too, is social and historical, and visuality is intertwined with the psyche and the corporeal.2 Further, the notion of visuality as involving a constant state of expansion assumes the teleology of historical amplification, making any “frictions” more evident or of a greater magnitude than in the past. Can we assume that this is the case? And third, why assume that any such expansion inevitably involves frictions between visuality and other forces? Interrogating this assumption could, for example, reveal interrelations involving smooth transitions, shifts, and mutual exchange between norms, structures, and forms of expression on the one hand and visuality on the other. Mitchell’s variable categories of relations between image and text, which he identified in his tracing of the “pictorial turn,” certainly support a more nuanced view of histories of visuality, not necessarily riddled with conflict.3

Further, can we assume that conflict arises and becomes manifest in particular and distinctive ways when visuality intersects with the digital? This assumption rests on the claim that digital remediations of previous “visual” media and forms constitute a kind of resistance to the convergence that is performed within and by virtue of the digital. The friction suggested by this argument would be the antithesis to the rhetoric of convergence and hybridity, making a claim that, again, deserves critical interrogation. As we have each argued elsewhere,4 alongside the social construction of photography as a digitally networked practice and the incorporation of photographic components into hybrid devices, we also see clear evidence of the reaffirmation of photography as a separate, distinctive domain of technical expertise and artistry and where analogue photography is used as a legitimating structure for medium specificity.

Nor do the authors here accept at face value the rhetoric of visuality as a contested domain inherently in friction with other ways of knowing or forms of expression. Their varied interrogations of visuality as a contemporary social and cultural interface also point to a number of methodological implications of using friction as a conceptual point of entry. First, while friction is often used as a metaphor for imminent conflict or seen as a hindrance in the administrative preference for “smooth” functioning of operations and social relations, the presence of friction may also be a positive force. It is, as we know, central to critique and dialectical thought. In addition, as an expression of contradiction, friction becomes a device to expose hidden structures and the conflicts concealed therein. This points to the possibility of using friction as an intervention, and several of the papers discuss practices and phenomena where this is clearly the case.

A majority of the papers are structured as intersections between theory and empirical analyses, where speculative sight—theory—touches upon concrete examples, and vice versa. In this sense, the possibility of friction is used to frame the author’s argument, as an attempt (paraphrasing Nietzsche) to rub the abstract against the concrete in the hope of producing sparks. That said, the papers cluster around different dimensions of visuality—and its potential for friction—to form three somewhat distinct themes: 1) visuality as a sense perception, 2) expressions of visuality and cultural practice, including aspects of power, and 3) epistemology and the possibility of visuality as a form of knowledge.

On the terrain of sense perception, visuality is often conceptualized as distinctive from and in competition with other senses. Yet, the very distinctiveness of visuality depends upon a discursively ordered ecology of corporeal sensing agencies: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, proprioception. This dependence is already implied in the very name visual frictions, with its suggestions of a transfer of sense modes between the optical and the tactile and the slippage between vision (as physiological) and visuality (as sociocultural). We are confronted head-on with this duality in Asko Lehmuskallio’s account of his friend Conrad, who argues that our visual surroundings “are designed for average eyesight” and who has developed “social hacks” to live out visuality in socially meaningful interactions that do not reduce him to being treated as visually “impaired.” In Lehmuskallio’s accompanying film, they show us how vision and visuality are intertwined when “seeing with special requirements.”

Understanding the visual as sense perception is additionally complicated by the presence of the digital, in its simultaneously virtual and physical manifestations. In her paper investigating the sensory aspects of teenagers’ mobile phone practices, Vaike Fors advances the concept of mundane frictions to discuss the experience, meaning-making, and pedagogy generated through the operation of these screen-based technologies. Her research shows how the tangible frictions involved with habitually touching, rubbing, clicking, etc., media technologies are pivotal to understanding digital visuality as more than visual and are part of a sensory emplacement process establishing people as situated learners.

Turning to the terrain of cultural practice and expressive form, friction is already apparent in the term visual media. Following Mitchell’s argument,5 it is evident that there are no visual media, only hybrid forms, or “mixed” media. Further, the possibility of translating in anything approaching meaningful terms between different media is unattainable. Kosta Economou and Anne-Li Lindgren explore this as a creative “frictional” encounter between classic films based on Astrid Lindgren’s narratives of childhood with YouTube mash-ups by young videographers, in which the idealized children in the Swedish films are replaced with monstrous children from well-known films such as The Exorcist. In the next article, Jason R. D’Aoust takes on the special effects and interactive devices of multimedia and digital scenography in three productions of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Relying on the critical reception of each production and framed in a methodology of historical discourse and media archeology, D’Aoust examines the political side of the intermedial interactivity in the 2010 production for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, reading it against Wagner’s speculation on the mimetic origins and destiny of art.

Erin Despard’s point of departure is the designed landscape, and specifically the city park as a form of visual media, in interaction with other media forms. She examines a set of Instagram photographs (of very pink and mostly empty chairs) from the renovated Grand Park in Los Angeles to argue for these social media images as disrupting the reciprocal shaping of urban visibilities and suggests how they might become politically productive as points of intervention on behalf of alternative visibilities. In an additional instance of cultural practices that intervene in and possibly reshape relationships of power and politics, Paula Uimonen addresses the rituals of mediated mourning that took place during the funeral of Nelson Mandela, focusing on social relationality and public displays of visual memory as the event was broadcast on a large public screen in the Grand Parade in Cape Town. She discusses how digital visuality, weaving together the broadcast from the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg with local public displays and interactive performances, “mediated a sense of global communitas,” temporarily overcoming historical frictions between the global north and south, while positioning Mandela as a pan-African icon.

The article by Edgar Gómez Cruz and Helen Thornham examines the phenomenon of the selfie. The authors argue against the growing corpus of literature that regards these digital photographs, especially for posting on social-networking or photo-sharing websites, as “documentations” of the self or as identity affirmation. These interpretations result from reading intention off of these images, a reading that prioritizes the visual over the power relations and practices in which they are embedded. Examining the selfie instead as embedded in practice, they locate it as a reflection of the dominant ideologies of a shifting digital culture, where combinations of visual, material, and digital elements are creating new forms of surveillance and sousveillance, generating softer and more effective forms of power.

On the terrain of epistemology, we find visuality proffered as a particular kind of knowledge, or supporting different ways of learning and knowing. Alternatively, we may consider the ways visuality is already embedded in institutionalized and discursive modes of inquiry through the metaphors used, where visuality is the actual basis for theory, as derived from the Greek word theoria, “to consider, speculate, look at.” This implicit link between theorizing and seeing may account for the disjuncture Marianna Michalowska analyzes in her paper, between on the one hand, the imaginings produced by the ideal forms and spaces of computer-generated images (CGIs) in architectural practice and, on the other, the conflicts that arise when these are realized in the public space. Confronted with the material execution of the digital utopia that was anticipated, we may experience “dystopian disillusion,” a very different form of knowledge, and which may motivate action. Lindsay Anne Balfour critically examines the cultural and commemorative production of the museum with its “philosophy of hospitality.” Her case is the National September 11 Memorial and Museum and its incorporation of a brick from Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in Pakistan, examining the ways the visuality and materiality of this object defy and contradict the expected narrative of the museum.

Mark Westmoreland analyzes a pedagogical video project carried out in the wake of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, which complicates assessments of the Arab Spring as a manifestation of digital democracy and the “Arab Street” as populated by a volatile mob. The critical visual methods used in the project allowed students to apprehend modes of lived experience that, although not “political” in the normative sense, nevertheless form a basis for people’s experience of political life and also reveal forms of affective knowledge for the participants, both people on screen and those behind the camera, as well as distant viewers.

Finally, Margareta Melin explores the cultures and learning practices in academic environments where bridging the gap between traditional academic and practice-based learning is a primary goal. Despite the often destructive conflicts that consistently arise around issues of epistemology and pedagogy in these environments, interviews with students reveal that they have appropriated an embodied knowledge of a double perspective that they have retained and found useful in their work and in their lives.

The collection of articles is the product of the Nordic Network for Digital Visuality (NNDV), a 4-year research network funded by Nordforsk and administered by the Section of Journalism, Media and Communication in the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University. The network was designed to bring together researchers, primarily from the social sciences and representing primarily the Nordic countries, who were working on questions regarding visualization and digitally mediated communication. “Visual Frictions and Their Futures” was the theme of the network’s final workshop in February 2015, held at the Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm. A majority of the contributions to this volume were presented as drafts for discussion in that forum. These drafts were then supplemented by contributions from several researchers who responded to a wider call for papers on this theme. As coordinator of this network and respondent to the workshop papers, we welcome this opportunity to present this exciting body of work to a wider public.

Karin Becker, NNDV Coordinator
Department of Media Studies
Stockholm University
Stockholm, Sweden

Paul Frosh, Respondent
Department of Communication and Journalism
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Jerusalem, Israel


1. Hal Foster, “Preface,” in Vision and Visuality, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle, WA: Dia Art Foundation, 1988), ix.

2. Ibid.

3. William John Thomas Mitchell, Picture Theory. Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

4. See, for example, Karin Becker, “Gestures of Seeing: Amateur Photographers in the News,” Journalism—Theory, Practice & Criticism 16 (2015): 451–69; Karin Becker and Patricia Tovar, “Awakening the Past, Expressing the Present: Stories of Photography, Migration and Belief in a Mexican Village,” in Photographic Powers—Helsinki Photomedia 2014, eds. Mika Elo and Marko Karo (Helsinki: Aalto University, 2015), 309–34; Paul Frosh, “Beyond the Image Bank: Digital Commercial Photography,” In The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, 2nd ed., ed. Martin Lister (London: Routledge, 2013), 131–48; and Paul Frosh, “The Gestural Image: The Selfie, Photography Theory and Kinaesthetic Sociability,” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015): 1607–28.

5. Mitchell, Picture Theory.



Seeing with special requirements: visual frictions during the everyday

Asko Lehmuskallio*

COMET, CMT, University of Tampere, Finland


The predominant approach in visual studies, explicitly focusing on how vision is socioculturally constructed, tends to neglect the physiological substrate for vision. Images, and our visual surroundings, are often considered from the premise that those dealing with them specifically see with average eyesight and that differences in seeing can be accounted for by cultural and ideological analyses. I set out to question this premise and the normalisation of vision it implies, by drawing on accounts of seeing by Conrad, a friend and colleague who sees with special requirements. His well-articulated verbal description of the requirements involved in his seeing makes it clear that our vision is tightly intertwined with visuality. Our visual surroundings are the way they are partially on account of the ability to see implied. As Conrad puts it, “they are designed for average eyesight.” I posit that the concept of activated affordances is useful for taking into account that vision is socially constructed, as suggested in important works in visual studies, and that physiological substrates for vision exhibit variation. I will focus particularly on how the designed environment becomes an area for Conrad in which visuality is lived out differently in accordance with how this eyesight happens to manifest itself. Conrad’s use of “social hacks” provides a case in point for discussing how Conrad activates affordances in unforeseen ways, in order to fulfil desires for socially meaningful action that does not reduce him to stereotypical behaviour when being treated as visually impaired. Maintaining that vision and visuality remain difficult to disentangle, I will argue that we all see with special requirements, even if we might not notice this. For studies of visuality, I suggest reflecting on presumed understandings of vision. The argument in textual form is complemented with a brief video that features an edited interview focusing on Conrad’s account of seeing with special requirements. It is supported with visualisations representing an attempt to render aspects of his seeing. Instead of purporting to visualise exactly how he sees, I intend the imagery to provoke reflection of seeing as a complex process, mediated via our ability to see and by the social construction of what to see.


Dr. Asko Lehmuskallio is a researcher at the School of Communication, Media and Theatre at the University of Tampere and at Locating Media at the University of Siegen. He is also a founding member of the Nordic Network for Digital Visuality. His research interests include visual culture and media anthropology, particularly with regard to the ways in which cameras mediate social action. He has authored over 20 academic publications, mainly in the fields of media studies, visual culture studies, and human–computer interaction; a book on Pictorial Practices in a Cam Era (University of Tampere Press); and he is also preparing an edited book on Digital Photography and Everyday Life (Routledge, together with Edgar Gómez Cruz). In addition, he has co-curated the #snapshot exhibition at the Finnish Museum of Photography and the 2015 Triennial of Photography Hamburg (with Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger and Risto Sarvas).

Keywords: affordances; activated affordances; visual culture; vision; visuality

Citation: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 7, 2015 http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/jac.v7.28228

Copyright: ©2015 A. Lehmuskallio. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 8 December 2015

*Correspondence to: Asko Lehmuskallio, COMET, CMT, University of Tampere, FI-33014 Tampere, Finland. Email: asko.lehmuskallio@uta.fi

This paper is part of the Special Issue: Visual Frictions. More papers from this issue can be found at www.aestheticsandculture.net


A short film Seeing with special requirements by Asko Lehmuskallio.

The dominant approach in visual studies, explicitly focusing on how vision is socially constructed, tends to neglect the physiological substrate for vision. Studies both of images and of our visual surroundings often proceed from an implicit premise that those dealing with them see with average eyesight and that differences in seeing can be accounted for by cultural and ideological analyses.

Here, I question this premise and the normalisation of vision implied, by drawing on accounts of seeing offered by Conrad, a friend and colleague who sees with special requirements. As his eloquent verbalisation of the requirements for seeing makes clear, our vision is closely intertwined with visuality.1 In part, our visual surroundings are the way they are because of the ability to see implied. As Conrad puts it, “they are designed for average eyesight.”

In the discussion that follows, I will focus particularly on how the designed environment becomes an area where visuality is lived out differently depending on the kind of eyesight one happens to have. I wish to argue that we all see with special requirements, and that our requirements linked to seeing differ, depending on our physiological substrate for vision. When attending to designed environments, we situationally adapt to prescribed ways of seeing that are culturally and ideologically formed. I suggest that the concept of activated affordances is helpful for taking into account both the physiological substrate for vision needed for seeing and the cultural and ideological formations that suggest which affordances get activated instead of others.2

The argument in textual form is complemented by a brief video that includes an edited interview focusing on an account of seeing with special requirements. The interview is supported with visualisations intended to render aspects of Conrad’s seeing. Instead of claiming to visualise exactly how Conrad sees, I use the imagery to stimulate reflection of seeing as a complex process, mediated via both our ability to see and the social construction of what to see.3


In a well-regarded preface to an edited work on vision and visuality, Hal Foster explains how scopic regimes seek to essentialise vision, naturalising and normalising a certain way to see. He maintains that although vision is based on physiological processes, it is also very much culturally and socially informed. Sight and its techniques intertwine in ways that make them difficult to disentangle, whereas vision and visuality remain woven together.4

Much of the important and influential work published in visual culture studies tends to focus on the latter, the social construction of practices related to vision and visuality, emphasising ways in which power structures, visual orders, scopic regimes, and various gazes direct our attention, our ways of looking, and the meanings that we give to what we see. In doing so, they situate observers, subjects, or bodies within nuanced patterns of power-laden and structured visual interactions.5

These studies explicitly work with the social construction of vision and constitute attempts to uncover asymmetric power structures and to counter them. While doing so, much of this work takes implicitly a particular physiological substrate of vision for granted, although influential figures such as Foster or Mitchell warn against doing so.6 In many of these studies, pictures and the mental images they occasion are deemed so powerful because people can see them. Studies on visual culture seldom reflect from this perspective the premises behind their work; paradoxically, it seems that much of the work explicitly questioning a normalised visuality as socially constructed normalises the physiological substrate of vision.7

I suggest that the concept of activated affordances is useful for understanding the intertwinement of vision and visuality, of how bodies and their environments merge within seeing, helping to point both towards affordances as a relation needed for seeing in the first place and to their activation as a particular cultural form of attention and meaning-making.

James J. Gibson coined the term affordance to discuss the complementarity of animals and persons with their environments.8 Affordances, in Gibson’s understanding, always describe relations between living beings and their particular environments, and these relations depend both on the living beings and on the environments in question. For example, a small mobile phone screen is perceivable, readable, and therefore usable for text messaging by those with sufficiently good eyesight (for perception and reading) and adequate motor skills (for texting) but not, for example, by many elderly individuals with poor eyesight. The latter can perceive the mobile phone’s screen but, because of both poor eyesight and the limited screen size, cannot read it. The mobile phone does not afford them the same kinds of uses it affords others. Gibson’s use of the notion of affordance is of assistance for pointing towards the relationality and variety of affordances, but he does not give culturally sensitive explanations addressing why some affordances are preferred over others.

For accounting for cultural contextualisations, it is useful to think of activated affordances if one wishes to comprehend the actual use of particular objects, and how their use is embedded in social meanings, as Gillian Rose has proposed in her work on everyday photography.9 The focus on the activation of affordances is useful for pointing to culturally meaningful ways of interacting in visual environments. In Conrad’s case, as will be shown later, there is, for example, an explicit activation of coarse-level visual features of friends and colleagues for purposes of identifying them (among these are hair type/style, colour of clothing, and ways of walking), because this kind of activation of affordances is socially meaningful. Being able to identify someone as an individual person is very much encouraged, at least in the so-called Western societies, and, for doing so, some affordances have to be activated rather than others. The affordances available depend, again, not only on the social construction of seeing but also, just as much, on the particular ways in which we are able to see.

Conrad’s account of the visual frictions encountered in his everyday life is useful for a discussion on how the affordances activated depend both on socially meaningful action and on the physical opportunities for action available to each of us. Mitchell has importantly pointed out that “[i]t is not just that we see the way we do because we are social animals, but also that our social arrangements take the forms they do because we are seeing animals.”10 Unfortunately for those seeing with special requirements, many social environments continue to be designed with average eyesight in mind.


Conrad provides a good example for a discussion on this possible normalisation of vision and the way in which it rests on particular assumptions about visualities, especially regarding designed environments. Many do not necessarily recognise that Conrad is visually impaired, because he tends to act and talk in ways that do not distinguish him from most others. Although he wears thick eyeglasses, it is not clear to many people that he actually sees very differently than many others do. Whereas he is thus able to “blend in” in diverse situations, he does so by activating other affordances than most people with average eyesight do. Where this possibility is not available, he finds that many have a hard time even believing him to need help when he expresses this need.

I have many situations in which people don’t really realize how much I see, because I have so many tricks, and I hack myself through life somehow. So a lot of times when I tell them I am visually impaired, they sort of don’t believe me, and that is a really big problem for me when I try to achieve accessibility or equal behavior, or something like that.11

Conrad has created social hacks, particular activations of affordances that enable him to interact such that his special requirements in seeing are not that readily noticed. These social hacks provide him with a way of rendering his behaviour in front of others so that his actions are not constrained beforehand for reason of his vision. When acting as yet another person who sees as everyone else does, and thereby as someone who is able to navigate built environments and social situations as those with average eyesight do, Conrad allows himself to be drawn into situations that he might not enter if others made judgements in keeping with his impairments in vision.

Conrad would not differ from most other people if his visual system were more commonplace. His use of the concept of seeing with special requirements implies that all human beings have particular requirements for their sensory perception and action upon the environment, and that these requirements differ from person to person, just as Gibson suggests with the notion of affordance.

As the examples Conrad cites from his life experience make clear, many designed environments are geared towards those with average eyesight, disrupting their use by people with different visual systems. Even everyday utility articles and artefacts such as computers, houses, or cars are often designed for people with normalised, average vision. Conrad points out:

[I]f they would be just slightly changed in their designs to meet my requirements, I wouldn’t have so many problems actually getting around in the world. If I use the term ’people with special requirements’, it always implies that it’s not my fault that I can’t do this thing at the moment or can’t operate this machine or that it takes much longer, but it’s actually the fault of the design, because [the problematic element or item] wasn’t designed for my requirements but was designed for someone else’s requirements.

Here, vision and visuality intertwine in ways that show how a variety of designed environments rely on an assumption of average eyesight, a necessary condition for taking up a relation, an affordance, in the first place. Thus, designed artefacts are socially constructed to fit the requirements of particular kinds of people.12 Slight changes in designed environments could enable a better fit between Conrad’s body and the material artefacts around him, but designed environments tend to be oriented towards normalised vision rather than allowing for other kinds of activations, such as Conrad’s social hacks discussed below.13 Whereas, as Gibson suggests, these differences between individuals may vary significantly, too often there is the tendency to think in discreet binaries, such as normal and special, leading to design decisions that do not take variety into account.14 Acknowledging we all have special requirements in seeing is helpful for deconstructing this binary opposition.


We need a particular physiological substrate for vision if we are to act in environments designed for average eyesight.15 Perhaps, because of the need to adapt to these environments in order to participate in the diverse social interactions presented, devices that allow eyesight that is closer to average eyesight can be felt to be almost as necessary as parts of the body, as is the case with Conrad. Devices modifying our bodies can afford seeing and acting in environments designed for average eyesight: One’s body has to be moulded if it is to fit these designed environments. Conrad makes this relation explicit by stating that “my glasses are not really an object for me; they are more a part of my body like an arm or something like that.” His eyeglasses enable him to partake in meaningful social relations, to activate affordances he would not be able to activate without them.

The boundaries of his body are described as not neatly contained but, rather, fluid, such that some material artefacts can be felt to be, in essence, body parts, not that different from an arm or fingers, for example. This understanding provides an example suitable for advancing the thesis of relationality of affordances, particularly addressing how the designed environments we act upon might mould and modify both our bodies and our understandings of them. This fluidity of bodily boundaries becomes understandable when the role of our bodies as a medium for action is underscored, as done in theories of media put forth by John Durham Peters and Hans Belting, among others.16 Our bodies, once moulded, afford novel relations to our environments, a novel fit, and this novel fit might be achieved through glasses, mobile phones, and/or other kinds of artefacts, effectively enabling the distribution and mediation of our selves.17

Action in environments designed for the requirements of average eyesight necessitates media that facilitate it. For some, the physical body itself provides a sufficient medium for doing so, being capable of adapting to the requirements of average eyesight in various environments; however, ever more people need specially fabricated eyewear in order to achieve fit with their environments. There is constant need for spectacles, contact lenses, and other media for being able to see in environments designed for average eyesight.


Although Conrad’s glasses feel more like a part of the body for him, he continues to see differently than those who by wearing spectacles approximate normal vision. When using eyeglasses, he must still rely on more prominent features of the people and objects he perceives, thereby explicitly activating affordances that he can rely upon in order to act in a socially meaningful way.

Normally, I can’t recognise people by their face when they are decently far away, so I use a lot of rough features, like what their body structure looks like, what kind of hairstyle they have, and how they walk. I even try to remember what clothes they wear. It’s easy to recognise people by how they walk, because a lot of people walk very distinctively. When they move their upper torso, or even how the body proportions are, how long the legs are and so forth. It all influences how people walk, so this makes it very easy for me to recognise people. […] I’m very conscious about that.

Body movements, colour of clothing, and hairstyle become particularly important since they remain recognisable cues for Conrad. Although those with average eyesight too notice these aspects of those they interact with, this often remains implicit and has to be brought up directly before it is considered, as has been discussed with regard to habitus.18

This friction in fitting within designed environments and social situations whose assumptions rely on average eyesight calls particularly in unfamiliar situations for Conrad’s so-called social hacking, a particular way of activating affordances, allowing him to explore novel kinds of relations that enable him to circumvent his special requirements. In social hacking, Conrad activates other affordances than people with average eyesight do, with the intention to approximate a socially accepted behaviour that does not reveal his visual impairment.

When I go through the world, one technique that I use is that I always ask people a lot of things if I can’t see it or get that information at the moment. So I would even ask indirectly whether something is going on in the street. If I don’t see what’s going on, I ask people what it is.

Ordering food at a restaurant might be such a situation. If it is Conrad’s first time at the restaurant and its offerings are not known to him beforehand, Conrad has to rely on a variety of techniques that those with average eyesight do not need. Since he is often unable to read the menu, which where we met (in San Francisco’s Bay Area) was often behind the counter, Conrad has to socially hack. Because he cannot identify what is on offer, he has to ask for recommendations, order what someone else is eating or has ordered, just point at some food, or ask about food for special diets (such as vegetarian food). These social hacks circumvent the problem that designed environments do not always afford him the same information that these environments do for those with average eyesight. Many of these social hacks might be used by those with average eyesight as well, but then for other reasons than not being able to read the menu behind the counter.

Also, computation devices allow Conrad to gather information about upcoming situations, helping him navigate in environments he cannot see. These devices allow Conrad to plan some of his actions in advance, so that he knows how to act in social situations that entail partial reliance on average eyesight. One of his situational social hacks is to look up the menu of a restaurant on that venue’s Web site before going there, so that he knows what is available.

The role that these devices receive in Conrad’s day-to-day life has become very intimate, since they help him to expand his experiences of the environment, affording him relations he might not engage in without them. As Conrad points out, these devices become a bit like friends, in that they facilitate his every day.

They help me a lot, I give an input and the machine replies. All of them actually have a name: my computer, my phone, my Kindle. I name them. They are active, they reply to what I say.

Whereas, for Conrad, eyeglasses feel like a part of the body, computation devices end up taking on social roles, since they are even more integral to the many social situations he can navigate with their aid. Both glasses and computation devices enable him to activate affordances in designed environments that otherwise do not fit his requirements.


Conrad’s account of visual frictions in the course of his everyday life provides a case in point for considering how the physiological substrate for vision and the social construction of visuality are intertwined. The notion of activated affordances is helpful for stressing the relationality between these two with regard to the particular environments under discussion, by enabling particular attention to be paid to why some affordances are activated instead of others. Conrad’s use of social hacking is a way to circumvent some of the restrictions he has for activating affordances in environments designed for those with average eyesight. In social hacking, Conrad seeks to activate other affordances in order to act in socially acceptable and meaningful ways, without having to take up the role of being visually impaired. Instead, he can act along with others taking other primary social roles, such as that of a student, an employee, or a young man, for example.

For studies in visual culture, this case provides examples for considering both the role of embodied practices and that of material environments for grasping vision and visuality. Presentation of this material in textual form and also as a multimedia narrative allows for the depiction of slightly different readings, which get experienced differently. In line with who the reader or viewer is, this text and the accompanying video afford different kinds of relations, and perhaps some of these might get activated in unforeseen ways.

With his eloquent descriptions of how he experiences his surroundings, Conrad reminds me of how we all deal with special requirements, all the time. Vision tests might prove that I see in a manner conforming to the ideals behind these tests, but the test results say little about the variance in seeing that we all experience. Aching, sore eyes after a day at a monitor or when out in the wind; the eyelids closing when one is trying to remain awake; and the assault of brightness after a night in the dark woods all are ways of seeing that entail a need to adapt to designed environments if one wants to take up a relation with them, thus activating an affordance.


This work would not have been possible without Conrad, who patiently and articulately told me about his ways of seeing and let me use his story originally as part of the attached video. In addition, Nancy Van House was particularly helpful in encouraging work on multimedia narrations and gave me the opportunity to follow and take part in the course she was leading at UC Berkeley. I am grateful also for the encouragement I received from friends and colleagues who have seen the video, particularly John Scott and Anna Shefl. Karin Becker was very helpful when I decided to complement the original video with the above text, and various colleagues within the Nordic Network for Digital Visuality have assisted greatly by showing me ways of combining textual and visual work within an academic framework. I would also like to thank colleagues at Locating Media for thoughtful discussions.


1. See also Hal Foster, “Preface,” in Vision and Visuality, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1988), ix–xiv.

2. The concept of activated affordances is developed by Gillian Rose in Doing Family Photography. The Domestic, the Public and the Politics of Sentiment, Kindle Edition (Surrey: Ashgate, 2010). I have found it useful also in Asko Lehmuskallio, Pictorial Practices in a “Cam Era.” Studying Non-Professional Camera Use (Tampere: Tampere University Press, 2012).

3. William John Thomas Mitchell, “Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture,” Journal of Visual Culture 1 (2002): 165–81.

4. Foster, “Preface”.

5. For a range of examples, see Nicholas Mirzoeff, ed., The Visual Culture Reader (London: Routledge, 1998) or the discussions in Janne Seppänen, The Power of the Gaze: An Introduction to Visual Literacy (New York: Peter Lang, 2006).

6. See Foster, “Preface”; and Mitchell, “Showing seeing.”

7. Important exceptions include Georgina Kleege, “Blindness and Visual Culture: An Eyewitness Account,” Journal of Visual Culture 4 (2005): 179–90; Georgina Kleege, “Visible Braille/Invisible Blindness,” Journal of Visual Culture 5 (2006): 209–18; and Gili Hammer, “Blind Women’s Appearance Management. Negotiating Normalcy between Discipline and Pleasure,” Gender & Society 26 (2012): 406–32.

8. James Jerome Gibson, “The Theory of Affordances,” in The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, ed. James Jerome Gibson (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1988), 127–43.

9. See Rose, Doing Family Photography; and Lehmuskallio, Pictorial Practices in a “Cam Era.”

10. See Mitchell, “Showing Seeing,” 171.

11. All quotes from Conrad are in the attached video, seeing with special requirements. This kind of blending in is discussed by Harold Garfinkel as passing. In contrast to his example of Agnes, Conrad does not seem to have a similar fear of disclosure, for him passing seems rather to facilitate a shift in focus of attention to other social aspects than those regarding his vision, see Harold Garfinkel, Passing and the managed achievement of sex status in an “intersexed” person, in Studies in Ethnomethodology, ibid. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967), 116–85.

12. Heidi Rae Cooley discusses this “fit” in particular in “It’s all about the Fit: The Hand, the Mobile Screenic Device and Tactile Vision,” Journal of Visual Culture 3 (2004): 133–55. For a discussion again of social constructions of technology, see Wiebe E. Bijker, Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs. Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997).

13. Normal vision is a judgement made via tests of various kinds and thereby conforms to or is governed by a rule, as the post-classical Latin etymology of “normal” suggests (see the OED). A common way of deciding if vision is “normal” is assessment via measurement of visual acuity with the Snellen chart; see Peter Fells and Colin Blakemore, “blindness,” in The Oxford Companion to the Body, eds. Colin Blakemore and Sheila Jennett (Online Version: Oxford University Press, 2003), http://helios.uta.fi:2267/view/10.1093/acref/9780198524038.001.0001/acref-9780198524038-e-108?rskey=MhmfP5&result=12 (accessed March 15, 2015).

14. Kleege, “Visible Braille/Invisible Blindness.”

15. For an introduction to perceptual visual psychology, see Robert Snowden, Peter Thompson and Tom Troscianko, Basic Vision. An Introduction to Visual Perception (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

16. See Hans Belting, Bild-Anthropologie. Entwürfe für eine Bildwissenschaft (Munich: Fink, 2001; Translated by Thomas Dunlap as An Anthropology of Images. Picture, Medium, Body (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press)) and John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air. A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1999).

17. Alfred Gell discusses such distributions as distributed selves; see Alfred Gell, Art and Agency. An Anthropological Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

18. Marcel Mauss provides a classic discussion of the importance of techniques of the body and how these develop in relation to bodies’ social and material environments. He coined the term “habitus” for these particular physical dispositions, and the term has become particularly influential for its role in Bourdieu’s sociological theory. For Bourdieu, the material environment does not play the role it does in Mauss’s rendering of the term. See Marcel Mauss, “Techniques of the Body,” Economy and Society 2 (1973): 70–88.



Sensory experiences of digital photo-sharing—“mundane frictions” and emerging learning strategies

Vaike Fors*

School of Education, Humanities, and Social Sciences, Halmstad University, Sweden


Digital technologies are increasingly ubiquitous in everyday life forming part of the way we live and experience the world. This article will specifically scrutinise how mobile phone cameras, digital photographing and the use of web-based photo-sharing sites and communities become part of the meaning-making practices through which the everyday is lived and understood. In doing so, I advance the concept of “mundane friction” through which to discuss the experience, meaning-making and pedagogy generated through operating screen-based technologies. Indeed, media participates in everyday worlds beyond its role as a provider of content and for communication. The question that will be addressed here is how this media presence can be understood from an embodied and sensory perspective, and is based in a study of sensory aspects of teenagers use of web-based photo-diaries. Further, this discussion leads to questions of how an appreciation of digital visuality as more than representational acknowledges the meaning of mundane friction caused by habitually touching, rubbing, clicking, pinching through media technologies as part of the sensory emplacement process that establish people as situated learners. In turn, problematising this tangible friction as pivotal for understanding digital visuality gives reason to argue for research methods that acknowledge digital visual material as more-than-visual and theory that moves toward the unspoken, tacit and sensory elements of learning in everyday practices. Thus, the aim of this article is to elaborate on the embodied, the methodological and the pedagogical dimensions of “mundane friction” in meaning-making activities, and its pedagogical implications.


Vaike Fors is a teacher and researcher at Halmstad University in Sweden. Her area of expertise lies in the fields of digital, visual and sensory ethnography, with a focus on pedagogical implications of everyday media practices. She has in her pursuit to contribute to further understandings of contemporary conditions for learning, studied museums and teenagers’ encounters with museum and science centre exhibits in various research projects.

Keywords: sensory ethnography; sensory emplaced learning; non-media centric media studies; teenagers; digital photographing; digital photo-diaries

Citation: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 7, 2015 http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/jac.v7.28237

Copyright: ©2015 V. Fors. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 8 December 2015

*Correspondence to: Vaike Fors, School of Education, Humanities, and Social Sciences, Halmstad University, Box 823, SE-301 18 Halmstad, Sweden. Email: vaike.fors@hh.se

This paper is part of the Special Issue: Visual Frictions. More papers from this issue can be found at www.aestheticsandculture.net


This article will advance the concept of “mundane friction” through which to discuss the experience, meaning-making and pedagogy generated through operating touchscreens and computer screens. The presented empirical examples originate from ethnographic work together with seven teenagers who showed us around on their favourite website, a web-based photo-diary. These examples are part of a larger study of how teenagers’ use of image-based social networking sites becomes part of how teenagers learn and make sense in their everyday life, and the implications for this in museums.1 In doing so, this article will elaborate on how a sensory approach to touchscreens can contribute to the study of digital visuality. Visuality, in its own term, derives from Hal Fosters distinction between vision and visuality, and denotes the aspects of the visual that is socially and culturally constructed in various ways: “how we see, how we are able, allowed, or made to see, and how we see this seeing and the unseeing therein.”2 Through a sensory approach, this article will push the notion of visuality one step further, and not only discuss how the visual is socially constructed but also how visuality is in itself culturally constructed as distinctive from and in competition with other senses. Indeed, as media scholars like Elizabeth Edwards and Laura U Marks has convincingly suggested, vision is not purely visual, but a multisensory embodied experience, closely linked to touch and haptic perception. As Marks points out, in what she calls haptic visuality (as opposed to optical visuality), “the eyes themselves function as organs of touch” which leads to that “the viewer’s body is more obviously involved in the process of seeing than in the case with optical visuality.”3 Marks is concerned with what the focus on the optical brings with it in terms of how we might lose contact with the materiality of images; the tacit, sensory and embodied relationships between the viewer and the image. In line with this argument, but with an ethnographic approach that deviates from Marks’ focus on spectatorship of moving images, I will here argue that digital visuality is inherently embodied since the digital invites people to touch, stroke, pinch, push, click touchscreens and other devices in daily routines and habits of taking, sharing and showing photos with camera phones. Even though large software and smartphone companies work hard and innovatively with creating “smooth” human–machine interfaces, there is an obvious, however not articulated, physical friction caused between the fingers/hands and the hardware in the daily use of these technologies. This daily and mundane friction between the hand/s and technologies plays a tangible role in the everyday learning strategies that develop through frequent use of digital visual media. Thus, “mundane frictions” is here used as a concept that might help us to move beyond simplified understandings of digital media practices as mainly actions of vision.

The reason for doing so is not only to, on a methodological level, problematise digital visuality through a multisensory perspective, but also to discuss implications on a pedagogical level. It seems to be clear that the conditions for learning have changed through the emergence of ubiquitous digital media technologies. This insight has had major implications in educational settings on all levels, in the way educators try to adapt the learning situation accordingly with what affordances these technologies might be considered to offer.4 Research in this area is often occupied with understanding the technological interface between the user and digital educational tools and what the hardware and software enables from a didactic point of view. What is scarcely examined is how use of media technologies has an impact on people’s everyday learning strategies, strategies that they bring with them into different, both informal and institutional, learning contexts.5 Ellsworth suggests that investigations in this neglected field actually can move learning theory further to acknowledge the embodied experience of change and motion.6 These routes to knowing might be hard to articulate since peoples life-world based learning resources cannot be treated as content; it consists of knowing that is “more-than-representational.”7 This implies that it is a field within pedagogical studies in need of further development. How can a multisensory approach to digital media studies deepen our understandings of how media is part of our experiential ways of making sense of everyday life? This question will be elaborated on both a theoretical and pedagogical level in this article; however, the methodological implications of a multisensory approach toward studies of the use of digital media will be discussed first.


This article draws on an ethnographic study undertaken with a group of teenagers about their learning habits that emerged through their everyday use of digital media,8 and the pedagogical implications of this for museums. Following Gillian Rose’s model of different sites and modalities for interpreting visual materials,9 this research focused on the social modalities of why and how the web-based visual materials were produced and how they were interpreted when viewed, thus leaving the compositional and technological modalities of the digital media aside. Furthermore, the aim was to investigate the ways in which teenagers are using digital photography in relation to the materialities of their environments alongside their use of web platforms and computing devices. Visual ethnographic methods were used to pay attention to the relationship between online and offline practices and the pedagogical implications of these practices in informal learning settings.10

The study was exploratory in its design and probed teenagers’ contemporary use of image-based digital media as emergent learning resources. The chosen research participants were specifically targeted as accustomed users of web-based media. All of them studied within a media-oriented program in a Swedish high school. This article draws on one specific part of the study in which the research participants showed me around on their favourite websites. These “computer-tours” showed that their favourite social media web page at the time was Bilddagboken.se (a web-based photo-diary). Bildagboken.se was then, according to the web site, one of the largest Swedish image-based social network sites. By the time of the study, it was primarily used by teenagers, and the interface allowed the user to upload images in a calendar and get comments from friends (see Picture 1).

Fig 1
Picture 1.  The web-based photo-diary Bilddagboken.se. The picture is made of a screen dump from the research material. Short descriptions of the features of the web page are marked in speech bubbles. Bilddagboken.se has now changed name to dayviews.com

The same year Bilddagboken.se was developed into Dayviews.com, it included 250,827,087 images and 100,000–500,000 pictures were uploaded everyday. Through interviews with teenage users, Lundmark and Normark noticed that the images were uploaded with a specific purpose; to be interesting for a broader group of friends,11 which makes the web page a typical site for contemporary digital self-representation (see Picture 2).

Fig 2
Picture 2.  Bilddagboken.se (and its successor dayviews.com) is characterised by high-frequent uploads of images, not seldom with two to three uploads by the same photographer within 1–2 minutes. The picture shows a search on images uploaded by 16–18 year-olds on dayviews.com and what time they were uploaded (29 May 2015).

The computer-tours with the participants were designed with inspiration from visual research that aims at using the camera as a tool for the researcher to learn to see and perceive as others do, in a directed way.12 By asking the teenagers to guide me through their favourite sites and to describe their practices both verbally and through embodied performance, as a researcher I got the opportunity to learn more about how to both scroll, click and browse through the websites, and how and what to pay attention to in the web content. Instead of using an external video camera, the computer-tours with the research participants were recorded through the software “Screenflow.” Screenflow records not only show what happens in front of the computer by using the computer camera and microphone, but also record what happens on the screen itself. This procedure provided more detailed information on how the cursor moved on the screen in relation to what the research participants showed and talked about, than could be assessed by filming with an external video camera. In turn, this detailed information provided opportunities for me to go back into the material and re-call what happened and what the research participant talked about in terms of what was worth paying attention to in the showed images, and how I should pay attention to these details. That is, how the browsing, pointing and looking through the photo-diary became part of the description of what the diary meant to them and the embodied experiences of moving through it.

Subsequently, a specific research interest laid in analysing how visual experience is part of the multisensory and material process of moving through the digital,13 paying attention to “the ways the body is engaged in imagining and remembering” the localities and persons that Internet content represent and thereby “move beyond the notion of ‘looking at’ images on a screen.”14 Thus, the research material was analysed in ways that made it possible to explore the theoretical and methodological implications of approaching “audio–visual” media not only through the visual, but also as an embodied practice and elaborating on the relation between the digital images and the sensory practices in which they were embedded.

In order to make it possible to re-call what happened in particular sequences of the computer-tours from an embodied and multisensory perspective, these sequences were transcribed into a similar format as is used in comics. Inspired by Scott McCloud’s discussions about how comics are visual media that tries to embrace all the senses within it,15 the comic-book-like transcription below is organised to show both what happened on the screen, what the research participant focused on, what s/he said while this happened and how the mouse and cursor moved during this episode. Altogether, this information creates a translation of the situation into words and images that readers and researchers can empathise with. As McCloud argues, as much as there is something to see in the panels, there are also things to imagine between the panels that call all the senses into action. This imaginative dimension of the in-betweeness of images organised in a series of panels resembles the way the teenagers used Bilddagboken.se to upload snapshots from their everyday life, both in series of three to four photos or as single photos. As shown in the example below, the imaginative, non-representational aspect of the photo-diary was crucial in understanding the meaning of it from the teenager’s point of view. The following sequence is taken from a computer-tour with Frida, one of the research participants.

The episode above shows how media practises that involved posting photo entries on the web were deeply embedded in these teenagers routines and habits, documenting what Villi calls “visual chit-chat—the capturing and sharing of fleeting feelings, moods, and mundane moments of the everyday and commonplace.”16 The experience of the photo-entry came through the computer-tours structured around aspects of the situations that were not visible in the photos, but still very concretely articulated through an interplay between what was seen, said, anticipated, imagined and touched (on the mouse and screen). By clicking the mouse and moving the cursor over the pictures, these invisible, tacit and embodied aspects came to be articulated and part of creating place. Thus, the results showed among other things that frequent use of Bilddagboken.se by taking uploading and sharing digital photographs incorporates learning to perceive through a sensorium that is characterised by giving form to experiences and places through a combination of vision, touch, motion and imagination, unifying rather than disassociating the senses through calling imagination into action. In the next section, a theoretical framework that helps us to understand media use from a sensory and embodied perspective will be clarified.


In this article, digital visuality is approached through the senses. This “sensory turn” is part of an emerging body of literature across humanities and social sciences that focus on sensory perception, and its role in the process through which people experience and make their everyday environments. The anthropologist Tim Ingold, whose mission is to bring together social/cultural and biological understandings of how people perceive the environment into one coherent approach, developed a theory of perception mainly based on the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and James Gibson. In his approach, Ingold insisted on looking at perception as something other than a mechanism that provides the mind with raw material of experience through the body’s sensorial channels, that will be organised into an internal model of the world inside the brain. Instead, Ingold defines perception as an achievement “of the organism as a whole in its environment, and is tantamount to the organism’s own exploratory movement through the world. If mind is anywhere then, it is not ‘inside the head’ rather than ‘out there’ in the world. To the contrary, it is immanent in the network of sensory pathways that are set up by virtue of the perceiver’s immersion in his or her environment.”17 This way of reasoning turns the analytical attention toward how we perceive the world not as a ready-made surface to appropriate or internalise, but as emerging as we move through it. It also questions the notion of the perceptual system as constituted of five sensory channels that register different kinds of input from the environment in differentiated ways. On the contrary, Ingold argues that everything we perceive is subsumed under a total system of bodily orientation, thus implying that “looking, listening and touching, therefore, are not separate activities, they are just different facets of the same activity: that of the whole organism in its environment.”18

From this perspective, it becomes evident that the Western categories of sight, sound, touch and smell are not biologically given sensorial channels that register differentiated sensory data, but are culturally constructed sensory categories that we use when we try to explain what we experience both in everyday life as well as when we, as researchers, discuss research methods and findings. It also implies that people learn how to use and describe their senses, rather than merely deploying the natural capabilities of the body.19 Gibson suggests that key to such understandings of everyday environments is about perception and an “education of attention.”20 Building on Gibson’s theories of the interrelatedness between the organism and its environment, Ingold argues that “one learns to perceive in the manner appropriate to a culture—by hands-on training in everyday tasks whose successful fulfilments requires a practical ability to notice and to respond fluently to salient aspects of the environment.”21 Even though Gibson’s and Ingold’s scholarship doesn’t concern media studies in particular, this body of work becomes useful in research that takes on a sensory approach to digital media. That is particularly evident in studies that focus on how new ways of touching, looking and moving with digital media raise questions of the sensorality of embodied engagements with media, how it feels to engage physically with these technologies and how media is part of a fuller sensory emplaced experience of being part of an environment.

Previous approaches to media analysis of the relationships between media and its users have tended to be concerned with the content of media messages and how it is interpreted and received by its audiences. Tony Bennett indicates that these tendencies also include a view of the audiences as “essentially disembodied,”22 as if relations to media take place without eyes, ears and fingers being particularly involved. In contrast, media scholars like Shaun Moores prescribe media theory that considers media as practice, or more specifically, part of practice. It is media theory that appreciates media use as place-constituting activity, among “the myriad ways subjects inhabit the world before they represent that world to themselves and others,”23 and how media becomes part of people’s ways of exploring and continually contextualising the material environment through their movements and multisensory experiences. Pink calls our attention to how the uses of Internet websites have multisensory implications. Even though you could think of screen- and web-based media as mainly a visual sensation, Pink argues that an understanding of place as a relationality in which the local and global is mutually constituted, then we could be invited to “understand the Internet as a field of potential forms of relatedness” and that different elements of the Internet “always have the potential to be interwoven into particular intensities of place that also involve, interactivity, material localities, and technologies.”24 Indeed, with today’s mobile technologies, the use of the Internet is not only circumscribed to gazing into a domestic computer monitor, but a whole bodily orientation.25 Subsequently, web pages, applications and other platforms we might engage with online “are not simply bounded visual landscapes that can be sensed as virtual places. Rather they are experienced inevitable as part of places that straddle the different environments we engage in and perceive multi-sensorially and memorially.”26 This approach is part of a trajectory within so-called “non-media-centric media studies” that focus on the embodied and emplaced dimensions of media that have grown in reaction to more semiotic, representational and culturalist research traditions within the field.


Richardsson argues that the shift from analogue to digital technologies in the past 50 years has changed how we relate to and make meaning of the world.27 Some media scholars, like Laura Marks, are concerned with if this tendency marks a shift away from the experiential embodied ways of knowing.

I worry that the information age is making us very good as symbolization, at the expense of bringing us into contact with that which we do not know and for which we have no categories. Surfing most Web sites, or playing most video games confirms our ability to execute certain tasks but I am not sure how it opens us to the unknown—except perhaps for those moments when, waiting for a download, we notice the shape of our fingernails for the first time.28

In the same vein, Moores instead insists on regarding media as inherently embodied and argue for a joint consideration of physical and media environments as lived spaces,29 Richardsson makes a similar argument when she describes the development of mobile media devices and wearable screens (like smart phones) as a development that only further disrupts distinctions between place and space, actual and virtual environment.30 Thus, media scholars like Moores, Richardsson and Marks urge for an appreciation of the materiality of media practices that “pulls us away from a symbolic understanding and toward a shared physical existence.”31 For example, Moores draws our attention to embodied parts of media practices, like the use of keyboards and manoeuvring of a mouse device, and how this “direct link between bodily know-how and technologically mediated mobility leads me to doubt any grand claims about the disembodied character of online existence, and to insist that issues of embodiment should be much more central to media theory and research they currently are.”32 As Nick Crossley points out, the use of media technologies in everyday life offers a lot of opportunities to develop embodied forms of knowledge. He discusses for example how his own experience of using computer keyboards has made him experience a “bodily know-how” that made him know how to type without being able to give a reflective account of the keyboard layout. This “pre-reflective” knowledge is placed in his hands relation to the keyboard in a way that if he had to say where the keys were “I have to imagine that I am typing and watch where my fingers head for.”33 Indeed, everyday use of media participates in the mundane ways people make sense of the world far beyond its role as a provider of content and for communication. Obviously, the embodied dimensions of media practices are very much part of the “education of attention” suggested by Gibson34; however, further research is needed. To understand the role of media today in relation to other aspects of everyday life (like learning) the media scholars mentioned above call for a “non-media centric” approach to media studies where social practice is the primary generative phenomenon, and where media use is appreciated as an embodied and emplaced part of practice embedded in habitual, pre-reflective, experiential ways of knowing the material environment. In the next section, the empirical material presented above will be approached from such a perspective, in order to scrutinise digital visuality from a multisensory perspective.


Following the first example (shown in Picture 3), the next example will further elaborate on how a multisensory approach gives reason to understand digital visuality as not only a visual endeavour, but also incorporating touch and other sensory imaginations. In the following example, the research participant Sanne shows a sequence from her photo-diary that tells about a visit to a so-called “street race,” an illegal car racing event that usually happens at night in abandoned industrial areas. She excitedly told about the different activities and showed a large amount of photos that were mostly blurred and hard to understand without explanations. A recurring description was that she wasn’t interested in showing specific things when posting the photos; instead the main feature of the pictures was to convey the “feeling” Sanne had experienced when participating in this event. She wanted to show these photos when asked to show any entry in her photo-diary that she often went back to when she browsed through the web page. First she clicked on the date of the street race and got to a page where there were rows of blurred photos. She described that “most of the pictures are dark, well here [pointing with the cursor on two completely black photos] it is because I forgot to move my finger from the flash … however they mean a lot!” [She moves on clicking and scrolling down in the feed until she reaches a bit lighter, but still blurred, photo that makes her smile]. Pointing at the photo with her index finger, she said: “Here also you see a lot of people it is a bad photo, but you see the car go and you understand the feeling.” After saying this, she moved the cursor back and forth over the picture at a fast pace (see Picture 4 below). She sits and looks at the picture and clicks on it so it becomes larger and talks about how she wants it there as a memory, and as an opportunity to relive that moment and distribute the feeling to her friends by posting it in her diary. The reason is that “this was the first time I was on a street race and everyone was all excited and the adrenaline was on 220. It was awesome!” We continued discussing how that feeling could be captured through a photo and she showed a dark photo with traces of white clouds. The clouds were traces of smoke from when the cars made “burnouts” and Sanne wanted to describe through her photo “that smoky feeling.” Again, Sanne used both the mouse and cursor, and also by touching the screen directly with her fingers, to give form to the experience the photos evoked when she scrolled through her feed.

Fig 3
Picture 3.  During this episode, Frida, the research participant, showed what to focus on by pointing with the cursor at different things by moving the mouse back and forth and clicking on different features on the web page. During the whole episode, she was active with her right hand that held the mouse, creating both a scraping sound against the table and a clicking sound when Frida’s index finger pressed the left button on the mouse. Frida never turned her eyes toward her right hand while she was performing the pointing and clicking, and she never hesitated when browsing through the web page. Much of what was going on in this photo-entry did not show in the photo itself, but in the situation in which the photo was taken. This became visible in the way she guided us through this particular web page. In fact, the things she pointed out as invisible aspects of the photo-entry were where she stood outside of the photo, what she did and felt like, and the hoped-for comments that were not there yet. By doing this, Frida was re-enacting what she experienced that day and how it felt to stand there watching the others play football.

Fig 4
Picture 4.  One example of how touch and vision was used by the research participant to emplace the image into the interview context and give form to the feelings the photos evoked in her, feelings she wanted to share. Through pointing on the photo with the cursor in different ways, unarticulated and tacit aspects of the captured situation unfolded and called more-than-visual senses into action.

The multisensory approach deployed in the analysis made it possible to understand these teenagers’ sensory enskillment and incorporated routes to knowing as characterised by a common ground of looking, touching, sensory imaginations and movement through the Internet. The touching was concretely performed, through the tapping of the hand over the keyboard and on the mouse (and handling the mobile phone camera in the situation that was photographed), and by the way it was embedded in the participants demonstrations of what the photo-diary tacitly and experientially consisted of and what you could do with it. Throughout the video-tours, the teenagers were asked both to verbally describe and show through embodied performance what and how to pay attention to the website content. This ethnographic approach provided opportunities for us as researchers to learn to experience the image-based web site the way they did, a route to knowing that was permeated by the physical experience of touch in combination with imaginations of fleeting and ephemeral place-events.


This analysis of the multisensoriality of Bilddagboken.se highlighted touch, together with vision, as being a crucial component of the studied sensory emplaced learning process. Touching is so obvious a condition for participation in social network sites that it is easily over-looked. However, as mentioned above, within media studies there is a recent turn toward the materialities of media use, focusing on issues of embodiment and emplacement,35 and haptic visuality.36 Vision has a long tradition of being connected with touch; well-known philosophers who have dealt with this issue are among others Descartes and later on Merleau-Ponty. More recent discussions about how touch is related to visuality include Elisabeth Edwards’ work on photography. Edwards discusses how photographs are closely connected to touch since they have from its earliest days demanded physical engagement—“photo-objects exist in relationship to the human body, making photographs as objects intrinsically active in the way they are handled, touched, caressed.”37

The following example brings to the fore how the sense of touch is deployed in the digital setting, not only as part of a body-image relationship, but also in the creation and re-enactment of place. The example emanates from the computer-tour with Sanne and shows a sequence in which Sanne introduces how she would capture the places she is moving through during a day in her photo-diary. The speech bubble stretches over a couple of photos, which indicates the pace at which Sanne moved through her photos. She browsed swiftly through the first three photos and then stopped at the fourth photo that showed her friends sitting on a train. When looking at the fifth photo, she started to click and zoom while discussing this photo and what it meant to her. Her use of the click-and-zoom function followed her way of reasoning, a process that also could be understood the other way around. Both the handling of the computer and the line of thoughts she articulated were coordinated so that one and the other feed into a whole of re-creating the place in which these photos were part of and at the same time creating the meaning of place.

In Picture 4 in the previous section, the research participant demonstrates the photograph by using the computer mouse in an attempt to invoke the feeling of being there and experience the cars moving by at a fast pace; the smell, sound and heat from the engines, all the people watching and so on. In Picture 5, above the routinely performed clicking and double-clicking of the mouse both provided the narrative with a rhythm and pace, and at the same time changed the perspective of the image by sometimes zooming in and out. These are part of many examples that showed how the touching of the keyboard, computer mouse and touchscreens occurred frequently when participants were discussing the images in the photo-diary. According to Ingold’s ideas of perception as something that is learned “in a manner appropriate to a culture—by hands-on training in everyday tasks,”38 digital visuality implies—according to these examples—to educate the attention through touch. It also suggests that the feeling of touching is part of the articulation and orientation of attention toward tacit and embodied experiences, creating place as moving through the feed of photos in different places and from different positions. These findings will be elaborated on in the following section, and the use of “touch” as a sensory category that describes the experience of digital photos will be problematised.

Fig 5
Picture 5.  The research participant clicks the mouse to move through the images published during a Friday night. With a double-click, the perspective of the images is altered and coordinated with the research participant’s re-creation of the situation and what it meant to her.


As shown in the empirical examples described above, the use of an image-based social network site as Bilddagboken.se affords a lot of physically handling of technological devices (what is here called “mundane frictions”) both when taking snapshots of fleeting moments, and when uploading and later viewing, browsing and commenting on the snapshots on the website. In this study, the teenagers also demonstrated the ways the different images on the website should be viewed and understood which in itself included some extra pointing and scrolling that they probably would not be doing when looking through the website alone. In this way, they used the technology at hand to articulate and re-enact what they usually do not need to say and do when participating in their own communities, thus creating a rich context for investigating what is meaningful to the people who participate in youth cultures that are otherwise inaccessible and invisible for studying for researchers of another generation or community. Even though the exploratory design of this study concludes that it is hard to claim any general knowledge about emerging youth cultures in relation to image-based social network sites, the results provide insights into how digital visuality can be understood from an embodied and multisensory perspective. Bilddagboken.se was not cultural-specific in relation to Swedish culture, but instead featured commonly used tools and interfaces for uploading images in social media and has now continued to develop in an international format (dayviews.com). Therefore, it might not be farfetched to think about the findings as transferable to other image-based social networks as well.

With the empirical findings presented in previous sections in mind, one could question the existence of pure “visual media.” Indeed, there has been a scholarly move away from visual media for some time. One example is Mitchell’s article with the title “There are no Visual Media” in which he argues that “all media are mixed media.”39 With reference to Oliver Sacks, Mitchell suggests that there is no pure visual perception since “natural vision is braiding and nesting of the optical and the tactile.”40 The problem here, as pinpointed by Pink, is that “braiding” can only be possible if we think of the senses as differentiated channels.41 However, if we take the argument that the sensory categories are themselves culturally constructs42 seriously, these categories cannot be mapped directly onto processes of human perception.43 Perception does not necessarily happen in categories at all. As Pink points out, we do not experience through these categories themselves, but when we talk about our sensory experiences, both in everyday life or as researchers, we might use these categories as a way of communicating.44 This perspective on the senses calls for a reflexive awareness of what analytical categories we use and what they mean in relation to the experiential realities we want to describe.

It is obvious that what the research participants in the examples above actually did, here analysed as touching, is that they move their hands and fingers habitually and routinely when stroking, pointing, clicking, pinching, tapping the different media technologies with the purpose of taking and publishing photos, write comments, browse through the images, “relive certain happenings,” explaining invisible and embodied feelings and content. However, from a multisensory perspective, the participants might not conceive this dexterity as a matter of touch/vision/imaginations at all, even though they might use these categories if they were asked what they were doing with their bodies in front of the computer. These examples show the importance of awareness that touch in this sense is established analytically as a constructed category interrelated with vision and sensory imaginations. Therefore, it can’t be reduced to stand for anything by itself, but has always been understood in relation to the experience it is said to represent. Subsequently, suggesting “mundane frictions” as a multisensorial category that captures the experience of the digital photo-diary practices moves away from the culturally constructed five-sense categories as a basis for explanations. In turn, these “mundane frictions” plays a crucial part in calling the sensory imaginations into action and give form to the experiential, non-representational and tacit aspects of the events or places the photos were part of when they were produced.

To elaborate theoretically on the concept of “mundane friction,” it is fruitful to relate it to Laura Marks’ use of the concept haptics,45 a concept she uses to develop our understandings of how we perceive images and film. Marks uses Deleuze and Guattari’s theories on smooth (haptic) and striated (optic) space to nuance visuality, not as dichotomies but instead as properties of space that slide into one another. She describes this urge to theoretically construct sensory categories that communicates embodied experiences as both a critic of the social and societal implications of the constructed five-sense categories for communicating experience and as a tool to deepen our understandings of alternative ways to think about how to capture experience. This perspective on vision as material and embodied goes in line with what this article outlines as the experience of “mundane friction.” However, when Marks is concerned with how embodied spectatorship of moving images is informed by detailed analysis of aesthetic experience of how cinematic sound-images affect and provoke the perception and understandings of the viewer, this research aims instead at an ethnographic approach contributing to a deeper understanding of how audio–visual digital media becomes embodied through practice. Following Pink’s argument that visual ethnographic methods offer routes to understand a contemporary technological and social world, “given that mobile and visual computing technologies are ubiquitous and moreover central to everyday socialities among some groups of people,”46 this research aims at contributing to understandings of experience of media as embodied and emplaced in people’s worlds beyond these media. The multisensory approach in the presented study highlights the crucial fact that the body, and the concrete “mundane friction” between bodies and technologies, plays a role in the process of everyday sensory emplacement in contemporary media practices, quite the opposite to what is sometimes claimed about the “disembodied” electronic age.


The interdisciplinary theoretical framework outlined above urges scholars interested in how and why people engage in digital media to move beyond culturalist, representational and disembodied approaches into the experiential, non-representational, emplaced and sensory realm of everyday life. As suggested throughout this article, the “mundane frictions” caused by the handling of digital media in the everyday media practices plays a crucial part in highlighting the tacit and embodied aspects of learning through media. Theoretically, “mundane frictions,” and how the senses are united through motion and imaginations in relation to these frictions, suggests that digital visuality is inherently embodied and can hardly be conceptualised exclusively as visuality distinctive from other senses according to the Western construct of five sensorial categories.

The trajectory multisensory, non-media-centric media studies run in the same vein as theoretical perspectives on learning as non-representational, situated, embodied, part of practice and constitutive of place. This emplaced perspective on learning is advocated for in scholarships based in anthropological approaches to knowledge such as Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s perspective on situated learning.47 This perspective on learning insists on focusing on the whole persons involvement in social practice including non-representational aspects of everyday life, which make it a viable point of departure in studies of how media becomes part of peoples everyday practices and how both these social and material practices are part of and constitutive of wider environments. These perspectives on learning in combination with non-media centric media studies provide a coherent theoretical framework for understandings of how media becomes part of people’s life-world based learning resources. As argued elsewhere,48 a notion of multisensoriality offers a viable route for developing situated perspectives on learning with media through the process of sensory emplacement. Therefore, it becomes relevant to understand what people do with their bodies in relation to media technologies and its content if we want to find new ways to understand media that acknowledge the continuities between mind, body, environment and the ongoingness of everyday worlds. New insights into how experience, meaning-making and pedagogy are generated through operating touchscreens, computer mouses and computers emanating from this research indicate that the clicking, tapping, stroking is not only part of, but is enhancing the tacit, embodied and material aspects of viewing images.

For pedagogical reasons, the insights provided through the presented research tell us to move beyond the simple assumption that teenagers have become multimodal, multitaskers, used to state-of-the-art technologies and visual media, and will therefore only engage in pedagogical contexts that seek to create such environments on a superficial level. However, through a multisensory perspective on digital visuality and its pedagogical implications, it might be reasonable to think about how the “mundane frictions” that is obviously part of contemporary digital photo-sharing is enhancing and developing not only observable behaviours such as clicking and stroking, but more so, tacit, experiential and non-representational aspects of learning.


1. Vaike Fors, “Teenagers’ Multisensory Routes for Learning in the Museum: Pedagogical Affordances and Constraints for Dwelling in the Museum,” Senses & Society 8, no. 3 (2013): 268–89.

2. Hal Foster, “Preface,” in Vision and Visuality, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1988), ix–xiv.

3. Laura U. Marks, Touch. Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

4. Christine Redecker et al., Learning 2.0: The Impact of Web 2.0 Innovations on Education and Training in Europe (Report No. 24103 EN from the Institute of Prospective Technological Studies, European Commission, 2009), http://ipts.jrc.ec.europa.eu/publications/pub.cfm?id=2899 [Retrieved 18th October 2015].

5. Fors, “Teenagers’ Multisensory Routes for Learning in the Museum.”

6. Elizabeth Ellsworth, Places of Learning (New York: Routledge, 2005).

7. Hayden Lorimer, “Cultural Geography: The Busyness of Being ‘More-Than Representational’.” Progress in Human Geography 29, no. 1 (2005): 83–94.

8. Fors, “Teenagers’ Multisensory Routes for Learning in the Museum.”

9. Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies (London: Sage, 2012).

10. Fors, “Teenagers’ Multisensory Routes for Learning in the Museum.”

11. Sofia Lundmark and Maria Normark, “New Understandings of Gender and Identity Construction by Norm-Critical Design” (paper presented at Gender & ICT ‘11: The 6th European Conference on Gender and ICT Feminist Interventions in Theories and Practices, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden, March 8–10, 2011).

12. Cristina Grasseni, “Video and Ethnographic Knowledge: Skilled Vision and the Practice of Breeding,” in Working Images, eds. Sarah Pink, László Kürti, and Ana Isabel Afonso (London: Routledge, 2004), 15–30.

13. Sarah Pink, Doing Sensory Ethnography, 2nd ed. (London: Sage, 2015a).

14. Sarah Pink, “Visual Ethnography and the Internet: Visuality, Virtuality and the Spatial Turn,” in Advances in Visual Methodology, ed. Sarah Pink (London: Sage, 2012), 113–30.

15. Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994).

16. Mikko Villi, “Visual Mobile Communication: Camera Phone Photo Messages as Ritual Communication and Mediated Presence” (diss., Alto university, Finland: School of Art and Design, 2010), 150.

17. Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment (London: Routledge, 2000), 3.

18. Ibid., 261.

19. David Howes, Sensual relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2003).

20. James Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), 254.

21. Ingold, The Perception of the Environment, 166–7.

22. Tony Bennett, “The Media Sensorium: Cultural Technologies, the Senses, and Society,” in Media Audiences, ed. Marie Gillespie (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2005), 93.

23. Ben Andersson and Paul Harrison, “The Promise of Non-Representational Theory,” in Taking-Place: Non-Representational Theories and Geography, eds. Ben Anderson and Paul Harrison (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 10.

24. Pink, “Visual Ethnography and the Internet,” 120.

25. J. MacGregor Wise, “A Hole in the Hand: Assemblages of Attention and Mobile Screens,” in Theories of the Mobile Internet. Materialities and Imaginaries, eds. Andrew Herman, Jan Hadlaw, and Thom Swiss (New York: Routledge, 2015). 212–31; and Ingrid Richardsson, “Touching the Screen. A Phenomenology of Mobile Gaming and the iPhone,” in Studying Mobile Media. Cultural technologies, Mobile Communication, and the iPhone, eds. Larissa Hjort, Jean Burgess and Ingrid Richardsson (New York: Routledge, 2015), 133–55.

26. Pink, “Visual Ethnography and the Internet.”

27. Richardsson, “Touching the Screen.”

28. Marks, Touch. Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, xi–xii.

29. Shaun Moores, Media, Place and Mobility (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 51.

30. Richardsson, “Touching the Screen.”

31. Marks, Touch. Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, xii.

32. Moores, Media, Place and Mobility, 52.

33. Nick Crossley, The Social Body: Habit, Identity and Desire (London: Sage, 2001), 122.

34. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 254.

35. Larissa Hjort, Jean Burgess and Ingrid Richardsson, eds., Studying Mobile Media. Cultural technologies, Mobile Communication, and the iPhone (New York: Routledge, 2015); and Andrew Herman, Jan Hadlaw and Thom Swiss, eds., Theories of the Mobile Internet. Materialities and Imaginaries (New York: Routledge, 2015).

36. Marks, Touch. Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media.

37. Elizabeth Edwards, “Photographs and the Sound of History,” Visual Anthropology 21 (2005): 42.

38. Ingold, The Perception of the Environment, 166–7.

39. W. J. T. Mitchell, “There Are No Visual Media,” Journal of Visual Culture 4, no. 2 (2005): 260.

40. Ibid., 263.

41. Sarah Pink, “Approaching Media Through the Senses: Between Experience and Representation,” Media International Australia 154 (2015b): 1–15.

42. See Ingold, The Perception of the Environment and Pink, Doing Sensory Ethnography.

43. Richard Cytowic, “Our Hidden Superpowers,” New Scientist (April 24, 2010), 46; and Fiona Newell and Ladan Shams, “New Insights into Multisensory Perception,” Perception 36 (2007): 1414–18.

44. Pink, Doing Sensory Ethnography.

45. Marks, Touch. Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media.

46. Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography, 3rd ed. (London: Sage, 2013), 134.

47. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, Situated Learning. Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

48. See Vaike Fors, Åsa Bäckström, and Sarah Pink, “Multisensory Emplaced Learning: Resituating Situated Learning in a Moving World,” Mind, Culture, Activity 20, no. 2 (2013): 170–83.; and Fors, “Teenagers’ Multisensory Routes for Learning in the Museum.”



Childhood re-edits: challenging norms and forming lay professional competence on YouTube

Konstantin Economou1* and Anne-Li Lindgren2

1Department for Studies of Social Change and Culture (ISAK), Linköping University, Sweden; 2Child- and Youth Studies, Stockholm University, Sweden


This article presents the initial findings of research into how YouTube culture can become an arena for young YouTube videographers to remodel mainstream, sub-cultural, and media content (YouTube clips, music, film content, and viral memes). We juxtapose analyses from both media and child studies to look at the ways in which preferred images and notions of the “good” and idyllic childhood are re-edited into a possible critique of the prescribed Swedish childhood. Also, we look at ways in which these media-literate actors use YouTube to display their skills in both media editing and social media “savvy.” We discuss how “lay” professional competence in digital culture can be inherent in a friction between popular (children’s) culture and social media production, where simultaneous prowess in both is important for how a mediatised social and cultural critique can emerge.


Konstantin Economou is a senior lecturer in Media and Cultural Production at Linköping University. He is also a member of the board of the Swedish Association for Media and Communication Research (FSMK). His current research interests focus on the conditions of cultural production, in the convergence between everyday and professional practices. He is also involved in curatorial work on art, media, and politics.


Anne-Li Lindgren is a professor of Child and Youth Studies at Stockholm University, Sweden, where she is a director of the Early Childhood Education section. She is also a member of the scientific committee at the Agency for Swedish Cultural Policy Analysis. Her current research focuses on childhood visualisations and child cultures in early childhood education in historical and contemporary perspectives.

Keywords: child studies; media and communication studies; visuality; childhood innocence; children’s culture; participatory culture

Citation: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 7, 2015 http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/jac.v7.28953

Copyright: ©2015 K. Economou & A.-L. Lindgren. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 8 December 2015

*Correspondence to: Konstantin Economou, Department for Studies of Social Change and Culture (ISAK), Linköping University, Sweden. Email: konstantin.economou@liu.se

This paper is part of the Special Issue: Visual Frictions. More papers from this issue can be found at www.aestheticsandculture.net


This article addresses YouTube culture as an arena for its members to use mainstream and sub-cultural media content to create new meanings and narratives. Our interdisciplinary approach is to juxtapose analyses from the perspectives of both media and child studies to understand how content is derived from social and cultural commentary. We present and analyse ways in which images of childhood or preferred notions of the good childhood in idyllic rural or historic settings are re-edited by YouTube video makers into a possible critique of the perceived prescribed childhood. More specifically, we focus on storytelling through visual and auditory means, where content can range from compilations and mash-ups of different images from films, TV, and a wide variety of internet content, to more complex forms where content is elaborately re-edited into a new “film” with, in addition to the original story, a coherent counter narrative, and elaborate special effects (visual and auditory). We also discuss how the producers can display “lay professional” competence in participatory media culture, pointing towards how young social media producers display competence that used to belong to an advanced professional skill set.1 It is a position that combines knowledge of popular (children’s) culture with professional media production, where prowess in both is important for how social and cultural critiques surface. We are using re-makes of children’s cultural material, deeply embedded in Swedish culture, to address broader cultural issues regarding how visual frictions can be used as a means of communication, both of content production and of young producers developing competence. Although Swedish in language and content, the frictions they create also rely on hegemonic notions of childhood as idyllic state that are easily recognised and acknowledged elsewhere.

In this initial survey, we analyse the form and content of a strategic sample of videos uploaded onto YouTube. It is a case study carving out directions for further research rather than coming up with final conclusions. All the videos are re-models of the famous Swedish author Astrid Lindgren’s novels and their film adaptations. Lindgren is an acknowledged author and regarded as good culture and good children’s literature in (adult) society.2 Her work is heavily invested with notions of proper and romanticised childhoods in historical time with active, competent, and protected children at the centre.3 It is in accordance with a traditional Western childhood, where children are dependent on adults who know and translate what children’s best interest are. Adults are, as Karen Smith has argued, the providers of children’s worlds and perspectives.4 Children need protection in order to be or become innocent—to experience a “romantic childhood,” the most valued childhood in Western societies, where children are innocent, angelic, and free to play and learn, as several Child Studies scholars have pointed out.5

The YouTube videos we analyse in this article, however, challenge these notions of good childhoods. They produce friction with established norms about a good childhood by including the not idyllic in the videos, that is, sexuality, drugs, violence, desire, and evil, thus making visible a normalised (and thus usually invisible) adult–child divide.


The analysis is based on a virtual ethnography approach, which is limited to YouTube and online practices.6 Our interest in these particular videos was triggered while we were exploring theme and amusement park websites as part of a larger ethnographic study of child culture.7 In Lindgren’s hometown of Vimmerby, there is a theme park dedicated to her characters that is one of the largest tourist destinations in Sweden. This theme park also reproduces idyllic notions of the secure and free child, at the same time as it contains a particular imperative for users; visitors and their children have to subscribe to reproducing this image by, literally, playing along.8 It is also a place of media use and production. Parents upload their own versions of Astrid Lindgren’s childhoods as YouTube videos and blogs, casting their own children in the roles of the famous story book characters. New personalised versions of the stories become created and published on the internet.9 However, videos on YouTube produced by young people (approximately 12–20 years of age), stand out in stark contrast to how adults blog about visits to theme and amusement parks. Adults’ blogs are heavily invested with romanticised notions of protected and competent children with adults as creators of good, middle-class, ethnically homogeneous (western) childhoods, both when performing actual visits to parks and when creating the blogs afterwards. We found it interesting to further study the meanings that young people produce and communicate when they relate to a particular sphere of Swedish children’s culture: Astrid Lindgren’s work.

Limor Shifman calls YouTube an “emblem of participatory culture” and uses the term memes to denote “popular clips that generate extensive user engagement by way of creative derivatives,” where one clip generates commentary clips and new re-edits.10 We have identified the same kind of user-generated content in our material. Shifman identifies six common traits of these memes: a “focus on ordinary people, flawed masculinity, humour, simplicity, repetitiveness, and whimsical content,” and she goes on to argue that the clips are inherently “incomplete or flawed, thereby invoking further creative dialogue.”11 Shifman’s study is commendable for its attempt to list clips in a more quantifiable content analysis, and we find some of the broader categories that she suggests useful in this article. Our approach, though, is to focus on the frictions that become visible when cultural content—created by destabilising memetic elements—is used as a tool for social communication and commentary. We want, as Shifman also suggests for further research, to: “highlight the ways in which practices of re-creating videos blur the lines between private and public, professional and amateur, market and non-market driven activities”12 and, following Jean Burgess and Joshua Green, to see “YouTube as a multifaceted cultural system.”13

Thus, we are interested in the use of memes as a form of participatory digital culture, described by Bradley E. Wiggins and G. Bret Bowers as important parts of activities “that guide and alter the dynamics of human culture.”14 In addition, we add a generational perspective, that is, theories of childhood, to the use of memes as participatory culture. We understand the memes to be part of an initiative within user-driven content sharing and production to challenge and change dominant generational power relations in society. The memes are used as a structure in a digital community, aiming to change a system that lies outside the digital logic, namely, societal notions or norms of childhood and, consequently, adulthood. We interpret these memes as having been identified by the video producers as a new way to “challenge all forms of outspoken paternalism” using YouTube as their forum.15 We study how YouTube videos challenge, or rehash, visual storytelling, and traditional formats via new combinations of memes from child culture and other popular culture contexts; and how YouTube production fractures media content, thus working in conjunction with social commentary and social media production.

The actual memes we have identified include different visual and textual elements and strategies, what Shifman refers to as “dynamic entities,”16 which can be described as the result of a process of re-editing, rather than re-making. By re-editing we mean that a more profound artistic process has been invested in the editing process than in uploading a traditional viral meme. We analyse the entities that are put into use in memes picked up from child and popular culture; what happens when they are combined and how do the new, unexpected compositions produce frictions? In this sense, we like to describe memes as cultural signifiers and building blocks in a contextualised visual discourse on childhood and everyday media production, following what some other authors are arguing (e.g. Shifman) in their attempt to study the multitude and multiplicity of YouTube content; the attempt to make theoretical and methodological sense of the constantly and quickly growing content and form developed by users. We study how memes are used by young YouTube videographers as building blocks in complex forms of narrative communication as well as in the creation of knowledge and social perspective. This means that we interpret memes as something beyond the notion of a mere unit of sharing; we regard them as aspects of the production of ideology and critique, and emphasise the relation between a user’s creation of content and form, outside of institutional control, regardless of whether the controlling agents are parents, child-culture institutions or professional media producers—thus becoming an important arena for visual frictions.

YouTube as participatory (child) culture

YouTube has become part of everyday digital and social media life; it is used for education, information, entertainment, and production. YouTube also provides children and young people with a new forum for consumption and production that is out of reach of traditional “media panics,” in which adults’ anxieties about children’s upbringing are key features.17 These panics reflect adults’ concerns about children’s vulnerability to moral corruption and their interest in forming children’s characters for the future. In an interview study with 158 children and young people (aged 6–17 years) in Portugal, de Almeida and colleagues conclude that 98.1% of the children have an internet connection at home and 65.2% claim that they use YouTube.18 In 2012, the European average for households with children having access to the internet at home was 89%.19 The researchers claim that this hitherto unparalleled internet access—in which YouTube plays a significant role—and its potential for interactivity transforms adult–child relations in terms of parental control and authority. They suggest that “the erosion of generational territory markers is underway through children’s intense and ubiquitous use of the Internet” and that assumptions about childhood characteristics are being undermined.20 In addition to highlighting how use of the internet creates new understandings of adult versus childhood characteristics, we will investigate some examples of young people’s productions published on YouTube, and how they can be part of these transformations. Children and young people can thus be seen as forerunners of the formation of the next media culture, where one important factor may be the merging of everyday, lay and subcultural practices with professional and even industrial ones.

Selection of YouTube videos for the analysis: The adult–child divide

A search on YouTube using the fictional characters from Astrid Lindgren’s novels results in thousands of hits. A search on the two main characters chosen for this article, Emil i Lönneberga and Lotta på Bråkmakargatan, get over 19,000 hits and over 2,800 hits, respectively. If “re-make” is added to the search, the results reduce to 495 and 2,720 hits, respectively. Hence, there seem to be more re-makes of the character Lotta than Emil in this forum. Among the results there are some very different videos; scenes from the original movies, videos with young people performing as the characters in the original movies, videos from visits to Astrid Lindgren’s World, videos from people’s homes with children acting as the fictional character, and also the ironic and critical videos we selected to analyse in this article. We made a strategic selection among the ironic and critical videos for the analysis, to search for overtly visible tensions and frictions depicting the adult–child divide. Since we are interested in performing a detailed analysis of the specific use of memes in the re-editing of the videos, we choose to focus on five videos made by three male creators with a particular focus on the fictive characters Emil and Lotta. We refer to the makers and users of the videos as young people and this is based on their own self-presentations. In fact, we cannot know for certain that the makers and users are young people, only that they present themselves as such.

The videos selected for analysis are, according to Shifman’s definition, “memetic videos,” in which the user engagement is triggered by parody, pastiche, and mash-ups.21 In addition, these memetic videos derive user engagement by taking children’s culture as a starting point. Hence, it is not only what Wiggins and Bowers describe as the “spreading media” per se that is of importance.22 In addition, the specific children’s culture content is of major importance. One of the videos chosen for analysis makes this particularly obvious. It is a video that starts with a meta-comment that signals a manifest awareness of what kind of genre (child culture) these memetic videos are playing with. The meta-comment, in the form of an image macro of big white letters on a black screen, is formulated as an explicit warning usually associated with 18-rated films (see Illustration 1), “Warning: this video may contain scenes some people may feel abused by. If you are sensitive, DO NOT WATCH!”23 These image macro meta-comments are also edited into the actual videos, for example, “Censored for your own good … <3.”24

Fig 1
Illustration 1. Meta-comment in the form of a warning text or disclaimer being used ironically in the video “Emil i Lönnmördarberga” (Snedvriden [n.d]). (Accessed 15 May 2014).

To put an 18-rated warning on a video supposedly produced in the genre of children’s culture and, additionally, to censor scenes with reference to what is in someone else’s best interests, mimics how adult culture treats children’s culture, and how adults engage with children. These text-based visuals—the image macros combining text and other visual elements like smileys—make the frictions between children’s culture and adults’ culture observable. For an adult watching the video, the message is that they should be aware of children’s awareness of adult protective strategies that, according to childhood theories, also produce dependence.25 In addition, adults watching such videos may experience how it feels to be in the position of being protected. Children, or followers of the clip producers, on the other hand, can shake off the feeling of exclusion from “adult content” they might be accustomed to having imposed on them, and note the reversal of that message.


The empirical investigation in this article concerns YouTube re-edits of two well-known fictional characters created by Astrid Lindgren: Emil i Lönneberga [Emil of Lönneberga], adapted for film in 197126 and Lotta på Bråkmakargatan [Lotta on Trouble-Maker Street], adapted for film in 1992.27 Emil is an 8-year-old boy who, because of his curiosity and urge to take his own actions, runs into problems evoking his father’s anger. Emil is allied with a farm-worker employed by his father. Lotta is a 3 to 5-year-old girl who, because of her stubbornness and specific child perspective on what she experiences, gets into conflicts, mainly with the adult world. Her ally is an elderly woman living next door. Lindgren thus created fiction featuring agentive child characters involved in transgenerational relations with persons not belonging to their biological family. In the fictive worlds, these relations—or any other adult–child relations—never posed a threat to adult power or the adult–child divide.28

There is an abundance of adaptations for television, film, games, and gadgets about Lindgren’s fictional characters. Here Wiggins and Bowers’ understanding of the “progression of meme as a genre,” where a meme is a starting point in “spreadable media,” is productive. In the present article, spreadable media are the novels of Astrid Lindgren plus the child-culture films and television series based on them. The “emergent memes” that we study are characterised by a desire to challenge notions of a romantic childhood—of children and adults as always being good.29 Spreadable media mediate a popular imagery of children’s culture produced by adults for children. Even though the main characters are active children, these children never challenge the adult–child divide or the adult norm.

We will now present two examples of how the young videographers use memes to challenge the childhood innocence that permeates Lindgren’s work, that is, the invocation of a romantic childhood. These examples highlight how the re-edits mingle 1) the romantic angelic child with the evil/horrific and 2) a “good” child with violence and abusiveness. We will now move on with the empirical analysis of how these re-edits work, starting with the angel-like girl child.

The romantic, angel-like girl child mingles with the horrific/evil

Our first example is drawn from the YouTube video “Lotta på Bråkmakargatan—Horror Parody Trailer” by raeven2, published in 2008. The video is based on the novel Lotta på Bråkmakargatan, first published in 1961. The video has received 152,450 views and a long list of cheerful supporting comments. The producer explains that the video is “homemade” and that he is “quite happy with it.” Elements from the original film have been re-made, new music has been added and text-filled image macros create the counter narrative.

The visuals—texts and film clips—blend with the music to create a counter-narrative to the original idyllic narrative of Lotta på Bråkmakargatan. This is signalled in the opening when an image macro says, “They were the perfect family …” (our emphasis) followed by short clips of the parents happy and laughing in the sunshine, Lotta’s brother and sister laughing, and Lotta laughing outdoors in the sunshine.30 The memes are here film clips portraying supposedly happy and idyllic family moments according to a hegemonic image-culture about children.31 In the re-edit, these original, supposedly idyllic, images become part of a counter narrative about betrayal, poisoning, threat, and monsters. By the end, an image macro explicitly states that this is “a story for children … gone bad!”32 As this summary highlights, this YouTube video uses the common feature defined by Shifman as humour, combined with the horrific to create a narrative of a kind of anti-child culture. The humorous effect—and affect33—is produced by challenging notions of a good romantic childhood and the idea that children—and adults—are always good.

Another video based on the same spreadable media film as the example above is the video “Lotta på Bråkmakargatan Parodi” made by zZMangoZz’s Channel, which has been viewed almost 188,000 times. The video uses recurring cuts from the films The Exorcist34 and Silence of the Lambs35 inserted into a Lotta movie. The character Lotta, with attributes like blonde hair, blue eyes, and red dress signalling her angel-like status (Illustration 2), is positioned next to the haunted girl-child Regan from The Exorcist (Illustration 3). Lotta’s visualised angelic appearance is juxtaposed with a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl with twisted limbs dressed in a nightgown. This girl epitomises the evil child of horror movies36; a direct contrast to the angel-like girl in children’s culture.

Fig 2
Illustration 2. Lotta the angel-like child in Lotta på Bråkmakargatan (Hald 1992) (zZMangoZz’s Channel, 2008) (Accessed 15 May 2014).

Fig 3
Illustration 3. Regan the horrific girl in The Exorcist (Friedkin 1973) (zZMangoZz’s Channel, 2008) (Accessed 15 May 2014).

The video starts with an image of Regan when she is not possessed. The next scene positions the action inside Lotta’s home, with her mother on her way to Lotta’s room. She enters the room and says “What is it Lotta, how are you, what’s happened?” This is said with the mother’s voice from the original film. As she is speaking, a scene from The Exorcist in which the main character, the girl Regan, is possessed is edited into the video. Although the mother is addressing Lotta verbally, the possessed girl is inserted instead of Lotta. This evokes no reaction from the mother, implying that she is innocent and naïve, a representation attributed to Lotta in the original films. Moreover, in the YouTube video the mother becomes an adult embedded in cultural norms about romantic childhoods peopled with innocent adults and children, who refuses to see, or admit, that children (and adults) can be evil, behave incorrectly and not according to established norms.

This re-edit mingles visual images and voices with different origins—a children’s culture film and a horror movie—making them converge into one video with a divergent message. A story about the idyllic, angelic child, common in commercials,37 becomes a narrative about an evil child. The producer uses memes that are all recognisable—but they are from different genres: the gothic tradition38 and mainstream children’s culture. The re-editing causes these different recognisable memes to converge, producing a different meaning than the original one within children’s culture.

The video obviously requires further cultural and production knowledge to make it successful extending the video to encompass both particular Swedish as well as broader transnational popular culture. Cultural knowledge of the emblematic, almost iconic status of the two horror movies used is required, as well as the technical ability to find the images and edit them into the new narrative. Also, it is well worth noting that this clip retains its dramaturgical flow in the editing, so that the inserted images can at the same time be part of the storyline and stand out as free units or cuts that emphasise its quality of making a strong visual statement about the angel child turned evil. As the soundtrack continues with the mother “unaware” in the original film, it underscores the difference between the preferred, idyllic image, and the critical position that can be created by the inserts. The knowledge of film outtakes made into memes is thus combined with the technical and dramaturgical ability to make new meaning in the video, displaying a particular competence, maybe even a kind of “director’s gaze.”

Furthermore, the critique produced in and by the re-edits uses and produces visual frictions to critique the adult–child divide in complex ways by playing with the expected and unexpected. Images of “evil” children are a recurring feature in popular media. They are, as Patricia Holland claims, produced by adults and they reflect adults’ anxieties about children’s “potential for uncontrolled viciousness.”39 The videos we analyse in this article play with these adult fears—and hence challenge them. The re-edits explore a critique of the adult–child divide and simultaneously express young people’s anxieties about adults’ potential—and actual—evilness, which is also demonstrated in the following examples.

The good-hearted boy child becomes violent

Although the videos analysed so far garnered a lot of appreciation from commenting viewers, we will now analyse the work of one particular producer who received an overwhelming number of comments about his quality and professionalism in editing videos. The producer Snedvriden (Snedvriden means Twisted, in the sense of having a twisted mind) has made more than 10 re-edits of most of Astrid Lindgren’s films, starting with short clips and re-edits and leading up to a coherent, scripted 12-minute “movie” that becomes more of a held-together work. We focus on two of the more lengthy “movies”: “Emil i Lönnmördarberga” and “Vi på Saltgurkan.”

When we found “Emil i Lönnmördarberga” by Snedvriden in May 2014, it had more than 157,000 viewings. Now, it has been taken down by YouTube, who cited copyright issues. Whether this is the only argument is disputable. It could also be that the content is regarded as too challenging, producing too many frictions between adults’ “pure” versions of child culture and the “dangerous” versions produced by Snedvriden. It could also be that the quality of the videos triggered copyright concerns—perhaps they become seen as threats rather than pranks? In any case, Snedvriden’s YouTube videos seem to have become more and more closely monitored by the industry. The video “Emil i Lönnmördarberga” re-emerged, however. Someone who had obviously saved and stored the video uploaded it again on 24 January 2015. His argument for doing this is that it is so “enjoyable and wonderful” that it deserves to be available to others. Three days later, 68 people had viewed the video and one commenter thanked the person who re-loaded it.

The title “Emil i Lönnmördarberga” is a wordplay in which the idyllic village of “Lönneberga” from the book about Emil and the film based on the novel, is renamed as “Lönnmördarberga”—“Assassinville” would be a fair translation. In the video, we see Emil climbing fences, playing and aiming his toy gun around (Illustration 4), images from the original film but with inserted gunshot sound effects, gun-flash visual effects (Illustration 5), and inserted images from other movies of people being hit, falling off roofs, and heads being blown off.

Fig 4
Illustration 4. The blond and blue-eyed goodhearted boy Emil is playing with his toy rifle made of wood (Hellbom 1971). “Emil i Lönnmördarberga” (Snedvriden [n.d.]) (Accessed 15 May 2014).

Fig 5
Illustration 5. The imaginative play results in gunfire “Emil i Lönnmördarberga” (Snedvriden [n.d.]) (Accessed 15 May 2014).

Illustration 4 shows the blond blue-eyed boy, Emil, with the two material objects signifying his identity in the context of Swedish child culture, his cap (Sw. “Mysse”) and his homemade toy rifle (Sw. “Bysse”). Emil has performed one of his (innocent) pranks and locked himself into a small shed to keep himself away from his father’s tantrum (this is a recurring theme in the stories about Emil). In illustration 5, Snedvriden has added memes in the shape of a gun, visual effects, and also sound effects to create a counter narrative in which the imagined innocent child play turns into something less innocent. Through these overlaid visual and audio memes, Emil’s original innocent play becomes real with real negative effects. In the video this is elaborated upon several times; clips from the original film of Emil aiming his gun are combined with edited memes in which adults’ heads are hit and the whole scene (EV: image) becomes covered in blood. Snedvriden here merges memes into the original storyline to create a new coherent narrative that becomes “twisted” by these inserts.

Hence, the “good” boy from the original books and films is made to shoot and kill other protagonists, mainly adults, in the videos. The image of a child actually shooting, blowing up or burning other people is a particularly strong statement, even more so since the cultural understanding of the Lindgren stories is centred around the innocent and good-hearted child. The innocent homemade toy turns into a real deadly weapon and when this is used by the child it becomes an instant friction when you see it on screen, showing how the selection of memetic content can make a strong, instant statement by being immediate and short. Snedvriden puts this format to use in many videos featuring the gun-toting, murderous child. To see an image of a child shooting and killing, and furthermore, to immediately recognise it as an Astrid Lindgren character, can be a powerful instance of media exposure.

The notion of Emil’s innocence is also challenged in several instances where the homosocial male adult–child relationship is questioned. Scenes from the original film, located in pristine nature in summertime, are mashed-up with elements such as snuff, hashish (leaves and cigarettes), mobile phones, and sexual references. The narrative of sexuality is invoked by combining image macros of happy smileys, dialogues from the original films, music and sound effects of huffing and breathing. Most striking and challenging is that Emil is not made a victim or shown as wanting to avoid the adult male sexuality. On the contrary, he seems to take part of his own free will. Thus, Snedvriden uses several memes to re-edit the original story of a good-hearted boy who is active, but in ways prescribed by adults and hence reinforcing his child-like status, into a counter narrative where the child is sexually active, that is, engaging in an activity that generates other reactions among adults than innocence and proper childishness. It becomes an “in your face” inversion of the preferred image of childhood that many (adults) take for granted. This is not, however, the only possible interpretation of child activity in Snedvriden’s videos.

Emil’s shooting and killing might also be interpreted as a way to get back at an adult society where children’s needs are not met. Another example, “Vi på Saltgurkan”, plays with another classic Lindgren story about an idyllic Swedish summer vacation in the archipelago. In this example, various narrative strands are laid out at the beginning, particularly where the children are treated as less knowledgeable, as being in the way, or treated as objects of sexual intercourse and victims of rape and incest. The “good” father, supposedly meeting the children’s interests and needs in the original child culture discourses, is re-edited into a father who scorns his children. Two scenes in particular are constructed through elaborate editing of the soundtrack from the original film set to images that are made up of texts and subtitles insinuating an act of sexual intercourse between adults and children. This counter narrative is juxtaposed with sections where the children get back at the adults, often by shooting or burning them. The counter stories of children’s actions, in addition to being just a general critique aimed at adults, may also be interpreted as a form of rebellious child behaviour. This is similar to Kirsten Drotner’s analysis of how young people used aesthetics to transform and comment upon established genres during the early 1990s.40 What is new here is that children’s culture is used both as source and end product in the videos, obviously attracting people to participate as audience and in making engaged user comments. In relation to Drotner’s work, the memes in these re-edits may be regarded as advanced digital developments of young people’s non-digital video practices in earlier decades. In this article we emphasise the importance of paying attention not only to the technical competence displayed in the use of memes, but also to the ideological implications the frictions put in motion by visual and audio cues.


The YouTube videos we have analysed in this article begin with the classic Swedish film adaptations of original novels and add memes in the form of textual comments, clips from other films, pictures from the internet, visual effects, image macros, audio effects and music to create friction between what is preferred child culture and a new form of challenging child culture. YouTube videos can be seen as works, or even “movies” of considerable length, with very complex and dramaturgically coherent counter narratives that retain the memes and put them together in technically accomplished ways, where high levels of skill in editing, special effects and narrative are displayed, as well as knowledge of other visual media formats, such as, for example, music and music videos, which are commonly used. There are many examples of similar memes in YouTube re-edits of Astrid Lindgren films; images that are used by many producers in making their own versions, thus using the viral meme as a template but creating an original version rather than sharing the exact same clip. Furthermore, although originating in a Swedish cultural context, the videos create frictions that can be similarly identified and recognised in the eyes of a larger (western) notion of the idyllic state of childhood, that thus becomes more widely challenged.

The videos stand out due to the quality of their editing and effects and because of a level of production professionalism that is also commented on by viewers, who want to know “how it could be done so professionally.” We see here a mingling of cultural critique and expert production that has thus far not been acknowledged in the (adult) cultural or academic sphere. The critique is multi-layered; it produces counter images of, and narratives about, notions of childhood and adulthood, about what is and is not accepted as mainstream culture, and what and who decides what a good production is. The re-edits point to how cultural productions targeting children—Lindgren’s novels and film adaptations—use and re-inscribe idyllic, nostalgic and traditional Western notions of childhood innocence. The effect of the mingling of memes from popular culture and contemporary image cultures with the canonised children’s culture becomes a critique of the adult–child divide in which childhood signifies an underdog position.

In several ways, the re-edits are more complex and multifaceted than the “original” films in terms of both form and content and these producers display a more professional and contemporary media prowess, bringing together a rich and complex array of content. As we would like to conclude, this is a form of cultural and socio-technical performance in which the visual and aesthetic production and the internet’s viral and global properties work simultaneously with the social and cultural commentary. We have emphasised how singular elements of memes generate culturally situated and contextual content in the videos, rather than the merely viral. The memes are used as building blocks in more coherent narratives to convey a cultural and social commentary that can represent a statement on contemporary culture. Here, it is the Swedish childhood story that is turned upside down by the contemporary image-editing and mash-up production skills that are put together to create this particular viewpoint. Young YouTube video makers have, here, used a re-editing strategy based on mingling incongruent elements to re-model the original message about childhood innocence and naïveté. Simultaneously this becomes a critique of how adults abuse and misuse their position as adults.

These productions use more knowledge than that provided by visuality, but at the same time the visual is essential. As shown in this article, YouTube “memetic videos” are being used in new ways that have so far not been acknowledged for the way in which they enter into dialogue with the content of children’s culture (films and novels) as a remediating process of cultural re-editing. In this process, children’s culture and other (adult) cultural genres merge in new ways. Memes can thus be used as an intricate part of re-editing, using and reworking individual snippets and bringing them into a more complex whole. This can be seen as the creation of a counter narrative that functions referentially and, thus, works to remake the original story, making it more multi-vocal, working in a more non-linear way, in a form of simultaneity, bringing forward several more narratives at once—as well as invoking and displaying the producers’ multiple skills and knowledge. Thus, a video clip can be understood variously as a re-edit, satire and comeback on the idyllic Swedish image of childhood, a wannabe show reel directed towards obtaining a position in the media or special-effects industry, as well as a way of becoming a cool guy with a YouTube channel following. Here, to return to a core Erving Goffman notion,41 the backstage properties of being part of a viral subculture of reusing internet memes at home on one’s personal computer work simultaneously with the frontstage properties of making a public visual statement for an audience of thousands.

If we widen our gaze to encompass the much broader development across the whole of popular culture for at least 20 years, we can see that the refashioning of old content into new has become commonplace and, obviously, creating content from varied sources is the format young people grow up with, at least those who have access to modern media equipment. Furthermore, the culture of mixing and mash-ups can now move across genres and formats,42 so it can be said to be convergent in a developed sense: as the starting point of production, rather than a convergence between new media forms and old, going beyond the metaphors of convergence and suggesting a way of understanding them as simultaneous.

There is, thus, another kind of friction involved here, of how young people can be forerunners in media development; of how knowledge is gained by self-organised cultural producers, lay professionals, or lay directors even, who draw on professional production forms, styles, and techniques. But, seemingly, they are daring to break taboos in their choice of content. Their skills can be used in the professional media production system, even though they have been gained outside of media education and surpass those gained in vocational or academic institutions—just like the music scene or the hacker culture purported to do before, as cultural studies researchers have observed for decades. In order to also study the inherent friction in this article, between young social media users’ cultural critique and their possible move into jobs in professional media production, we will need further analysis and examples. An analytical point here, though, is that there would be no point in separating out which of these traits might be the right one. Instead, this kind of intersectional understanding is a form of simultaneity, a concept that effectively describes this perspective.


1. Anne-Li Lindgren, Från små människor till lärande individer. Föreställningar om barn och barndom i förskoleprogram 1970–2000 [From little people to learning individuals: Notions of children and childhood in preschool programs 1970–2000] (Lund: Arkiv Förlag, 2006), Stiftelsen Etermedierna i Sverige Nr 16.

2. As one of six prominent Swedish cultural notorieties, Astrid Lindgren has this year replaced the Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf on the new 20 kronor bill, having received the most popular votes among them. Lindgren is presented as an author whose work supports children’s rights and gender crossing (Astrid Lindgren Archive, UNESCO). In research, her work also holds a privileged position and is seldom criticised. Author Lindgren bears no relation to Astrid Lindgren.

3. Anne-Li Lindgren, “Barnkultur och natur i Astrid Lindgrens Värld. Gamla och nya barndomsideal” [Child culture and nature in Astrid Lindgren’s World. Old and new notions of childhood], in Nu vill jag prata! Barns röster i barnkulturen [Now I Want to Talk! Children’s Voices in Children’s Culture], ed. Karin Helander (Stockholm: Stockholms Universitet, 2013), 99–115; Anne-Li Lindgren et al., “Enacting (Real) Fiction: Materializing Childhoods in a Theme Park,” Childhood 22, no. 2 (2015): 171–86.

4. Karen Smith, “Producing Governable Subjects: Images of Childhood Old and New,” Childhood 19, no. 1 (2012): 24–37.

5. Gaile S. Cannella and Radhika Viruru, Childhood and Postcolonialization: Power, Education and Contemporary Practice (New York: Routledge, 2004); Anne Higonnet, Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood (London: Thames and Hudson, 1998); Patricia Holland, Picturing Childhood: The Myth of the Child in Popular Imagery (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004); and Smith, “Producing Governable Subjects.”

6. Christine Hine, Virtual Ethnography (London: Sage, 2001/2003).

7. The project title is Culture for and by Children: A Visual Ethnographic Study of Children’s Museums, Theme Parks, Amusement Parks and Science Centers, Swedish Research Council, grant registration number 2009–2384.

8. Konstantin Economou and Rakel Hergli, “Samtidigt i Vimmerby [Simultaneously in Vimmerby], in: Astrid Lindgrens världar i Vimmerby: En studie om kulturarv och samhällsutveckling [Astrid Lindgren’s Worlds in Vimmerby: A Study about Cultural Heritage and Societal Development], ed. Leif Johnsson (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2010), 56–77; and Lindgren et al., “Enacting (Real) Fiction”.

9. Lindgren, “Barnkultur och natur i Astrid Lindgrens”; Anne-Li Lindgren and Anna Sparrman, “Blogging Family-Like Relations when Visiting Theme and Amusement Parks: The Use of Children in Displays Online’, Culture Unbound 6 (2014): 997–1013.

10. Limor Shifman, “An Anatomy of a YouTube Meme,” New Media & Society 14, no. 2 (2011): 187.

11. Ibid., 187.

12. Ibid., 200.

13. Jean Burgess and Joshua Green, “The Entrepreneurial Vlogger: Participatory Culture beyond the Professional-Amateur Divide,” in The YouTube Reader, eds. Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau (Stockholm: Mediehistoriskt arkiv 12, 2009), 89.

14. Bradley E. Wiggins and G. Bret Bowers, “Memes as Genre: A Structurational Analysis of the Memescape,” New Media & Society (2014). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1461444814535194

15. Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau, eds., “Introduction,” in The YouTube Reader, (Stockholm: Mediehistoriskt arkiv 12, 2009), 11.

16. Shifman, “An Anatomy of a YouTube,” 190.

17. Kirsten Drotner, “Dangerous Media? Panic Discourses and Dilemmas of Modernity,” Paedagocia Historica 35, no. 3 (1999): 597.

18. Ana Nunes de Almeida et al., “Internet, Children and Space: Revisiting Generational Attributes and Boundaries,” New Media & Society (2014). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1461444814528293

19. Ibid., 2.

20. Ibid., 14.

21. Shifman, “An Anatomy of a YouTube,” 190.

22. Wiggins and Bowers, “Memes as Genre,” 15.

23. Snedvriden [n.d.].

24. Snedvriden [n.d.].

25. Cannella and Viruru, Childhood and Postcolonialization; Holland, Picturing Childhood; and Smith, “Producing Governable Subjects.”

26. Astrid Lindgren, Emil i Lönneberga [Emil of Lönneberga] (Stockholm: Rabén & Sjögren, 1963); Emil i Lönneberga [Emil of Lönneberga] Olle Hellbom, (Director) (Stockholm: S-F Produktion and München: Stella Film GmbH, 1971).

27. Astrid Lindgren, Lotta på Bråkmakargatan [Lotta on Trouble-Maker Street] (Stockholm: Rabén & Sjögren, 1963); Lotta på Bråkmakargatan [Lotta on Trouble-Maker Street] Johanna Hald, (Director) (Stockholm: S-F Produktion, 1992).

28. This analysis of child culture is based on Patricia Holland, “The Child in the Picture,” in The International Handbook on Children, Media and Culture, eds. Kirsten Drotner and Sonja Livingstone (London: Sage, 2008), 36–55.

29. Wiggins and Bowers, “Memes as Genre.”

30. Lotta på Bråkmakargatan—Horror Parody Trailer. raeven2, 2008.

31. Holland, “The Child in the Picture,” 36–55.

32. Lotta på Bråkmakargatan.

33. Richard Grusin, “YouTube at the End of New Media,” in The YouTube Reader, eds. Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau (Stockholm: Mediehistoriskt arkiv 12, 2009), 60.

34. The Exorcist. Directed by William Friedkin. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros, 1973.

35. The Silence of the Lambs. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Los Angeles, CA: Orion Pictures, 1991.

36. Holland, “The Child in the Picture,” 45.

37. Johanna Sjöberg, I marknadens öga; barn och visuell konsumtion [In the eye of the market. Children and visual consumption] (Diss. Linköping: Linköpings universitet, 2013).

38. Holland, “The Child in the Picture,” 39–40.

39. Ibid., 46.

40. Kirsten Drotner, Unge, medier og modernitet: pejlinger I ett föränderligt landskap [Young people, media and modernity: interest in a changing landscape] (Köpenhavn: Borgen/Medier, 1999).

41. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1959).

42. Some examples from the vast array of YouTube formats that could be analysed in a similar manner are, for example, Mashups (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZBuYbKgvQI) (accessed Jan 31, 2015); Literal videos (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HE9OQ4FnkQ) (accessed Jan 31, 2015); and Shreds (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-0CS-T1HUQ), (Jan 31, 2015).



Digital scenography and the mimetic aporia of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle

Jason R. D’Aoust*

Comparative Literature, Institute for Cultural Inquiry (ICON), Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands


This article explores the visual friction between the concealment of technology and the need to stage mimetic scenes in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. The article relies on the critical reception of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk in musicology, as well as in media, performance, and theatre studies. Drawing on productions and commentaries critical of the iconic Gesamtkunstwerk’s attempted retrieval of a lost natural state, the article examines correlations between phantasmagoria, special effects, movement detection technology, and the interactive devices of multimedia and digital scenography. These correlations are framed within a theoretical methodology of historical discourse and media archaeologies. Three specific productions of the Ring are discussed, namely the inaugural and centenary productions at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, as well as Robert Lepage’s production for the Metropolitan Opera of New York in 2010–2012.


Dr. Jason R. D’Aoust is a guest researcher at the Department of Comparative Literature and at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry (ICON) of Utrecht University. He first studied music (voice) at the Conservatoire de Musique du Québec à Montréal, before pursuing degrees in English and Comparative Literature (Université de Montréal), as well as Theory & Criticism (The University of Western Ontario).

Keywords: digital scenography; Gesamtkunstwerk; Robert Lepage; mimesis; phantasmagoria; The Ring; Tarnhelm; Wagner

Citation: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 7, 2015 http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/jac.v7.28238

Copyright: ©2015 J. R. D’Aoust. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 8 December 2015

*Correspondence to: Jason R. D’Aoust, Comparative Literature & Institute for Cultural Inquiry (ICON), Utrecht University, Trans 10, Room 2.22b, 3512 JK Utrecht, The Netherlands. Email: jrdaoust3@gmail.com

This paper is part of the Special Issue: Visual Frictions. More papers from this issue can be found at www.aestheticsandculture.net


In the last decade, an increasing number of opera productions have not only relied on digital technology to transmit content outside the hall but also to create (parts of) sets and decors. While the involvement of digital media in scenography varies from one opera house and from one production to the next, the practice has developed to the point that critics have shown concern with opera’s saturation with Hollywood-style special effects. Such equations fail to consider, however, the theatrical conditions in which this media technology is deployed. Perhaps the most controversial debate over these problems in the last five years converged around Robert Lepage’s production of Richard Wagner’s cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen for the Metropolitan Opera of New York, premiered between 2010 and 2012.1 Of course, Lepage does not stand apart: productions of Wagner’s music dramas have long been associated with developments in stage technology and media, visual elements of which have caused considerable friction over the past century and a half. This article first examines this theatrical tradition of technological innovation in regards to Wagner’s works. The arguments presented here draw upon discourse analysis in Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, the scenographic history of Wagner’s Ring, insights from media archaeology, and the critique of the Gesamtkunstwerk as phantasmagoria, before turning to Lepage’s production. In conclusion, it compares the rendering visible of sonic gestures through the interactive digital technology of his production with analogue technology described in Sean Michael’s novel, Us Conductors.


In comparison with the ever-present Ring and the crucial importance of the sword Nothung to the plot, the Tarnhelm is not as conspicuous in the Ring Cycle.2 Yet the magic helmet at once protects the Ring and brings about its end, both in the sense of the ring as a material object in the narrative and of the cycle’s plot. It only briefly makes an appearance—or rather, disappearance—in the third scene of Das Rheingold, vanishes in Die Walküre, then returns to play a cameo role in Siegfried, before finally instigating a series of mistaken identities and double-entendres in Götterdämmerung. The helmet drives the plot because its apparitions coincide with transfers of power. Indeed, Alberich orders his brother Mime to wield the helmet in order to protect his ownership of the Ring, as the means to mine and transform more gold. Under the helmet, Alberich can disappear, immediately travel to distant places, and change into any human or animal form. The helmet’s potential for omnipresence is the prototype of a mass-surveillance device, which enforces mass labour and makes its owner omnipotent. When Wotan travels to Nibelheim with Loge to steal the hoard of gold in order to pay the giants for building Valhalla, he only has a vague idea of the Ring’s power and even less knowledge of the Tarnhelm. He quickly realizes, however, the threat they pose to the order over which he presides. In order to contain this threat, Wotan and Loge trick Alberich into using the Tarnhelm to their advantage. Appealing to Alberich’s pride, they make him demonstrate his newly gained powers by turning into a dragon and then into a toad. This last metamorphosis allows the cunning pair to capture Alberich and rob him of his treasures.

Beyond facilitating the transfer of the gold and its means of production, there is definitely a poetic boast about the Tarnhelm. The capacity to present the immense and the minuscule should, after all, be a fundamental possibility of Wagner’s pretensions to a total work of art. And yet, the appearance of the dragon, and its return in the second act of Siegfried, has always defied the limits of scenography. One of Wagner’s collaborators on the first staging of The Ring had unsuccessfully advised him to keep the battle with the dragon off-stage, and its lack of verisimilitude has been a problem ever since.3 Part of the problem with the staging of the Tarnhelm’s special effects comes from the difficulty of realizing the helmet’s mimetic potential to a convincing degree of realism. This is made all the more difficult as the affects these transformations inspire are abundantly suggested to the imagination through the music. The problem of realistic transformations under the Tarnhelm recedes later in the Cycle, when it is used to transform heroes into humans instead of anthropomorphic gods and goblins into animals.

The last (dis)appearance of the Tarnhelm occurs at the cusps of the first and second acts of Götterdämmerung. As these scenes tend to overindulge in deceit and mistaken identities for purposes of quid pro quos, a quick summary of the action should help steer the reader through this confusion. Gunther, king of the Gibichung, is wealthy and powerful, but does not have a wife. Hagen (his half-brother through their mother, but whose father is Alberich) convinces Gunther that Brünnhilde (Siegfried’s true love) would make the perfect trophy. To realize this scheme, Gunther’s sister, Gutrune, gives Siegfried a magic potion that makes him forget previous loves and fall in love with her:

Träte nun Siegfried ein,
Genöss’ er des würzigen Trank’s,
daß vor dir en Weib er ersah,
daß je ein Weib ihm genaht –
vergessen müßt’ er dess’ ganz. –

(If Siegfried were to enter now
and taste the herbal drink,
he’d be forced to forget
that he’d seen a woman before you,
that a woman had ever come near him.)

Incidentally, when Hagen speaks of the potion, Wagner also evokes the Tarnhelm motif.4 To gain Gunther’s consent to marry Gutrune, Siegfried agrees to fetch Brünnhilde for him. He uses the magic helmet to take Gunther’s form after passing through the fire surrounding her rock. Once Brünnhilde is on the boat back to the land of the Gibichung, Siegfried leaves her with the real Gunther using the Tarnhelm to instantly travel back to Gutrune. Hagen’s scheme relies on Gunther’s natural lust and on Siegfried’s potion-induced lust to transfer their desire for ownership into the imaginary world of sexual relations, which would leave Hagen with real ownership of the Ring. In other words, nothing is what it appears to be in Götterdämmerung until Brünnhilde steps in to put things right. The Tarnhelm therefore opens a space of disappearances and apparitions that blur the boundaries of knowledge and ignorance, and ultimately enable revolutions in the distribution of power and wealth.

Fig 1
Photo 1.

All of these points recall Michel Foucault’s early work on the archaeology of knowledge in The Order of Things. Although the reader might have in mind Foucault’s later work on the panopticon,5 especially in regards to the Nibelheim scene, I want to further build upon this comparison through Foucault’s reading of Velazquez’s painting, Las Meninas (Photo 1). After many pages of description in which he follows the lines and the gazes of the painting’s protagonists, Foucault finally comes to the conclusion that its composition, its ordering of things and people, is organized according to an almost absent focus, a nearly blind spot, which is only revealed through a reflection in a small blurry mirror. Through this visual subterfuge, Velazquez discretely makes known how the sovereigns’ absence makes them the keystone of the design; their gaze orders the arrangement of things and the movements of people, as well as their (in)visibility. One finds a similar vanishing yet ordering point within the tetralogy: the displacement of this unseen gaze, as figured by the Tarnhelm, leads to the confrontation of different orders of knowledge (or episteme), to ethical dilemmas, and tragic outcomes.

Take, for example, the trick Wotan and Loge play on Alberich. They must first conceal from him their intentions in order to steal the seat of his power. Within the aesthetics of the Gesamtkunstwerk, however, this transfer also affects the means of representation. In order to accomplish this dual transition, Wagner strictly limits the range of Alberich’s metamorphoses to slimy underground animals, which, in passing, recalls Adorno’s criticism about the essentialist racism of the characterization. Indeed, why not have him change into an eagle or a deer? The convenient proximity of Alberich’s dwelling to those of the serpent and the toad in the “natural world” frame the semantic space of the mimetic

[…] that becomes double as soon as one attempts to unravel it: a resemblance of the place, the site upon which nature has placed the two things, and thus a similitude of properties; for in this natural container, the world, adjacency is not an exterior relation between things, but the sign of a relationship, obscure though it may be.6

Indeed, in the mimetic order, or the space of resemblance, knowledge is predicated upon interpretation as the rendering visible of the Creator’s mark on animals and things. Moral judgements of every kind proliferate in this way of seeing the world. Yet, as in the painting by Velazquez, The Ring also offers us a (not so) discreet presentation of power relations. Albeit inconspicuous, the Tarnhelm (dis)embodies this visible yet hidden place that limits our way of seeing and knowing, and, in turn, subverts what presents itself as the unquestionable knowledge of reality compounded by the self-evidence of a preordained natural world.

In an attempt to conciliate the visual split of resemblance and representation Alberich has unleashed upon the world in Das Rheingold, Wagner first attempts its redemption in Die Walküre through a pair of Wotan’s illegitimate children. The Valvater’s godly staff symbolizes treaties, as its runes inaugurate the historical time of writing. He cannot, therefore, directly partake in the freedom of mimetic transformation without forsaking his duty to enforce semantic stability. His children, the Wälsungen, would be free from his obligation to uphold the binding contract of representation, as the fantasy goes. They could therefore redeem the mimetic liberty of the primeval world that has been corrupted by greed and power. When Siegmund and Sieglinde fall in love, they act according to sympathetic recognition (the fourth type of resemblance according to Foucault) and therefore reject the moral interpretation of the matrimonial contract that binds Sieglinde to Hunding. Wotan’s desire for the golden age of his dominance over the mimetic world (or his ignorance of it) later resurfaces when the son of the Wälsungen, Siegfried, kills the dragon—a metamorphosis of Fafner, a giant who helped build Valhalla—and retrieves the Ring and Tarnhelm. Siegfried then unknowingly confronts his immortal grandfather and shatters the rune-laden spear with which Wotan ruled the world. In Wagner’s mythopoeia of humanity’s divine origins, the constant struggle between mimetic and representational regimes finally lands in the hands of the humans when the semi-divine hero, Siegfried, meets the Gibichung clan. The return of the Tarnhelm at this point of the Cycle’s plot certainly contributes to the constant confusion between what is seen and what is known.


Writers often turn to theatrical innovations at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in order to emphasize the importance of the visual aspects of Wagnerian music drama. As in Greek theatres, the seats are laid out in a semi-circle and on a steep incline, so that the stage remains visible to everyone at all time. The double proscenium gives the illusion of the stage being framed and farther away, thereby drawing one’s gaze inward. This effect is further reinforced by a sunken orchestra pit, which removes it from the spectator’s view of the proscenium. Wagner’s critical misgivings about the state of opera in the mid-19th century further underline the importance of the visual aspects of Wagnerian music drama. Beyond the problem of having adequate rehearsal time in repertory theatres, Wagner was dismayed by their lack of scenographic resources.7 In perusing Wagner’s correspondence, Patrick Carnegy has singled out a number of occasions on which makeshift or stock sets could not visually match the intensity of his music. Either the prop boats in Der fliegende Holländer were too small to evoke the eerie grandeur of the ghost ship, or the wave machine failed to work, or created a feeble splash instead of a crash against the hull of the boats. Imitating the Paris Opera, Wagner even had guides printed that explained the scenographic requirements of his operas, demands that scared off some theatre directors and went completely ignored by others. This is the state of affairs of musical theatre in Wagner’s time, which led him to dream, plan, and build a theatre where the utmost care would be taken to understand and realize his artistic vision.8

Yet the undertaking of this gigantic building project does not imply that it instantly achieved the ideal it was meant to fulfil. Here too Carnegy has amassed numerous examples that read like a blooper real for The Ring. Bayreuth is often quoted as the birthplace of the darkened theatre, which, along with the semi-circular seating, makes it the precursor of early cinema houses. Yet the audience was only plunged into darkness at the inaugural performance of The Ring because the dimming mechanism on the gaslights had not yet been installed in the new hall. On stage, the electrically lighted rainbow bridge at the end of Das Rheingold failed to project onto the staircase, and instead lay flat at the bottom of the backdrop. The fire surrounding Brünnhilde’s rock also had to be scaled back from real flames to a red-hued mist of steam. And of course, we cannot but mention the puppet dragon of Fafner in Siegfried that caused mirth rather than fright.9 While Wagner’s complaints about existing theatrical conditions and his attempts to remedy them are often quoted by those who still advocate productions faithful to the letter of the Master’s wishes, the list of visual mishaps and others like them at Bayreuth are evoked by those who would innovate technologically in order to comply with the spirit of his intentions, or of his vision.10 During the Bayreuth years, we find, in addition to these technical aspects, an aesthetic transformation in Wagner’s scenography.

Wagner’s mythopoeia did not accord well with the academic accuracy lavished onto historical dramas at the time. Indeed, the crux of his aesthetic divergence with Ludwig II of Bavaria revolved around the king’s insistence on historical recreations, going so far as to send designers to Nurnberg so they could replicate Hans Sachs’ house for the sets of Die Meistersinger’s premiere in Munich. Richard and Cosima had already fought hard to keep the costumes in the inaugural Bayreuth Ring from turning into museum pieces that would have very little to do with the internal logic of the drama being produced. This tendency towards the abstraction of historical visual detail was only confirmed as Wagner moved on from his epic tetralogy to a spiritual drama, Parsifal. The scenography of his last music drama would confirm a taste for simpler designs that would be iconic of an aesthetic vision, rather than a past reality. With the help of Christian symbolism, costumes and scenography were shorn of detail in order to concentrate visual attention on the key elements of the production. Although Wagner’s distrust of historically accurate costumes and sets for The Ring might seem to be in line with the minimalist aesthetics of Parsifal, this visual abstraction contrasts dramatically with the mimetic requirements of the Tarnhelm scenes. Yet they both participate in the metaphysical ambitions of Wagner’s music drama.


How can media archaeology critically inform our reception of Wagnerian scenography? One might start to answer this question by turning to Friedrich Kittler’s work. Rather than rehearse the Gesamtkunstwerk’s genealogy in metaphysical aesthetics, Kittler focuses on the new theatrical dispositifs at Bayreuth, which I mention above. He identifies them as precursors to talking cinema: “Wagner’s Bayreuth opera was the first historical realization” of the separation and incorporation of “individual sensory channels.”11 Yet, in the larger point Kittler is making, audiovisual distinctions are less significant than the redistribution of light and the reordering of sight:

However, the projection of electric light through an otherwise darkened room seems to be the most important thing. It not only established the aesthetics and social pathology of cinema, but it also created a new militaristic way of perceiving the world.12

By social pathology, Kittler refers to his previous comments on the possibility of engaging in indecent activities (by 19th-century standards) in darkened public rooms. Kittler also intimates in the preceding pages how the stage lighting of actors under spotlights inevitably turned them into visual targets for the “actively armed eye.” Paradoxically, the militaristic worldview was ushered into history by a glimpse of la vie en rose. Indeed, Kittler traces the invention of coloured lighting to a translucent pink hat chanced upon in a theatre, but then immediately developed for military signalling. At Bayreuth, Wagner had used coloured spotlight and electrical lighting in combination with steam for a number of special effects, including the fire on Brünnhilde’s rock.

By the time Wagner staged the Ring Cycle, the steam engine’s technology had long since been harnessed and was therefore more reliable in the theatre than the new electrical lighting was. Thus Bayreuth had two full-sized locomotive boilers in its basement to provide its stage with all the primeval mist needed to envelop the gods in their magically unfolding world.13 Discussions of productions of Wagner that rely on new technological developments would benefit, for example, from Jussi Parikka’s discussion of steam punk in the introduction to What is Media Archaeology? If this subculture, “emblematic of important [current] cultural desires […] imagines in new ways the steam-engined machine worlds of the Victorian era which marked the birth of modern technological culture,”14 one might also consider how interpretations of The Ring promote or conceal the special-effects technology hidden in Bayreuth’s Victorian basement. This focus would lead one away from the iconic Gesamtkunstwerk, as Matthew Wilson Smith defines it, which “seeks to bury all outward signs of mechanical production, [although] it nevertheless relies heavily upon mechanization for its pseudo-organic effects.”15 Yet in actively seeking through media archaeology’s methods to “expose and celebrate the outward signs of mechanical production” in Wagner’s music drama, one might also be engaging with the crystalline Gesamtkunstwerk.16 The goal of such a reading, however, would be to move away from fantasized returns to natural origins—overtly supported by technology or not—and to conclude that the only way out of this dialectical aesthetic identity of technological concealment and revelation entails, in the end, the acceptance that there is no way out of our technological destiny.

Before Wagner, opera had enjoyed a long history of wanting to make the invisible perceptible. In Metaphysical Song, Gary Tomlinson reads the history of opera in terms of this claim: its ability to express (the ideal forms of) a reality that cannot be seen, or, in Tomlinson’s vocabulary, its claim to make the noumenal perceptible. In line with this metaphysical conceit, early opera actively sought to stage transcending figures of Greek or Roman mythology that would make this musical beyond also perceptible to sight. The production of opera, however, transformed according to its cultural context. By the late-18th century, the culturally dominant form of subjectivity was no longer attuned to the magical and the cosmic, but was defined instead by the objective remove of self-sufficient reason. If Romantic opera was to later attempt the retrieval of the fiction and magic of earlier times, it did so, nevertheless, within this self-sufficient subjective space that could no longer rely on an exterior figure of transcendence, like Orpheus or Apollo, to bridge this gap. As mentioned above, Wagner’s myth of origins, written from this subjective vantage point, must therefore conciliate the immediacy of the magical world (the Tarnhelm’s metamorphoses) with the distance through which the modern subject perceives the historical world and his or herself within it (Wotan’s symbolic staff). This is precisely how Tomlinson approaches Wagner.

The broaching of metaphysics in the late-modern West takes the form of the subject’s attempt to recuperate in some manner the social forces hidden in exchange and its nostalgia for autonomy. This is, from the first, a metaphysics that circulates within the horizon of the commodity that defines it. It cannot, given the subject’s complicity with this form by virtue of its claim to self-sufficiency, escape to reassert some putative earlier, as yet uncommodified, noumenon. Seeming reassertions of this sort are the alienated subject’s vain attempt from within the commodity culture to recapture an imagined, earlier metaphysics outside it.17

In this passage, Tomlinson follows Adorno’s criticism of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. Indeed, Adorno had already remarked in 1938 how “the Wagnerian phantasmagorias are among the earliest ‘wonders of technology’ to gain admittance to great art.”18 The word phantasmagoria has been used at different times and in different contexts in order to denote a visual illusion.19 Whether it designates a magic lantern show or the consumption of art as a spectacular ersatz for spirituality, the phantasmagoria functions on the presupposition that its audience only obtains satisfaction when it experiences art as some ex nihilo creation that requires neither effort, nor work to produce.

As Kittler suggests by situating his discussion of Wagner within the genealogy of the magica lanterna, the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk succeeded in reordering the multimedia sensory channels by not only giving sound, but also sight to the (im)possible retrieval of noumenal autonomy.20 Whether it hides the back-stage labour that goes into making the illusion or requires a “fourth wall” that prevents characters from acknowledging the audience, the stage of the Gesamtkunstwerk, and more specifically, the mimetic staging of the Tarnhelm, is the phantasmagoric site of alienation’s (dis)appearance. The Ring’s plot makes this seeming contradiction all the more obvious, since so much of its action is concerned with the control of labour.

Historically, productions of The Ring that address this alienation have been heavily criticized and generated considerable controversy. The first scandal of this kind at Bayreuth was in reaction to Patrice Chéreau’s centenary production of the tetralogy in 1976. After years of minimalist symbolism under Wieland Wagner’s directorship, Chéreau opted for a return in his scenography to figuration, although heavily traversed by transhistorical commentary. Refusing to stage the primeval nature of the Rhine’s depths, Chéreau locates the opening scene of the tetralogy at a massive cement dam. From the very first bars, the director overtly contradicts Wagner’s stage directions. Furthermore, Chéreau was also defying Wagner’s aesthetics as drawn out in his prose works:

Thus the Machine is the cold and heartless ally of luxury-craving men. Through the machine have they at last made human reason their liege subject; for, led astray from Art’s discovery, dishonoured and disowned, it consumes itself at last in mechanical refinements, in absorption into the Machine, instead of in absorption into Nature in the Art-work.21

Rather than the creation of a primeval Rhine out of the harmonics of E-flat, the industrial dam defiantly spelled a rupture with the tradition of presenting Wagnerian myth as ahistorical and unaltered by the social context of its production. As such Chéreau’s production was not simply critical of Wagner’s indications, it was also highly critical of its implicit worldview.22

Chéreau’s overt reversal of the historical progression from Nature to civilization ties into his understanding of the technology also at work within the theatre. The presence of the dam at both ends of the tetralogy definitely evokes Adorno’s critical comment on how, in the Gesamtkunstwerk, fantasy hides in plain view on the stage.23 Instead of following Wagner’s indications, Chéreau challenged the mythopoeic aspects of the work and called their bluff. Indeed, what does The Ring mean if we accept Derrida’s point that a primeval, pure Nature—the kind Rousseau and Herder theorized—never existed, except as early-modern speculation that has been tacitly framing the way we read and understand history and the world?24 Chéreau’s break with scenographic traditions shatters an illusory worldview The Ring helped to perpetuate and that was already historically outmoded 50 years ago, hence the breaking of the fourth wall at the end of his staging of Götterdämmerung.25 If Chéreau’s Ring starts in an industrialized world, then it stands to reason that at the end of the cycle’s revolutions, we cannot be extricated from industrialization and return to Nature, from which a new cycle would start again. In this, Chéreau seems to have foreseen the irreversible ecological and geological transformations brought on by human industrial activity, a new worldview scholars have been calling the anthropocene.26


Since Chéreau’s production, the development of digital media has transformed the ways we experience opera. While audiovisual technology used to be employed to transmit performances (television broadcast, VHS, DVD, cinema relay), digital media have since made their way to the stage. Digital opera studies, however, are still influenced by previous scholarly work on audiovisual transmission. Musicologists have commented on this technological revolution. Melina Esse argued that opera’s cinematic adaptation carries its own form of presence that is not secondary or fallen from the supposed authenticity of the live performance.27 Similarly, João Pedro Cachopo has more recently proposed that opera’s translation into cinema might even be necessary for the genre’s survival.28 In contrast, Bernadette Cochrane and Frances Bonner have pointed out that scholarly debates on these topics have been skewed through use of “inaccurate terms” in naming these new practices.29They argue for a critical understanding of relay technology, rather than relying on the purposefully inaccurate terminology of marketing strategies and their disavowal of the commodification of performance: relays are not live if you are not in the same time-zone and they are not broadcast because they are narrowly disseminated on encrypted digital channels to cinema goers willing to pay a premium. The authors conclude that studying relayed performances as if they were films obscures, rather than informs the theatrical and televisual aspects of these events.30 This semantic and critical confusion around filming and cinema relays also finds its way to discussions of digital media in opera scenography.

Fig 2
Photo 2.

The cinematographic tenor of these scholarly debates seems to have spilled over into the controversy surrounding Robert Lepage’s production of The Ring. According to Ellen Gamerman, for example, opera is now in the business of creating the kind of “film-style effects” usually found in Hollywood movies.31 Her remarks were prompted by Lepage’s production of The Ring’s first episode, Das Rheingold.32 Beyond the novelty of digital effects, however, cinema has a tradition of spectacular effects that was inherited from theatrical revues and, later, Broadway shows. Hollywood musicals transmitted the tradition of huge sets upon which performers danced, kicked, dived, and sang, an intermedial practice of theatre and cinema encapsulated as early as 1936 in The Great Ziegfeld33 (Photo 2). Because of this Hollywood tradition, something is strangely familiar in Lepage’s immense 45-ton revolving-plank set, which takes up the whole space of the stage in all four episodes of The Ring. Not only do characters climb and slide all over this shifting machine like the Ziegfeld girls would, but lighting, images, and videos are projected onto it as well. Yet by focusing on the spectacular aspect of the production and the special effects inherited from Hollywood movies, (and, by association, its supposedly low-brow, comic-book superficiality) the critical reception of this Ring production has not fully investigated its digital innovations for opera scenography.

When one hears the term special effects today, one thinks of fantastic worlds of science fiction and fantasy films. As Matthew Wilson Smith has noted, however, the special effects in Lepage’s Ring are distributed within a theatrical practice of multimedia scenography that has less to do with cinema than it does with videogames.34 Most operagoers will have already seen a production that features the digital projection of an element of decor or set. Projections are, however, only one instrument in the cache of digital means upon which rely Lepage and his production company, ExMachina. In listing the production’s interactive software and stage implements, Smith’s article follows Lepage’s claim that “digital interactivity […] returns the human to performance” as the opera singers prompt the digital projections that take place not only on a backdrop behind them, but often all around them.35 The interactive media onstage promise wonders for future opera productions in terms of singer-led scripted improvisations that instantaneously alter or, more precisely, enhance scenography. In the liner notes that accompany the DVD of Die Walküre, Lepage states that the interactive

video projections [are] triggered by the singers’ bodies and voices. Very little is pre-shot. The idea was to put technology at the service of the music and the choreography and the theatrical presence of the performer.36

Further on the same page, he explains that the same technology was used for instrumental passages in which the “live swelling [of objects projected on screen] comes from the orchestra.” One wonders, however, at the level of interactivity in the magic lantern show that Lepage projected against the backdrop of Hunding’s hut while Siegmund regales his hosts with the tale of his family origins. Does the orchestra’s playing determine the rhythm of the phantasmagoria unravelling? Beyond evoking the intimacy of the hearth as the sole source of heat and light in a primitive hut, the magic lantern show is also Lepage’s tip of the hat to Wagner himself, who, against the advice of his choreographer, used the technique to depict the Ride of the Valkyries in his inaugural staging at Bayreuth.37

Yet by including the original form of the phantasmagoria in this particular scene, rather than employing the medium to stage winged horses, Lepage is making a comment that critics and zealots of fidelity should ponder further: one can be faithful to Wagner’s curiosity and search for the newest stage technologies without, however, perpetuating a Romantic nationalistic discourse of mythical origins. Indeed, Lepage might be sympathetic to Wagner’s technological scenography, but not necessarily to his aesthetic ideology. The proscenium in front of the Machine has, after all, clearly demonstrated Lepage’s knowledge of previous scenographic reforms of Wagner’s work, more precisely of Adolphe Appia’s use of electrical lighting in order “to clear the stage space so that attention would be focused principally on the singing actor.”38 In recasting the phantasmagoria to Siegmund’s high tale, rather than the descent of the winged horses, and in nicknaming his set “the Machine,” Lepage’s production clearly invites us to look behind our shoulder, to turn our head and investigate not only the shadows on stage, but the sources of light that make them possible.

Nevertheless, this type of intermedial interactivity—i.e. the prompting of moving images on the set through vocalization and bodily movements—is an important site of visual friction with the mimetic scenes in The Ring, not so much because of what the interactive media make appear, but because of Lepage’s refusal to employ the technology to its full extent in the scenes that seem to require it most. For all of these ingenious and critical deployments of digital scenography, the Tarnhelm scenes are treated with relatively traditional means. Although the dragon’s body as projected onto the “Machine” takes up the whole width of the stage, the image remains still, while only the mechanical head and tail on either side of the Machine are mobile. In this same scene, Alberich does not vanish through a smoke screen of digital invention, but by being rolled off-stage on a dissimulated dolly. As Alberich crouches while being pulled off-stage, the effect is one of transformation, especially as it occurs while the dragon comes to life. Similarly, the dragon in Siegfried is also a mechanical prop. All of the Tarnhelm’s mimetic scenes of animal metamorphoses have been created with traditional theatrical effects, when, given its digital means, the production could have easily relied on greater displays of virtual reality. With the latest technology available to stage the mimetic scenes of The Ring, Lepage does not feed the illusion that an immersion in digital projections might free us from our awareness of technology and restore us—if not to a pure, primeval nature, at least—to the autonomy of our inner nature. By consciously avoiding this movement-detection and replication technology in the scenes that are potentially the most phantasmagorical, Lepage’s digital scenography is thus critically discerning of the Gesamtkunstwerk’s iconic and crystalline dialectic.


In an interview during an intermission of the cinema relay of Siegfried, Lepage’s collaborator, Roger Parent, explained where his company Réalisations.net found the technology to give the Forest bird a three-dimensional appearance and make its beak move in time with the vocalist’s singing. He quite candidly told viewers that it was gathered, among other places, from military research and development, but that put in the hands of artists, it recreated a magical world for the age of digital technology.39 In this confession, one hears the digital echoes of Kittler’s discussion of Babbage’s militarization of the coloured light he discovered at the theatre. Instead of looking back to Bayreuth’s special effects and the concealment of steam engines and the manual labour involved in feeding their furnaces, another archaeological investigation of media might better explain how spectators adopt a certain discourse when they experience interactive stage media within an aesthetic totality.

Sean Michael’s novel Us Conductors offers many opportunities to ponder the darker political side of the kind of intermedial interactivity at work in Lepage’s Ring. This fictional biography of Léon Theremin explores the ethical ramifications of the many technological devices he developed following his research in electromagnetism. Michael’s novel stages a particular invention that resonates like an analogue counterpoint to the movement- and sound-activated digital bubbles, pebbles, mists, and clouds in Lepage’s production of Das Rheingold. It was in New York City as well that Theremin’s interest in the electromagnetic harnessing of dance gestures and their translation into sound led to his invention of the terpsitone. As Michael’s novel embeds the novel’s narration within imagined scenes in which Theremin writes his autobiography, the narrator and character here speak in the first person:

the terpsitone […] was my crown jewel, my new infatuation. It felt like an object I had found, an old artifact I had uncovered: dance that makes music. Whereas the theremin reads melody from the gestures of two hands in the air, the terpsitone, the “ether-wave dance stage,” interprets movements of the whole body. The performer’s gestures have a double meaning—the gestures as gestures, and the manipulation of sound.40

The terpsitone is not only the mechanical expression of its inventor’s passion for dance; the uncovered “old artefact” further represents Theremin’s desire to employ technology to retrieve art’s mimetic origins in bodily expression. The terpsitone, by sounding the music of people’s dancing, could even reverse the commodification logic of the cultural industry.

As noted above with Tomlinson, the attempt to resurrect a period prior to music’s entanglement in the world of commodities was already an unknowing subject of concern for Wagner. Indeed, the similarities between Michael’s representation of Theremin’s technological utopianism and the Wagnerian “Artwork of the Future” both involve speculation on the mimetic origins and destiny of art:

The most realistic of all arts is that of Dance. Its artistic “stuff” is the actual living Man; and in troth no single portion of him, but the whole man from heel to crown, such as he shows himself unto the eye. It therefore includes within itself the conditions for the enunciation of all remaining arts: the singing and speaking man must necessarily be a bodily man; through his outer form, through the posture of his limbs, the inner, singing and speaking man comes for to view. The arts of Tone and Poetry become first understandable in that of Dance, the Mimetic art, by the entire art-receptive man, i.e. by him who not only hears but also sees.41

Wagner goes on to explain how drama was created after Dance’s multiple stages of mimetic translation into other genres and media (Tone and Poetry). Theremin, going a step further, employs the terpsitone’s electromagnetic technology to bypass all of the historical mimetic translations of dance into sound and poetry that form the gesamt part of Wagner’s total work of art.42

Does Theremin’s analogue multimedia technology compare to Lepage’s digital interactive stage devices? Or, to put it differently, do the special effects of Lepage’s production unravel the aesthetic ideology of Wagner’s Ring? For one, Lepage’s interactive media do not produce sound, but rather images. Second, they harness sound, as well as gesture to modulate or enhance programmed images or even modify them according to programmed algorithms. Third, contrary to the surveillance capacities of Theremin’s technology, Lepage’s interactive media do not seek to invade private discussions or to spy on certain characters. One might say, therefore, that Lepage’s interactive scenography is a digital extrapolation on Wagner’s scenographic ambitions. To media archaeology, however, Wagner’s music drama prefigures the social deployment of Theremin’s technology. Indeed, just as Bayreuth foreshadowed other 20th-century technologies, Wagner’s mimetic ambitions had already announced the rise of electronic surveillance. In answer to Mime’s plot to kill Siegfried, Wagner has his hero drink the metamorphosed blood of the slayed Fafner, in order that he might partake in the mimetic order and understand the Forest bird’s warning, as well as Mime’s thoughts. In this scene as in others, the primitivist regression of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk foreshadows the worst social uses of media technology. In an age of massive surveillance, perhaps being “faithful” to Wagner’s scenography entails the use of digital technology in order to problematize the desires and fantasies of the dramas, rather than attempting to realise Wagner’s dream.


1. There are many articles and blog posts that give summaries of the controversy at specific moments over the two years it took to produce the Met’s new Ring Cycle. See Alex Ross, “Encircling the ‘Ring’,” The New Yorker, May 7, 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/encircling-the-ring (accessed October 25, 2015). Cf. the following blog entry by peterp, May 8, 2012 – 9:43 am, “The Met Ring and Critical Incompetence,” The Wagner Blog, http://thewagnerblog.com/2012/05/the-met-ring-and-critical-incompetence/ (accessed April 12, 2015).

2. Chéreau in Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Tétralogies: Wagner, Boulez, Chéreau. Essai sur l’infédilité (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1983), 77.

3. Patrick Carnegy, “Designing Wagner,” in Wagner in Performance, ed. Barry Millington and Stewart Spencer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 49–50.

4. Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington, Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung: A Companion (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000), 291.

5. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977).

6. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Routledge, 1989), 20.

7. Mike Ashman, “Producing Wagner,” in Wagner in Performance, ed. Barry Millington and Stewart Spencer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 29, 34–5.

8. Patrick Carnegy, Wagner and the Art of the Theatre (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 1–45.

9. Carnegy, Wagner and the Art, 69–106.

10. Ashman, “Producing Wagner,” 31.

11. Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media: Berlin Lectures 1999, trans. Anthony Enns (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), 172.

12. Kittler, Optical Media, 173.

13. Carnegy, Wagner and the Art, 85.

14. Jussi Parikka, What is Media Archaeology? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), 1.

15. Matthew Wilson Smith, The Total Work of Art: From Bayreuth to Cyberspace (New York: Routledge, 2007), 4.

16. Idem.

17. Gary Tomlinson, Metaphysical Song (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 130–1.

18. Theodor Adorno, In Search of Wagner (London: Verso, 2005), 81. See also the preceding and next chapter of the book for more comments on Wagnerian music drama as the artistic embodiment of commodity fetishism.

19. Adorno, In Search of Wagner, 74 fn1.

20. Kittler, Optical Media, 171.

21. Richard Wagner, “The Art-Work of the Future,” in Richard Wagner’s Prose Works Vol. 1, trans. William Ashton Ellis (New York: Broude Bros, 1966), 85.

22. Nattiez, Tétralogies, 67–9.

23. Nattiez, Tétralogies, 76.

24. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1976).

25. Nattiez, Tétralogies, 84.

26. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 197–222.

27. Melina Esse, “Don’t Look Now: Opera, Liveness and the Televisual,” Opera Quarterly 26, no. 1 (2010): 81–95.

28. João Pedro Cachopo, “Opera’s Screen Metamorphosis: The Survival of a Genre or a Matter of Translation?” Opera Quarterly 30, no. 4 (2014): 315–29.

29. Bernadette Cochrane and Frances Bonner, “Screening form the Met, the NT, of the House: What Changes with the Live Relay,” Adaptation 7, no. 2 (2014): 121–33.

30. See also Matthew Wilson Smith, “Gesamtkunstwerk and Glitch,” Theater 42, no. 2 (2012): 67–8.

31. Ellen Gamerman, “A Digital Night at the Opera,” Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2010, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703376504575491971631630324 (accessed April 12, 2015).

32. Photos of the productions can be viewed online at the following address: http://ringcycle.metoperafamily.org/ (accessed October 25, 2015).

33. The Great Ziegfeld, directed by Robert Z. Leonard (1936: Beverly Hills, CA: Time Warner, 2010), DVD.

34. Smith, “Gesamtkunstwerk and Glitch,” 66–8.

35. Smith, “Gesamtkunstwerk and Glitch,” 70. I am reminded here of an earlier research and development project in interactive stage technology. See Joseph A. Paradiso, “The Brain Opera Technology: New Instruments and Gestural Sensors for Musical Interaction and Performance,” Journal of New Music Research 28, no. 2 (1999): 130–49.

36. Robert Lepage, “An Interview with Robert, Lepage,” liner notes to Die Walküre, in Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen, DVD. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus directed by James Levine and Fabio Luisi (Deutsche Grammophon, 2012), 6–7.

37. Carnegy, Wagner and the Art, 97–9.

38. Carnegy, “Designing Wagner,” 53.

39. “Mary Jo Heath interviews Roger Parent of Réalisation.net,” from the “Backstage at the Met” series included with Siegfried, in Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen, DVD. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus directed by James Levine and Fabio Luisi (Deutsche Grammophon, 2012).

40. Sean Michaels, Us Conductors (Portland: TinHouse Books, 2014), 150–1.

41. Richard Wagner, “The Artwork of the Future,” Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, vol. 1., trans. William Ashton Ellis (New York: Broude Bros, 1966), 100.

42. Wagner, “The Artwork of the Future,” 104.



Photographic social media, designed landscapes and urban, place-based visibilities: in search of friction

Erin Despard*

School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, United Kingdom


Beginning from the double premise that, particularly in the city, designed landscapes function as a socially and culturally powerful form of visual media, and that they do so in interaction with other visual media forms, this paper seeks to both investigate and challenge what is taken as a reciprocal shaping of urban visibilities. This investigation is occasioned primarily by the rise of digital and networked photographies, and the disruptive potential they seem to hold with respect to this reciprocal influence. Drawing on theories of materialist media ecology, it proceeds by way of an interpretative experiment in relation to a set of photographs of a park, as circulated on Instagram. I ask, can social media images be seen as unintentionally disruptive of the reciprocity between landscape and photography, and if so, what are the avenues through which they might then become politically productive? My principal aims in doing so are (1) to explore an approach to photographic interpretation and analysis that is appropriate to the contexts of production and circulation provided by photographic social media; and (2) to identify possible strategies or points of future intervention on behalf of alternative or frictional visibilities.


Erin Despard, is currently ICCS Postdoctoral Fellow at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and an Honorary Research Associate in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences at the University of Glasgow. She holds a PhD in Communication Studies. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Landscape Research, Space and Culture, and Environment and Planning D: Space and Society. She is currently working on a book manuscript entitled, ‘Montréal, la ville fleurie: An archaeology of urban landscape and horticultural media’.

Keywords: urban landscapes; photographic social media; Instagram; public space; natural surveillance; materialist media ecologies

Citation: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 7, 2015 http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/jac.v7.28242

Copyright: ©2015 E. Despard. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 8 December 2015

*Correspondence to: Erin Despard, School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow, East Quadrangle, Main Building, Glasgow G12 8QQ, United Kingdom. Email: erin.despard@glasgow.ac.uk

This paper is part of the Special Issue: Visual Frictions. More papers from this issue can be found at www.aestheticsandculture.net


This paper begins from the assumption that public designed landscapes such as parks and gardens do much more than simply provide a space for recreation, social mixing or “contact with nature.” They constitute a socially and culturally powerful if subtle form of media. I mean this in two senses: first, they mediate perception of the surroundings in ways that differentially value particular views, experiences, activities, aesthetic qualities and ways of being;1 second, they function as mediums of social and cultural exchange—in the form, for example, of photographs taken and circulated in social media.2 In this second sense, it becomes clear that their functioning in the first sense is itself mediated, or rather, that designed landscapes are only socially and culturally effective in interaction with other media forms.

In recent years, particularly in cities, the interactivity of landscape and other visual media appears to be intensifying, or at least, is increasingly explicit. On the one hand, the rise of camera phones and photographic social media (e.g. Flickr, Instagram) means that not only tourists but also residents are increasingly disposed to photograph and otherwise represent aspects of their engagement with landscape. Certain kinds of public landscape (especially parks and gardens) are also increasingly animated by programming promoted, and sometimes even delivered through social media. On the other hand, such landscapes are conceived as environments capable of mediating behaviour. Especially in North America, parks and other public spaces are increasingly designed to prevent behaviours such as vandalism, sleeping in public and drug trafficking,3 not to mention terrorist attacks.4 Further, those not designed and/or managed for such purposes are frequently seen to facilitate those activities.5

As I discuss further below, such developments reflect an intensification or perhaps clarification of a longstanding reciprocity between landscape and other visual media—photography in particular. This reciprocity is worth investigating for three reasons. First, both landscape and photography exert a considerable influence over what is seen, and how, in urban public spaces. In this, they also shape what can be talked about, interacted with, reproduced, valued and so on. That is, to draw on the broad definition of visibility given by Brighenti (wherein the cultural-perceptual and socio-political dimensions substantially overlap): by visibilising public space in particular ways, they help to delineate the horizon of possible social and environmental relations.6

Second, it is possible to observe in certain forms of both landscape and photography, a tendency toward an increasing homogenization of effects. For example, as the analysis presented below demonstrates, in landscapes designed for security, and networked or social photographies designed for commercially oriented data production, place-based visibilities are managed or structured in ways that tend to produce effects that are politically and perceptually similar.7 In relation to public parks, which have historically been sites for both the “symbolic projection of public culture”8 and a display of and/or contact with urban nature, the prospect of an increasing visual homogeneity, shaped by the imperatives of surveillance on the one hand, and those of commerce on the other, is troubling: what happens, for example, to those forms of life and ways of being in the city that impede surveillance or are not photogenic?

Third, landscape and photography exhibit a similar “duplicity” in their ability to disguise their influence by concealing the means and conditions of their making.9 While the perceptual effects of media are always hard to see (because transparent), the various techniques that disguise and naturalize horticultural interventions in the landscape, combined with the “black-boxing” of digital photographic technologies, makes their contribution to the shaping of place-based urban visibilities all the more obscure.

From this perspective, the rise of photographic social media such as Instagram—which enables a more broadly accessible means of visually engaging and communicating about urban landscapes—inspires a certain hope. Might the newness of such technologies, combined with the sheer volume of its their uptake, register some unexpected means of disrupting processes of visual homogenization and producing alternative points of view? I am particularly interested in the possibility that photographic social media may contribute to the development of collective processes of landscape interpretation and criticism. As several authors have recently argued, the sheer volume of images produced and consumed through social or “networked” photographies means their content cannot be interpreted according to existing models of representation and communication.10 Here I explore the possibility that this destabilization of interpretation by experts may open new terrain for collective critical practice.

My primary intervention is to undertake an interpretative “experiment” in relation to a set of photographs of a park, as circulated on Instagram.11 Drawing inspiration from theories of materialist media ecology, I ask, can social media images be seen as unintentionally critical of a given landscape and public space, and if so, what are the avenues through which they might then become politically productive? My principal aims in doing so are 1) to explore an approach to photographic interpretation and analysis that is appropriate to the contexts of production and circulation provided by photographic social media; and 2) to identify points of future intervention on behalf of frictional as opposed to reciprocal visibilities of land, environment and social life in the city.

I proceed by tracing some of the social, material and technical relations implied in the production and circulation of a particular photographic content on Instagram, attempting both to reveal an unintended critical potential, as well as identify the conditions of its interpretation and exploitation as such. While this results in observations that are not exactly hopeful with respect to a political use of Instagram, I finish by discussing some concrete interventions that may provide a starting point for connecting potentially frictional content with existing or future politics of urban visibility. Before presenting this analysis however, I discuss the reciprocity of landscape and photography from a historical perspective, the functioning of Instagram in relation to landscape generally, and the conceptual framework that motivates my approach.


From the perspective of the term’s aesthetic use, “landscape” has, since its appearance in the 16th century, always been shaped by technologically enabled and culturally specific processes of visual mediation (e.g. painting, photography, landscape gardening).12 There is as such a historically specific conflation between the perception, representation and production of landscape: to look at landscape is already to look through land in a particular way.13 This conflation is in part what has enabled particular aesthetic values and sensibilities to appear self-evident in certain contexts, which in turn has facilitated a range of political projects dependent on the covert shaping of visibility—for example, through the design of landscapes that shape views and stage social relations in ways that are disguised and/or naturalized,14 or through representations and interpretations of land that elevate particular qualities and effects as a means to sustain or elevate a particular social order.15

Arguably, photography has played a special role in elaborating and securing landscape’s secret powers, since it was invented just as the landscape “way of seeing” was becoming naturalized. As Nickel writes, “photography was born into a pre-existing, albeit incipient, notion of the photographic, one based on conceiving of the world as already containing an infinite number of latent pictorial compositions awaiting discovery.”16 Since then, Giblett asserts, it has become “one of the major ways in which modern, technologically savvy people relate to the land, and the land is mediated to them.” In the process, starting with the fact that the landscape format is the norm for photography (since you have to turn the camera on its side to take a portrait): “The technology of photography … inscribes and reproduces landscape aesthetics.”17 Between the two “ways of seeing,” there is a common work of aestheticization (and de-politicization): just as the perception and re-presentation of land as landscape is a means of putting oneself at a distance from its productive use,18 so the photograph both beautifies and objectifies what it pictures.19

Of course, as both Cosgrove and Sontag note, what the device of the camera adds in particular, is the illusion of objectivity.20 Especially in landscape photographs, practices of “looking through” and “looking at” become thoroughly intertwined, leaving us with what appears to be an objective rendering of a particular place: not only how it looks, but what of interest is there, and its importance in relation to other elements. It is easy to forget that what we see of a given place is selective, and to allow a particular point of view to stand in for the place itself.21 Such an effect is amplified in a modern touristic context, where people tend to visit landscape precisely to see in person what they have already seen of it through postcards, promotional materials, and the myriad of (often very similar) images supplied by a Google Images search.22

From this point of view, the homogenization of place-based visibilities seems inescapable in a digital age. However, the convergence of new photographic and communication technologies has also introduced new potential sources of visual friction. As Cruz and Meyer observe, camera phones make it much easier to take photographs in a variety of settings, while mobile and online photo-sharing applications make it cheaper and more convenient to share them.23 The massive and widespread uptake of digital and “networked photographies” has produced new, still emergent modes of photographic engagement. Not only are people taking and sharing more photos, more often, they are engaging in expressive and communicative as well as commemorative modes of photographic practice.24 This has given rise to new fields of aesthetic value as well as new forms of community that sustain them.25

At the same time, photographic social media is increasingly deployed as a key component in promoting programming for urban public places, raising the possibility that the affordances of specific media forms may in turn shape the nature, or even the site of that programming. In this context, Instagram is particularly well suited to an investigation of the intermedial shaping of urban place-based visibilities. I turn now to a brief discussion of its specific functionality.


Instagram is an application designed exclusively for smartphones (and more recently, tablets) that enables mobile photo capture, editing and sharing. It was launched in 2010, bought by Facebook in 2012 (for $1 billion), and currently claims 400 million active users who upload, on average, 80 million photographs a day.26 Though it is promoted as photographic social media, in which the social and the aesthetic are effortlessly blended, its most important feature from the perspective of its commercial productivity, is the way the uploading of photographs permits the correlation of location data and social data. With some exceptions,27 most research on Instagram has, to date, focused on the associated data, and in particular, how to make use of it for a variety of (often commercially oriented) purposes.28 In this context, what the photographs themselves are or do is not theorized, and sometimes not even clearly stated. This vagueness in relation to content corresponds to an underappreciation of the diverse ways in which Instagram accounts are used: for example, not only as a way of communicating with friends, but also as tools of marketing, advertising and awareness-raising, or as galleries, portfolios or visual journals for creative professionals.

This combination of conceptual vagueness with a diversity of uses means that the larger cultural significance of Instagram has yet to be clearly articulated. However, I take seriously Instagram’s claim that it is “a new way to see the world.” For one, I find it striking that the majority of users regularly employ the built-in filters.29 Its restriction to mobile use, and its highly streamlined functionality (relative to Facebook or Flickr, for example), makes it possible to edit photographs on location and in place. This suggests that its effects in relation to urban spaces may be perceptual as well as social, simultaneously aestheticizing and elevating the social and cultural value of particular locations, qualities and events. In this context, it must be seen as a key vector through which the technical, habitual and discursive shaping of land and place-based visibilities takes place.


As several authors argue, the technological and practical changes associated with networked photographies and the never-ending avalanche of images that carry them, demand a new interpretative frame. Perhaps most importantly, the quantity and circumstances of their production, and their presentation in a continuously updated stream, suggest a relational or contextual significance that exceeds the boundaries of the photograph itself.30 This significance is specified in part through the use of hashtags, which provide photographs with a codified, as opposed to narrative, contextual significance. For Rubenstein and Sluis, this makes the taking and sharing of photographs more akin to speech than the kind of artistic or commemorative acts on which interpretation was premised in the past. They suggest that networked photographies operate in ways similar to what Frosh observes about stock photography—that is, on the basis of culturally engrained associations that signify without needing to be consciously interpreted.31 They trade, in other words, on the communicative economy of the glance: yielding a semantic density that tends to be culturally normative.

While such developments challenge the existing premises for interpretation, they also make it possible to interrogate practices of “looking through” and “looking at” in new ways. When photographs of urban landscape are edited and distributed in place, the amount of reflection or critical appraisal is minimized, giving us less a collection of photographs selected for their aesthetic or narrative qualities, and more a record—or rather, a display—of the photographer looking through the camera at the landscape. At the same time, the simultaneous insertion of photographs into collective archives (via hashtags) produces new traces of the socio-cultural processes attending practices of looking. What visual social media offers to interpretation is thus less a particular kind of photograph, and more a different perspective on a multifaceted and ongoing process of (re)mediation.32

At the same time, recent technological and urban environmental developments suggest that the agency of non-human objects and processes are increasingly pervasive in shaping photographic possibilities and constraints, particularly in relation to photographs of urban public landscapes. On the one hand, there is an increasing convergence between photographic and computing technologies;33 on the other, an increase in the presumed capacity of designed landscape to shape perception, use of, and movement through public spaces.34 Especially while they are still in process, these developments call for a mode of conceptualizing and interpreting social media photographs of landscape that acknowledges the intermedial and less narrowly intentional nature of their production.

In the recent Digital snaps: The new face of photography, several authors propose that personal or social photography should be understood as an evolving media ecology.35 I propose that this is an especially appropriate framework for interrogating the role of such photographies in the intermedial production of urban visibilities. Inspired in large part by the work of Marshall Mcluhan and his contemporaries, the term “media ecology” acknowledges, for a start, the relational and interactive character of media forms, prioritizing the socio-material effects of those forms over their specific content. It takes media to be environmental in their influence, since they alter our perception and experience of, as well as behaviour in, the world in a manner that is immersive and effectively transparent.36

Building on these observations, as well as the insights of vitalist and new materialist philosophies, authors such as Matthew Fuller and Jussi Parikka take a more inclusively materialist approach to the description of media ecologies, proposing that “media” refers not only to technologies of communication, but to a more general capacity to register and transduce or translate circumstances and events into intensities and effects perceptible to others. To mediate is thus not only to affect, but to be affected and thereby, to invent new relational possibilities.37 From this perspective, media ecologies do not constitute stable communities, but, to paraphrase Parikka, ongoing “experiments in relatedness” between a variety of bodies, technologies and circumstances in a given place.38 From this perspective, the production of visibility can be seen as a process of continual re-mediation that is always place-based, even when its effects are mobile.

For my purposes, one of the principal benefits of this broadened definition is its displacement of emphasis from (intentional) use to the effects of media. It enables us to avoid resorting to “received concepts such as ‘self-expression’ or ‘representation’” and encourages us to focus on how specific photographies work and what they do.39 This does not preclude an interpretative analysis, however: both Fuller and Parikka practice a materialist approach towards interpretation that is oriented toward effects produced by specific technologies, art works, media systems and practical communities, and the relations implied in and sustained or challenged by them. While they focus on examples drawn from artistic works that explicitly seek a creative disruption of existing media relations, I consider social media photographs of a particular urban landscape in terms of their potential for unintentional disruption. I do this by (somewhat artificially) isolating two moments in a larger process of ongoing (re)mediation, exploring within each, different avenues for making the relations implied in the production of specific urban visibilities appear.

More specifically, I experiment with the introduction of interpretative constraints consistent with the observations about networked photographies outlined above. That is, I ask: given a certain photographic content, what might we see differently—of that content, or the landscape that afforded it—if we refuse access to the photographer’s intentions, or recourse to a single “use” or genre of photography? Drawing on a variety of sources to contextualize the production and circulation of content, I trace a (failed) trajectory of its critical potential, attempting to show what the photographs can and can’t do by pushing them (imaginatively) to do more than they want to, and to make certain socio-technical relations of production and circulation appear.

The first moment I attempt to (partially) re-construct, is that of the photograph’s production. On the basis of visits to the site, my own photographic documentation and consideration of the site plan, and drawing on Gibson’s theory of affordances as well as knowledge of the principles guiding the design of public landscapes for security and crime prevention purposes, I identify a set of photographs that picture an unexpectedly disruptive relation between camera and landscape, but one whose socio-semiotic effects are thoroughly ambiguous. The second moment is prospective in character, constructed as a means of imagining what such potentially critical but politically ambiguous photographs might do in circulation. On the basis of my own experiments with hashtags and consideration of prescriptions regarding their use, I identify some constraints on the possibilities in this regard.

The analysis is followed by a discussion of what, between these two moments, can now be said about the appearance and mobilization of unintended visual frictions within the intermedial production of urban visibilities. I conclude by making some modest suggestions regarding tactics for developing and extending their political potential.


The newly renovated Grand Park opened in downtown Los Angeles in July of 2012. Designed by landscape architects Rios Clementi Hale Studios, the signs at its entry points proclaim that it is “the park for everyone”—in other words, an inclusive space for celebrating the city’s cultural diversity. Sloping downhill across four blocks to the base of City Hall, it is a park of wide-open spaces, spectacular architectural features (such as a large, multi-level fountain lit by coloured floodlights at night), and attractively framed views of important cultural and civic landmarks. Paid for in large part by the developer of a downtown condominium complex,40 the project has multiple stakeholders, including the Los Angeles Music Center, which is situated at the top of the park, and administers its programming. Envisioned in part as a means of addressing ongoing problems with homelessness, crime and drug use in the downtown core, the park is meant to be a safe, socially vibrant public space. It has been the focus of substantial cultural programming to entice people into the city centre, and its administrators have cultivated a comprehensive and strongly visual social media presence: in addition to a website, the park has a blog and Facebook account, as well as Twitter and Instagram feeds.

In this context, Instagram users would appear to be doing the park administrators’ work for them, since many of their photographs can be seen as promotional of park programming. As of January 11, 2015, Instagram returned 2407 photographs and videos associated with the hashtag #grandparkla. The majority of these photographs depict either the park’s fountain, a view of City Hall, or people enjoying social and cultural events held in the park. More convincingly perhaps than park administrators, such photographs show the park’s social relevance—often to thousands of people at a time—treating it as a backdrop to a range of social and cultural activities. In this context, I am particularly interested in those photographs that are of landscape—by which I mean, those that, more-or-less self-consciously, show us something about the landscape itself or its features. I see these as potential sites of a visible inter-action between landscape and photography.

The example I treat here works with a subset of the photographs tagged #grandparkla, created on the basis of an observation made while scrolling through the updating grid of thumbnail images on the screen of my mobile phone. I was struck by the regular, if not frequent, appearance of a particular content that, even on this small scale, was unusually noticeable: that is, the park’s bright pink furniture. Movable chairs, benches and tables are distributed in large quantities through most areas of the park, constituting both a content and a part of the landscape (see Figure 1). They are frequently featured in official photographs, commentary on the park and in its promotional materials (e.g. see www.grandparkla.org). The same colour of pink appears in all on and offline communications.

Fig 1
Figure 1.  Grand Park, Los Angeles, July 2013 (photograph by author).

Grand Park is not the first to offer its visitors movable chairs.41 However, their bright colour and their distribution throughout the landscape, as opposed to being contained within one portion of it, introduces a more explicitly aesthetic dimension to their use. That is, they are for certain purposes—i.e. those that require novel content and highly contrasting colours—very photogenic. By inviting a photographic response, they serve to aestheticize what is otherwise a more exclusively social or practical use of landscape. To me, the photographs featuring these chairs epitomize Instagram’s relation to landscape, since they capture a social use of it that wants to be pictured. Further, given the brightness and singularity of their colour, the chairs automatically situate the content of the photographs in which they appear within the park. Or at least, they do this more and more reliably as images of the chairs proliferate in various contexts over time. In this sense, the landscape facilitates its own mediation through (photographic) social media—promoting its cultural programming by permitting it to be definitively located whenever it is photographed in the vicinity of the chairs.

In order to gain a way of working with these photographs in context (as well as avoiding contravention of Instagram’s rules of use), I compiled a collection of photographs by reposting them to a dedicated Instagram account (with notice and credit given to the photographer; see Figure 2).42 To begin with, I selected all those that featured the pink furniture in a prominent enough manner to catch my eye on a continuous scroll (reproducing the kind of viewing involved in hashtag-based searches of Instagram generally). Looking at this collection (of approximately 100 photographs) made new observations possible—most notably, the fact that over a third of them (33) featured chairs that were either predominantly or entirely empty (see Figures 3 and 4).

Fig 2
Figure 2.  Profile page for @pinkchairsofgrandpark.

Fig 3
Figure 3.  Screenshot of photograph by @jessohbee, as reposted to @pinkchairsofgrandpark.

Fig 4
Figure 4.  Screenshot of photograph by @ogfrag, as reposted to @pinkchairsofgrandpark.

These photographs would seem to challenge what otherwise appears a supportive role for photographic social media in relation to the park’s programming, since they show the park failing in its mandate to populate a downtown public space. They present a view of the park that depicts not a design solution, but its founding problem: a social vacancy writ large. While recognizing that this reading reflects a disruptive potential more than an actual effect, asking how such content is both socio-semiotically afforded and—it turns out—complicated, by the landscape’s design, is a way of seeing how such a potential might be unintentionally and collectively produced.


Although it is not a common mode of landscape interpretation, a semiotic analysis of the way space is organized can reveal a great deal about the way the built environment is “read” and experienced by inhabitants and visitors.43 The broadly socio-semiotic interpretation I present here draws on J.J. Gibson’s theory of affordances44 as a means of emphasizing that, not only is the use and experience of designed landscapes inextricably tied to the socio-cultural and geographical context in which they appear, they are always addressed at least in part to the body and its specific sociocultural competencies.45 Local users (or adequatelyknowledgeable visitors), need not explicitly “read” particular meanings in a given landscape in order for them to register on a perceptual and affective level. Designed landscapes make a particular orientation to land, environment and other users useful in a given setting—they afford the expression and therefore the reproduction of specific aesthetic values, perceptual habits, behavioural norms and so on. It is the production of such an orientation in Grand Park, as well as some of its socio-political implications that I attempt to uncover here.

In North America, principles for the design of “safe” public spaces, as promoted since the 1970s by the Defensible Space, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design and Secured by Design movements,46 are now enshrined in “best practices” for landscape architecture professionals.47These principles, which emphasize the importance of maximizing the “legibility” of public spaces and the visibility of users within them, provide an increasingly taken-for-granted orientation to public land that nonetheless has profound social and political implications. Perhaps most importantly, it is based on a model of crime prevention that requires the exclusion of certain users (e.g. not only criminals and terrorists, but homeless people, “loitering” youth, skateboarders and so on) in order to make others feel more comfortable.48 It also puts constraints on the type and form of vegetation that may be used, and on the style of its cultivation, relying heavily on the social significance of “tidy” vegetative forms to signify oversight.49 Reading Grand Park through the lens of the principle of “natural surveillance” in particular provides a means of bringing the park’s visual infrastructure, and some of its locally afforded significance, more clearly into view.

As noted above, Grand Park is composed of a series of open spaces that slope downhill. The vegetation is to a large extent clustered around the perimeter of these spaces, allowing the park to open on an attractively framed view of City Hall from multiple locations. Thus, in photographs of Grand Park that appear in various online contexts, and in the park’s own promotional materials, it is very common to see a view of City Hall. The park’s openness is however also conducive to other types of viewing, depicted only indirectly in photographs (i.e. in what is not pictured). Given that the vegetation surrounding or intersecting the open lawn areas, consists mainly of low growing perennial grasses and flowers, and relatively high canopy trees, the entire middle plane of the landscape is consistently empty, and there are virtually no opportunities for concealment. No matter where you are in the park, you can see across it. As such, it provides a perfect example of a space designed for “natural surveillance” (as well as that provided by an extensive cctv network and four security guards around the clock).50

This quality of the landscape is especially significant (if not immediately perceptible as such) in downtown LA, where public spaces have tended to host gatherings of homeless people as well as a range of illegal activities, and where, just around the corner, Occupy LA was encamped in 2011. Thus, while city officials promised upon its opening, that political activities would be permitted within the park, their hope was that “the nature of the space might sway park-goers to more modest pursuits.”51 As further press coverage of the park’s opening emphasized, concerns about drug use, sleeping in the park, and protest encampments led to a commitment by the city to a “firm and vigilant” approach to security. As one administrator put it: “We don’t want to throw protesters out … but we want this to be a park for everyone to enjoy ….”52 Thus while the “park for everyone,” proclaims inclusivity, in practice, the comfort of certain people is prioritized over the rights and needs of others (to free speech, or a place to sleep, for example).

So far, the strategies employed at Grand Park seem to be perceived (at least in the mainstream media) as successful. A 2013 LA Times article compares Grand Park—where homeless people are reported to attend cultural events, and to use the restrooms to wash up each morning—to that of nearby Pershing Square, large portions of which are regularly roped off to prevent the use of lawns and benches by homeless people, and where police have been accused of harassing them. The enforcement of “extensive” regulations, and Grand Park’s “design elements” are seen as major factors in its success.53 From this point of view, the photographs of empty chairs respond, not to a vacant, but a socially hygienic environment. They are not chairs that fail to be sat upon, but chairs that succeed in not providing a place to sleep. As a subject for photography, we could say that they are doubly (and ambiguously) attractive: they draw attention, not just because of their bright colour, and its contribution to the landscape, but also, with Pershing Square just around the corner, because of the historically and geographically specific affect of their emptiness.


The majority of users posting photographs of empty chairs have also attached several hashtags to their photographs. Hashtags provide descriptions of photographs that are machine-readable, and therefore searchable. While some Instagram users do not employ them to a substantial degree, many use them to expand or specify the potential audience for their photographs. In general, they refer to events, places, personal interests, narrative themes, or more simply to the photograph’s subject, and thus specify the contexts with which the photographer wishes the photograph to be associated. Politically speaking, their simultaneously classificatory and communicative functioning has multiple, somewhat conflicted effects.

On the one hand, machine-readable photographs are amenable to data analysis, which enables its capture for commercial and surveillance purposes (i.e. correlating content with locations, which can in turn be correlated with all kinds of other data useful to market research, location-based advertising, predictive policing and so on). On the other hand, hashtags can be used to convincingly associate local places, circumstances or events with larger causes and campaigns (e.g. recently in the US, #blacklivesmatter). There is also a certain potential, though it is more rare, to make novel associations, or bring awareness to otherwise invisible problems. For example, in relation to Grand Park’s empty pink chairs, we can imagine a somewhat challenging context might be specified by associating them with hashtags such as #whereiseveryone? #emptyparks or #socialexclusion. Finally, as Rubenstein and Sluis point out, hashtags also enable photographic content to escape the contexts of its original production, since it can be viewed by audiences outside of one’s social network and potentially be shared or otherwise combined with other online content in unexpected ways.54

The fact that the photos of empty chairs are accompanied by hashtags, thus suggests they have a certain potential for mobility. These hashtags are however, universally mundane and general in content. Aside from #grandparkla (which they all share), the most common among them are #dtla or #downtownLA (17 occurrences) and #pink (6 occurrences). Aside from these, there is little consensus among users, and most hashtags appear only once or twice, often pertaining to other aspects of the image (e.g. its inclusion of a pet dog or a new bike), or to such general themes as #work, #city or #furniture.

To me, these hashtags are not only apolitical; they actively mitigate against a political interpretation. The fact that the only consensus among these users pertains to the location and pinkness of the chairs, upholds their aesthetic and locative function within the park’s design—as if their social purpose and its relative success (to foster occupation and flexible use of a public space) was irrelevant. I find it modestly conspicuous that none of the photographers noted (in either hashtags or captions) that the chairs were empty, despite the fact that it is their emptiness that permits their portrayal as an aesthetic yet socially charged object. Elsewhere on Instagram, the enigma of the empty chair has become something of a cross-cultural preoccupation (e.g. #emptychairsproject contains almost 19,000 images of empty chairs from all over the world), while in another American park featuring movable chairs (Bryant Park in New York City), the sight of empty chairs en masse was so jarring as to permit their deployment as part of an art work commemorating the 9/11 terrorist attacks.55 In fact, what a consideration of these hashtags suggests, is that in the absence of a political intention, rather than increasing mobility, or enabling an escape of photographic content from its original context, what hashtags do more significantly, is fix the context of viewing: these chairs are pink, not empty. They are meant to signify a place (#grandparkla, #dtla), and the photographer’s presence there, but little else.

Although the choice of hashtags here is perhaps not as strategic as it could be (since photographs with popular hashtags—such as #dtla and #pink—fall very quickly off the front end of the search results) the fixing of context is in fact what Instagram “wants”: this is what produces patterns of association useful to market research and location-based advertising.56 In an article in the Instagram Help Center, it is advised that the most effective hashtags are specific but “relevant”; they “stand out and connect with the people most like you.”57 Thus while the use of hashtags would seem a potentially powerful moment for creating novel associations and challenging hegemonic perspectives, in practice, such use is destined to be marginalized: as I discovered in the process of experimenting with more political hashtags for my re-posted photos of empty pink chairs, if you want a given photo to be viewed by users other than your followers, you need to choose a hashtag that corresponds to existing interests and communities—something that other people already know and care about. The more political hashtags proposed above, correspond either with very small numbers of photographs (suggesting there will be few users who search for and find yours), or meanings not relevant to my purposes.

It is also worth noting in this context, that Instagram does not permit other users to add hashtags to a given photograph, which severely limits the possibilities for the re-contextualization of content. In this context, I propose that it is less the quantitative mobility of photographs—their ability to “escape” the personal context of their production—and more the porosity of their contextualization that is disruptively promising. That is, it is not only a question of whether a given photo is viewed outside the social context provided by one’s followers, but also of the extent to which those other viewings can be politically oriented or at least open-ended. Given that most users select apolitical hashtags, what might enable their photographs to be viewed in a way that is more open to critical or creative interpretative activities? One of the main benefits of identifying the constraints on a disruptive potential of networked photographies in relation to otherwise well-established place-based visibilities, is to identify the points at which an artistic or activist engagement might help to make such constraints visible as such or otherwise exploit them. I turn now to some reflections on the analysis pursued here, its broader socio-political implications, and some concrete suggestions for future intervention.


My aim in the preceding analysis has been to identify an unintended and politically generative excess within the communicative economy of the glance attributed to stock and networked photographies. There is however, a tension between this strategy and the critical ends towards which it aims, which is hinted at in the fact that landscapes designed for natural surveillance are similarly designed around the glance: the extent of surveillance must be immediately felt as opposed to consciously assessed in order to be effective in regulating behaviour and naturalizing exclusion. A strategic exploitation of the unthinking production of landscape photographs must therefore take into account their relation to regimes of surveillance.

It is worth emphasizing in this context that, just as the unimpeded sightlines of Grand Park facilitate both photographs of spectacular views and more effective policing by security guards and security cameras, the use of Instagram enables data-based surveillance of users’ interests, social networks and movement patterns.58 In both cases, it is precisely the unintended production of meaning—whether in the form of observable movements across the landscape, or the various types of data associated with Instagram use—that facilitates surveillance. Any attempt to excavate a critical potential from the same content must therefore take care to develop alternative venues or trajectories for its use. We need ways of seeing that are critical, rather than simply comprehensive (as is the aim of surveillance), or diverse (which in an age of “big data,” is infinitely exploitable for the purposes of marketing). Instagram’s frictional potential lies less in the volume and diversity of content produced through its use, and more in the new contexts and practices of communication that it has inaugurated, and which remain susceptible to extension and repurposing.

Thus, for example, even though it was not explicitly intended as such, the act of reposting photographs of pink chairs to a dedicated account, was a communicative act with (modest) critical potential: by notifying the owners of the photographs, the novel association the account itself established was communicated to those users— many of whom responded by following the account.59 This relatively straightforward and modest intervention is suggestive of the potential for developing a citizen (social) science of public spaces: for example, just as research in the field of urban informatics has developed applications that exploit the sensing capacities of smart phones for citizen-initiated environmental monitoring, the capacity to curate, recontextualize and communicate about place via social media platforms, suggests there is potential to develop a popular criticism or analysis of urban landscapes.

In this context, Instagram’s public API makes the development of third party applications a promising avenue for socio-political interventions that may help to create new venues and practices for interpretation and communication, and perhaps, eventually, new communities of users. There are many third party applications that currently enable searches of Instagram data. However these are designed to further the commercial use of the location and social data associated with photographs and present very limited possibilities for searches by individuals interested in the photographs themselves. The creation of a third party application to enable more complex searches (e.g. returning photographs from a given location with a particular hashtag, or particular keywords) could provide the content, and a venue for, collective consideration of political questions about the appearance, composition and use of public spaces, in a manner that is accessible in the course of everyday activities.60 A more explicitly critical design intervention that would afford interesting possibilities along similar lines, would be to create a search tool returning photographs of a given place that have been given hashtags corresponding to a very small number of photographs, or a small number of users (who post many photographs to that hashtag). This would be a way of identifying photographs of a place that have been contextualized by their users in idiosyncratic—perhaps personalized, perhaps politicized—ways.

The question that such tactics attempt to address, is of how to make a surplus of meaning long associated with photography,61 work towards ends other than those of a comprehensive survey or endless variation on the same themes; to inaugurate not only new uses of the content produced via photographic social media, but through its repurposing, new ways of seeing together. In fact, this suggests we need to think in terms not of a surplus (of information or possible meanings), but rather a problematic remainder capable of inspiring questioning and critique. The fact that what we see is always conditioned in part by what we don’t see has both a perceptual and a socio-political significance here: what, or who, is absent in order to render particular qualities, experiences and beings present? Looking at landscape photographs, it is very hard to say what is not there without first-hand knowledge of that landscape (or better yet, what preceded it). However, this is one thing that Instagram and other photographic social media offer, provided we have the means of searching, collecting and comparing their content in a useful manner. With strategically enabled searches, it would be possible to identify what is not being pictured, and also possible to ask why, in a public setting. Then a more artistic experimentation can begin: with the amplification of such absences, and strategies for turning them into political problems worthy of notice and discussion.


In the preceding analysis, I have explored a contextually and materially oriented mode of photographic interpretation. This is a mode of interpretation that attempts to correspond—in a more deliberate, open-ended way—with the kind of unthinking attention that Instagram solicits and rewards in its users. Although the structure of the analysis has been tailored to investigation of the social and material conditions relevant to the site under consideration, I believe that the materialist media-ecological framework providing its overarching strategies and objectives is one with more general applicability. The observations made above with respect to the inadequacy of conventional models of representation and communication in relation to networked photographies, and the recasting of their effects in terms of an ongoing process of re-mediation, are similar to those that have been made about other visual media forms and practices.62 A broader orientation to media effects and relations is conducive to studying processes of mediation, rather than discrete visual technologies or forms. It also enables the investigation of the place-based, and place-making effects of visual media, and consideration of otherwise covert mediating effects of environments.

Especially in cities, an awareness of the increasingly reciprocal shaping of communication and environment is crucial to the cultivation of democratic public life. My focus on unexpected disruptions of the reciprocity between social media photographs and designed landscape, and my attempt to outline some tactical possibilities for alternative engagements with them, highlights the critical pedagogical potential of the concretely experimental approach advocated by materialist media ecologists such as Fuller and Parikka. By experimentally working with Instagram to make it do more than it otherwise wants to, I have made some observations that not only contribute to a scholarly understanding of the intermedial shaping of urban visibilities, but which also, through the proposed interventions, may enable users to learn about the otherwise hidden cultural and perceptual effects of photographic social media and landscape alike. I hope that this can help us to more concretely envision a future in which the design of urban public spaces cannot be quite so cheerfully exclusive and discouraging of political activity.


This paper benefited from conversations with Chloe Reynolds, comments from Paul Frosh, and constructive feedback provided by reviewers and participants in the Nordic Network for Digital Visuality’s “Visual Frictions” workshop. The research was supported in part by the Fonds de Recherche du Québec, société et culture.


1. D. Harris and D.F. Ruggles, “Introduction,” in Sites Unseen, eds. D. Harris and D.F. Ruggles (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007), 5–32.

2. W.J.T. Mitchell. “Imperial Landscape,” in Landscape and Power, 2nd ed., ed. W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 5–34.

3. T. Crowe, Crime Prevention through Environmental Design, 2nd ed. (Woburn, MA: National Crime Prevention Institute, 2000).

4. A. Mather, “Base Enclosure,” Landscape Architecture 92, no. 9 (2002): 38–44; and L. Speckhardt and J. Dowdell, “Creating Safety,” Landscape Architecture 92, no. 9 (2002): 64–72.

5. F.E. Kuo, M. Bacaicoa, and C. Sullivan, “Environment and Crime in the Inner City: Does Vegetation Reduce Crime?,” Environment and Behavior 33 (2001): 343–67; and J.L. Nasar, and B.S. Fisher, “‘Hotspots’ of Fear and Crime: A Multi-Method Investigation,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 13 (1993): 187–206.

6. A.M. Brighenti, Visibility in Social Theory and Social Research (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

7. Indeed, as an anonymous reviewer suggested, they may represent two different moments in a coding of social interaction for the ends of governance. While further elaboration of the connection between visibilities and social interaction is not the focus of my analysis, I do consider some of the socio-political effects common to landscape and social photographies below.

8. A. Amin, “Collective Culture and Urban Public Space,” City 12, no. 1 (2008): 5–24.

9. A. Boulton and M. Zook, “Landscape, Locative Media, and the Duplicity of Code,” in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Cultural Geography, eds. N. C. Johnson, R. H. Schein, and J. Winders (Chichester: Wiley, 2013), 437–51.

10. D. Rubenstein and K. Sluis. “A Life More Photographic,” Photographies 1, no. 1 (2008): 9–28; and M. Lister, “Overlooking, Rarely Looking and Not Looking,” in Digital Snaps: The New Face of Snapshot Photography, eds. J. Larsen and M. Sandbye (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014), 1–24.

11. The term “experiment” is used here to denote an exploratory and inventive approach to the research question, rather than an emulation of experimental methods in the natural and social sciences.

12. D. Cosgrove, “Landscape and the European Sense of Sight,” in Handbook of Cultural Geography, eds. K.M. Anderson, M. Domosh, S. Pile, and N. Thrift (London: Sage, 2003), 249–67.

13. D. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, paperback ed. (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998).

14. R. Drayton, Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the Improvement of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000); C. Mukerji, Territorial Ambitions and the Gardens of Versailles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); and S. Pugh, Garden-Nature-Language (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988).

15. S. Daniels, Fields of Vision: Landscape Imagery and National Identity in England and the United States (Cambridge, MA: Polity, 1993); J. Duncan and N. Duncan, Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of Aesthetics in an American Suburb (New York: Routledge, 2004); and J. Snyder, “Territorial Photography,” in Landscape and Power, 2nd ed., ed. W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 175–202.

16. D. Nickel, “Photography, Perception, Landscape,” in America in View: Landscape Photography 1865 to Now, ed. D. Nickel (RSID: Providence, Rhode Island, 2012), 22.

17. R.J. Giblett, “Preface, Part One,” in Photography and Landscape, eds. R.J. Giblett and J. Tolonen (Bristol, CT: Intellect, 2012), 13; see also, Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, especially 257–64; and J.R. Stilgoe, “Popular Photography, Scenery Values and Visual Assessment,” Landscape Journal 3, no. 2 (1984): 111–22.

18. D. Cosgrove, “Prospect, Perspective and the Evolution of the Landscape Idea,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 10, no. 1 (1985): 45–62; and S. Pugh, Garden-Nature-Language.

19. S. Sontag, On Photography (New York: Dell, 1977).

20. Cosgrove, Prospect, Perspective; and Sontag, On Photography.

21. L. Wells, Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011).

22. B. Garrod, “Understanding the Relationship between Tourism Destination Imagery and Tourist Photography,” Journal of Travel Research 47 (2009): 346–58.

23. E.G. Cruz and E.T. Meyer, “Creation and Control in the Photographic Process: iPhones and the Emerging Fifth Moment of Photography,” Photographies 5, no. 2 (2012): 203–21.

24. N. Van House, “Personal Photography, Digital Technology and the Uses of the Visual,” Visual Studies 26, no. 2 (2011): 125–34.

25. S. Murray, “Digital Images, Photo-Sharing, and Our Shifting Notions of Everyday Aesthetics,” Journal of Visual Culture 7, no. 2 (2008): 147–63.

26. Stats’, Instagram website (no date), http://www.instagram.com/press/ (accessed Nov 18, 2015).

27. N. Hrochman, “The Social Media Image,” Big Data and Society 1, no. 2 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/205395171454664; N. Hrochman and L. Manovitch, “Zooming into an Instagram City,” First Monday 18, no. 7 (2013), http://bds.sagepub.com/content/1/2/2053951714546645 (accessed Nov 18, 2015); R. Willim, “Enhancement or Distortion? From the Claude Glass to Instagram,” Sarai Reader 09: Projections 8 (2013): 353–9.

28. M.P. Latorre-Martínez and T. Iñìguez-Berrozpe, “Image-Focused Social Media for a Market Analysis of Tourism Consumption,” International Journal of Technology Management 64, no. 1 (2014): 17–30. R. Schwartz and N. Hrochman, “The Social Media Life of Public Spaces: Reading Places Through the Lens of Geo-Tagged Data,” in Locative Media, eds. R. Wilken and G. Goggin (New York: Routledge, 2014): 52–65; T.H. Silva et al., “A Picture of Instagram is Worth a Thousand Words: Workload Characterization and Application” (Proceedings of the 2013 IEEE International Conference on Distributed Computing in Sensor Systems) (IEEE, 2013), 123–32, http://www.computer.org/csdl/proceedings/dcoss/2013/5041/00/5041a123-abs.html; and J. Zhang, H. Zhao and Y. Xie, “Follow You From Your Photos” (Proceedings of the 2013 IEEE International Conference on Green Computing and Communications and IEEE Internet of Things and IEEE Cyber, Physical and Social Computing) (IEEE, 2013), 985–92, http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/articleDetails.jsp?arnumber=6682183&newsearch=true&queryText=follow you from your photos

29. Hrochman and Manovitch, Zooming.

30. Hrochman, Social Media Image; and Murray, Digital Images.

31. Rubenstein and Sluis, A Life More Photographic; and P. Frosh, “Rhetorics of the Overlooked: On the Communicative Modes of Stock Photography,” Journal of Consumer Culture 2, no. 2 (2002): 171–96. See also Lister, Overlooking.

32. S. Kember and J. Zylinska, Life after New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012). I thank Paul Frosh for pointing out the importance of this distinction.

33. M. Hand, Ubiquitous Photography (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012); and Lister, Overlooking.

34. Especially via the increasingly influential Crime Prevention through Environmental Design and Secured By Design movements, wherein an enhanced legibility is seen to facilitate not only surveillance, but the encouragement of “desirable” uses, and the discouragement of undesirable ones.

35. Lister, Overlooking; M. Shanks and C. Svabo, “Mobile Media Photography: New Modes of Engagement,” in Digital Snaps: The New Face of Snapshot Photography, eds. J. Larsen and M. Sandbye (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014): 228–47.

36. M. McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).

37. M. Fuller, Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005); J. Parikka, “Media Ecologies and Imaginary Media: Transversal Expansions, Contractions, and Foldings” Fibrecultures 17 (2011), http://seventeen.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-116-media-ecologies-and-imaginary-media-transversal-expansions-contractions-and-foldings/ (accessed Nov 18, 2015); J. Parikka, “Insects and Canaries: Medianatures and the Aesthetics of the Invisible,” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 18, no. 1 (2013): 107–19.

38. J. Parikka, “Insect Technics: Intensities of Animal Bodies,” in An [Un]Likely Allience: Thinking Environment[s] with Deleuze/Guattari, ed. B. Herzogenrath (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008): 339–67.

39. Lister, Overlooking, 5.

40. As one of the conditions of sale for the land on which the condos were built.

41. The Palais de Luxembourg in Paris and Bryant Park in New York City provide famously successful precedents.

42. See @pinkchairsofgrandpark. Instagram stipulates that photographs of other users may not be stored; re-posting however is an accepted practice. Following the rules of etiquette suggested by Instagram, I sent a message to each photographer letting them know of the re-posting and offering to remove it if they wished. I also gave credit to the photographer in the caption for each photo. In the vast majority of cases, I received a positive response from users; no one requested that I remove their photo.

43. K.C. Ryden, “Prologue: Reading the Border,” in Mapping the Invisible Landscape, ed. K.C. Ryden (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993), 1–18; and G.S. Wagner, “Space Speaks: The Siting and Structure of a State Library,” The American Journal of Semiotics 17, no. 2 (2001): 299–310.

44. J.J. Gibson, “The Theory of Affordances,” in The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, ed. J.J. Gibson (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), 127–143.

45. M. Gottdiener, Postmodern Semiotics: Material Culture and the Forms of Postmodern Life (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).

46. For a review of these variants and their histories, see R. Schneider, “Crime Prevention through Environmental Design,” Journal of Architectural and Planning Research 22 (2005): 271–283.

47. L.J. Hopper, Landscape Architectural Graphic Standards (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2007).

48. P.E. Parnaby, “Crime Prevention through Environmental Design: Discourses of Risk, Social Control and a Neo-Liberal Context,” Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 48, no. 1 (2006): 1–26.

49. E. Despard, “Cultivating Security: Plants in the Urban Landscape,” Space and Culture 15, no. 2 (2012): 151–63.

50. The principle of natural surveillance substitutes complete visibility of activities for a more piecemeal and/or heavy-handed enforcement. Surveillance is thus undertaken by any and all who use or pass by the space. Crowe, Crime Prevention.

51. M. Pamer, “Newly Opened Grand Park in Downtown Los Angeles is ‘For Everyone’,” NBC Los Angeles (July 26, 2012), http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/Newly-Opened-Grand-Park-in-Downtown-Los-Angeles-Is-For-Everyone-163955416.html (accessed Nov 18, 2015).

52. S. Allen, “Grand Park Downtown Opens with a Flourish—And Hopes of Growing. LA Times (July 27, 2012), http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/27/local/la-me-grand-park-20120727 (accessed Nov 18, 2015).

53. G. Holland, “L.A.’s Urban Parks: For the Homeless Too?” LA Times (August 31, 2013), http://articles.latimes.com/2013/aug/31/local/la-me-homeless-parks-20130901

54. Rubenstein and Sluis, A Life More Photographic. I thank one of the reviewers for pointing out that there are some important precedents to such engagements with visual media: from artistic techniques that re-mix and re-purpose existing content (collage, sampling, mash-ups, etc.,), to practices of détournement, which began with the situationists and continue in a variety of present-day counter-cultural activities (e.g. “culture jamming” or “subtervising”).

55. J. Colvin. “2,753 Empty Chairs Honor 9/11 Victims at Bryant Park,” DNAinfo 10 (2011), http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20110910/midtown/2753-empty-chairs-honor-911-victims-at-bryant-park (accessed Nov 18, 2015).

56. For example, between demographic categories, geographic locations, personal interests and so on.

57. Best practices for using hashtags, Instagram website (no date), https://help.instagram.com/365080703569355/ (accessed Nov 18, 2015).

58. Instagram users agree to share their usage data and/or content not only with Instagram, but also its “affiliates,” “third-party advertisers,” “service providers,” and once it is anonymized, “other parties”. (“Instagram privacy policy,” Instagram website (January 19, 2013), https://instagram.com/about/legal/privacy/; (accessed Nov 18, 2015). The use of mobile devices in general is exploited for predictive policing and the mapping of movement patterns by security agencies. M. Crang and S. Graham, “Sentient Cities: Ambient Intelligence and the Politics of Urban Space,” Information, Communication and Society 10, no. 6 (2007): 789–819.

59. A further development of the critical potential inherent in this simple intervention, would have been to add new hashtags to the re-posted photographs—thus creating a collection searchable to other users, and communicating to the original photographers an alternative interpretation of their photographs.

60. Flickr enables more complex searches than Instagram, but discussion tends to be organized around aesthetic and technical photographic interests. See, Murray, Digital Images.

61. K.P. Albers, “Unseen Images: Gigapixel Photography and its Viewers,” Photographies 7, no. 1 (2014): 11–22.

62. For example, see Kember and Zylinska, Life after New Media.



Mourning Mandela: sacred drama and digital visuality in Cape Town

Paula Uimonen*

Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden


The world united in unprecedented ways in mourning the global icon Nelson Mandela, an emotionally charged historical event in which digital visuality played an influential role. The memorial service for Nelson Mandela on Tuesday, 10 December 2013, gathered dignitaries and celebrities from around the world at the First National Bank Stadium in Johannesburg, to mourn the passing of Madiba and to celebrate his life work. At the Grand Parade in Cape Town, the event was broadcast on large public screens, followed by live music performances and narrowcast interaction with the audience. Building on recent research on public screens during global media events, this article addresses the mediated mourning rituals at the Grand Parade in terms of a sacred drama. Focusing on social relationality, the article discusses how digital visuality mediated a sense of global communitas, thus momentarily overcoming historical frictions between the global north and the global south, while expanding the fame of Madiba. Paying attention to the public display of visual memory objects and the emotional agency of images, it argues that digital visuality mediated social frictions between the living and the dead, while recasting a historical subject as a historical object. The article further discusses how digital visuality mediated cultural frictions of apartheid and xenophobia, through the positioning of Mandela in the pantheon of Pan-African icons, thus underlining the African origin of this global icon. The analysis is based on ethnographic observations and experiences in Cape Town.


Paula Uimonen specializes in digital anthropology and anthropology of art, media, and globalization. Her research on digital media and intercultural interaction at an arts college in Tanzania was published in the monograph Digital Drama (Uimonen 2012), with accompanying web site at www.innovativeethnographies.net/digitaldrama. Paula has also done research on a music campaign against corruption in Tanzania, presented in an ethnographic movie Chanjo ya Rushwa (2013) online at www.vimeo.com/paulauimonen. Her most recent publications focus on visual identity in Facebook (2013), mobile photography in Tanzania (in press) and mobile infrastructure in Africa (2015). Paula is currently conducting research on African women writers as well as Pan-African icons.

Keywords: Madiba; South Africa; digital visuality; sacred drama; virtual immortality; public screens; ritual; media; friction; co-presence

Citation: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 7, 2015 http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/jac.v7.28178

Copyright: ©2015 P. Uimonen. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 8 December 2015

*Correspondence to: Paula Uimonen, Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden. Email: paula.uimonen@socant.su.se

This paper is part of the Special Issue: Visual Frictions. More papers from this issue can be found at www.aestheticsandculture.net


Like a tsunami, the death of Nelson Mandela on 5 December 2013 sent waves throughout the global mediascape, culminating in the funeral in Qunu on Sunday, 15 December. Further to the public announcement of his passing, news agencies around the world broadcast the breaking news, which also spread rapidly through social and mobile media. As the government of South Africa declared a 10-day national mourning period, media coverage gained momentum, while commemorative rituals were organized around the world. In Cape Town, images of Mandela appeared all over town, along with textual tributes, often citing his words. Commemorative sites were erected in churches and public places, while hotels, shops, and even ATM machines displayed images of Madiba. In Facebook, individuals changed their portrait photos to photographs of Mandela, while sharing images with citations of his writings and speeches. Through various forms of digital visuality, people and places around the world were thus connected in mourning Mandela, while celebrating his life.

This article discusses the mourning rituals for Mandela at the Grand Parade in Cape Town on 10 December 2013 in terms of a “sacred drama” (Figure 1).1 During this event, the official memorial service in Johannesburg was broadcast on large public screens, followed by live music and narrowcast interaction with the audience. The centre stage for this cultural performance was a fenced passage in front of the City Hall where people placed photographs and other memory objects in tribute to Mandela in what constituted a “social aesthetic frame.”2 Such visual displays have become quite commonplace, turning public places into commemorative social spaces to mark the death of specific individuals, often celebrities, an early example of which was tributes to Princess Diana.3 Through digital media, the commemoration of celebrities takes on global dimensions, as exemplified by the multilayered media environments through which the death of Michael Jackson was recognized around the world.4 Building on earlier research on public screens by media scholars,5 this article discusses the digital visuality of mourning rituals for Mandela using anthropological theory on globalization, media, ritual, and fame.6 In using the term digital visuality, I refer to a wide range of cultural forms and practices in which digital and visual media converge, from digital public screens and visual memory objects to mediated co-presence and virtual immortality. From an anthropological perspective, digital visuality offers valuable insights into spatiotemporal mediations of human relatedness in an age of interactive global media. The overriding question that this article seeks to address is: How does digital visuality mediate historical, social, and cultural frictions in an interconnected world?7 The analysis is based on ethnographic observations and experiences in Cape Town.8

Fig 1
Figure 1.  Public screens at the Grand Parade.


On Tuesday, 10 December, an impressive number of dignitaries gathered in Johannesburg to attend the memorial service for Nelson Mandela at the First National Bank (FNB) Stadium. This stadium, bordering Soweto, is the largest one in Africa and it was the venue for the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final. For the memorial service, residents of Johannesburg lined up outside the stadium already the evening before and many more flocked to the stadium on the day itself. An estimated 80,000 people and over 80 heads of state and 30 former heads of state, leaders of 6 international organizations, royalty from 9 countries, and almost a dozen world celebrities attended the service, making it one of the largest gatherings of world leaders. The memorial service was broadcast and webcast by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), along with regional and international media. In addition to Mandela’s status as a global icon, international media presence was undoubtedly facilitated by the fact that many foreign correspondents cover Africa from South Africa.9 It rained throughout the memorial service, which in Africa is considered a blessing.

In Cape Town, the Grand Parade served as a venue for public screening of the memorial service in Johannesburg, broadcast in real time on large public screens. The public screening was one of many mourning rituals organized by the City of Cape Town in different parts of town to enable citizens to pay their tributes. The site itself was culturally and historically significant. The Grand Parade is the main public square in Cape Town and the site for the City Hall. It has been a venue for political rallies and this is where the 2010 World Cup FIFA Fan Fest was held.10 This is also where Nelson Mandela gave his first speech following his release after 27 years in prison, as recounted in his Long Walk to Freedom.11 The city’s connection to Mandela was visually inscribed in large banners decorating the City Hall, depicting Mandela’s portrait and the words “Cape Town honours Nelson Mandela 2013” and “Cape Town 11 February 1990. First speech by Nelson Mandela as a free man” (Figure 2).

Fig 2
Figure 2.  City Hall with banners honouring Mandela.

The memorial service for Mandela attracted a few hundred people to the Grand Parade, the audience growing as the hot sun descended and the working day came to an end. Most people followed the memorial service on the two large screens outside the City Hall, one on each side of the building. Two additional screens located further away in the square were only attended by a handful of people. The public screens were large flat panel displays, with powerful sound systems. You could easily watch the screens and hear the sound from a distance of 10–20 m. Yet people congregated near the screens, thus forming a more intimate collective of mourners.

As people gathered near the screens at the City Hall, the live broadcast mediated a sense of “co-presence,” of taking part in an event that was taking place elsewhere. Enveloped by a solemn and dignified atmosphere, people intently watched the screens, while the soundscape was filled with tributes and music from the memorial service. Through the televised broadcast, people could participate in the service in Johannesburg at a distance, thus sharing the moment with others. As research during the FIFA World Cup in 2010 has demonstrated, live broadcasts on public screens create a sense of “being there from afar.”12 Mediated co-presence is augmented by the cultural meaning of the event, in this case linking people from near and afar in a ritual of collective mourning. People were attracted to the screen site at the Grand Parade to share the moment with other people, thus underlining the “capacity of the screen to serve as the site for collective enactment of public rituals, including celebration and mourning.”13


By connecting mourners around the world, the public broadcast of the memorial service constituted a “cultural performance,” a highly ritualized event with a pronounced degree of reflexivity serving as a commentary and celebration of “human relatedness.”14 In this particular case, social connections spanned a vast variety of social constellations, from immediate family to world political leaders, with a long history dating back to the fight for independence from colonial rule and the long struggle against apartheid. Similarly, the social relations spanned the world, from Castro in Cuba to Obama in the United States, thus connecting the global north and the global south in intricate social networks. During the memorial service, the programme director read out names of the many countries that were present, while the use of idioms such as “father of the nation,” “son of Africa,” and “son of the world” underlined the cosmopolitan character of this commemorative event for Mandela.

At the Grand Parade, people from all walks of life shared the moment with participants in Johannesburg and beyond, thus forming a global web of social relations. The audience was very mixed, from young men in cool hip hop style to middle-aged men and women in casual or professional attire, from students and political activists to homeless people in rag tags. Black and white people stood next to one another, along with people of different cultural origin, residents sharing the space with guest workers and tourists. This social and cultural diversity was in itself a tribute to Mandela’s life work, a post-apartheid nation in an interconnected world. It could also be interpreted as somewhat evocative of the cosmopolitan aesthetic and creolized diversity of legendary South African township Sophiatown, which has inspired anthropological theorizing on the global ecumene.15

The televised memorial service illustrated how digital visuality can mediate spatiotemporal constellations that multiply space and conflate time. Public screenings offer mediated forms of “spatial pluralisation,” allowing for an event to “take place” in different places at the same time, as participants in one place are “symbolically connected” to others in other locations.16 As people are connected in real time, these screenings also mediate temporal convergence. Public live broadcasts thus bring a new dimension to “TV time” in the “making and expressing history in ex-colonies.”17 On this occasion, TV time did not only assure the “coevalness between the periphery and the metropole,”18 but it illuminated the breaking through of the colonialist and imperialist “denial of coevalness.”19 For a brief moment in time, South Africa was the centre of world attention, along with its historical connectedness to freedom struggles around the world. The social and political significance of these “transnational connections” was perhaps most visibly manifested in the presence of President Obama, the first black president of the United States paying his tributes to the first black president of South Africa.20

In this context, digital visuality mediated a sense of global communitas, linking people around the world in a temporary web of human relatedness. By seeing each other on and off the screen, people could visualize a shared, collective experience. What makes the term communitas suitable in this context is that Turner insisted on the non-territorial nature of community and the existential quality of communitas.21 Returning to the memorial service for Mandela, it can be argued that a global communitas was formed as the world united in the mourning of a global icon. And it was through digital visuality that this “interconnectedness of the world” was achieved, as it was by seeing each other on digital screens that “the entire inhabited world” or “global ecumene” could be envisioned.22

The notion of global communitas is useful for understanding how digital visuality can overcome historical frictions. Turner discusses how communitas break through in the interstices of structure (liminality), at the edges of structure (marginality) and from beneath structure (inferiority).23 The rigid statuses of structure are thus dialectically and asymmetrically related to the concrete and idiosyncratic relations of communitas. But there are times, especially during ritual events, when the social order is turned upside down, when “spontaneous communitas” are formed, sharing a sense of communion,24 and when the “underling becomes the uppermost,” thus revealing the “powers of the weak.”25

When the world united to mourn Mandela, global structures of inequality and injustice were momentarily overcome, and the powers of the weak were revealed in a global communitas centring on “peripheral” South Africa. A global icon once classified as a terrorist by global power was now recast as a moral leader, a symbol of humanity. This was a ritual turnover where the marginality and inferiority of the global south momentarily could break through historical narratives dominated by the global north, a rupture mediated through the digital visuality of images of a global icon and mourners from around the world, coming together to reflect and remember a history of freedom struggle.


During the mediated memorial service, the Grand Parade was transformed into a ritualized place of public liminality, serving as a stage for a “sacred drama.”26 While many rituals, for example initiation rites, involve a liminal phase of seclusion, often in hidden or far-off places, there are also more public rituals, often marking a whole groups’ passage, which have their liminality in public places, like village greens or city squares. When ritual events are staged, these public places are “ritually transformed” for a “privileged period of time.”27 On this occasion, the Grand Parade remained an open public space, where people could come and go freely. But the space was also ritually bordered, especially through the fenced area in front of the City Hall, which was transformed into a social aesthetic frame, a sensory structure that through the placement of visual memory objects served as a reflection on broader social processes.28

Through the performance of a sacred drama, with its narratives of heroic deeds, morality and transcendent beings, society’s deepest values emerged.29 Mandela’s immediate family as well as world political leaders made eloquent tributes, weaving Mandela’s life into the fabric of world history. While the cultural practice of praise is a common feature of mourning rituals in Africa, in this case extraordinary epithets were pronounced by eminent world leaders. If anything, the praise for Nelson Mandela expressed by dignitaries at the memorial service confirmed his iconic status. Through these tributes, society’s deepest values were articulated, emphasizing core values like freedom, justice, humility, tolerance, reconciliation, forgiveness, and humanity.

Through this sacred drama, the fame of Mandela was expanded in time and space, as the world got to know his clan name Madiba, an honorary title carrying the cultural attributes of moral leadership. Munn discusses value transformation in terms of the expansion of “intersubjective spacetime,” a social process in which a person’s fame travels across time and space.30 Through the global spread of the name Madiba, Mandela’s self was spatiotemporally expanded, linking his ancestral past to the present and future, while connecting South Africa with the world at large. As his name travelled around the world, Madiba’s “virtual influence” was extended to distant others.31

Digital visuality mediated the expansion of Madiba’s fame in significant ways, especially through the global circulation of images of his face and words. Munn notes the importance of “witnessing” in the value creation of fame, since knowledge of a person by distant others is critical to the spatiotemporal expansion of moral influence.32 Although she focuses on how fame is expanded through discourse, as people talk about a name, through global digital media visual manifestations of fame are becoming increasingly significant. A comparable example is the role of photographs of Diana’s face in the iconicity following her death.33 Since Mandela was a global icon prior to his death, his face was already familiar to people around the world. Through digital media, Mandela’s own words were embedded in images of his face, thus combining different forms of visual expression. People around the world could thus “witness” Madiba’s moral deeds, which expanded his moral influence, while affording him a state of virtual immortality.

Liminality is an ambiguous condition, which became evident in audiences’ responses to the speech by the South African President Jacob Zuma. While most tributes were accompanied by loud cheers from the audience, President Zuma’s closing address met a more mixed response with boohs and jeers. Even at the Grand Parade, the response was mixed, some people clapping their hands, others booing and turning their thumbs downward as a sign of disapproval. This expression of popular discontent can be understood in relation to the social and political significance of deep values in a sacred drama. On the one hand, we find “cosmonogic narratives” of heroism, morality, and transcendence.34 But we may also find sceptical judgements of people and public policies in relation to these deep values: “the vices, follies, stupidities, and abuses of contemporary holders of high political, economic, or religious status may be satirized, ridiculed, or contemned in terms of axiomatic values.”35

The performance of the sacred drama was accentuated by visual displays decorating the symbolic border of the social aesthetic frame (Figure 3). People laid down flowers, images of Mandela, photos of themselves, and texts of love, gratitude, respect, and admiration, often citing Mandela’s own words. This colourful display grew in volume as the hours passed, people constantly passing through to pay their tribute. At the end of the passage, people could sign books of condolence or submit electronic versions on computers made available. People often took pictures of the objects they had placed against the fence, along with commemorative objects placed by others as well as pictures of themselves, typically taken by others rather than selfies.

Fig 3
Figure 3.  Social aesthetic frame with visual memory objects.

Within the social aesthetic frame, digital visuality mediated social frictions between the living and the dead, as social relations were reaffirmed through visual memory objects that immortalized the deceased. Although anticipated for years, the death of Mandela caused a rupture in the social fabric, cutting him loose from the world of the living. But the web of social relations in which his life was embedded remained alive, materialized in the placement of visual memory objects that connected the living with the dead. Through digital visuality, people could express their relatedness to Mandela, while acknowledging his life achievements, often combining photographs and texts in personalized tributes. Through these mediated commemorative practices, the characteristics of photography as a medium that keeps alive contacts between the living and the dead was reaffirmed.36 Similarly, through digital visuality, the ability of photography to “resurrect the deceased” by giving them “visual immortality” was asserted.37 As his face was reproduced and rematerialized through photographs, along with visual manifestations of his words and deeds, Mandela was kept alive. By crafting and displaying his words and images, the living could engage in interaction with the dead, while retaining his mediated co-presence among people whole lives he had touched.


After the live broadcast, a commemorative event was organized in the Grand Parade, with live music performances by local artists and mediated interaction with the audience, all of which was narrowcast on the public screens and facilitated by a media professional (Figure 4). As the sound of live music spread well beyond the public square, a growing number of people flocked to the Grand Parade, while many who had attended the broadcast memorial service remained. The audience retained its mobility, some people staying for a few minutes, others remaining for hours.

Fig 4
Figure 4.  Live music on screen.

Local musicians performed popular songs in several languages, including English, Afrikaans, and Zulu. Songs by international artists were mixed with songs by famous South African musicians, including the popular songs Pata Pata by Miriam Makeba and Black President by Brenda Fassie. Many of the songs carried political messages, related to the freedom struggle and some of them had been specifically composed for Mandela. The songs were well known to the audiences and many people sang along, while also dancing, some waving their arms or flags. Each group of artists was only given time for a few songs, but all of them concluded with songs about Mandela, thus using the occasion to pay their personal tributes through music (Figure 5).

Fig 5
Figure 5.  Popular jazz musician paying tribute.

After a while, the programme turned more interactive, with active engagement with the audience. The facilitator encouraged people to share their thoughts and feelings about Madiba. Some people became quite enthusiastic and volunteered, even demanded, to speak up in front of the camera; others were shyer. Since the audience was very mixed, with people of all colour and from different social backgrounds, the facilitator tried to get as many different people as possible to participate, making a special effort to involve women (Figure 6).

Fig 6
Figure 6.  Narrowcast personal tributes to Madiba.

The interaction with the audience was narrowcast on the public screens, thus creating a mediated form of co-presence in real time and space. Not only were the audiences physically present, but they could also see themselves on the large public screens, which strengthened their “emotional engagement,” while adding a “self-reflexive layer that ‘thickens’ the mediated experience of an event.”38 This visual mediation exemplified how public screenings of television broadcasts are combined with interactive activities, the screen site functioning as a collective site for participatory media culture.39

During the cultural programme, participants created their own visual media memories, digital visuality thus expanding the time and space of mediated co-presence. In most cases, people used their mobile phones to take photographs and videos of the music performances and interaction, often raising their arms to get a better angle for their shots, thus reaching above the crowd around them. Similar to what was observed in the FIFA Fan Parks, many took pictures of the screens as well as what was going on around them.40 These digital recordings served as a form of visual memory making, allowing for later viewings, in other places, with other people. But digital and mobile photography also enabled people to instantly share their images with others, by uploading their photos and video clips online. Through digital visuality, mediated co-presence could thus be spatiotemporally expanded across time (present, past, and future) as well as space (here, there, and elsewhere).


The commemorative cultural programme had a more festive atmosphere, with an undertone of sadness, combining feelings of grief, joy, and love. These feelings were the dominant emotions of the mourning period, a cultural melange of mourning and celebration. It is of course impossible to know what emotions people held within themselves, but collectively expressed feelings oscillated between sadness and grief as well as happiness and joy, underlined by powerful expressions of love.

Emotions play an important role in all performances, especially rituals, since they have a unique ability to affect the cognitive as well as emotional state of the audience.41 Performances often contain “double emotional involvement,” starting with the emotions that encourage people to engage in a performance, followed by the arousal of emotion during the course of the performance.42 This double emotional involvement was clearly at play in the mourning rituals at the Grand Parade. People were attracted to the place because it was linked to the memorial service in Johannesburg. The mourning ritual was in turn an emotionally charged cultural performance, which afforded participants a collective experience of emotional arousal.

I had myself been drawn to the Grand Parade for emotional reasons, to share this moment of grief and joy with other people. As I listened to speeches, songs, and tributes, I reflected on the ways in which my own life had intersected with the life of Mandela, especially his struggle against apartheid, which had been my political awakening as a teenager in Sweden in the early 1980s. I was also recalling the televised broadcast of Mandela’s inauguration as President in 1994, which I had watched during fieldwork in Cambodia, a beacon of hope amidst the human tragedy I was documenting. And here I was, feeling privileged to be part of the public outpouring of gratitude, admiration, and respect, a historical moment shared by millions around the world. As I immersed myself in the emotionally charged atmosphere at the Grand Parade, I recalled the words of the old grandmother I had encountered in a township a few days earlier: “We cry for Madiba. He was like Moses.”

At the Grand Parade, participants’ emotional state was augmented through the embodied experience of being in a sacred place, which could be perceived with all the senses. The heat of the sun and the breeze of the wind added to the tactile experience of sharing the space with other people. Participants were also engaged though their aural senses, through the sound of music, speeches, and tributes as well as announcements by the facilitator. Sounds from the nearby traffic seeped into the square, accentuating its urban location, while setting it aside from the city soundscape. Visual expressions were ubiquitous, the surrounding visual landscape containing significant landmarks of Cape Town.

During the narrowcast interaction, people made strong statements, often expressing their feelings for Mandela (respect, admiration, gratitude) in a highly personal manner, many times addressing Madiba directly, loudly declaring their love for him. This personalized form of tribute accentuated the ritualized performance of social relations, combining collective and individual expressions of emotion with a heightened sense of human relatedness, which included the deceased.

The imaginary presence of Madiba acted as an emotional agent, with a moral imperative (Figure 7).43 Svašek has discussed the “emotional agency” of material objects, more specifically human body parts and remains, arguing that such objects are often perceived as subject-like forces, which are experienced through the senses, and tend to express and evoke strong emotions.44 In the case of Mandela, visual images, more specifically photographs, played a similar role, carrying a high degree of social agency. The photographs were not only representations of Mandela, but they allowed for his “resurrection,” thus exemplifying the “uncanny” ability of photography to mediate between the living and the dead.45 Photographs of Mandela mediated a sense of visual presence, while conveying the transcendental qualities of a historical subject who was now transformed into a historical object.

Fig 7
Figure 7.  Emotional agency and visual presence of Madiba.


Through digital visuality, Mandela was also inscribed as a Pan-African icon, thus mediating cultural frictions of apartheid and xenophobia (Figures 8 and 9). As noted during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, “deliberate attempts were made to blend pan-Africanism with South African nationalism,” thus emphasizing the “African-ness” of the World Cup.46 Similarly, during the mourning rituals for Mandela, Pan-Africanism was visually prominent, temporarily glossing over conflicts of xenophobia, while placing the anti-apartheid struggle in a wider African context. Digital visuality mediated the positioning of Mandela in the pantheon of Pan-African icons, connecting him with his less visible predecessors. It has been noted that “the face of Nelson Mandela is instantly recognisable around the globe,” while that of Kwame Nkrumah, referred to as “the Nelson Mandela of the 1950s and 1960s,” is less known.47 In casting Mandela as a Pan-African icon, his place in postcolonial history was linked to earlier Pan-African icons who struggled for the total liberation and unity of Africa.48 The Pan-African dimension of Mandela’s legacy was pronounced in the last phase of the mourning ritual. During the funeral service in Qunu, only African leaders were called upon to make tributes, which firmly embedded Mandela in the history of Pan-African freedom struggle.

Fig 8
Figure 8.  Tribute by African freedom fighters.

Fig 9
Figure 9.  Pan-African unity.

In the iconic inscription of Mandela as “son of Africa” and “son of the world,” the fame of Madiba signified the spatiotemporal expansion of Pan-Africanism, thus valorising an African version of cosmopolitanism. With its struggle for Africa’s rightful place in the world, Pan-Africanism rests on notions of “African humanity,” the pre-colonial underpinnings of which shape the dialectic of “Afromodernity” and “Euromodernity.”49 It could be argued that with its ethos of equality and justice in world society, Pan-Africanism redefines western ideals of enlightenment, while challenging the continued racialism of the modern world order. In writing the history of Mandela, this untold story of the subaltern other was firmly inscribed through words and images, thus visualizing what is often made invisible in historical narratives, while giving a deeper meaning to Madiba’s moral fame as a global icon of African origin.


[T]he meaning of a man’s life, and of each moment in it, becomes manifest to others only when his life is ended.50

As discussed throughout this article, it was through digital visuality that the fame of Madiba could travel around the world, linking the past with the present and the future (Figure 10). For a brief moment in time, visual images of a global icon could gloss over historical frictions, creating a sense of global communitas. Through visual memory objects, social frictions between the living and the dead could be mediated, reaffirming social relations while immortalizing the deceased. And by positioning Mandela in the pantheon of Pan-African icons, cultural frictions of xenophobia could momentarily be glossed over, while placing the anti-apartheid struggle in an African context. As digital images carrying the name, face, and words of Madiba continue to travel, they are expanding his fame into the future. In social media, Mandela “lives on” in a state of virtual immortality, his moral influence mediated through online forms of digital visuality that connect millions of followers around the world in webs of human relatedness.51

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter. I have made mistakes along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.52, p. 751

Fig 10
Figure 10.  “Your legacy and wisdoms will live on, within us forever.”


1. Victor Turner, The Anthropology of Performance (New York: PAJ, 1987).

2. Paula Uimonen, “Visual Identity in Facebook,” Visual Studies 28 (2013): 122–35.

3. Adrian Kear and Deborah Lynn Steinberg, Mourning Diana: Nation, Culture and the Performance of Grief (London: Routledge, 2002).

4. James Bennett, “Michael Jackson: Celebrity Death, Mourning and Media Events,” Celebrity Studies 1 (2010): 231–2; and Patrick McCurdy, “The King is Dead, Long Live the King: Meditations on Media Events and Michael Jackson,” Celebrity Studies 1 (2010): 236–8.

5. Scott Mcquire, “Rethinking Media Events: Large Screens, Public Space Broadcasting and Beyond,” New Media & Society 12 (2010): 567–82; and Andreas Widholm and Karin Becker, “Celebrating with the Celebrities: Television in Public Space during Two Royal Weddings,” Celebrity Studies 6 (2014): 6–22.

6. This article does not attempt to provide a full account of Mandela’s political life before, during and after his imprisonment, nor does it address the complexities of the anti-apartheid struggle or the intricacies of post-apartheid politics in South Africa. Instead, the article focuses on mourning rituals for Mandela as observed in Cape Town immediately following his death.

7. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the conference Beyond the Frame in April 2014 and the workshop Visual Frictions and their Futures in February 2015 organized by the Nordic Network on Digital Visuality (NNDV). I am grateful for the constructive critique of colleagues at both events as well as the feedback from undergraduate students in social anthropology at Stockholm University on the first version of the paper. I humbly appreciate Ulf Hannerz’ constructive comments on the text prior to publication. I further acknowledge the critique of an anonymous reviewer.

8. I arrived in Cape Town on 6 December 2013 to attend the ICTD Conference at the University of Cape Town. During my 1-week stay I attended several mourning rituals, observed visual commemorations in town and around the Cape, followed media coverage, and participated in online interaction in social media.

9. Ulf Hannerz, Foreign News: Exploring the World of Foreign Correspondents (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

10. Karin Becker and Andreas Widholm, “Being There from Afar: The Media Event Relocated to the Public Viewing Area,” Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture 5 (2014): 153–68; and Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, “Pan-Africanism and the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa,” Development Southern Africa 28 (2011): 401–13.

11. Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (London: Abacus, 1994).

12. Becker and Widholm, “Being There from Afar.”

13. Mcquire, “Rethinking Media Events,” 574.

14. Turner, The Anthropology of Performance, 99.

15. Ulf Hannerz, “Sophiatown: The View from Afar,” Journal of Southern African Studies 20 (1994): 181–93.

16. Widholm and Becker, “Celebrating with the Celebrities,” 20.

17. Richard Wilk, “Television, Time and the National Imaginary in Belize,” in Media Worlds. Anthropology on New Terrain, eds. F. Ginsburg et al. (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2002), 182.

18. Ibid., 172.

19. Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other. How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

20. Ulf Hannerz, Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places (London: Routledge, 1996).

21. Victor Turner, The Ritual Process. Structure and Anti-Structure (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969), 126–7.

22. Hannerz, Transnational Connections, 7.

23. Turner, The Ritual Process, 128.

24. Ibid., 138.

25. Ibid., 102.

26. Turner, The Anthropology of Performance, 102.

27. Ibid., 101–2.

28. Uimonen, “Visual Identity in Facebook.”

29. Turner, The Anthropology of Performance, 102.

30. Nancy Dorothy Munn, The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

31. Ibid., 117.

32. Ibid., 115.

33. Kear and Steinberg, Mourning Diana, 7–9.

34. Turner, The Anthropology of Performance, 102.

35. Ibid.

36. Heike Behrend, Contesting Visibility. Photographic Practices on the East African Coast (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2013), 200.

37. Ibid., 209.

38. Widholm and Becker, “Celebrating with the Celebrities,” 14.

39. Mcquire, “Rethinking Media Events”; and Widholm and Becker, “Celebrating with the Celebrities.”

40. Becker and Widholm, “Being There from Afar.”

41. William Beeman, “The Performance Hypothesis. Practicing Emotions in Protected Frames,” in The Emotions. A Cultural Reader, ed. Helena Wulff (Oxford: Berg, 2007), 273–98.

42. Ibid., 290.

43. Maruška Svašek, “Moving Corpses. Emotions and Subject-Object Ambiguity,” in The Emotions. A Cultural Reader, ed. Helena Wulff (Oxford: Berg, 2007), 230.

44. Ibid., 243.

45. Behrend, Contesting Visibility, 200.

46. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, “Pan-Africanism and the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa,” 406.

47. Ama Biney, “The Legacy of Kwame Nkrumah in Retrospect,” The Journal of Pan African Studies 2 (2008): 129.

48. Kwame Nkrumah, Africa Must Unite (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1963); and Julius Nyerere, Freedom and Unity. Uhuru na umoja. A Selection from Writings and Speeches 1952–65 (London: Oxford University Press, 1966).

49. Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2012), 9.

50. Turner, The Anthropology of Performance, 97.

51. The Facebook page of the Nelson Mandela Foundation has over 126,000 likes and continues to share images and citations of Mandela. The SABC TV live stream of the memorial service is available on YouTube and has received over 312,000 views. Viewer statistics as of October 2015.

52. Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, 751.



Selfies beyond self-representation: the (theoretical) f(r)ictions of a practice

Edgar Gómez Cruz1 and Helen Thornham2*

1Digital Ethnography Research Centre, RMIT, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; 2Faculty of Performance, Visual Arts and Communications, School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom


Drawing on a wide corpus of ethnographic research projects, including on photography practices, young filmmakers and writers, and current research with young unemployed people, we argue that contemporary understandings of selfies either in relation to a “documenting of the self” or as a neoliberal (narcissistic) identity affirmation are inherently problematic. Instead, we argue that selfies should be understood as a wider social, cultural, and media phenomenon that understands the selfie as far more than a representational image. This, in turn, necessarily redirects us away from the object “itself,” and in so doing seeks to understand selfies as a socio-technical phenomenon that momentarily and tentatively holds together a number of different elements of mediated digital communication.


Edgar Gómez Cruz is a Research Fellow at RMIT, Melbourne. He has published widely on a number of topics relating to digital culture, ethnography, and photography. His recent publications include From Kodak Culture to Networked Image. An Ethnography of Digital Photography Practices (2012) and Digital Photography and Everyday Life: Empirical Studies in Material Visual Practices (forthcoming, with Asko Lehmuskallio). Current research investigates screen cultures and creative practice, which is funded through RCUK and Vice Chancellor research grants.


Helen Thornham is an Associate Professor at the University of Leeds. She is involved in a number of research projects investigating practices in digital media that are funded by the EPSRC and ESRC and is the author of Ethnographies of the Videogame: Narrative, Gender and Praxis (2011) and co-editor of Renewing Feminisms (2013) and Content Cultures (2014). Her research focuses on gender and technological mediations, narrative, discourse and power, embodiment, youth, space, place, and communities.

Keywords: Selfies; Genealogies; self-representation; performance; sociotecnical practices; algorithms

Citation: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 7, 2015 http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/jac.v7.28073

Copyright: ©2015 E. Gómez Cruz and H. Thornham. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 8 December 2015

*Correspondence to: Helen Thornham, School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds, 2.06 Clothworkers North, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK. Email: h.thornham@leeds.ac.uk

This paper is part of the Special Issue: Visual Frictions. More papers from this issue can be found at www.aestheticsandculture.net


The “selfie” phenomenon is trending across a number of academic disciplines and current research agendas. Even the Oxford Dictionary declared that “Selfie” was the word of the year in 2013, suggesting that it has also become a common reference and practice in popular media.1 The selfie has been understood in relation to rapid “documenting” of the self2 as a “socio-cultural revolution” about “identity affirmation”3 a “condition” of social media,4 a political convergence of the object and subject of photographic practice,5,6 and as a neoliberal, even narcissistic but increasingly normative mode of “self-branding.”7 Set within this corpus of work, two issues become clear. First that selfies are widespread, contextually specific and nuanced—so that to speak of selfies as homogenous is increasingly disingenuous. Second, selfies resonate wider socio-cultural, political, and visual practices and how we approach them has political, ideological, and cultural significance.

Alongside this corpus, there are also identifiable trends in recent work on selfies, which we would like to elucidate. The first positions them within a long tradition of visual culture where the images are read as representations to be interpreted. Seen here, selfies seem to evidence “visual probes” of “depicted realities” (see, for example, Manovich’s project selfiecity8), and they are claimed as evidence of an intentional author (a political convergence of object and subject, for example, or a “documenting of the self”) or seen as an objective window into cultures and communities, values, and ideologies (a neoliberal, narcissistic identity affirmation). We find this problematic, not least because it bleeds into a discourse of individualism but also because it centres and elevates both the visual image “itself” and the methods for analysing the image, which we argue undermines—if not negates—the wider practices, discourses, and ideologies that constitute the selfie phenomenon. Perhaps more importantly, this approach does not represent our experience of the selfie within our fieldwork, where it is the practices and contexts of selfies that are articulated (rather than the image “itself”).

A second issue with the accounts above is that they seem to exclusively frame selfies within a long-standing study of online self-representation, storytelling, and impression management.9 This, in turn, approaches selfies as a mostly positive force practiced by a fixed (gendered, expert, and reflexive) subject who uses selfies as a calculated resource for self-representation. We have a number of issues to note here. The first relates to the way that individualistic discourses of the digital technology user are re-evoked here,10 so that the underpinning and normative constructions of the user as the powerful force remain unproblematised. As the long history of feminist new media theory and STS reminds us, the user engages in a socio-technical mediation in which she or he is positioned as well as positioning. The second issue, and a consequence of this, is a flattening out of the practices of the selfie “itself,” whereby the selfie becomes positioned as a communication method that is itself caught up in positive technologically deterministic rhetoric. Seen here the selfie is not simply a new communication tool; the selfie is posited as a better communication tool—faster, more representative, more immediate (for example), and thus, the rhetoric here feeds directly into the fetish of new technology as always positively novel.11 We would also note here that evenwhen selfies are framed as a narcissistic practice,12 the examples that are cited usually result in a kind of micro-celebrity status for the user that is itself (of course) caught up in a more positive discourse of individualism because of the complex overlap between narcissism and a more positive, agential form of self-branding or celebrity.13 Our argument here is that these approaches need to be unpacked if we are to disrupt (rather than repeat) problematic assumptions and approaches to wider digital culture. They approach the selfie as a communication “tool” for an intentional and agential author and in so doing undervalue or negate the selfie as a socio-technical phenomenon, which nuances the relationship between the user and technology.

Finally, there is an increasing corpus of work that understands the selfie as a visual signifier of the self (as another form of self-representation). This understands the content of the selfie in relation to representational significance—reading into the visual image so that the object—despite being located as an effect of a practice—is made meaningful as a stand-alone representational signifier. Underpinning this approach to the selfie is specific history of photography, particularly in relation to the pictorial portrait, self-portraits, and art photography that is evoked in order to read aesthetically into the selfie and draw conclusions based on content. As Paul Frosh details,14 this approach, although insightful, it does not go far enough in understanding the wider socio-technological practice of the selfie. Indeed, such accounts position the selfie as a continuation of the pictorial portrait, self-portraits, and art photography15 and assume that many of the characteristics of self-portraits16 (namely the reflexive subject producer of an image) are also present in selfies. Against this, we have previously argued17 that understanding the role of photography in the digital age requires us to think about photographic practices instead.18 This means that the photographic image becomes one of several elements of the photographic process (sometimes not even the most important, for example when postprocessing changes the original image or when the image forms a context in itself like in memes). In the digital age, image making is but one element of several connective processes, inclusive of the power dynamics, design of, and normative practices of social networks. Seen here, photography through mobile phones is especially relevant because of its ubiquity, mobility, and seamless integration with social networks.19

Our intention in detailing these approaches to the selfie is twofold. Firstly, to note the growing corpus of research on this phenomenon—that is both rich and sustained. Secondly, to set up our main argument: that there are alternative ways to understand the selfie and that the process of doing this reveals a number of frictions. The central friction is the continued use of traditional semiotics in analysing the image of the selfie—which many of the approaches above repeat rather than problematise. For us, this elevates not only the selfie as an image, but also the object-oriented approach of much visual culture that seeks to construct and then understand practices in relation to artefacts—reading intentionality into them. For the selfie, such an approach elevates the image over the practice, and continues to prioritise the visual and aesthetic over (and this is our contention) the power relations in which the image is situated. At the same time, it is the multitude of selfie practices that is what marks them as a phenomenon, as nuanced, as complex, and it is this that we need to underscore in critical work on the selfie. Elevating the visual within visual culture through visual methods perpetuates rather than problematises the visual as powerful: and in digital culture, our contention is that perhaps the visual might actually be a smokescreen for, or one element within, other far more pervasive power relations. Offering a non-medium centric approach to the selfie, however, is not without its own frictions: the object of the selfie, the image, is not “in” this paper because in arguing that this is problematic, we found it untenable to then repeat it methodologically.


Durable selfie

At a moment when the term “selfie” is increasingly becoming mobilised in ways that are constructing it as normative shorthand for photography per se (especially when used to describe photos taken by primates,20 robots21, or drones22), it seems important to take stock of the underlying presumptions and claims around the selfie. Our starting point, in keeping with Paul Frosh,23 is that selfies should be understood as a wider social, cultural, and media phenomenon that positions the selfie as much more than a representational image. Approaching the selfie as a phenomenon rather than an artefact locates the practice within alternative genealogies, which we would like to elucidate here. This, in turn, necessarily redirects us away from the object “itself” and instead understands selfies as a socio-technical phenomenon that momentarily and tentatively holds together a number of different elements of mediated digital communication. The second consequence of this is to acknowledge the multifaceted nature of the selfie—which is temporary, contextually specific, changeable, situated, as well as durable and stable.

We are not negating the connections noted above between pictorial and representational forms and digital images; we are setting alongside this narrative some alternative and equally persuasive ones. Our alternative genealogies are not intended to replace one problematic correlation with another, but to add to and nuance the approaches to the selfie detailed above. Our genealogy is perhaps as synthetic and simplistic as our critique of existing literature, but it is a tool to underpin our later and more substantive argument. We propose that there is a close relationship between specific technical affordances and the stabilisation24 of certain practices that allow the development of new technologies in a “complex continuum.” This complex continuum serves as a basis for our first alternative genealogy.

Selfies as chats

Our departing point is to locate selfies not within a history of photographic practice, but one of mediated communication. Crudely: What if we think about selfies as a “visual chat”? Indeed, the app Snapchat, one of the most important platforms for digital image exchange, seems to be exactly premised on this idea. If we consider the genealogy of chats (in any form, such as BBS, IRC, forums, Newsgroups, etc.) in relation to the selfie, we pull out dominant features—if not ideologies—of mediated communication that prompt (in a mediated and rhizomatic way) development and vice versa. What is interesting about this history is that the visual elements—that are so centrally claimed and positioned within contemporary approaches to the selfie—are repositioned here as something that is arrived at, that emerges through—but is not necessarily determining of, chat culture. Our simple point is that this alternative genealogy shifts some of the presumptive claims around selfies, and consequently how we are able to then frame and approach them as a phenomenon.

Chats—as a field, as a cultural object, and as a device—were one of the central elements of computer-mediated communication, and formed the basis for the further development of internet studies as an academic discipline.25 Mediated communication was extracted as a focus of studies within the discipline of Internet studies, where communicative practices of a growing Internet culture were becoming stabilised in everyday life.26 Indeed, these studies argued that what was significant about chats was their ability to textually communicate, in an anonymous and (a)synchronous way regardless of (or despite) geographic distance through, what was, a technological precursor to the www. Perhaps more important in thinking about an alternative genealogy of the selfie, however, is the SMS.27 SMS integrated several practices already present in chats and emails, including emoticons. Emoticons, in turn, can be understood as a form of visual and emotional cue pertaining to the user, thus offering a context for/of the text “itself.”28 While limited in their extension (generating therefore further language economies), SMS nevertheless added a new element in mediated communication because of one of the main features of cellular phones: mobility. By extending previously mediated communicative practices to a new device, the later inclusion of internet connections in mobile phones completed a series of stabilisations in digital communication. In this way, several communicative practices, already present in internet interactions, became mobile, more synchronous and “on the spot.” One extra example of the cross-pollination between internet practices and mobile phone use could be observed in how both shared many features of new linguistic codes such as “initialism” and “internet slang”29 that also increasingly operate as visual signifiers in and of themselves.

Selfies as stabilisations

If we now think of where photography might be located, it is arguably in the latest stage of a number of stabilisations that converge image with text, hyperlinks, audio (what was praised as “multimedia”). These stabilisations also converge photography with (for example) smart phones and wider sharing and internet cultures that shifts toward the visual within chat culture, authorship, “personal media” developments, and self-representation. In other words, photography emergesas one element within a wider corpus, and even here, it is further convoluted by various practices that each renegotiate and reposition what constitutes “photography” in the first instance: cameraphones,30 immediate and ubiquitous connections, and extensive exchange are all important elements we would note in relation to definitions and constitutions of contemporary photography.31 In turn, these elements are further nuanced by the increasingly visual nature of mediated communication, and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, each of which has its own convoluted genealogy inclusive of visual communication. We only have to note platforms such as Fotolog (2002) and Flickr (2004), to recognise this. Indeed, while Flickr supported a notion of “community” based on the exchange of pictures, experimentation and voyeurism, Fotolog, with its calendar-based structured, prompted a disciplining of the photographic practice into a weekly cycle as well as promoting the notion of constant updating as a main feature of the platforms. In this way, banality and the mundane also become intricately woven into genealogies of the selfie. Indeed, in the case of selfies, banality and constant updating are closely related to the notion of “social success” as a fundamental feature across different contemporary platforms (where social success becomes measurable through, for example, “like” buttons, favourites, followers and comments). Finally, with the advent of apps such as Whatsapp or Snapchat, digital imagery became one of the central elements in personal online communication. Therefore, vernacular photography (widely expressed by different scholars32), locates the selfies into a very different genealogy that weaves into (and beyond) that of the chat.

Selfies as durable algorithm

Our experiences33 suggest that the selfie mobilises technologies, cultural norms, and codes that are increasingly embedded in social networks, so that the practice of the selfie operates in a much wider continuum that we need to consider. Indeed, as Van House, (drawing on Suchman) suggests: “we need to turn the question of self-presentation around and ask, not just how people use SNSs, but how the design of SNSs configure members’ capacities for action.”34 Our final genealogy relates to what we are calling “durable algorithms” drawing a range of STS scholars including Latour,35 Manovich,36 Suchman37 and Van House38 who have all argued that an understanding of the social is always, inherently (also) technological (and vice versa). This is, of course, particularly relevant for the selfie, and works to locate the phenomenon of the selfie as one that has also emerged through non-human developments in (for example) software, code, digital design, and digital labour. We are not suggesting that algorithms straightforwardly shape or impact social behaviour. We are in the first instance recognising that algorithms are, to draw on Lucy Suchman, “materialisations of more and less contested, normative identifications of matter.”39 Algorithms are a materialisation of power relations, negotiations, design; they are forged through human–technological relations and within dominant power structures. But they are also, to draw on Latour,40 “durable” in so far as they are also matter: they are built infrastructure that also generates possibilities of interaction and mediation. They are embedded within, but also make durable, power relations. Snapchat is a good example of how durable concepts within social media—such as “immediacy,” “connectivity,” “sociability,”41 which have particular affordances within social media because of their commercial and economic value—have become “stabilised” as underpinning socio-technical features of communication in a mobile App (as well as within wider social media). As José van Dijck reminds us, “immediacy,” “connectivity” and “sociability” emerge through techno-economic systems that are interested in “sharing” because of the financial benefit of the data such actions generate.42 Or as Jenny Kennedy notes “sharing is never employed neutrally.”43 It is not (simply) that algorithms make certain relations durable (techno-economic, socio-technical, for example). Instead, as Van House argues (above) we need to recognise that the systems also configure action not in a straightforward or transparent way, but in terms of configuring the socio-technical conditions within which users are invited to participate.

To only understand the selfie only as self-representation, then, is to take an element of a moment of stabilisation (that may or may not become increasingly durable)—the visual image, for example—as singularly indicative of a wider socio-technical phenomenon in which relations and negotiations are flattened out and undermined—such as the socio-technical, the material, the context, issues of temporality, motivation, intention. It is to take the “matter” (the thing “itself”) without necessarily considering materialisation, nuance, or contestation (to reiterate Suchman) that are all intrinsic to the practice. While we return to these issues below, our hope is that these alternative genealogies detail the breadth and depth of issues that are at stake here, not only in terms of what we are in danger of disappearing, but also in terms of what we actively reproduce by not critically considering.

Taken together, these genealogies locate the image as one mediated element within a range of practices that combine (visual and mediated) communication, mobility, real time, economies of language and social networks elements. In turn, these practices promote individuality, immediacy, reciprocity, sharing, exchanging, constant updating, work and effort/commitment, and banality. As Van House suggests, the structure and policies of certain platforms, along with user practices and norms, support and even encourage certain kinds of self-representation, relationships, and even subjects or selves, while discouraging or making difficult others.44 It is not that the object—the selfie “itself”—represents these values and norms (by reading into the selfie, for example). It is that these values and norms constitute the related practices.


Selfies as socio-technical

Our argument, then, is that we need to understand the phenomenon of the selfie as a performative and mediatory practice that cannot be reduced to, or solely taken from, the image “itself.” Drawing also on a long history of feminist STS studies,45 we argue that image-creation (along with distribution and its use in social media), does not only represent bodies, it also generates them.46 In order to understand our approach, it is necessary to discuss the concept of performance that underpins claims that selfies are self-representations and that have traditionally been understood following the work of Erving Goffman. While we have limited scope to discuss this at length here, and indeed other authors have reflected on his conceptualisation of performance to think about digital photography,47 and self-representation,48 a brief overview is necessary. Indeed, drawing on Goffman serves two purposes: the first is to articulate some current debates that clearly resonate for the selfie, particularly around how we might frame the visual “object” of the selfie “itself” beyond what Papacharissi claims as “the self, performed” (2012:1990).49 The second is to attempt to nuance them, by positioning the selfie as embedded in the concept of performativity rather than as representative of it.

For Goffman’s “theatrical approach,” interaction is the front-stage performance of a backstage self, where the self is a “performed character” to an imagined audience.50 It is not a coincidence that Goffman is often cited in texts regarding online self-presentation, especially in the first era of internet studies51 where Goffman was deployed within an increasingly problematised dichotomy of the so-called “real” and “virtual.” Our reading of existing literature on selfies is that many analyses are tacitly based on this assumption of a real and absent self that is depicted, but not necessarily lived, in the artefact of the selfie “itself” (through, for example, process of performance or self-representation, staging or playing that are read through and into the image). What Goffman elucidates, of course, is the power of the performance “itself”—which, in the case of the selfies, is a bound up in visual signifiers, visual discourses, technologies, and “imaginative participation.”52 But as Suchman has argued, “objects achieve recognition within a matrix of historically and culturally constituted familiar, intelligible possibilities. Technologies are both produced and destabilized in the course of these reiterations.”53 In the case of the selfie, it seems increasingly that intentionality has become a transparent and straightforward claim made through an aesthetic reading of online content, rather than inherently problematised through socio-technical practices that are, at every stage, negotiated.

In thinking about the phenomenon of the selfie, it seems to us that the dominant discourses underpinning claims around self-representation as performance, are increasingly becoming entrenched in practices located in and with technical devices and algorithms even as these technical devices and algorithms are downplayed in the overarching narrative of the selfie. Those technical devices and algorithms are similarly, like the subjects who mediate them, produced with/in and generative of, power relations, but like the subjects who use them, they also promote some mediations over others through their own socio-technological history of design and code (that operate within and beyond wider dominant power structures). What is notable from our alternative genealogies above, then, is an increasing emphasis on the visual, on immediacy, on connectivity. In other words, some elements of communication and mediation have become more powerful than others and this is revealed through alternative genealogies of the selfie.

Indeed, one constant finding, across all of our fieldwork on selfies54 is that selfies are understood, claimed and lived by participants (most of our fieldwork has been with women), as a source of “empowerment feelings.” These feelings, based on the selfies as a practice, are claimed to help them to accept their physical appearance, to increase their self-confidence or to engage in new social or sentimental relationships. In a surface level, these claims seem to directly feed into an understanding of the selfie as intentional authorship and self-representation. Certainly, it seemed at the outset of many of our studies, that selfies were being claimed in this way. Our fieldwork is always ethnographic in nature, and spending time with the participants in our studies necessarily reveals initial claims as inherently nuanced, if not contradictory. While we do not have the scope here to represent our fieldwork in its entirely, there are two issues we want to pull out at this point from our fieldwork that substantiate our argument. The first is to locate claims of empowerment, not with a subjective or intimate relationship with the image, but with/in a wider discourse of new media and consumerism where individualism, intentionality and rational causality are default modes of expression.55 This means that we need to do the inverse of many studies of selfies that we have critiqued in this article: rather than read into the selfie something about the author and intentionality, we need to locate the selfie within a wider practice of identity performativity56 through recourse to a more Butlerian approach to the selfie,57 which would position it as embedded in the concept of performativity rather than as representative of it.

The second issue to highlight is that selfie generation is self-perpetuating: it is a “stylised repetition of acts”58 that is a “re-enactment and re-experiencing of a set of meanings already socially established” that are legitimated through their mundaneness and ritualisation.59 Selfies are part of what “disciplines its subjects even as it produces them,”60 or more simplistically, “people act in the way that they have learned to act, in accord with the dominant discourse.”61 What we mean by this is that the practices of taking and uploading selfies (and this the same for Snapchat in our most recent work with teenagers in Leeds, UK) also “disciplines” (to draw on Foucault’s ideas about the technologies of the self62) both the content of the image and practice itself. This argument is inclusive of the algorithms that underpin contemporary sharing cultures—that are designed and produced within power structures, but that also work in particular ways that value particular practices (such as image sharing) because of their particular (say, economic) value. This, in turn, makes some practices online not only more “durable” (to draw on Latour63), but it also enmeshes the algorithms that have other “ideological” frameworks (such as an economic one rather than a sharing one) within the phenomenon of the selfie—as well as wider digital culture. Selfies are part of a wider flow of communication that is both a technics and constituted through internet protocol: selfies are controlled (because of the socio-technical construction) and controlling because of their “technical reproducibility.”64 At the same time, and as we argued earlier, there is also a moment of stabilisation here, whereby the notion of sociality serves both the visual culture of the selfie and the technological algorithms, so that we also need to recognise that the social–technical relations are fluid as well as mutually shaping in such moments of stabilisation65 If we only understand selfies as self-representation or the output of intentional authoring, we not only flatten out these relations, we also somewhat negate them by offering a causal trajectory between user and image.66


Our starting point for this article was that selfies are wider socio-cultural, political practices that need critically accounting for. At the same time, much literature on selfies has elucidated and underpinned the visual nature of contemporary culture that seems, at every turn, enhanced and exacerbated by digital technology and digital culture. Selfie as self-representation bleeds into traditional epistemic understanding of images as depictions of truth and reality. Selfie as self-representation also underpins notions of performance, self-branding, and the concept of the individual user that is embedded on the widespread use of social media. Combined, those two elements do reveal a number of issues and tensions around the constitution of social norms, interactions and practices, all of them within increasing power relations.

Our argument, then, is that we need to approach the selfie as an embodied and re-articulated socio-technical act, that shapes, constitutes and imagines the self(ie). In other words, an investigation of the selfie re-turns us to imagined and live(d) self that blurs image and imagining processes and tells us not about intentional authoring, but a deeper desire and ambiguity for and of identity performance in a social media era.67 It is precisely through the staging, shooting, choosing, sharing, posting, commenting, liking through digital mediations that the performance of the image-self becomes meaningful not as a single image but as a complex process of practices that performatively construct the self through their normativity. By relating photography with mediated communication, for example—by thinking selfies as visual chats—the close relationship between digital technologies, increasing visuality and algorithmic culture is elucidated and this, in turn constructs individuals and users in specific (and problematic) ways (e.g. as consumers of subjectivities). The power of the algorithm68 and the use of images as communicative interfaces generate a destabilisation of both photography and representation. Neither become plausible as stand-alone signifiers; both constitute, and perhaps increasingly are a condition of, the dominant ideologies of a shifting digital culture—such as sharing, connectivity, and sociability. This opens an array of further questions that ask about selfies as reflections or practices of/on visual regimes,69 the relationship between the material and the visual,70 or digital mediations.71

Finally, then, what is at stake here is how the combination of visual, material and digital elements create new forms of surveillance and sousveillance, can reshape what privacy, public and intimacy are and, finally, generate softer and more effective forms of power. More important than understanding the semiotics of the visual is understanding how the visual is becoming an essential element of a wider “semiotic algorithm.” We need to move from focusing on the narratives about the visual or the narratives of the users to focus on the socio-technical practices that constitute—if not condition—those narratives. These practices perpetuate power relations in ways that are sometimes celebrated and very often accepted rather than critiqued.72 We need a critical stance more than ever if we are to grasp the complexity of how technologies, bodies, the visual and the narratives about them, operate in digital culture. Selfies as self-representation, very bluntly, does not offer the scope for this.


1. See for example http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/jul/14/how-selfies-became-a-global-phenomenon.

2. Chris Jenks, Visual Culture (London: Routledge, 1995).

3. Lisa Silvestri, “Shiny Happy People Holding Guns: 21st Century Images of War,” Visual Communication Quarterly 21 (2014): 114.

4. Nancy Thumim, Self Representation and Digital Culture (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), 137.

5. Edgar Gómez Cruz, De la cultura Kodak a la imagen en red: una etnografía sobre fotografía digital (Barcelona, Spain: UOC Publisher). UOC Editorial Vol. 23. 2012.

6. Magdalena Olszanowski, “Feminist Self-Imaging and Instagram: Tactics of Circumventing Sensorship,” Visual Communication Quarterly 21, no. 2 (2014): 83–95.

7. See for example: José van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 203; Soraya Mehdizadeh, “Self-Presentation 2.0: Narcissism and Self-Esteem on Facebook,” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 13, no. 4 (2010): 357–64; Angeliki Avgitidou, “Performances of the Self,” Digital Creativity 14, no. 3 (2003): 131–8; and Alice E. Marwick, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

8. http://selfiecity.net/

9. For example: Sonja Vivienne and Jean Burgess, “The Remediation of the Personal Photograph and the Politics of Self-Representation in Digital Storytelling,” Journal of Material Culture 18, no. 3 (2013): 279–298; Zizi Papacharrisi, “Without You, I’m Nothing: Performances of the Self on Twitter,” International Journal of Communication 6 (2012), http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/1484/775; Max Schleser, “Connecting through Mobile Autobiographies: Self-Reflexive Mobile Filmmaking, Self-Representation, and Selfies,” in Media Making in an Age of Smartphones, eds. Marsha Berry and Max Schleser (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 148–58; Jian R. Rui and Michael A. Stefanone, “Strategic Image Management Online: Self-presentation, Self-Esteem and Social Network Perspectives,” Information, Communication & Society 16, no. 8 (2013): 1286–305; Julia Davies, “Display, Identity and the Everyday: Self-Presentation through Online Image Sharing,” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 28, no. 4 (2007): 549–64; Nicole C. Krämer and Stephan Winter, “Impression Management 2.0: The Relationship of Self- Esteem, Extraversion, Self-Efficacy, and Self-Presentation within Social Networking Sites,” Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications 20 (2008): 106–16; and Katrin Tiidenberg, “Bringing Sexy Back: Reclaiming the Body Aesthetic Via Self-Shooting,” CyberPsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on CyberSpace (2014), doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5817/CP2014-1-3.

10. Helen Thornham and Angela MacFarlane, “Claiming Content and Constructing Users: User-Generated Content and BBC Blast,” in Youth Cultures in the Age of Global Media, eds Sarah Bragg, Mary Jane Kehily, and David Buckingam (London: Palgrave MacMillian; 2014), 186–202; José van Dijck, “Users Like You? Theorizing Agency in User-Generated Content,” Media, Culture & Society 31, no. 1 (2009): 41–58; José van Dijck, “Flickr and the Culture of Connectivity: Sharing Views, Experiences, Memories,” Memory Studies 4, no. 4 (2011): 401–15; and Jodi Dean, “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics,” in Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times, ed M. Boler (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 101–23.

11. See also Dean, “Communicative Capitalism.”

12. For example Mehdizadeh, “Self-Presentation 2.0”; and Marwick, Status Update.

13. See also Chris Rojek, Celebrity (London: Reaktion Books, 2001); and Graeme Turner, Understanding Celebrity, 2nd ed. (London: Sage, 2013).

14. Paul Frosh, “The Gestural Image: The Selfie, Photography Theory and Kinesthetic Sociability,” The International Journal of Communication 9 (2015), http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/viewFile/3146/1388.

15. For example, there are plenty of discussions about “the first selfie” (usually with examples of the beginning of the 20th century). This locates selfies as the contemporary version of a certain types of self-portraits, namely those where the photographer and the camera are visible at the moment of shooting, for example in a mirror.

16. For a comprehensive cultural history of the self-portraits see James Hall, Self-Portrait: A Cultural History (London: Thames and Hudson, 2014).

17. Cruz, De la cultura Kodak a la imagen en red; and Edgar Gómez Cruz, “La fotografía digital como una estética sociotécnica: el caso de la Iphoneografía,” Aiesthesis 52 (2012): 393–406, http://dx.doi.org/10.4067/S0718-71812012000200020.

18. See also Frosh, “The Gestural Image.”

19. See for example: Edgar Gómez Cruz and Eric T. Meyer, “Creation and Control in the Photographic Process: iPhones and the Emerging Fifth Moment of Photography,” Photographies 5, no. 2 (2012): 203–21; Larissa Hjorth, “Snapshots of Almost Contact: The Rise of Camera Phone Practices and a Case Study in Seoul, Korea,” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 21, no. 2 (2007): 227–38; and Marsha Berry and Max Schleser (eds), Mobile Media Making in an Age of Smartphones (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

20. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/aug/22/monkey-business-macaque-selfie-cant-be-copyrighted-say-us-and-uk.

21. http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/news/msl20121211b.html.

22. http://www.iocose.org/works/in_times_of_peace.html#Drone-Selfies.

23. Frosh, “The Gestural Image.”

24. Which we understand, following STS approaches, as a consensus in the use, narratives about, and boundaries around the use and understanding of determined artefact or practice.

25. See for example Barry Wellman, “The Three Ages of Internet Studies: Ten, Five and Zero Years Ago,” New Media & Society 6, no. 1 (2004): 123–9; and David Silver, “Internet/Cyberculture/Digital Culture/New Media/Fill-in-the-Blank Studies,” New Media & Society 6, no. 1 (2004): 55–64.

26. See Barry Wellman and Caroline Haythornthwaite (eds), The Internet in Everyday Life (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2008).

27. Although the development of the SMS is previous to the explosion of the WWW, they became a commonly used feature of mobile phones later.

28. Following this, we could also argue that emoticons address one of the earliest academic critiques of chat forums—that they are inherently different from the “real,” precisely because of the lack of social cues online [see also Joseph B. Walther and Kyle P. D’Addario, “The Impacts of Emoticons on Message Interpretation in Computer-Mediated Communication,” Social Science Computer Review 19, no. 3 (2001): 324–47].

29. See Nenagh Kemp, “Texting Versus Txtng: Reading and Writing Text Messages, and Links with Other Linguistic Skills,” Writing Systems Research 2, no. 1 (2012): 53–71.

30. The first cameraphone, the J-SH04 with a camera of 110,000 pixels and a 256-color display, was introduced in Japan in 2000. But it was with the introduction of the iPhone (2007) that mobile photography had its boom.

31. See Cruz and Meyer, “Creation and Control in the Photographic Process.”

32. Nancy A. Van House, “Personal Photography, Digital Technologies and the Uses of the Visual,” Visual Studies 26, no. 2 (2011): 125–34; Nancy A. Van House, “Collocated Photo Sharing, Story-Telling, and the Performance of Self,” International Journal of HumanComputer Studies 67, no. 12 (2009): 1073–86; Gillian Rose, “How Digital Technologies Do Family Snaps, Only Better,” in Digital Snaps: The New Face of Photography, eds Mette Sandbye and Jonas Larsen (London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2014), 67–86; and Daisuke Okabe and Mizuko Ito, “Camera Phones Changing the Definition of Picture-Worthy,” Japan Media Review, 29 (2003), http://www.dourish.com/classes/ics234cw04/ito3.pdf.

33. From our own research on digital culture.

34. Nancy A. Van House, “Feminist HCI Meets Facebook: Performativity and Social Networking Sites,” Interacting with Computers 23, no. 5 (2011): 424.

35. Bruno Latour, “Technology Is Society Made Durable,” The Sociological Review 38, no. S1 (1990): 103–31.

36. Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command Vol. 5 (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

37. Lucy Suchman, “Agencies in Technology Design: Feminist Reconfigurations,” Unpublished Manuscript (2007), http://goo.gl/tsTTyl.

38. Van House, “Feminist HCI meets Facebook,” 422–9.

39. Suchman, “Agencies in Technology Design.”

40. Latour, “Technology Is Society Made Durable.”

41. See also van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity; and Jenny Kennedy, “Rhetorics of Sharing: Data, Imagination and Desire,” in Unlike Us Reader: Social Media Monopolies and Their Alternatives, eds Geertz Lovink and Miriam Rasch (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2013), 127–37.

42. van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity.

43. Kennedy, “Rhetorics of Sharing,” 129.

44. Van House “Feminist HCI Meets Facebook,” 426.

45. See for example, Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward and Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28 (2003): 801–31; Suchman, “Agencies in Technology Design”; and N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Post Human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literate, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

46. Katrin Tiidenberg and Edgar Gómez Cruz, Selfies, Image and the Re-Making of the Body (London: Sage, 2015), 1–26, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1357034X15592465.

47. See for example Van House, “Collocated Photo Sharing, Story-Telling”; and Jonas Larsen, “Families Seen Sightseeing Performativity of Tourist Photography,” Space and Culture 8, no. 4 (London: Sage, 2005), 416–34.

48. Papacharrisi, “Without You, I’m Nothing.”

49. Papacharissi, “Without You, I’m Nothing.”

50. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (London: Random House, 1956), 252.

51. See for example Jennifer L. Gibbs, Nicole B. Ellison, and Rebecca D. Heino, “Self-Presentation in Online Personals the Role of Anticipated Future Interaction, Self-Disclosure, and Perceived Success in Internet Dating,” Communication Research, 33, no. 2 (2006): 152–77; and Hugh Miller, “The Presentation of Self in Electronic Life: Goffman on the Internet,” in Embodied Knowledge and Virtual Space Conference (Conference Paper June 1995, Vol. 9), http://www.douri.sh/classes/ics234cw04/miller2.pdf.

52. Patrick Maynard, “Talbot’s Technologies: Photographic Depiction, Detection, and Reproduction,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 47, no. 3 (1989): 263–76.

53. Suchman, “Agencies in Technology Design.”

54. For example, Cruz, De la cultura Kodak a la imagen en red; and Thornham and MacFarlane, “Claiming Content and Constructing Users.”

55. See also Helen Thornham, Ethnographies of the Videogame: Gender, Narrative & Praxis (Surrey: Ashgate, 2011).

56. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990).

57. See also Papacharrisi, “Without You, I’m Nothing.”

58. Butler, Gender Trouble, 179.

59. Butler, Gender Trouble, 178.

60. Nicky Gregson and Gillian Rose, “Taking Butler Elsewhere: Performativities, Spatialities and Subjectivities,” Environment and Planning D, 18, no. 4 (2000): 437.

61. Van House, “Collocated Photo Sharing, Story-Telling,” 1084.

62. Michel Foucault, “Technologies of the Self,” in Technologies of the Self, eds Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 16–49.

63. Latour, “Technology Is Society Made Durable.”

64. See also Bernard Stiegler, “Teleologics of the Snail: The Errant Self Wired to a WiMax Network,” Theory, Culture & Society 26, nos. 2–3 (London: Sage, 2009), 40.

65. Van House, “Feminist HCI Meets Facebook,” 422–9.

66. What is interesting of course about this argument is that big data claim the inverse of this: that it is possible to understand social behaviour and identity through something that is prefigured already in code.

67. Stiegler, “Teleologics of the Snail,” 33–45.

68. Manovich, Software Takes Command.

69. Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: And Introduction to Visual Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

70. Gillian Rose and Divya P. Tolia-Kelly (eds), Visuality/Materiality: Images, Objects and Practices (Surrey: Ashgate, 2012)

71. Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska, Life after New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).

72. Edgar Gómez Cruz and Helen Thornham, “‘Raw Talent in The Making’ Imaginary Journeys, Authorship and the Discourses of Expertise,” Convergence: International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies Convergence 21, no. 3 (2015): 314–27.



Digital utopias and real cities—computer-generated images in re-design of public space

Marianna Michałowska*

Institute of Cultural Studies, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland


Virtual environments are seen nowadays as extensions of our physical activities in the city. Are people, however, aware what the digitally mediated cities they live in are? The starting point of my paper is a question of how computer-generated images (CGIs) influence human perception of real space. I am interested in the conflict between a vision and reality, which occurs when an architectural project materialises in a public space and is subsequently rejected by the inhabitants. To explain this conflict, I will use the notion of digital utopias and compare CGIs with the great tradition of “paper” architecture. I will analyse two case studies from a medium-sized Polish city—Poznań. The first case is a redevelopment of the Main Railway Station; the second is a re-design of a local square in Poznań. The analysis focuses on the ambiguity of CGIs used to advertise new investments. The Station in the phase of digital visualisation was appreciated by the Poznań inhabitants but when the project was finally realised, strong criticism of its users followed. The second one provoked public protests already in the phase of visualisation. In conclusion, I state that the concept of agonistic public spaces should be expanded and its virtual dimension should be taken into consideration as well. When dealing with hyper-realistic CGIs, we experience a certain utopia. Confronted with their material execution, we often experience dystopian disillusion which stirs us into action.


Marianna Michałowska currently works as an associate professor at the Institute of Cultural Studies at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. In 1997, she graduated from the University of Arts in Poznań in photography and in 1998 she did her MA at Adam Mickiewicz University in cultural studies. In 2002, she completed a PhD in humanities, and in 2013, she completed a postdoctoral degree in cultural studies. She specialises in contemporary photography, urban documentary and museums’ practices. She is the author of three books on the cultural interpretation of photography, among others: Foto-teksty. Związki narracji z fotografią [Photo-texts. Relations between photography and narrative], Poznań 2013, and several articles in journals and chapters in books. She also works as an independent curator of photography exhibitions and as a collaborator of the Photography Biennial in Poznań.

Keywords: city utopia; re-design; computer-generated images; public space

Citation: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 7, 2015 http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/jac.v7.28215

Copyright: ©2015 M. Michałowska. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 8 December 2015

*Correspondence to: Marianna Michałowska, ul. Rubiez 14/38, PL-61-612 Poznań, Poland. Email: mariamne@amu.edu.pl

This paper is part of the Special Issue: Visual Frictions. More papers from this issue can be found at www.aestheticsandculture.net


The two examples of public spaces in Poznań I will discuss in my paper might be a perfect illustration of the old saying that hindsight is always better than foresight. The buildings and spaces I am going to talk about were accepted quite enthusiastically by audiences when their digital visualisations were presented for the first time. During the phase of planning and construction, they were awaited with great anticipation. However, when the construction phase was eventually completed, they proved to be a huge disappointment to the users. All the shortcomings, overlooked in the visualisation, surfaced. Was it because the structures were badly designed? Miscalculated? Or were the expectations of the future users of buildings fed with smooth surfaces of realistic-looking images?

Elisabeth Grosz noted that introducing digital technologies into everyday life transformed our perception of urban environments. She wrote:

Perhaps the most striking transformation effected by these technologies is the change in our perceptions of materiality, space, and information, which is bound directly or indirectly to affect how we understand architecture, habitation, and the built environment.1

The consequences of the change described above are visible in the high hopes, which contemporary inhabitants of cities pin on urban planners and developers. The city should be not only comfortable, user friendly and well governed, but also connected to the internet. We want to be and act in both, physical and virtual space at the same time. As William J. Mitchell noted: “Our actions in physical space are closely and unobtrusively coupled with our actions in cyberspace.”2 Mitchell’s concept directs our attention towards a dichotomy which features in augmented reality: it contains both physical and virtual experiences. This dichotomy, the opposition of vision and reality, or virtual and physical entities in mediated public space will be a useful conceptual aid in the analysis of the processes which occur in the city.

We are not only actors of augmented reality, but “true inhabitants of electronically mediated environments” as well.3 What does it mean to live in medially expanded reality? One of many features of digitally mediated life is proliferation of views which mix images of materiality with hyperreal simulations. As Baudrillard famously observed, those simulations are more attractive, more seductive and more convincing that reality itself. What happens if we are offered a digitally re-worked and improved vision of the city we live in? We will do anything to realise it. Our urban imagination is shaped to a great extent by digital images—photographic reproductions of edifices designed by “starchitects” or fantastic visions of cities visualised by creators of video games.


In the paper I would like to look at the friction between visualisations and material outcomes of completion of architectural and urban plans and, therefore, I refer to images and comments published on popular community websites dedicated to contemporary Polish architecture (bryla.pl) and local news (poznan.naszemiasto.pl, mmpoznan.pl). I draw on opinions of various people affected by the projects—local inhabitants, tourists and also experts experienced in analysing contemporary architecture. Similarly, the images I describe in the text come from publicly accessible sources. I limited the visual material to the visualisations and photographs published in the media, and decided not to use my own visual documentation. I realise that having lived and observed changes in Poznań for the last 20 years, I will not be able to avoid voicing personal opinions in the text. This personal perspective becomes particularly evident when I analyse the visual material. As I write knowing the outcome of the projects, I cannot avoid confronting the visualisations and their physical equivalents. This self-knowledge implies that an absolutely objective analysis of visual material is impossible and that it always conveys unconscious connotations.4

This article is consequently positioned in the field of interdisciplinary cultural research which builds links between theory and empirical reflection on people’s everyday experiences, as well as emphasising participatory observation and discourse analysis. The remarks on integrative approach, made by Paula Saukko, perfectly support my choice of approach. As she writes:

The distinctive feature of cultural studies is the way in which it combines a hermeneutic focus on lived realities, a (post)structuralist critical analysis of discourses that mediate our experiences and realities, and a contextualist/realist investigation of historical, social, and political structures of power.5

In my paper, I utilise all the features of the integrative approach listed above. I take into consideration everyday realities of city life, the critical perspective on media discourse and the context of local social and political structures of power. The goal of this article is to examine the gap between computer-generated images and their physical manifestations. The text is divided into three sections. The first one follows the historical paths of utopias and considers the relationship between computer technologies and paper architecture; the second compares two architectural projects from Poznań, and analyses people’s reactions to the materialised visions of the architects. In the conclusive third part, I consider a vision of a city as an agonistic space, where finding a consensus between the clashing powers, local communities, city councils, investors and developers, seems to be impossible. The article, however, will inevitably, to some extent be a personal narration about the city I live in, filtered through all my fears and expectations. In my opinion, this autobiographical autoreflexive filter might be an advantage, especially in an analysis of a city space, a space which is always perceived by its inhabitants.


The narrator of a poignant film Vacancy by Matthias Müller touched the very core of utopian projects describing Brasilia, the symbol of a modernistic urban utopia, as “the city not for now but for the future”. At this point, I would like to consider briefly the principles of urban utopias and e-topias in order to establish the philosophical basis of digital architectural design. Let us start with Elisabeth Grosz who writes: “Utopias are the spaces of phantasmatically attainable political and personal ideals, the projection of idealized futures; embodiment, though, is that which has never had its place within utopias.”6

When utopia is embodied, it loses its utopian potential. Why can it not find its materialisation? The explanation lies in the philosophical source of the term. In Greek ou-topos means “no-place”, and eu-topos a “good place”. Both terms sound the same (they are homophones) but they are philosophically ambivalent. In her analysis of the origin of the term, Grosz recalls Thomas More’s ambiguous interpretation. Although utopia evokes the notion of a “happy” and “good place” that people dream about, it is a no-place as well, and therefore it cannot be materialised. She emphases that it “cannot be regarded as topological at all,”7 because it exist only potentially and belongs to the future.

From antiquity urban utopias were mostly narrated in philosophical dissertations or drawn. Only some were embodied, usually as examples in discussions about society and politics. While urban utopias in their very sense cannot be materialised, the projects of ideal cities use utopian inspirations and incorporate them into the bodies of real cities. The Renaissance urban plans reflect this tradition. Ideal cities use philosophical concept of a “good life” to create a perfect society, ruled by laws that are seen as appropriate for the chosen model of humanity. There are some noteworthy illustrations of ideal cities in Poland. One of them is Zamość, a Renaissance city on a regular geometrical grid, built by Jan Zamoyski and designed by an Italian architect, Bernardo Morando.

Both models of utopian and of ideal city met in modernity. Philosophers dreamt of materialising a vision of a perfect, ordered society in a physical space. Architects, therefore, had to become social engineers. The foundation of the modern fusion between an architect and an engineer was underpinned by a belief that a city is a working organism, a living machine which can be controlled by political powers. Thus, firstly, the city has to be examined, then, secondly, it has to be transformed through the means of urban construction. The ambition of transforming societies through cities was, however, never limited to a specific location but aimed to engulf the whole world. As Ewa Rewers noted:

Urban utopias which were constructed by modern societies did not conceal their claims to universality and under its cover proposed a new, more ideal world, where a city was “just” a laboratory, even if the experiment was on a scale of Brasilia.8

Today, as Rewers persuades, the modern laboratory has been replaced with a “workshop,” where seemingly conflicting approaches are tested by a wide variety of bricoleurs: urban planners, philosophers, technocrats, inventors and artists.9 In the urban workshop, technologies meet ecologies and programmers cooperate with architects. It is the world, which William J. Mitchell called e-topia.

e-Topia is neither an ou-topos (because it has its place, both in physical and virtual space) nor an ideal city. It exists, because we live in a technologically mediated milieu. It incorporates some features of eu-topos, not in the sense of a good life derived from Greek philosophy with its values as aretē (virtues) and phronesis (practical and ethical wisdom), but because e-topia is convenient and flexible. Its residents have everything within their reach, on the screens of personal computers and mobile phones, even though they are not very focused on cognition. e-Topia is not ideal either. It embraces too many conflicting points of view to create a harmonious structure. Our new electronic cities are a mixture of virtual and physical features which facilitate our existence. As e-topia’s everyday life cannot go on without a technologically mediated infrastructure, its construction requires competences that go beyond artistic visions and philosophical ideas, and demands cooperation between humanities and science.

Rivka and Robert Oxman observe that computer technologies change the relation between architects and engineers. “This cultural evolution is pre-eminently expressed in the expanded collaborative relationships that have developed in the past decade between architects and structural engineers, relationships which have been responsible for the production, worldwide, of a series of iconic buildings.”10

It undermines the position of an architect, who from the age of Enlightenment was a central figure in a city, and, instead of architectural visionaries, elevates engineers. If we looked back at the history of architecture, we would observe that the change happened gradually. As early as the 18th century, Étienne-Louis Boullée, a great architectural visionary, posed a question: “Is architecture merely a fantastic art belonging to the realm of pure invention or are its basic principles derived from Nature?” and argued that the genius of an architect guides us towards Truth and Harmony through the means of rational geometry. His vision of architecture was, undoubtedly, utopian and existed in the sphere of pure imagination. Could we regard the architectural drawings by architects like Boullée or Claude Nicolas Ledoux as futuristic? They illustrated (similarly to Boullée’s Cenotaph for Izaak Newton) the base concepts of aesthetics and philosophy and were never intended to be built. They were virtual in the sense of their potentiality. We should note that unlike digital architectural projects, drawings are always theoretical and never illusionistic, as their aim is to examine the structure of Reason. With time the position of an architect has changed, but its worth remembering that the tradition of theoretical architecture has found its continuation in the works of Bernardo Tschumi, Daniel Liebeskind and Peter Eisenman.

The modernist movement emphasised the role of an engineer who worked not for universal Reason, but for a New Society. In the opinion of the one of Bauhaus’s founders, Walter Gropius, “the products of intellectual, social and technical determinants of our times” will replace “caprices of a small number of architects.”11 As a result, modern urban projects integrate engineering practice, ideological vision of society and metaphorical expression. Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse finds the metaphor of community in a “modulor”—a model of a perfect human body, and Lucio Costa’s and Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia in a figure of a cross/a bird/a plane that might be recognised in an urban structure. Brasilia was supposed to be not only a triumph of modern engineering but a readable symbol of a new nation as well. The architect cannot rely just on his vision, talents and intuition any longer. He has to be educated in the technical aspects of construction (the skill which evokes the Renaissance practice of art based on technical abilities), and, equally important, in team work. Gropius continues: “An architect of the future—if he will decide to return to the top—will have to come closer to processes of building production again.”12

The echoes of the move towards integrity of architectural, urban and technological practices can still be heard today. The change, inspired by new materials and structures, transforms the principles of imagination, which finds new inspiration in virtual space and enables experiments with 3D modelling. Computer modelling, programming and simulating create virtual copies of reality. As Oxmans observed: “No longer a posteriori, the design engineer is now up-front at the earliest generative stage, bringing to the fore the design content of materialisation and fabrication technologies.”13

Thus, on the one hand, architectural design, which corresponds with technologies and engineering infrastructure, should be practical and realistic, but on the other hand, it is an illusion of harmonious human interactions. A new eu-topia is created—coexistence of people, nature and machines. What do these new utopists dream about? Mitchell describes e-city as lively, friendly, wealthy and happy.

The electronically enabled shift of activities back to the home, and in formation of twenty-four-hour, pedestrian scale neighborhoods that are rich in possibilities for local secondary social relationships, potentially produce the conditions for vigorous local community life, for the formation of social and cultural capital in ways that have seemed lost.14

Modernists’ image of an ordered, disembodied and abstract city (a “machine for living”) was replaced by an image of a city emerging from R. Florida’s concept of cultural capital, where cultural differences contribute to the prosperity of the city and enrich identity of the inhabitants. As I present further on, these visions are often created using the means of computer-generated images.

According to Gillian Rose’s research into architectural practices in the re-design of living areas, contemporary architects treat digital imaging as “canvases for expression,” or “self-confident visual statements.” Those individual expressions are the basis for the further design process which involves negotiations with investors, experts and local communities. The effects are constantly input onto the virtual representation of the space. Images are disputed and argued. In the end, visions which consist of many pieces of interests of clashing groups are implemented into physical reality. Gradually changing CGIs reflect the negotiations and remain, throughout, the basis for the process of place-making.

To explain the features of CGIs, I will refer to the project of Gillian Rose, Monica Degen and Clare Melhuish called Visualising atmospheres: digital placemaking in the 21st century, which analysed the rebuilding of a ruined district of Msheireib in Doha. The authors described the venture using such adjectives as anthological, mutable, embodied, interfacial and spreadable. Let us consider in a few words the context in which the words were used. The first word, anthological, refers to the ability to amalgamate many varied fragments into the most appropriate form for the space which is being designed. The anthology is, thus, constructed using different materials and disciplines, and involves a constant collaborative effort of architects, urban planners and visualisers. The second word, mutable, directs us to a potential for change. The design is unstable, because it is permanently negotiated and modified both, by designers and developers. The third adjective refers to the power of place-making by simulating the local context. CGIs are embodied because they utilise recognisable local materialities and use realistic images of people. The aim of the embodiment is to enable the spectator to “feel” the place, or to rephrase; CGIs use the “language of affect” to immerse the viewer in the image. The forth adjective, interfacial, describes qualities which are a consequence of mutability of digital images. GCIs are interfacial, because they move from a digital to printed form, travel between servers situated in varied geographical locations and, what is crucial, are part of the communication process between individuals involved in the process of design. We could say that CGIs do not have their final visual form as they might be modified indefinitely. And finally, they are spreadable due to their potential for proliferation within diverse media and in a variety of spaces—from physical public space (i.e. as advertising billboards), 3D models on websites or reproductions in printed folders. Rose, Degen and Melhuish notice that “spreadability also has its frictions, as the media through which images are presented have different visual affordances.”15

CGIs seem to be a convenient tool for place-making which facilitates preprograming of interactions between human, infrastructural and natural agents. We should remember, however, that the basic principle of CGIs, which present future rebuilding (or “revitalisation”) projects, is to sell them. Therefore, images of commercial and private spaces are rhetoric (I will discuss this notion in the last part of the article) and persuasive tools for winning new clients. This is why the researchers called the project in Msheireb the “reinvention” of the place and emphasised its power of manipulation achieved by balancing on the line between reality and illusion.

Realism and atmosphere therefore constantly compete against each other within the frame of images as they are manipulated to produce evocations of a ‘dream world’ that meets the client’s brief and sells the idea of the project to those who will mobilise resources for its translation into reality.16

To conclude: until CGIs stay in the cyberspace (without any representation in the physical space) and follow the tradition of paper architecture, they might be criticised or appraised. The problem begins when they are materialised. What thus is the status of CGIs? Most often they are neither utopias nor plans of ideal cities, but objects of commodification: they are used to advertise and sell a product, a certain vision of a city. We shall see what happens when those commodified images are presented to the public in the next part of the paper.


As I mentioned at the very beginning, both cases I will describe are located in the city I live in, Poznań. It is a middle-sized city in the Western part of Poland with a population of about six hundred thousands inhabitants. The city is known for the motor industry, the International Fair, a few good universities (Adam Mickiewicz University, Medical University, University of Economics, University of Arts) which ensure a steady flow of new inhabitants, the International Festival of Street Theatres and, last but not least, a decent football team.

On the wave of enthusiasm for the UEFA European Championships, which were held in Poland and Ukraine in 2012, a great number of major new investments were announced. Poznań, which was chosen as one of the four cites where football matches took place, followed suit. A series of large-scale renovations was planned, among them, reconstruction of a communication junction in the very heart of the city, new airport, redevelopment of the football stadium, new tram connections and small construction projects in the historic centre (some of these projects are still under construction). Construction of a new Central Railway Station replacing the old one was the icing on the cake.

The investor, the Hungarian Trigranit corporation chosen to undertake the venture, was experienced in the implementation of many commercial projects in Central Europe and Poland itself. The construction, financed both from the public and private funds, had started in 2011 but was officially inaugurated in an atmosphere of great excitement a month before the first football match. Designers decided not to renovate the old building, which would have been a complicated and long-drawn process, but to build the new edifice next to the old one. The Main Railway Station was combined with a bus station and a huge shopping mall.

Soon after the announcement of construction, the first visualisations were presented in newspapers and on the internet. They showed an open space, dominated by a white and blue edifice of glass and concrete. The images offered a perspective which ended with a renovated body of the old station, also clad in glass. From the visualised point of view the project seemed to be “on human scale”: human figures were quite prominent, the railway station building complemented the shopping centre situated at the back. The colours of the image: light-coloured ground and blue sky create a pleasant first impression, where the modern (the new edifice) and the historic (the old building) harmonise. The image is a perfect example of one of the aims of CGIs I mentioned earlier—visualisation of an atmosphere. However, it is also a tool of commodification. It is worth remembering that this particular perspective and specific colours are the tricks of the trade of advertising companies, utilised in visualisations in order to present the most appealing vision of a new development (Figure 1).

Fig 1
Figure 1.  Visualisation of the Main Railway Station in Poznań, designed by Pentagram Architects (open access: abcnieruchomosci.pl).

The progress of the construction was eagerly followed by journalists, passengers and passers by. Twenty-four-hour monitoring was installed and everybody could watch the development of the investment on the internet. On 20th February 2012, the website poznan.naszemiasto.pl (poznan.ourcity.pl) reported: “Poznań’s railway station changes every day. Five thousand square metres of concrete floor have been laid recently. The lift shafts were installed last weekend. Soon the interior walls will be built and, as soon as it is warmer, the steel construction will be clad in glass.”17 After looking at the photo documentation presenting the accumulation of steel and concrete elements, people posted favourable comments: “Impressive construction, bravo!”18

The development was completed in two stages. The first stage, consisting of the building of the railway station, was ready just before EURO 2012 and the grand opening ceremony was conducted by the Polish president. The second phase was completed 1 year later and followed by an official opening of the shopping mall and the bus station. The first impressions were favourable. Users compared it to an airport terminal, or an exclusive commercial centre.19 Soon opinions changed radically and the project started attracting strong criticism. The building appeared to be impractical and badly located. It was too small for the footfall. The passengers preferred the old, partly ruined building to the new elegant space. The distance from the main hall to the platforms proved to be too great for people carrying heavy luggage, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was the size of the shopping mall. The railway station seemed to be an annex to the commercial centre. The people of Poznań started to feel fed up with the number of commercial centres in the city. Comments posted on the internet are full of complaints and manifest general disappointment with the building (Figure 2).

Fig 2
Figure 2.  The Main Railway Station in Poznań, photo: BernardJ47, 2013 (open access: www.panoramio.com/photo/100005148).

It is not difficult to find differences between the final effect and the visualisation when we compare the images of the two. First of all, the project has lost its white and blue elegance which was replaced with a colourful facade. The space in front of the railway station is full of cars. Also the proportions of the new building and the shopping mall are not the same as they seemed to be in the visualisation. The space around the building is surrounded by advertising billboards.

In my opinion, the case of the railway station is a very good illustration of Rem Koolhaas’s idea of junkspace. The term describes projects (Koolhaas does not call them architecture, since in his view “architecture disappeared in the 20th century”20) which flood our urban environment with shopping malls, airports and theme parks. The architect noted: “Junkspace is what remains after modernization has run its course or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout. Modernization had a rational program: to share the blessing of science, universally.”21

The forms are, thus, easily multiplied, often constructed from prefabricated elements, simply increased. To develop Koolhaas’s observation, we could say that computer programming and its products belong to the same commercial sphere of imagination as junkspace. As such both CGIs and junkspace have to be flexible, adaptable to varied historic traditions and cheap in execution. Moreover, the types of constructions referred to as junkspace by architects (i.e. shopping malls or airports) are rarely publicly discussed, as they are usually largely privately financed (as in the case of Poznań’s Railway Station) Of course, the great architects who dictate the trends and styles (like Zaha Hadid or Koolhaas himself) may still dream up grand designs but junkspace seduces those who are not so talented with its luminosity, openness and ornaments.

Koolhaas perceives junkspace as an expression of a contemporary desire to transform everything. “Restore, rearrange, reassemble, revamp, renovate, revise, recover, redesign, return—the Parthenon Marbles—redo, respect, rent: verbs that start reproduce Junkspace ….”22 It does not mean that cities do not need renovations but, rather, that those renovations, when confronted with reality, prove to be tragically impractical. Why were they, therefore, chosen? I will try to answer this question further on in the article.

The second example I intend to present is not as spectacular as the previous one. I would like to tell the story of a revitalisation of Asnyk Square, a space in the centre of Jezyce district which is known for its 19th century tenement houses. The story begins in 2010 when Zarząd Dróg Miejskich (Municipal Roads Authority) launched a programme of revaluation (the term used in ZDM’s announcement) of the square by planting over 400 trees and bushes around the run-down playgrounds and benches.23 In 2014, the local community council decided to proceed with a brand new renovation. The project proposed a complete rebuilding of the space which came as a great surprise to the local people. A local newspaper, Glos Wielkopolski, announced: “Art Nouveau Asnyk Square will have a new surface (granite blocks), there will be new benches and plants. As the community council explained, after the rebuilding, the square will serve not only “drunks” but all the inhabitants of Jeżyce.”24 As soon as the first visualisations were presented to the community, people began protesting against the project. Why did the images not seduce people this time? (Figure 3).

Fig 3
Figure 3.  Visualisation of Asnyk Square, Joanna Kosenko (open access: www.gloswielkopolski.pl/artykul/zdjecia/3353759,plac-asnyka-rady-osiedla-jezyce-chce-dokonczenia-projektu-wizualizacje,3469511,id,t,zid.html).

The image is seemingly less realistic than usual CGIs which are used in advertising projects and does not look like a photograph. The forms are situated in an abstract space. There are no buildings which could create an urban atmosphere of the visualisation. It is interesting that in this case the project was criticised already in the design phase. People complained mainly about the lack of playgrounds and pitches, as well as, the waste of money which had been spent on the previous reclamation of the area. In the article titled “Asnyk Square—only for the dead”, the author reported the voices of the local community:

The visualisations look embarrassing—a lady from Jezyce complained—There are no surrounding buildings, objects are not attractive … glass surfaces instead of sandpits … concrete couches covered with artificial moss. They will be comfortable enough after few beers. Asnyk Square is the only playground for children in Jezyce. There are always a lot of families with children there. Now it will be a paradise for beer-lovers.25

The discussion was initiated because of such CGIs’ features as spreadability and interfaciality. The images were widely presented in the neighbourhood, the local media and on the internet. People commented on all the ideas and submitted their opinions to the community officials. However, the project was not mutable enough and eventually the changes interposed in the project were not what people had hoped they would be. After few meetings, when the works on the Square had already started, people who had protested against the rebuilding project founded an active FB group called “The Asnyk Square Initiative” and displayed their opinions on posters attached to the fence of the construction site (Figure 4).

Fig 4
Figure 4.  Asnyk Square, Poznan, 2013 (open access: www.wiadomosci.onet.pl/poznan/plac-asnyka-tylko-dla-umarlych/z5m6s).

“Asnyk Square for people”, “No to a lounge of the dead”. Finally, some small modifications were implemented into the design and the new Asnyk Square was finished. Looking at the Asnyk Square case in hindsight, we can identify all the mistakes that were made both during the planning and the construction stages (Figure 5).

Fig 5
Figure 5.  Asnyk Square, Poznań, photo: K. Nowicki, 2015 (open access: www.codziennypoznan.pl/artykul/2015-01-20/plac-asnyka-jest-gotowy#).

The misleading factor in this case was the issue of revitalisation. As we know, the term does not refer to architectural changes, but usually describes social issues. “To revitalise” stands for “to animate” the community by means of urban planning. This time, the community’s voice and officials’ vision did not match. The officials’ priority was to have an ordered, clean space whereas people hoped to have a space for community activities.

The problem does not lie with the physical manifestation of the design, which had been altered to incorporate people’s demands, but with the fact that the project was, from the very beginning to its final incarnation, unsuccessful. In a well-known concept of Henri Lefebvre, the space is produced in the series of layered interactions. The city is created by superposition of spatial practices, representation of spaces and representational spaces. The first two, on which I would like to focus here, refer to people’s everyday activities and to a “conceptualised space” created by “urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers.”26 We can observe a definite friction between those two. The new Asnyk Square is a good representation of space but does not allow people to act in the space in the way they would like to.


The stories I have told in the preceding part of the paper, revealed a number of inconsistencies which emerge when we talk about cities. First of all, we observe a process that Koolhaas called the shrinking of public life,27 where open public spaces are replaced by commercial areas. Secondly, as a result of the shrinking of public life, a tendency emerges to “clean” and “order” the space. It is an effect of an ambition to make the space more and more spectacular. In those processes, computer-generated images are just, to use a colloquial phrase, “handy” and subordinated to powers that provide projects with funding.

In conclusion I would like to point out a few general issues:

  1. The form of CGIs differs from photorealistic representations to the digital schemas and, therefore, their persuasive power varies.
  2. The photo-realism of digital representation makes discussions at the stage of designing difficult. CGIs act as rhetoric messages and as such appeal to people hoping for a better future. When buildings are materialised, it becomes evident that the vision of the developers does not correspond with the expectations of the community.
  3. CGIs which are more schematic initiate public discussion in the phase of designing.
  4. e-City is not a space of social and political consensus but an area of agon, permanent fight for space and cultural meaning.

Let us now consider these presuppositions in more detail.

While talking about rhetoric and persuasion beyond CGIs I refer to the concepts of Roland Barthes and William J.T. Mitchell. The notion of the first quality, rhetoric, draws on the Barthesian “third message” which is based on cultural connotations. We connote photorealistic metonymic images and, as a result, we believe in their message. Moreover, because of the photo-realism of CGIs, we are not able to consider those images as models and symbols. Therefore, to use Barthes’s words, we are immersed in “the denoted scene as though into a lustral bath of innocence.”28 Illusionist pictures, which are naturalised in human minds because of their photography-like appearance, appeal to people’s dreams of a better future and better life.

The second quality indicates that CGIs may persuade the city inhabitants to enthusiastically accept the presented vision. Just like images described by W.J.T. Mitchell, they are “transparently and immediately linked to what they represent.”29 A message communicated by their means seems to be like an “animated, living thing,”30 or rather, in this case, a living space. Future residents settle in the space, although it only exists as a digital image. The glamorous appearance of CGIs conceals the commercial intentions of their producers. They are designed above all to sell a product and seldom become a part of public negotiations.

Respondents who commented on the visualisations of the Poznań railway station often stated: “I like that, and I hope that the investment will be developed as planned.”31 They clearly expected that the finished project would be exactly the same as the vision presented in CGIs. Unlike the CGIs of the railway station, the visualisation of Asnyk Square was more like a drawing than a photograph, thus it was not so seductive and it opened a public debate. We can notice that the digital simulations of the railway station not only fulfilled people’s dreams about utopia of a new, better Poznań, but led people to believe that they would be able to live in it. Let us come back to Elisabeth Grosz. She noted:

Can architecture construct a better future? How can it do so without access to another notion of time than that of projection and planned development (a time in which the future is fundamentally the same as the past, or increases in some formulaic version of the past)?32

The failures of Poznań’s rebuilding projects which looked so promising at the stage of visualisation lead me to a question about the ownership of the city and the identity of the beneficiaries of projects undertaken in it. Whose is the city and for whom it is re-designed?

For whom should Asnyk Square be? For urban planners who want to see a trendy city square, or for people who live in the neighbourhood and prefer friendly chaos to a clean and paved urban area? The saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” seems to illustrate this story quite well. Instead of a good “revitalisation” project, people live with an unwanted concrete yard.

For whom should the railway station be? For travellers, who need easy access to platforms and ticket offices or for the customers of the shopping centre? “Since when is the part of a shopping mall where ticket offices are located called a railway station?”33—asked an angry passenger. Is it possible to find a consensus between the clashing visions? This unfortunate situation is an effect of shrinking of the public space which was described earlier in the text. The powers of politics and commerce compete to gain influence over the city space and use urban projects as weapons in the struggle. This conflict is not a modern phenomenon, but the balance of the power clash has changed. As Don Mitchell observed:

As a secular space, the public space of the modern city has always been a hybrid of politics and commerce. Ideally, the anarchy of the market meets the anarchy of politics in public space to create an interactive a democratic public. In the twentieth century, however, markets have been increasingly severed from politics.34

Nowadays, CGIs are used mainly by commercial power. They are commodified to sell a product to as many buyers as possible. As soon as the product is sold, investors lose interest in the space as a good place and the eu-topos ends. The gap between CGIs and real life cannot be bridged.

A similar observation can be found in the concepts of Chantal Mouffe criticising the Habermasian idea of public space consensus. She claims that interests of various groups meet and clash in cities, and all of them try to persuade the inhabitants to support their visions. Mouffe called her model of society an “agonistic model of public space” and confronted it with both the consensual and the antagonistic visions of a city. As she noted: “For the agonistic model, at the contrary, the public space is the battleground where different hegemonic projects are confronted, without any possibility of final reconciliation.”35

Where is a place for CGIs within the agonistic public sphere? It is not difficult to realise that cyberspace creates additional spacial layers in cities. CGIs, therefore, are the next dimension of multiple, discursive surfaces,36 which should be taken into consideration in urban debates. They reflect the visions of planners and the expectations of people. The virtually produced images try to win people’s approval. They also have a power to activate their aspirations for eu-topia, a better life.


I would like to thank Margareta Melin, Ewa Rewers and my colleagues from the Department of Cultural Urban Studies at Adam Mickiewicz University whose kind comments helped me in ordering thoughts presented above, and Anna Glover who was a thorough reader of my paper.


1. Elisabeth Grosz, Architecture from Outside. Essays on Virtual and Real Space (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001), 75.

2. William J. Mitchell, E-topia (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002), 43.

3. Ibid., 43.

4. Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies. An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials (London: Sage, 2007), 137.

5. Paula Saukko, “Methodologies for Cultural Studies: An Integrative Approach”, in The Sage Handbook of Qualititative Research, ed. Norman K. Denzin et al. (London: Sage, 2005), 343.

6. Grosz, Architecture from Outside …, 131.

7. Ibid., s.134.

8. Ewa Rewers, Post-polis. Wstęp do filozofii ponowoczesnego miasta [Post-polis. An introduction to philosophy of postmodern city]. (Kraków: Universitas, 2005), 256.

9. Ewa Rewers, “Miejska przestrzeń kulturowa: od laboratorium do warsztatu” [Cultural urban space: from laboratory to a workshop], in Kulturowe Studia Miejskie. Wprowadzenie [Cultural Urban Study. An Introduction], ed. Ewa Rewers (Warszawa: Narodowe Centrum Kultury, 2014), 63–65.

10. Rivka Oxman and Robert Oxman, “The New Structuralism, Design, Engineering and Architectural Technologies”, Architectural Design 4 (2010): 15.

11. Walter Gropius, Pełnia architektury [Scope of Total Architecture]. (Kraków: Karakter, 2014), 91.

12. Ibid., 111.

13. Oxman and Oxman, “The New Structuralism …”, 17.

14. Mitchell, E-topia, 80.

15. Gillian Rose, “Place-Making and Digital Visualisations” (the exhibition guide), 2013, http://www.researchcatalogue.esrc.ac.uk/grants/RES-062-23-3305/outputs/read/72f5cd7c-3424-48f0-8727-f4252a6e521f (accessed October 20, 2015).

16. Rose, Degan, “Place-making …”, 7.

17. “Budowa poznańskiego Dworca PKP idzie jak burza” [The construction of Poznań’s railway station grows], poznan.naszemiasto.pl, February 20, 2012, http://poznan.naszemiasto.pl/artykul/budowa-poznanskiego-dworca-pkp-idzie-jak-burza-nowe-zdjecia,1287525,gal,t,id,tm.html (accessed October 20, 2015).

18. Ibid.

19. “Nowy dworzec kolejowy uroczyście otwarty” [New railway station formally opened], mmpoznan.pl, 2012, http://www.mmpoznan.pl/artykul/nowy-dworzec-kolejowy-uroczyscie-otwarty-zdjecia,3156199,artgal,t,id,tm.html (accessed October 20, 2015).

20. Rem Koolhaas, “Junk-Space,” October 100, (Spring 2002): 175.

21. Ibid., 175.

22. Ibid., 183.

23. “Rewaloryzacja zieleni na placu Adama Asnyka” [A restoration of a greenery at Asnyk Square], March 19, 2010, http://zdm.poznan.pl/news.php?site=view&id=974 (accessed October 20, 2015).

24. KAEF, “Plac Asnyka Salonem Umarłych? Mieszkańcy mówią NIE” [Asnyk Square as a lounge for the dead? People say NO], Głos Wielkopolski, December 12, 2013, http://www.gloswielkopolski.pl/artykul/1066398,plac-asnyka-salonem-umarlych-mieszkancy-mowia-nie-zdjecia,id,t.html (accessed October 20, 2015).

25. NZ, “Plac Asnyka—tylko dla umarłych?” [Asnyk Square – only for the dead], Onet.pl, December 12, 2013, http://wiadomosci.onet.pl/poznan/plac-asnyka-tylko-dla-umarlych/z5m6s (accessed October 20, 2015).

26. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998), 38–9.

27. Koolhaas, “Junkspace”, 184.

28. Roland Barthes, “The Rhetoric of the Image”, in Classic Essays on Photography, ed. Alan Trachtenberg (New Haven, CT: Leete Island Books, 1980), 283.

29. William J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 127.

30. Ibid., 127.

31. “Zobacz nowe wizualizacje dworca w Poznaniu” [Look at the new visualisations of railway station in Poznań], http://epoznan.pl/news-news-24742-Zobacz_nowe_wizualizacje_dworca_w_Poznaniu (accessed October 20, 2015).

32. Grosz, Architecture, 137.

33. “Nowy dworzec w Poznaniu (fotogaleria)” [New railway station in Poznań (photogallery)], http://www.bryla.pl/bryla/51,85301,11829104.html?i=0 (accessed October 20, 2015).

34. Don Mitchell, “The End of Public Space? People’s Park, Definitions of the Public, and Democracy”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 85, no. 1 (1995): 119.

35. Ch. Mouffe, Artistic Activism and Agonistic Politics, http://www.monumenttotransformation.org/en/activities/texts/chantal-mouffe#more (accessed January 11, 2014).

36. Ibid.



Unlikely cryptfellows: hospitality, difference, and spectrality at the 9/11 Museum

Lindsay Anne Balfour*

National September 11 Memorial and Museum, New York, NY, USA


This paper offers a reading of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum to suggest that the encounter with strangers or strangeness is at the core of cultural and commemorative production in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Specifically, I engage the museum as a text that has significant implications on how we approach the philosophy of hospitality in a time of terror. I argue that the ways in which objects and artifacts exist in relation to one another in the museum act out hospitality in ways that are both unexpected and unintended. For example, while human remains are stored on site, they are only referred to through symbolic art and digital displays that act as a kind of sleight of hand. In particular, I take up the inclusion of a brick from Osama Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in Pakistan that has been incorporated into the museum in a fashion that is carefully orchestrated and framed. The brick, however, exceeds the frame in which it is permitted to be included in the exhibit; its visuality and materiality defy—and even contradict—the expected narrative of the museum. The brick appears as juxtaposed next to a Navy SEAL uniform and is meant to draw attention toward the distinction between terrorist and national hero, yet as a physical presence in the museum, it retains a sense of both vulnerability and affect as it bears striking resemblance to the bedrock of the towers themselves. Ultimately, I suggest that while the disjunctures between artifacts may seem initially jarring—these are items, after all, that are meant to produce very different material and mediatized effects; they offer a working-through of a hospitality that is crucial to the museum and all culture produced in response to the attacks.


Lindsay Anne Balfour is a Visiting Scholar at New York University and an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the September 11 Memorial and Museum. Her research examines the function of public art at the 9/11 Museum and its relationship to a philosophy of hospitality. Lindsay completed her doctorate in Cultural Studies at the University of British Columbia where she was funded by the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada.

Keywords: 9/11 Museum; War on Terror; hospitality; Abbottabad brick; materiality; Bin Laden; strangers; violence; aesthetics; difference

Citation: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 7, 2015 http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/jac.v7.28217

Copyright: ©2015 L. A. Balfour. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 8 December 2015

*Correspondence to: Lindsay Anne Balfour, 1081 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, NY 11216, USA. Email: Lindsay.Balfour@nyu.edu; LBalfour@911memorial.org

This paper is part of the Special Issue: Visual Frictions. More papers from this issue can be found at www.aestheticsandculture.net


Opened in May 2014, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum represents a culmination of public mourning and remembrance, research, debate, and recovery in the aftermath of 9/11, and in some way signals the end of the critical phase of the War on Terror (although this war is, to be sure, far from over). The death of Osama Bin Laden, the passing of the 10 years anniversary of the attacks, the opening of the central landmark of memorialization, and the completion of One World Trade Center—which has become the most prominent signifier of the financial revitalization of lower Manhattan—are all notable moments in the culmination of more than a decade of history. The museum also marks out a beginning and perhaps initiates a time when we might start thinking differently about the preoccupation with strangers that continues to dominate social, cultural, and political life. These strangers are, of course, as methodological and philosophical as they are tangible, and this paper seeks to engage with the figure of the stranger beyond conventional markers and representations of cultural, religious, or racial difference. The study of such representations—of the so-called “terrorist other” is well covered by both foundational and contemporary thinkers.1 Moreover, the dominant narrative of a general “us” (white, American) versus a vague “them” (Eastern or Arab, racially othered) is certainly present in the mainstream rhetoric surrounding the museum’s purpose, plan, and physical displays. I want to read the stranger, however, as a figure of depth, philosophical resonance, and ethical injunction that destabilizes what we think we know about the boundaries of what is strange and familiar, particularly in the space of a museum that, I argue, reverses and collapses such distinctions, rendering the strange familiar—or, at the very least, uncanny—and the familiar strange once more. In other words, the rush to revitalize and commemorate raises important questions for what it means to engage hospitably with known and unknown others, questions that matter even more in what is still a time of terror. Indeed, if there was ever a time for a resurgence of hospitality as we understand it in the philosophical sense—that is, the open and unconditional welcome of whoever or whatever may arrive—the time is now, not only in consideration of the museum’s official opening but also because, as the War on Terror shifts away from Iraq and Afghanistan and toward other nations, it matters increasingly how we deploy strategies of apprehending others—particularly as those strategies are learned from the visual legacy of the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, not only do the events of 9/11 continue to reverberate as series of images and have developed their own visual iconography—familiar images such as the towers or Osama Bin Laden’s face on a wanted posted that circulate indefinitely, for example—but the War on Terror itself, in many ways, continues to be fueled by a visual imagination, hostile to difference.


The initial experience of the museum is certainly different from a visit to the surface memorial as the names etched into the granite walls begin to reanimate once one walks through the doors of the bright entry pavilion.2 Yet, it is the first moments underground that suggest the museum is defined by a provocative and haunting discourse of hospitality—one that can be interrogated in many of the museum’s visual exhibits. Joining the crowd wandering toward the main exhibition space, one registers that this mass of people is shuffling deeper into what essentially remains a crypt. Indeed, in both the public and political expressions of mourning following 9/11, the site is often referred to as a cemetery, burial ground, or final resting place. As former mayor Rudolph Giuliani argues in his editorial for the anniversary edition of Time in September 2002, “Ground zero is a cemetery. It is the last resting place for loved ones whose bodies were not recovered and whose remains are still within that hallowed ground.”3 Yet, the museum is also a place of deep abstraction, as the digital and symbolic displays often come to substitute for their material referent. The museum crypt is an especially fraught place of burial, particularly because the space was not intentionally created to house the remains of victims; instead, it was carved out in the very process of their demise. The crypt, in fact, was what killed them. Yet, it is in this crypt where hospitality makes its two most significant gestures, through the cordoning off of human remains that refuse to go unnoticed and in the unlikely placement of artifacts that are displayed in an extraordinarily out-of-place fashion.

Surely the museum has a rigorous screening process for the items it includes and emphasizes a very particular narrative of events, often at the expense of other narratives. This central narrative of commemoration, while presented objectively, is beholden, of course, to the tenuous relationship between memory, personal and historical perception, selective representation, and forgetfulness.4 In other words, narrative, while presented as objective and historically accurate, can be wildly imaginative and swayed by both intentional and unconscious factors. This is particularly the case with visual narratives, whose “truths” are translated once more from text, speech, or firsthand experience—a hermeneutical chain that has, since antiquity, been an unstable and slippery cycle of interpretation. What then of these visual displays themselves—the strange passages, curious absences, odd juxtapositions, and artifacts that seem generally out of place, either in the structural flow of the museum or in their detachments from the bodies that once gave them animation? In other words, where in the museum might we read other incidences of invitation or exclusion, things that seem foreign or odd, and find “guests” that show up uninvited and unannounced and defy coherent interpretation? I invoke the spectral here to refer to ghostly figures of haunting, unhomeliness, exception, invisibility, curiosity, and phantasm, especially when these figures appear outside of expectation, outside of material presence, and who operate thus as social figures and not simply as gothic terrors. They appear in traces rather than in whole and are often both undefined and uninvited. As Patrice Ladwig elaborates, “ghosts can here be understood as strangers to the realm of the living who through the crossing of an ontological boundary intrude into a world to which they usually do not belong.”5 Thus, in their deconstructive efforts, ghosts become both the invited and uninvited guests in the process of making and unmaking meaning. Where then do we find these spectral artifacts that meld, attract, or repel? And what can be made of objects that appear similar in shape, structure, and design but that come with vastly irreconcilable histories? As a crypt, the 9/11 museum inadvertently engages with remains and remnant objects that administrators and politicians would likely prefer to keep buried, even while they stand on obvious display. One such artifact—a single brick from Osama Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound—reflects precisely this mingling of the spectral and the tangible and, in so doing, offers a sustained preoccupation with a discourse of hospitality at the museum site. The brick is placed alongside a Navy SEAL uniform and is intended to be a symbol of both those responsible for the attacks and ultimately America’s victory over them; unintentionally, however, it offers much more.


To find the Abbottabad brick, visitors walk through the “Center Passage,” into Foundation Hall. The hall is a curious and cavernous space with only a few exhibition materials and is situated between the preserved slurry wall and the excavated North Tower—of which the original bedrock support columns are still visible. At the entrance to Foundation Hall, visitors pass by the mangled wreckage of the Ladder 3 fire engine and the steel beam from Flight 11’s point of impact, at which point the material immediately gives way to the mediatized in the form of four digital screens and a recording studio inviting written and verbal personal messages. This thread—material to digital and back to material—continues to be the most prominent feature in Foundation Hall. The “last column,” a 30-foot section of steel beam, acts as a “symbol of resilience” and tribute to rescue workers and became the last portion of the tower to be removed from the excavation site.6 Preserved now in the museum, the last column stands alongside interactive features such as recorded testimony from rescue workers, touch screens that provide close-up images of the inscriptions, and posters affixed to the column itself. At the end of Foundation Hall is an interactive timeline that uses a complex algorithm to search news reports from all over the world that contain material related to 9/11. The entire hall is permeated by the strange relationship between tangible and digital worlds—perhaps befitting of an event that was, in many ways, mediatized before materialized, yet curious nonetheless. This relationship is strange because it is oddly characterized by a simultaneous disparity and interdependency between the material and the mediatized and is continually disrupting the visitors’ expectations of how the events of 9/11 should and can be remembered. In places where one might expect to find a tangible artifact, for example, in the case of human remains, such elements are referred to symbolically and represented via artistic installation or digitalized in a photographic wall but never actually shown. In most cases, moreover, the digital and material seem to work together and do not initially appear to offer a contradictory narrative of the events and their mourning. The attempt here is to establish a unified and continuous narrative—using different media to tell what is meant to be the same story. Yet object, material, digital, or otherwise often do far more than the work they are intended for. For example, in the case of the timeline projected on the wall, the aesthetic element of light, mathematical algorithms, and computer technology work together to produce what the original items (newspapers and magazine) cannot in the space of the museum. Yet, it is what is next to this virtual timeline that is the most curious addition to Foundation Hall and a complete rupture with the careful balance between the virtual and the tangible. It is a display that represents not only a physical history but also acts as a conduit for a provocative spectrality. To be sure, there are elements of spectrality in a number of the museums displays, particularly those that offer a virtual experience of 9/11 and its aftermath, yet it is the final display in Foundation Hall that seems to surpass even the digital in its presentation of an object that is no much more than its material presence.

Within Foundation Hall, the brick from Bin Laden’s compound is ——encased in glass, and is among a handful of small artifacts in the room that is mostly meant to showcase large artifacts such as the last column. While the brick is certainly part of the larger narrative of 9/11, it seems out of place in a space so heavily invested in emotional commemoration and the personal narratives of victims and rescue workers. There are exhibits detailing the rise of Al Qaeda, the timelines of each hijacking, and history of the War on Terror, yet they are all located elsewhere, part of the historical exhibition, predominantly digital, and, as such, the materiality of the brick stands out in stark contrast to the overwhelmingly somber, commemorative, and deeply personal Foundation Hall displays. Where the integration of digital and tangible elements elsewhere in the museum provides a way for visitors to continually reflect and engage in their movement through various exhibits, here, it is jarring. The brick, one of only a few materials not originally excavated from the site, interrupts the careful and thoughtful flow of a visitor experience that is otherwise meticulously orchestrated. Moreover, the brick, in its location and in its similarity to other artifacts in the museum, surpasses its own materiality and even exceeds the possibility of its digitization.

Rendered spectral in its representation of death and role as a signifier for retributive justice, the brick also calls up significant and likely unintentional similarities that are particularly compelling in a museum narrative that seeks to establish a common identity among visitors that is easily distinguishable from 9/11 perpetrators. The museum presumes that the brick comes to stand for a difference with which no visitor will identify. The brick can only arrive at the museum as an other/hostile who is invited into the space conditionally and only in its capacity to stand as a marker of murderous and irredeemable difference. What is the museum asking of us who visit then? To align ourselves as victims and unite in grief, memorialization, and, ultimately, victory? Indeed, the circumstances and commentary surrounding this particular brick—one of thousands to fall from the compound—present it as a historical artifact but also as a spoil of war. Part of the brick’s curious placement is due to its value as a testament to vengeance and revenge; it is an enduring reminder of the combined efforts of the CIA and the SEAL team and a symbol of justice served. In this way, the brick breaks from the narrative of memorialization and resembles, much more closely, the rhetoric of revenge and retribution that characterized so many of the cultural responses to Bin Laden’s death.7 By doing this, the symbolism of the brick inadvertently links the museum with a project of revenge, even if this is not its expressed purpose, and suggests that the attacks need to be not only remembered but also perpetually avenged. What is also significant are the ways in which the brick’s placement and context draw attention to a revenge that can only be enacted through violent means. Bin Laden’s death is represented here not in the form of an obituary, a birth and death date, or images of his burial; rather, it is represented as a death that was specifically carried out as a targeted killing and in direct retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. The disruption between the carefully crafted memorial narrative and the visual reminder of a black ops assassination is likely not intended to elicit a sense of contradiction in the visitor, yet the brick ruptures the dominant narrative of events and gestures toward another set of unintended consequences.

Indeed, the brick is most certainly a symbol of revenge but it is not contained by that symbolism either. In other words, it is much more than the revenge that it signifies, and more than the narrative made possible through its final display location. Moreover, it is its jarring integration into Foundation Hall that raises significant questions about what it means to open one’s home, memory, or self-hospitably to the other. What, for example, are the implications of accepting an artifact as a symbol of difference, yet one that whose materiality is painstakingly well kept? For instance, before the arrival of the museum visitor; before the integration of written context, audio commentary, and glass casing; and prior to being set alongside a Navy SEAL uniform, a brick arrives at the gate of the crypt. Like all artifacts arriving at the museum, it is treated carefully, possibly handled with gloves so as not to disturb its fragile state of decomposition. At once an object of abjection, slated for demolition, and one of celebration, this artifact is meticulously preserved, even protected. It is an oddly generous, we might even say hospitable, welcoming of an artifact that was intended for destruction and carelessly chiseled with little regard for its conservation. Stripped of context and down to its irreducible singularity, then, the brick announces something besides its affiliation with terrorism—something else entirely—that may not eliminate but certainly exposes the conditional hospitality leveled upon it. Furthermore, it calls on visitors to recognize the scene by which they will be interpellated, and that has already been determined, calling into question Foundation Hall’s emphasis on a shared narrative of events, and, more crucially, a shared vulnerability to attack. The display attempts to assuage difference by asking visitors to participate in a collective identity that is not directly victimized but closely and somewhat arbitrarily (and historically8) aligned, yet simultaneously preserves the difference of the brick.


At first glance, it appears like any other brick, although lighter in color than a traditional red brick. Its edges are not perfectly squared and the color of the natural rock from which it was excavated shows through. It is stamped with an indistinguishable imprint and several indented marks can be seen, perhaps from the destruction of the compound or from the chisel used to separate it from other bricks. On its own, it appears innocuous and unthreatening. Importantly, the brick is not from the top of the three-story compound but, rather, a piece of its fortified foundation.9 It operates as far more than evidence of a successful mission; it also inadvertently raises provocative questions—questions that cannot be contained by attempts to digitize the display—about the nature of remnant objects which function in often-unintended ways. What are the accidental effects, for example, of including an artifact that is also from a place of ruin—an item that, if positioned without its context, could easily be mistaken for a chiseled piece of bedrock from one of the towers? Indeed, the brick shares an eerie material affinity with the excavated support columns of the towers that are on display throughout the museum.

Similar in color and composition, the “box column remnants” lie at intervals around both the North and South Tower excavations. As the anchors for the steel beams that supported the towers, these remnants have been cut in such a way that the grooves in the surface resemble the chisel marks on the Abbottabad brick. Moreover, much like the brick from Bin Laden’s compound, the box column remnants are support structures, excavated from the foundation of the towers. They are, like the foundation bricks in Abbottabad, what anchored the towers in place and, just as the foundational bedrock at Ground Zero is not simply inanimate rock, neither is the brick. Both carry meaning far deeper than their physical composition and function, and it is their curious placement in such proximity that allows us to think about a hospitality to difference precisely through their similarities. There are compelling comparisons to be made between the brick and the tower bedrock. Both are stone, both are preserved for eternity (presumably), and yet both represent vulnerable buildings and bodies. Moreover, neither was intended to be excavated and put on display in this fashion, and the exhibition of geological material seems more appropriate for a natural history museum than a memorial one. Curiously then, in their similarities, the brick and the bedrock are both figures of difference; they are both out of place and not entirely at home in this space, even if part of the original structure.

The placement of the brick in Foundation Hall could possibly stand as a reminder of by whom and how the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated. Significantly, it stands in juxtaposition to the digitalized historical displays that recount the rise of Al Qaeda. As a historical artifact, the brick might better serve as a point of victory and celebration as part of this historical narrative that dichotomizes the bravery of the SEAL team and resilience of counterterrorism intelligence against the threat of global terror. Yet, why is the brick remembered in Foundation Hall—in an area so invested in tribute? Incredibly, while many visitors can turn around and walk back through the Foundation Hall the way they came, it is also possible to walk from the display of the brick, around the perimeter of the North Tower back to the center passage between the two towers. There is only one possible route around this excavation area and, after the brick, the dedicated walkway follows the angles of the former tower (alongside box column remnants) around to the large art installation, Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky That Morning, by Spencer Finch,10 that obscures the on-site repository and medical office for the storage and identification of 9/11 human remains. There are, in short, no additional exhibits between the brick and the repository adding to the peculiar and unexpected positioning of the brick on the far side of Foundation Hall. The respository and the brick, in other words, are literally next to one another; they are neighbors in this space and they share it as most unlikely cryptfellows. The brick’s location in Foundation Hall, rather than in the history of Al Qaeda and as a stranger alongside established victims, is so crucial, and, while it is surely not the intended function, the location of the brick positions it not as history to be told but as a trace to be remembered. It is, if both its original location and final resting place are any indication, foundational to the ways in which we come to think about ourselves in relation to strangers.

Almost everything about the Abbottabad brick seems out of place; its resemblance to the excavated bedrock, ordination in regards to the repository wall, and its affiliation with perpetrator rather than victim in an exhibition hall (with this solitary exception) dedicated to meaningful tribute. The proximity between the brick and the remains of 9/11 victims, not to mention the resemblance between the brick and the bedrock, are particularly strange scenarios in a museum that seeks, on every occasion, to highlight the difference between victim and perpetrator. Yet, what would it mean to view these objects as visual impetus to think of the destruction of the towers and the victims who died there as similar to the destruction of Osama Bin Laden’s compound and his death? Conversely, what can be made of this inadvertent, or perhaps careless, juxtaposition of artifacts within Foundation Hall that actually aims to prevent such an unthinkable equivalence and how do we think through this similarity in order to maintain a difference that does not level the ethical demands of each? It is possible to test the conventions, possibilities, and limits of hospitality without dissolving completely the difference between brick and bedrock. By some force of theoretical alchemy we might try to meld the two together; they would, by all material appearances, be indistinguishable and there is certainly something provocatively productive in thinking through a would-be object11 whose material remains are ambiguous. Yet, despite the important ethical questions raised by similitude—the ways in which they both represent a kind of structural and corporeal vulnerability, for instance—such questions need not detract from the singularity of each and their unique demands. If these objects appear similar, that must not eliminate their differences. To see both as representative of loss, in other words, is not to hold those losses in equity. Both are differentially complex. Indeed, the victims of the 9/11 attacks, whose remains are stored behind the repository wall, are unidentified yet easily mourned. Osama Bin Laden, on the contrary, is strategically located, forensically identified, and yet nearly impossible to mourn. Thus, the utility of thinking through difference lies not in rendering these artifacts, bodies, or losses equal but, rather, in leveraging a comparison—an effect produced by the ordering and display of the 9/11 Museum—in order to think through the complexities of hospitality more comprehensively and trace its prevalence more than its solution across a number of complicated terrains, including a terrain of spectrality that cannot be untethered from discussions of hospitality in remnant objects.


To travel beneath the surface of the memorial and into the literal crypt of 9/11 trauma is to discover that the memorial and museum are powerfully, intimately, and irrevocably concerned with the relationship between the digital and the material, both of which have effects that linger long after the visit and exceed the borders given to them. We might call these effects, which bend the tangible and digital into one another, spectral effects. To be sure, the museum is intensely preoccupied with matters of haunting and, more specifically, the figure of the ghost. The site is permeated by a sense of strangeness, not only in the more eerie or macabre rhetoric of a sacred burial ground but also in less obvious figures of dust, sacrament, invisibility, and virtuality. The site itself, as built into the ground in uncharacteristic contrast to the surrounding cityscape, plays on notions of what is visible and what is hidden and prompts queries into what lingers, or even perhaps haunts, below the surface of things. Beyond Giuliani’s designation of Ground Zero as a “cemetery,” one notorious example of how the entire space is rendered spectral is the “Tribute in Light” memorial which dominated the New York skyline from March 11 until April 13, 2002, to mark the 6-month anniversary of the attacks. Shooting powerful beams of light up from the tower’s footprints and into the sky, this temporary memorial was referred to as the “Phantom Towers” and the two beams have been described by Julian LaVerdiere, one of the artists involved as “ghost limbs [that] we can feel … even though they’re not there anymore.”12

The ghost becomes such a crucial figure for hospitality then not only because it appears as an invited guest in the space and archive of the museum but also because hospitality is not based on invitation at all but on visitation. The museum can certainly limit its scope of invitation through a variety of practical and discursive practices, but it cannot limit the visitation(s) that the ambiguity of spectral objects make possible. It would seem that the most provocative figures of hospitality are the ones that show up despite the attempts to banish them, to render them invisible, or contain them within entirely digital or material frameworks. These ghosts return as virtual specters or trace phantoms in remnant objects such as bricks and are never fully exorcised in order to pose serious questions about how we encounter strangers after 9/11. If hospitality is concerned especially with what or who does not belong, then the museum and memorial provide ample evidence of things “out of place”: obscene images of falling bodies, eerie artifacts, human remains, disembodied objects and voices, and the faces of the perpetrators. These are the revenants of the museum—the things that are not invited into the official narratives of memorialization but that “come back precisely because [they] have been buried or concealed” much like memory.13 Thus, in their deconstructive efforts, these artifacts become both the invited and uninvited guests in the process of making and unmaking meaning. As spectral figures demonstrative of the impossibility of absolute ideological suppression, they deconstruct the very processes that seek to annihilate them. In short, they challenge what we know and understand about the world, whether they are summoned or not.

At stake in the welcoming (back) of uninvited ghosts to the World Trade Center site is the possibility that such ghosts arrive not only to teach us something about hospitality but also to demand that we exercise such hospitality before we know what the consequences might be and regardless of where we might be. And like the ghost, the Abbottabad brick becomes the unannounced, unexpected, and uninvited stranger par excellence who defies all attempts to render it familiar or predict its arrival. Derrida defines this arrival of the stranger as

[a]waiting without horizon of the wait, awaiting what one does not expect yet or any longer, hospitality without reserve, welcoming salutation accorded in advance to the absolute surprise of the arrivant from whom or from which one will not ask anything in return and who or which will not be asked to commit to the domestic contracts of any welcoming power.14

Derrida’s definition is even more apt when reading the presence of a brick at the memorial and museum site, as a specter who not only comes uninvited but arrives before the notion of awaiting such an arrival ever enters the imagination. It is a ghost that is always waiting, existing perpetually on a threshold between here and there, life and death. Indeed, the brick forces us to confront important questions, among them: is the ghost a welcome guest, a hostile threat, or perhaps both? Indeed, in addition to challenging the borders of what we know or expect, the brick also confronts questions of being and reality that are integral to a deeper understanding of (and intervention in) post-9/11 culture. The spectrality of remnant objects is crucial to working through these questions. Moreover, these are questions that only increase in consequence as we move further away from September 11, 2001, the date, and toward a notion of 9/11 as a defining cultural milieu—one whose meaning reverberates and recurs endlessly. As a moment, the event shapes and haunts the present, even (and especially) as the completion of the museum and official missions of the “War on Terror” have been scaled back yet at the same time renewed, especially in Iraq and Syria, with a different yet familiar enemy. The deeply material yet simultaneously ghostly figure of the brick reminds us that this past is not dissociated from even the more philosophical questions about others and strangers. The ghosts can teach us about how we respond to and read the culture of 9/11, and it is something intimately and provocatively invested in relations of hospitality.

The September 11 Memorial and Museum is a compelling text through which to think through remnant objects and artifacts “out of place” in order to conceptualize the significance of hospitality for how the event of 9/11 and its aftermath are remembered, commemorated, and taught. Yet, the brick and other “ghostly” objects do more than pose critical questions about politics and culture; they are also decidedly ethical figures—signs of alterity that makes significant demands. Despite the attempt to exorcise ghosts from the memorial site or, at the very least, force them to conform to acceptable positions as harbingers or protectors of nationalist culture and ideology, the ghost is a figure that resists such containment and, if accepted under conditions of absolute hospitality, can teach us much about how we encounter strangers and strangeness in a post-9/11 world. Moreover, such ghosts return to teach us something about the past, a past we may not be familiar with and thus demands an openness to the kinds of memories that ghosts may bring along that challenge not only the enduring and decidedly exceptional narrative of 9/11 but also other global instances of violence and inequity as well. Perhaps, it is the ghost that opens this gate for us and interrogates our openness to alternative histories, living and dead, elided in the service of a narrative of 9/11 memorialization that, however official, remains incomplete. Indeed, as Avery Gordon argues, “the ghost cannot be simply tracked back to an individual loss or trauma. The ghost has its own desires.”15 Gordon’s recognition is crucial in the context of memorialization and the individualization of diverse desires for the museum and memorial. We must ask of our memorials, in other words, what the ghosts—guests or hostiles, tangible or digital—might want and offer a hospitality to history that accounts for those omissions.

The September 11 Memorial and Museum, through its conjuring of some ghosts and exorcism of others, reveals not only the complexity but also the absolute necessity of hospitality toward what is most odd about commemorating trauma. Ultimately, it is the strange artifacts such as the Abbottabad brick that reveal that the event of 9/11 is not in any rigorous sense finished. The contradictory placement of artifacts at Ground Zero pose ethical as well as ontological questions about how we mourn a traumatic event and what that mourning might mean in terms of how we incorporate or disavow remnants, or revenants, be they the return or residue of memory, artifacts, or the living dead that are buried in the crypt-like foundations of the museum and aspirated as dust into the lungs of New Yorkers. While its initial associations may be of hearth and home, hospitality is always, first and foremost, a haunting—and it is a haunting brought on by mourning which makes the processes of memorialization at Ground Zero an ideal site upon which to practice an ethic of unconditional welcome to whomever, whatever (ghosts, guests, bricks or bedrock, strangers or hostiles, digitalized or materialized) might turn up, for even in that extreme risk there is something to be learned that transcends the scene of the museum and makes tangible the possibilities of hospitality across the complex topographies of social and cultural life after 9/11. As Jodey Castricano elaborates, “[t]o learn to live with ghosts is to rethink ourselves through the dead or, rather, through the return of the dead (in us) and thus through haunting.”16 This living with, as a kind of living through and for, is not about tolerance, nor is it about charity. It is not about welcoming the stranger in, as a kind of benevolent extension of the privilege of the host but, rather, about an unreserved welcome to a figure from whom we require nothing but who nonetheless comes with much to offer.


1. See Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978); Sam Keen’s Faces of the Enemy (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1986); Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (New York: Three Leaves, 2004); and Sherene Razack’s Casting Out (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008) for a representative approach to the topic.

2. This article is based on observations and research conducted during a visit to the 9/11 Museum on October 17, 2014.

3. Rudolph Giuliani, “Getting it right at Ground Zero,” Time, September 9, 2002, N.p.

4. See Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

5. Patrice Ladwig, “Visitors from Hell: Transformative Hospitality to Ghosts in a Lao Buddhist Festival,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18 (2012): S90–102.

6. “The Last Column: A Symbol of Resilience,” National September 11 Memorial and Museum (2014).

7. The rhetoric of revenge was prominent following the news of Bin Laden’s death on May 2, 2011. The New York Post employed this discourse emphatically on its front page with a bold “GOT HIM” in block letters and beneath that: “Vengeance at last! US nails the bastard.” Newsweek used a white and red image of Bin Laden with the title “Mission Accomplished” for its May 16, 2011 cover, and the Seattle weekly magazine The Stranger highlighted the old adage of “an eye for an eye” in the week of May 4–10, 2011, by depicting Bin Laden much like a black and white tower against the blue backdrop of the sky, a lone bullet approaching from his left side bearing resemblance to an airplane flying much too low. Even President Barack Obama employed the language of revenge when, on television and announcing Bin Laden death to the world, he proclaimed “Justice has been done” (quoted in Macon Phillips, “Osama Bin Laden Dead,” The White House Blog, May 2, 2011).

8. There is precedent for this type of memorialization as a shared or vicarious victimization. Indeed, it echoes a refrain of historical suffering that is not experienced in vain alongside the promise to “never forget”—a phrase saved for the very worst of collective traumas, including the Holocaust and Pearl Harbor. In the case of 9/11, such calls to remembrance not only risk reinforcing rhetoric of American exceptionalism but they also initiate a dominant American public into a shared sense of present (vis-à-vis historical-traumatic) collective identity.

9. Alex Drakakis, “Brick from Compound Where Bin Laden Was Killed Enters Museum Collection,” The Memo Blog, October 25, 2014.

10. Sarah Cascone, “Spencer Finch Immortalizes Crystalline Blue Sky at the 9/11 Museum,” Art Net, May 15, 2014. Finch’s piece is created from 2,983 hand painted sheets of Italian paper—the number of total victims from the 1993 and 2001 attacks. Visitors take in the sheer volume of the installation, the poignancy of the Virgil quote incorporated into its design— “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” —and the diversity of cool tones that represent the imagination of New Yorkers looking at the sky that September morning. Meant to represent the lives lost on 9/11, these individual panels of paper offer a symbolic gesture toward the museum site as a final resting place. What is not immediately obvious (and, for some, never known) is what is behind the wall: an actual crypt that houses the dead. Stored since 2001 in a Manhattan medical examiner’s office, the as-yet unidentified human remains of 9/11 victims were transferred on May 10, 2014, in a ceremonial procession to the 9/11 Museum—their “final resting place.”

11. This possibility is not simply imaginative as the museum does contain an object precisely of this sort. Part of the historical exhibition includes a large section of the former towers known simply as “the composite.” The composite is a 15-ton section of compressed granite, steel, and other material which fused together during the collapse of the buildings. Scientific analysis has proven that there are no biological remains present in the composite, yet while no human DNA has been found in the composite, officials do admit that comprehensive testing is difficult. It is, after all, composed of four or five floors and includes pieces of paper with discernable human writing that, despite the lack of official DNA, offer “trace” remains of human contact and industry.

12. In Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Kodak Moments, Flashbulb Memories: Reflections on 9/11,” The Drama Review 47, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 11–48.

13. Richard Kearney, Strangers Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness (New York: Routledge, 2003), 142.

14. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (New York: Routledge Classics, 2006), 81–2.

15. Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 183.

16. Jodey Castricano, Cryptomimesis (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2001), 19.



Mish mabsoota: on teaching with a camera in revolutionary Cairo

Mark R. Westmoreland*

Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands


Made in the wake of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, Inti Mabsoota? is an experimental pedagogical video project that draws upon the emerging mobile esthetics of cell phone filmmaking and public encounters with revolutionary spontaneity. Inspired by the landmark cinéma-vérité film, Chronique d’un été (1960), in which participants ask people on the streets of Paris if they are happy, several of my students at the American University in Cairo became mobile film units, asking people the same innocuous question, “Inta mabsoot?/Inti mabsoota?”—Are you happy? Are you content? This seemingly benign exercise belies a variety of conceptual and methodological frictions, which offered productive pedagogical possibilities. Drawing upon the emergent revolutionary visual culture, this student project complicated both the reductive assessments of the “Arab Spring” as a manifestation of digital democracy and the heavy-handed way that western journalism has tended to address the “Arab Street” as a volatile mob. Using an embodied visual approach allowed students to apprehend modes of lived experience that might not register as political in more normative models, but which nonetheless form the basis of how people live and experience political life. Highlighting the non-representational aspects of the encounter also foregrounds the corporeal and visceral dimensions of the students’ experience. Accordingly, the critical video methods employed elucidate the kinds of affective knowledge produced for those on screen, behind the camera, and viewing from a distance.


Mark R. Westmoreland is an Associate Professor of Visual Anthropology at Leiden University, where he directs the MA program in Visual Ethnography. He also serves as the co-editor of Visual Anthropology Review. He is an award-winning filmmaker and has published widely in both scholarly journals and art catalogs. His current book project, Catastrophic Images, shows how experimental documentary practices play a crucial role in addressing recurrent political violence in Lebanon. As a co-recipient of a grant from the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences, his current project focuses on the cultivation of radical political esthetics and the generative potential of video activism in the Middle East.

Keywords: Egypt; enactment; pedagogy; visual culture; political affect; Arab Uprisings; ethnographic encounter; non-representational theory; visual methodologies; cinéma-vérité

Citation: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 7, 2015 http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/jac.v7.28253

Copyright: ©2015 M. R. Westmoreland. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 8 December 2015

*Correspondence to: Mark R. Westmoreland, Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands. Email: m.r.westmoreland@fsw.leidenuniv.nl

This paper is part of the Special Issue: Visual Frictions. More papers from this issue can be found at www.aestheticsandculture.net


It felt like people were fighting the images that had betrayed them for so long—with their own images. The fear of cameras had disappeared completely and they were now the instrument to learn what was going on …. Even if a lot of this footage will remain unseen, it was the source of understanding—of our condition, of our life, of what we want and of who we are.—Narrator in CROP (2013, 49 m, dirs. Marouan Omara and Johanna Domke)1

Such acts of image-making reveal important generative dimensions of visuality available during revolutionary flux. Rather than passively documenting the conditions of political upheaval, ordinary citizens armed with perhaps nothing more than a simple camera-phone harnessed the mobility and ubiquity of these devices to produce new forms of political agency. Images of mass protests that arose in Tunisia in December 2010 and then Egypt in January 2011 ricocheted across the region with unexpected scenes of street politics, seemingly deflating lumbering state behemoths and shocking viewers around the globe with unprecedented possibilities for political change. In Cairo, the occupation of urban space not only shook President Hosni Mubarak from office but also enabled Cairenes to reclaim the city.2 While the ultimate political outcome of the uprisings was (and perhaps still is) uncertain, Samia Mehrez argues that the “newfound power of ownership of one’s space, one’s body, and one’s language is, in and of itself, a revolution.”3 Perhaps, following the epigraph above, Egyptians also claimed a new sense of ownership of their image.

At the outset of these uprisings, thousands, if not millions, utilized the proliferation of cell phone cameras to record these political events and then perhaps upload and share them. The ubiquitous presence of these mobile cameras also indicated an emergent vernacular esthetics of cell phone filmmaking, in which the embodiment of the spectator shifted from the eye to the end of an arm, indicative of watching a screen or choosing to record without watching.4 Along with the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and the emergence of mobile aesthetics, the mass protests “triggered a new visual culture.”5 In this state of revolutionary flux, new understandings of public culture took shape, in which the street offered new and different kinds of encounters. Tahrir Square “became the spot to film and to be filmed, as well as being a space to see others and to be seen.”6

These examples also demonstrate how the experiences of this period were profoundly felt on visceral, physical, and affective levels. These inchoate affective states “can shake people out of deeply grooved patterns of thinking and feeling and allow for new imaginings.”7 Indeed, revolutionary political processes do not principally take shape on the discursive level, but become enacted through the body. The enactment of revolutionary politics requires bodies assembling in mass, sharing moments of collective action, and reaching states of hopeful excitement, not to mention suffering physical harm and sorrow. Occupying the streets day in and day out radically shifts one’s spatial and temporal experience.

As Egyptians (and foreigners) negotiated their newfound image rights, they had to contend with the highly charged nature of this new visuality, which could either enact public ownership of the city or may provoke suspicion if not hostility. While these events offered an expanded latitude of visual agency, the public production of images requires operating on multiple registers. For instance, graffiti artists, who helped situate visual practices within an emergent field of urban public culture during the revolution, had to constantly negotiate space and confront hostilities to sustain these possibilities. Indeed, the widespread depiction of an eyepatch became a prominent symbol against the practice of eye snipers intentionally blinding protestors, thus enacting a critique of the brutal measures taken against acts of witnessing. Under these circumstances, filming on the streets of Cairo became inherently political.

While the iconography of the region had suddenly (if momentarily) shifted from more entrenched scenes of conflicts between belligerents, these seemingly supple images of civil politics may have too quickly become brittle and shattered under the reassertion of regimental power. After two and a half years in revolutionary flux, the military definitively reclaimed political power and reasserted control over the public visual culture. So as the ubiquitous mobile figure bearing a digital camera (phone) opened new possibilities for enacting public political subjectivity, so too have the evolving political circumstances presented frictional conditions that necessitate adjusting the forms and practices that these encounters take.

In this context, I initiated a class project intent on critically assessing the dominant representational frameworks used to understand the experience of political change and thus explore a series of related questions. How does the fluidity and friction of this evolving visual culture help us understand the way people live and experience day-to-day political realities? How might social inquiries utilize the camera to enact compelling and committed accounts of political experience? And how might such public encounters convey this experience on unconventional and unanticipated registers than those usually assigned to political discourse? And yet, when the street is no longer a site of generative possibilities, how might this emergent visual culture find alternative sites for creativity? As such, under the rubric of “thinking with a camera during revolutionary times,” this pedagogical intervention aimed to position students as active producers of representational knowledge within the still unfolding Arab Uprisings by engaging in visually based research practices.


As a visual anthropologist based at the American University in Cairo (AUC) between 2008 and 2013, my intellectual agenda became tightly enveloped within the everyday realities of a protracted political revolution. Wrestling with the generativity and restrictivity of image practices in this moment, I aspired to teach my students to both critically think about the flood of images circulating in revolutionary Egypt and engage with a visual methodology attuned to these volatile dynamics. Committed to a project on the production of alternative visualities in the contemporary Middle East and how local image practices mediate emergent cultural imaginaries, subvert the geopolitical gaze, and envision the region anew, I began to prepare an MA seminar around a beguilingly simple question: How to do visual anthropology at this moment in Egypt?

The answer to this question is far from self-evident and could not be arrived at only conceptually. As the now ubiquitous mobile camera claimed new potentiality for public modes of witnessing and political participation, I knew that students should embody the methodological possibilities that this historic precedent afforded by publicly engaging people on the streets with a modest video camera.8 Due to the perpetually shifting image politics during these tumultuous times, my pedagogical objectives required an experimental approach to doing ethnography with a camera. Even under the most stable circumstances, Sarah Pink warns, “It is impossible to predict, and mistaken to prescribe, precise methods for ethnographic research,”9 but uncertain times also demand uncertain methods, open to discovering unclaimed feelings and sensitive to the affective intensity of instability. This does not mean proceeding blindly. Indeed, this required attunement to the shifting tensions that inform the local visual culture oscillating between moments of generative exception and the recurrent reification of entrenched norms. As such, Pink also heeds deploying appropriate visual methods based on the conventions of local visual cultural and “an ethnographic appreciation of how visual knowledge is interpreted in a cross-cultural context.”10

As nearly everyone had become enraptured by the processes of political change, so too had most of my MA students at AUC begun to do research on some aspect of the revolution in Egypt. Preparing them for doing ethnographic research with visual tools meant pragmatically addressing the particular but shifting set of challenges that this socio-political situation included, while also inspiring them to see the promise of such a venture. While drawing upon the long traditions of ethnographic and documentary cinema regarding issues of representation, authorship, and reflexivity, I had students also engage recent critical ideas about the relationship between esthetics and politics in non-fiction video.11 We critically assessed the recent proliferation of visual (and sensory) techniques in both social science research and human rights/activists agendas.12 And thus by questioning the underlying assumptions about the efficacy of visual methods, this course aimed to develop a refined epistemological toolkit able to critically traverse the production and consumption of images circulating in politically volatile times. As such, the course intentionally brought together materials and discourses from a variety of sources that would help students think through issues of visuality at this moment in Egypt.

This meant understanding and situating ourselves within an emergent political economy. While the “Arab Spring” had seemed to become a commercial event sponsored by Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, a revolutionary industry quickly followed in which “the revolution” was being (re)produced for different markets. It seemed that everyone was clambering to get a piece of the gold rush. Academics, filmmakers, and journalists, among others, would parachute in for an adventure tour, while often bypassing the local perspectives most encumbered by the political events. For a visual anthropology of contemporary Egypt, this meant trying to remain true to the more spontaneous acts of self-expression, while also attune to the renewed investment in political visibility, the proliferation of new visual approaches, and the integration of amateur documentarians as key agents of the mass political spectacle.13

Thinking about how to do visual anthropology in Egypt also meant addressing a serious prohibitive dimension of public image-making. In a context in which filmmakers and photographers commonly face aggressive challenges from bystanders, if not authorities, would require preparing students to negotiate the public policing of images that typically accused documentarians for showing the “negative side of Egypt.”14 While the enactment of mobile filming would resonate with the politics of mass street protests, the revolution was nevertheless a highly contentious event. Although the role of cameras during the uprisings had made public image-making more common, the xenophobic discourse about infiltrators intending to “destroy Egypt” ensured that filmmaking on the streets would remain a highly charged and suspicious act.

In other words, to put these ideas into practice meant both actively engaging in the emergent potentialities and responding to the recurrent swath of challenges. Thus, by choosing to enter into this hyper-mediated fold intent to produce yet more images required solid methodological and theoretical grounding. This meant negotiating the tension between the important dynamics of “street politics” for the success of these mass uprisings15 and the heavy-handed way that western journalism has tended to address the so-called Arab Street as “the worst kind of barbarous urban mob, threatening local and global orders …”16 While critical of biased approaches, our aim would not be based on critiques of mainstream media coverage. And while inspired by citizen journalism, a visual anthropology of contemporary Egypt would not be satisfied with passively documenting visible evidence. Furthermore, we had to avoid engaging subjects with predetermined frameworks, such as interview questions about social protests, political parties, national sentiments, and so on. Instead, I aimed to shift attention to more open-ended interactions that would engage people in more speculative approaches and ideally reveal an emergent political subjectivity embedded within mundane personal experience—that is, the affective registers of the everyday—which often becomes obscured by more didactic approaches. By fostering both generative and provocative encounters, I followed David MacDougall’s ambition to provoke new forms of knowledge in the act of producing a film by “creating the circumstances in which new knowledge can take us by surprise.”17

So, in effect, my course on “Thinking with a Camera during Revolutionary Times” initiated an experimental pedagogical video project intent to reconceptualize a framework supple enough for doing visual anthropology at that moment in Egypt.18 In order to both capture the potential of the political moment and navigate these thorny issues of political representation an innovative approach would have to be taken. Drawing upon the emerging mobile esthetics of cell phone filmmaking and public encounters with revolutionary spontaneity, the project aimed to show students that the use of visual ethnography would provide them with ways to think critically about images of social unrest, offer them new perspectives on the experience of political change occurring on the human scale, and resituate the production of knowledge in the ethnographic encounter itself.

Drawing upon the canons of documentary studies and visual anthropology alike, I appropriated the work of Jean Rouch for inspiration. The landmark cinéma-vérité film Chronique d’un été/Chronicle of a Summer (Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin, 1961) provided a solution to the dilemmas outlined above. In other words, by responding to both the technological development of 16-mm sync sound filmmaking and the political burden of the French colonial wars, Chronique d’un été similarly suggested an answer on how to do visual anthropology at that moment in France. The collaboration between Rouch and Morin also provided an experimental approach to doing ethnographic research. By engaging in spontaneous interactions and employing open-ended provocations, they thus distanced themselves from more didactic approaches. But given the significant difference between the two contexts, I had no intention of doing a remake of Chronique d’un été. Instead, inspired by the opening scene, in which participants ask people on the streets of Paris if they are happy, my students in Cairo similarly solicited a spontaneous response from people to a single question, Inta Mabsoot?/Inti Mabsoota?—Are you happy?


The vox populi interviews conducted by my students captured spontaneous responses and gave fresh perspective to the different moods and opinions among participants in this post-revolutionary moment (fall 2012). The uncertainty and frustration of political turmoil weighed on Cairenes in idiosyncratic ways from the lack of work and money reiterated by street vendors to the more bourgeois interests in wealth, good food, and romantic relationships. The emotional intimacy of the question and the public anonymity of the context produced a generative juxtaposition. This dialectic quality of the encounter helps to disrupt assumptions of passively collecting data about “happiness.” While collecting responses in Cairo’s different districts revealed distinct differences in people’s concerns, the corporeal and visceral aspects of these sensibilities also elucidate the uneven experience of the revolution on an affective register. As one student commented:

While we were watching other classmates projects, it was striking to see how different geographical areas even within greater Cairo reflected different views on happiness and misery. People in Zamalek, an upper-class neighborhood, tended to be happier and more willing to attribute their emotional status to personal reasons. On the other hand, street vendors in local areas were relating their unhappiness to the country’s shaky economic and political status. In our project, the presence of the revolution was strong due to the proximity of Tahrir Square and most people expressed their feelings toward the revolution’s success or failure.19

Video 1. Geographies of class. Zamalek: http://www.aestheticsandculture.net/public/journals/7/multimedia/Video 1-Zamalek.mov.
The videos in this article have been optimized for play within Adobe Acrobat Reader, however, the videos can also be played in a browser by clicking directly on the URL.

Video 2. Geographies of class. Saad Zaghloul: http://www.aestheticsandculture.net/public/journals/7/multimedia/Video 2-Saad Zaghloul.mov.

This seemingly benign exercise of asking Inti mabsoota? belies a variety of conceptual and methodological frictions that have rubbed people the wrong way. On almost every occasion that I have presented this work, someone takes issue with the question. Most often this is expressed as a matter of translational precision, never mind that this is already a cross-cultural translation from the French “êtes-vous heureux?” Indeed, strictly speaking, mabsoot is better translated as “satisfied” or “content.” And while Inti mabsoota? is used idiomatically like, “how are you?,” this phrasing was developed in collaboration with the native speakers of Arabic in the project.

The next most common critique suggests that we have not asked the “right question.” Baring the assumptions about the inauthenticity of the translated question, there may be other ways to consider the potential inappropriateness of Inti mabsoota? For instance, despite the success of ousting President Hosni Mubarak from office, for many the optimism from those initial days had begun to wane by the time of our project.20 This meant that the project had a clearly ironic strategy at its core. While humor could offer a subversive aspect to these interviews, for others the absurdity of the question could be offensive. Consider these two initial reflections from students:

I am already starting to find an absurdity in the project. We did not feel as though we could actually ask someone in earnest if they were happy in the middle of what would become weeks of clashes in the square and later in front of the Presidential Palace.21
I grew mixed feelings towards the project. It was paradoxical experience asking people about happiness and there are injured and dead people and raped women meters ways.22

These responses not only reflect the initial ambivalence of some of the students but also suggest that a more politically direct question may be deemed appropriate for engaging these confused and saddened Cairenes.23 While this project was inspired by Chronique d’un été, I also showed my students an important rejoinder to this film made only one year later. Like Chronique d’un été, Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme’s Le Joli Mai is also a “portrait of everyday Paris” and Marker suggested that he was also interested in the issue of happiness.24 But, in the hands of Chris Marker, the “seemingly innocent ‘Are you happy?’ implies the silent and subversive accusation, ‘How can you possibly be happy?’” 25

Asking this question—“How can you possibly be happy?”—would surely have produced more confrontational responses, but I would argue in spite of the prompt that neither Chronique d’un été nor Inti mabsoota? were necessarily about happiness. Instead, this project, like Chronique d’un été, envisioned the juxtaposition between the public anonymity of the street with the superficial intimacy of a presumptuous question as the primary crux of the experiment. In other words, rather than assessing happiness on a psychological level, the project operationalized the concept within the tenuous but mundane political climate of a protracted revolution in order to enact affective responses in the ethnographic encounter by both interviewees and interviewers as well as others present at the time. As indicated above, the affective particularities of these responses often revealed more about the context than the individual’s emotional state.

With these critiques noted, I argue that it is precisely within the context of these challenges that pedagogical possibilities emerge from the affective intensity of these mediated encounters.26 Indeed, the ambivalence about the question reflects a deeper tension between representational and non-representational aspects of the project. If taken as a representational project, then a viewer privileges the subjects in front of the camera being interviewed and the kinds of things they say in response to the question. As such, this model literally foregrounds the speech act—both the question asked and the answers offered—and the particularities of the responses invariably come to represent a generalizable Egyptian mood. This reflects a hermeneutic short circuit that privileges language over other sensory registers as if a transcript of the verbal exchange would suffice.

Furthermore, while nearly everyone initially responded to the question with, alhamdullilaah (“thanks to God”), the religiosity of this phrase belies its mundane ubiquity. As with many idiomatic phrases in Egyptian Arabic borrowed from the Quran, “[s]o much are these phrases a part of the language that one need not be a believer nor even a Muslim necessarily in order to use at least some of them.”27 Whereas religion became expressed on different registers from one’s comportment to one’s convictions about President Morsi, people’s initial perfunctory response to the interview prompt indicates instead how the question seemed unremarkable. People were unaccustomed to giving this question much significance, but the context disrupts this expectation. As reflected in the following student reflections, its unassuming qualities meant that the meaning of the question is something that often times had to be negotiated in the moment—“What do you mean by mabsoot?”

In the beginning of the conversation where both researcher and interviewee are trying to reach a common understanding for the question.28

This topic of happiness is something that we might mention every day and think about but rarely does one stop and talk about it and need to really think through what such a concept means. I felt like the reactions to the questions were very interesting.29

As such, if we instead consider the non-representational aspects of the project, then “the question is really beside the point,” as one of my students exclaimed to me.30 Another student echoed this sentiment and expanded, “it was more a matter of where that question was taking us; what are the doors that are being opened through it.”31 Indeed, the encounter presented a generative opportunity for many participants with an audiovisual amanuensis, in which the camera afforded them the chance to address an unknown public.32 While invariably bound to a lexical encounter, a non-representational framework nonetheless opens itself to the students behind the camera as well as those off-screen. The visual brings a great deal of experiential knowledge to the situation, from facial expressions, gestures, interpersonal reactions, stirrings in the background, personal dress, forms of comportment, one’s relationship to the street, but also one’s relation to the camera and to the interviewers. By locating the production of knowledge through corporeal processes of looking and being rather than discursively communicating it in thoughts and descriptions,33 students tested an embodied visual approach in order to apprehend modes of lived experience that might not register as political in more normative models, but which nonetheless form the basis of how people live and experience political life.

So rather than gathering survey data to be crunched, the question provoked an encounter capable of taking us by surprise. The prompt got students talking to people on the street, who they may otherwise never meet, about how they relate to the political situation in the country without presupposing a political stance. If we thus emphasize the encounter that the question provides, then the question itself opens up to more dynamic readings. But this also revealed an unnerving, if not violent, dimension of being encountered with this question, as evoked by this student response:

Some of those who refused offered justifications or alternatives. During our second day of filming, an antique shop owner insisted to give a reason for his refusal to be interviewed saying he is an old man with a short nerve that hardly enables him going through the day and he cannot be subjected to any emotional imbalance the interview could put him through. 34

As students of the AUC, they were invariably marked as privileged citizens. According to our informed consent protocol, students had to identify themselves and their research intent before recording peoples’ replies. Not only did this situate the students in very particular ways with the participants, it subverted the spontaneous punch of the question. And yet, the presence of young, cosmopolitan, and mostly female university students on the streets of Cairo with camera phones, if not DSLRs, and audio recorders, would not immediately be read within a research context. Given the ubiquity of journalists since the uprisings began, they would more likely be read in this capacity. While generally considered innocuous, particularly given the more open status of visual culture, xenophobic rhetoric meant that the possible threat of public policing of image-making always lurked in every encounter. While uncommon during our project, this issue did manifest itself for some students.

The hostility mostly came from upper middle class individuals who were highly suspicious of our identity and insistent that we’re filming the negative aspects of Egypt to cause more trouble and mutate Egypt’s image abroad. This reflects significantly the kinds of concerns that are projected by the national media …. The systematic vilifying of any one with a camera, who might show us things we don’t want to see. Having a camera instantly put us in a political position and attracted judgmental responses.35

Furthermore, the impact of these encounters also deeply affected the students. While the students who initially felt ambivalent changed their perspectives through the project, some students spoke of profoundly haunting experiences and the violent dimensions of confronting strangers with personal questions.

“Turning back the anthropological gaze” was manifested through the fact that many of them turned back the question to me after I finish filming them. Each time I was asked back the question, I was not prepared and it frightened me. But, this worked as a good reminder of the violence in asking the question and that made me more attentive to what people share and appreciating that they share the same feelings.36

Video 3. The ethnographic encounter: http://www.aestheticsandculture.net/public/journals/7/multimedia/Video 3-ethnographic encounter.mov.

And while some students initially felt that this exercise would not benefit the people interviewed, several noted the mutually transformative potential. Suggesting that the encounter offered people an opportunity to break from their daily routine, one student said, “the street feels different to me so maybe it felt different to this man.”37 Several others mentioned the way people thrived on the opportunity, perhaps out of loneliness or more particularly “as if we had come down from the skies and were her therapy.”38 For one student, the camera-mediated encounters produced a heightened sensitivity and she has become more hesitant about filming and photographing people in public.

While the non-representational notion of encounter helps to situate the street as a space of ethnographic engagement, the role of the camera and microphone (audio recorder) helps to push this into the more generative domain of enactment. Although the project does not aspire to re-enacting Chronique d’un été in a conventional sense, the creative appropriation of the opening scene reenacts the film’s provocatory gesture. Despite the long-standing assumptions about the passive objectivity of photography, Scott McQuire reminds us that the agency of the camera actually ruptures realist paradigms.39 As such, the camera as the mediating agent in these encounters enacts the emergent visual–political paradigms as well as the recursive image politics. Rather than the fly-on-the-wall stance of Direct Cinema, Inti Mabsoota enacts Jean Rouch’s methodological sensibilities that harness the camera’s agential abilities to engender cinematic realizations. Whereas the technological innovations of 16-mm film cameras with sync sound in the 1960s helped produce the untethered esthetic qualities of cinéma-vérité in Chronique d’un été, the emerging mobile esthetics of cell phone filmmaking accentuate the technological particularities of the historic moment in this project. While avoiding a technologically deterministic explanation of the Arab Uprisings and acknowledging the various forms of grassroots face-to-face politics that foreground these events, the role of video in these encounters nevertheless echoes the way politics became enacted in relation to these communicative technologies.

Following Peter Snowdon’s argument that these videos advanced an “aesthetic revolution” based on the kind of politics anticipated by the Arab Uprisings,40 we could say that the notion of “thinking with a camera during revolutionary times” also aimed to become attune to both the political possibilities nestled within the emergent image-making practices of the region and their concomitant frictions. In the context of mentoring students in the embodied methodologies of visual anthropology, this meant aligning our understanding of the way the camera lens radically situates the body of the filmmaker in relation to the ethnographic encounter41 alongside the body genre of “political mimesis” in which acts of filmmaking during street protests and subsequent viewings evoke feelings of sensuous politics.42 And yet, despite the playful enactment of Rouch’s camera gesture, as the political dynamics shifted in Egypt, so did the visual possibilities for public provocations.


During the following year (2013), discontentment with President Mohamed Morsi’s heavy-handed favoritism for Islamist interests, on the one hand, and a pervasive rhetoric for “stability” in the country, on the other, led to both his removal by the military junta and a ruthless criminalization of his Muslim Brotherhood followers. More significantly, the incredibly violent coup and mass suppression of dissent radically altered the context that had enabled the vibrant urban public culture. With a divided opposition, this renewed authoritarian brutality also allowed the regime to reestablish a prohibition over public image-making. In November 2013, some of the students and I discussed heading back out to the streets to ask the same question one year later and possibly finding some of the same individuals to reflect on their earlier responses in relation to the current situation, but with the increasing criminalization of protestors and journalists the risks seemed too high and I called off the plan.43

In order to answer the question about how to do visual anthropology at this moment in Egypt meant recognizing that the moment had changed. Despite the instability of the revolutionary period, the revolutionary flux had afforded a great deal of creative agency. The generative potentiality made vibrantly possible from January 25, 2011 ostensibly ending on June 30, 2013, at least for re-enacting the mobile esthetics of revolutionary cell phone filmmaking. In spite of the bloodshed, instability, and power-grabs of this era, perhaps we had taken for granted the opportunities that this revolutionary visual culture had provided. Whereas the visual became part of a collective promise, this oath had now become criminalized as a lie for some and as lost hope for others. Instead of repeating this vox populi exercise that would likely produce predictable results, the situation called for yet a different tactic.

As the experience behind the camera had proven just as significant as that in front of it (as evidenced in the students’ reflections), I opted to interview students about their experiences with the project in order to highlight a dialogic or parallax dimension. I asked them to reflect on their encounters with random people on the street, the process of negotiating the meaning of mabsoot, and the perpetually shifting political/social landscape. In order to accentuate the friction between the claustrophobic circumstances of the present political moment and the central significance of the public space of the street, I created an esthetic device that could accommodate this tension—I filmed them indoors in a rooftop studio in front of a blue sheet that could be digitally replaced with street images in postproduction. With the sounds of the city in the background, I had them face the blank sheet and imagine themselves on the street. Turning toward the camera, I asked about their experience being a woman on the street doing this project and then prompted them with the question, Inti mabsoota? Here four of the women offer their reflections, some facing the imagined street and some with street images in the background.

Video 4. Parallax perspectives from amidst the counter-revolutionary moment http://www.aestheticsandculture.net/public/journals/7/multimedia/Video 4-Parallax perspectives.mp4.

While we could no longer deploy the camera publicly to enact an ethnographic encounter, this created an opportunity to draw upon the street’s generative energy in radically different ways, which nevertheless evoked its affective potential looming just out of reach. Moving beyond notions of representational realism that characterized the project’s public encounters with people on the street, the enactment of the street through this layered montage foregrounds the way esthetic and narrative devices transform actuality footage into compelling and committed accounts of political experience. While prompted by a series of reflective questions, it is the combination of camera, screen, and the digital effects that shift this exercise from producing representational knowledge to the enactment of affective knowledge. Perhaps, in a feeble way, the effort to do visual anthropology at that moment in Egypt both on and off the streets through the conceptual gesture of “thinking with a camera during revolutionary times” helped to elucidate the way images of rebellious actions cultivate new forms of political agency, subjectivity, and collectivity.44


1. As cited in Marouan Omara and Johanna Domke, “Crop,” in Cairo: Images of Transition: Perspectives on Visuality in Egypt 2011–2013, ed. Mikala Hyldig Dal (Bielefeld: Transcript-Verlag, 2013), 113.

2. Mohamed Elshahed, “Tahrir Square: Social Media, Public Space,” in Cairo: Images of Transition: Perspectives on Visuality in Egypt 2011–2013, ed. Mikala Hyldig Dal (Bielefeld: Transcript-Verlag, 2013), 20–5.

3. Samia Mehrez, “The Language of Tahrir—Working Together on Translating Egypt’s Revolution,” in Cairo: Images of Transition: Perspectives on Visuality in Egypt 2011–2013, ed. Mikala Hyldig Dal (Bielefeld: Transcript-Verlag, 2013), 39.

4. Peter Snowdon, “The Revolution Will Be Uploaded: Vernacular Video and the Arab Spring,” Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research 6 (April 17, 2014): 401–29.

5. Mona Abaza, “Post January Revolution Cairo: Urban Wars and the Reshaping of Public Space,” Theory, Culture & Society 31, no. 7–8 (December 1, 2014): 171.

6. Ibid., 171.

7. Deborah Gould, “On Affect and Protest,” in Political Emotions: New Agendas in Communication, eds. Janet Staiger et al. (New York: Routledge, 2010), 32.

8. While I encouraged students to use something like a cellphone camera or Flip Video camera, some opted for a DSLR or such.

9. Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research, 2nd ed. (London: Sage, 2007), 40.

10. Ibid., 43.

11. For instance, Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000); Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999); Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, “Towards a Third Cinema,” Afterimage 3 (1971): 16–35; and Amos Vogel, Film as Subversive Art (New York: Random House, 1976).

12. Such as, Sam Gregory et al., eds. Video for Change: A Guide for Advocacy and Activism (London: Pluto Press, 2005); Anna Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz, Observational Cinema: Anthropology, Film, and the Exploration of Social Life (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009); Meg McLagan and Yates McKee, eds. Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism, 1st ed. (New York: Zone Books, 2012); and Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research, 2nd ed. (London: Sage, 2007).

13. Lina Khatib, Image Politics in the Middle East: The Role of the Visual in Political Struggle (London: I. B. Tauris, 2012).

14. Reem Saad, “Shame, Reputation and Egypt’s Lovers: A Controversy over the Nation’s Image,” Visual Anthropology 10, no. 2–4 (1998): 401–12.

15. Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, 2nd ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

16. Diane Singerman and Paul Amar, “Introduction: Contesting Myths, Critiquing Cosmopolitanism, and Creating the New Cairo School of Urban Studies,” in Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture, and Urban Space in the New Globalized Middle East, ed. Diane Singerman and Paul Amar (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2006), 21–2.

17. David MacDougall, “Whose Story Is It?,” in Visualizing Theory: Selected Essays from V.A.R., 1990–1994, ed. Lucien Taylor (New York: Routledge, 1994), 35.

18. This endeavor started as a pilot project in Spring 2012 as I began to experiment with ways to engage the situation in Cairo with the toolkit of a visual anthropologist. I had approached three of my best undergraduate students (Mariam Abou Ghazi, Nada El-Kouny, and Sarah Hawas) about conducting short interviews with people on the streets of Cairo in order to ascertain how people would personally express themselves within the context of a heavy political backdrop. Based on the initial success of this pilot, I formalized this project in fall 2012 in an MA seminar on Visual Anthropology, taught to 15 MA students (In addition to Mariam and Nada from the pilot project, Brice Woodcock, Claire Forster, Dalia Ibrahim, Dana Alawneh, Derek Ludovici, Ewelina Trzpis, Manar Hazzaa, Mariz Kelada, Marwa Abed El Fattah, Nadia Dropkin, Noha Khattab, Nouran El-Hawary, and Omnia Khalil). The students formed seven groups of —two to three students and all but one included a native Arabic speaker. Collectively, they recorded over 5 hours of footage. During our final course meeting, I hosted a screening of sections of from all of these projects that generated a lively discussion. After the screening, the students submitted Reflection Essays about the project, which I draw heavily upon here.

19. Dalia, Reflection Paper, December 2012.

20. When preparing to do this project in my MA seminar, the mood had significantly shifted from the spring pilot project. And when we started filming interviews in late November 2012 at the time of the anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes, political violence again escalated on the street and this was followed by protests at the presidential palace opposing President Mohamed Morsi’s constitutional declarations. These events heavily impacted the mood of both my students and most of the interviewees.

21. Derek, Reflection Paper, December 2012.

22. Dalia, Reflection Paper, December 2012.

23. Although not elaborated here, another critique suggested that modeling the project on Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s experiment imposes a colonial framework that undermines its credibility. Furthermore, as a course assignment designed by an American academic, there is an unavoidable dimension of pedagogical imposition. These tensions notwithstanding, many of the students have offered unsolicited endorsements of the project, often noting its participatory and collaborative dimensions.

24. Sam Diiorio, “The Truth About Paris,” Film Comment 39, no. 3 (May 2003): 46.

25. Ibid., 40.

26. Lori A. Allen, “Martyr Bodies in the Media: Human Rights, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Immediation in the Palestinian Intifada,” American Ethnologist 36, no. 1 (February 2009): 161–80.

27. Niloofar Haeri, Sacred Language, Ordinary People (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 35.

28. Dalia, Reflection Paper, December 2012.

29. Nada dinner discussion, May 2013.

30. Noha personal communication, November 2013.

31. Nada dinner discussion, May 2013.

32. Peter Snowdon, “‘Film!’: The Arab Spring and the Filmmaker as Amanuensis” (Visible Evidence 15–18 August 2013 Conference, Stockholm, 2013).

33. David MacDougall, The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

34. Dalia, Reflection Paper, December 2012.

35. Mariz dinner discussion, May 2013.

36. Dalia, Reflection Paper, December 2012.

37. Mariz dinner discussion, May 2013.

38. Noha dinner discussion, May 2013.

39. Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity: Representation, Memory, Time and Space in the Age of the Camera (London?: Sage, 1997).

40. Snowdon, “The Revolution Will Be Uploaded.”

41. Anna Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz, Observational Cinema: Anthropology, Film, and the Exploration of Social Life (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009).

42. Jane M. Gaines, “Political Mimesis,” in Collecting Visible Evidence, eds. Jane M. Gaines and Michael Renov (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 84–102; and Maple John Razsa, “Beyond ‘Riot Porn’: Protest Video and the Production of Unruly Subjects,” Ethnos 79 (April 8, 2013): 496–524.

43. At the end of the course, several of the students expressed interest in continuing the project and perhaps producing a film from the interviews. While some students planned to conduct more interviews, the cumbersome challenges of the political context and the general demands of personal obligations disrupted the flow of our project. I did manage to record a dinner discussion with some of the students modeled on the discussions in Chronique d’un été, in May 2013, but then I depart from Egypt in the summer of 2013 and could not actively facilitate participation. After revisiting several of the students in November 2013, I decided a new tactic was needed. During another visit in April 2014, I conducted these follow-up, “blue screen” interviews with six of the students and in August Claire Forster (one of the students) conducted an interview with another student. I am presently compiling all this footage into a stand-alone project.

44. I’d like to acknowledge a variety of people who contributed to this project in either large or small measures. First, Mariam Abou Ghazi, Nada El-Kouny, and Sarah Hawas who agreed to pilot this project and who proved that the idea was viable. Among the students in the course, Claire Forster deserves special thanks for remaining dedicated to the project and working to continue it in my absence. Dalia Ibrahim, Mariz Kelada, Noha Khattab, Omnia Khalil, Manar Hazzaa, and Nouran El-Hawary also supported the project after the semester ended. Philip Rizk participated in various aspects of the project, giving both material support and critical feedback. During the various iterations of this project in seminars and conferences, I received a great deal of encouragement and feedback. I would like to particularly recognize Karin Becker, Malin Wahlberg, Kari Anden-Papadopoulos, Alisa Lebow, Paula Uimonen, Paul Frosh, Maria Malmström, Hanan Sabea, Helen Rizzo, Kristina Riegert, Dan Gilman, and Diana Allan.


Mish Mabsoota means “I am/you are/she is unhappy” in the feminine form, which I default to since most of my students were women and to acknowledge a recursive gender politics on Cairo’s streets.



Academic knowing in/through double perspectives

Margareta Melin*

School of Arts and Communication, Malmö University, Malmö, Sweden


This article explores the cultures and learning practices of four academic schools with an expressed wish to bridge the gap between traditional academic and arts or journalistic practices. Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, termed them allodoxic, in that they challenge the traditional academic way of thinking and doing. Results from two research projects, spanning over 5 years, employing a multitude of methods, have been used in this article. The results show that these challenging bridging attempts create conflictual cultures. First, faculties with different backgrounds are employed and they bring with them their respective habitus and doxa (Bourdieu), which is manifested in their different epistemologies, doxas. Despite a strong will to work interdisciplinarily, conflicts (destructive) arise particularly around epistemological and pedagogic issues. Second, I show that students at these schools have had double-perspective learning, through theoretical and practice-based methods, despite little help from their lecturers who have high ideals but little actual knowledge themselves of working in/through a double perspective. In many cases, through trial-and-error processes, students have appropriated embodied knowledge of a double perspective, which has given them surplus value when compared with learning through only traditional academic learning practices. It gives reflexive insights and understandings as well as transferrable skills highly useful in professional life. I finally argue that allodoxic conflictual cultures actually construct new ways of knowing through continuous discussions and meetings between faculties with different competences.


Margareta Melin, PhD, is a senior lecturer/associate professor in Media and Communication Studies at the School of Arts and Communication at Malmö University in Sweden, and is also a textile designer. Her research has two foci, one on gendered journalism cultures, including recent research on the effects of “new” digital media workers’ every day. Her main research focuses on ways of knowing through/by combining theoretical and visual practices in research and learning.

Keywords: Visual learning; Bourdieu; doxa; allodoxa; cultural conflicts; double perspective; gestaltung; visual ethnography; practice-based research; aesthetic learning

Citation: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 7, 2015 http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/jac.v7.29690

Copyright: ©2015 M. Melin. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Published: 8 December 2015

*Correspondence to: Margareta Melin, School of Arts and Communication, Malmö University, S-205 06 Malmö, Sweden. Email: margareta.melin@mah.se

This paper is part of the Special Issue: Visual Frictions. More papers from this issue can be found at www.aestheticsandculture.net


The art world and the academic world have existed side by side for centuries (but with a few exceptions). We are now at a point in time where these two worlds have converged: where arts and art forms are found in academic institutions and scholarly methods of knowledge production are used in art schools. These are not easy processes, and there are traditionalists on all sides claiming their own particular ways of knowing and doing to be the most suitable, which have resulted in discernable power play among, and between, academic institutions.1

There are, however, examples all over the world where academic institutions have been created based on the fundamental idea that the convergence of different competences, creating new and exciting possibilities, and thereby bridging the distinction between art/s and academia will create new knowledge and new truths. Having worked in one of those academic schools, I have personal experiences of what excitement and increased knowledge contribution this brings, and also of the difficulties these meetings entail. This made me curious of the usefulness of a double perspective, which led me to carry out two projects on this topic.

The overall aim of this article is to discuss the results of four field studies at academic arts or media schools with the outspoken aim to work interdisciplinarily and bridge the gap between arts theory and practice. However, the research material that these studies provided is vast and only a fraction is discussed in this article. The article thus focuses on two main issues: (1) What happens at these four schools that try to work interdisciplinarily through a double perspective? and (2) Is it at all possible for students to learn academically in/through a double perspective?

There is also a normative aim. Having researched the how and why of working multimodally with a double perspective for 7 years, I myself have seen the surplus value this brings to students’ learning processes and to research. I will thus in this article argue for the benefit working and learning academically in-between and through a double perspective brings.

This article, however, starts off with a contextualisation, where my theoretical standpoint as well as theoretical concepts used are highlighted, followed by a brief methodological discussion.


Clarifying the stance of the article, and that of myself, it is situated in the theoretical world of Pierre Bourdieu, albeit appropriated to fit my feminist perspective. To understand the academic cultural knowledge construction, academia needs to be seen as a hierarchically constructed field, generated by power and structured by rules that the players of the field (academics, students, and staff) need to master.2 The prize of the game is the right to define doxa, which in a Bourdieuian sense is more than thought-patterns of a world view. Doxa is also the ways of acting, dressing, and being. It is so self-evident that we see it as common sense. There are, however, those who see through this and try to implement an alternative way of seeing and being, an allodoxa.3

The particular part of the academic field I am studying is that which is outspokenly allodoxic. In the more traditional academia, the (scientific) doxa embraces distance, objectivity, and the written, while distancing itself from the artistic/professional/practical.4 However, artistic, academic knowledge creation and practice-based research are making headway into the academic field5 and claiming new forms of knowledge creation processes than traditional academic practices.6 These fairly new academic practices create demand for new research practices as well as educational models, which open up a plethora of interesting concepts as well as debatable issues. A review of these cannot be presented in this article for want of space, and thus clarification of only those concepts used in this text will suffice.

Arts-based research can be seen as research in and through artistic practices. It differs from humanistic research on the arts by not just being the subject of research but by being the product, the method as well as the context.7 Thus, it entails learning through one’s own practice, which could involve arts, as in scenic art,8 and also design9 or teaching.10

Practice-based research is both parallel to, and overlapping, arts-based research, and it is wider. It encompasses other practices, such as journalism and pedagogy. Thus, for this article, practice-based research is a more suitable concept. Practice-based research is carried out in the in-between spaces of the rational and the intuitive.11 These thoughts are not new, and many refer to John Dewey’s12 educational philosophy on learning by doing, Donald Schön’s13 idea of the reflexive practitioner, or Rudolf Arnheim’s14 work on visual thinking and intelligence, and building on the idea of combining the academic and the practical. Twenty years ago, discussions on the so-called Mode 2 knowledge was fervent. Based on new needs to understand contemporary complexities (and to build a national educational politics), new interdisciplinary universities were built around the world with the aim to bridge disciplines, as opposed to traditional discipline-based universities (and knowledge creation).15

In the particular field of arts and media that I have studied, there have been epistemological discussions of the visual as a knowledge-creating base (as opposed to reading-and-writing), and methods of drawing and photographing, for example traditionally used in social anthropology or botany, are now used in modern subjects. The term visual ethnography16 is in vogue and much debated. My more education-oriented colleagues refer to aesthetic learning processes17 and visual pedagogy.18 It is seeing as a way of knowing and understanding, which is emphasised. The visual has furthermore been used both in fashion studies as well as in cultural studies as material for identity creation.19 However, the visual is not the only sense and Pink20 is now talking of sensory ethnography, Polyani21 of the tacit dimension and in pedagogy, and Selander and Kress22 discuss the importance of multimodal ways of learning.

All these concepts are woven into each other, and as a German-speaking Swede, I would naturally use the concept Gestaltung as an all-embracing term for the practice where an idea is given form, which could be visual, written, multimodal, etc.23 There is, however, no useful English translation, and thus the Bauhaus idea of integrating Theorie-und-Gestaltung is untranslatable. Thus, Göthlund and Lind24 developed the concept double perspective for those pedagogic forms where both traditional academic and theoretical practices together with arts- and practice-based practices are used. To me, this is by far both the most graphic (compare Mode 2) and also that which best explains the need to bridge gaps, and that which embodies several traditions and ways of seeing. In this article double perspective is the term I use.

Methodological design

Two research projects serve as the methodological basis of this article. Performing Knowledge, (2008–2010), aimed at studying and developing university pedagogic practices with a double perspective, where both theory and arts-based practice were used as forms of knowledge in learning processes, particularly in degree-work projects. A plethora of methods was used to observe and interview three cohorts of media studies/art-teacher students, and analyse their work, at five universities.25

In-between Spaces of Knowledge, (2011–2013), aimed at studying the border-crossing meeting between theory and practice. And from cultural–sociological and feminist power perspectives, to analyse and problematise the discourses, cultures, and structures that arise in this border crossing, when situated in a higher education institution. The project was based on five field studies. In this I have a Bourdieuian perspective.26 The field that I studied was academia, and specifically that part of the field which attempts to widen the academic field and find a bridging gate to the neighbouring field of art/s and journalism.

Doing the actual field studies meant employing several different methods: observations of organisational structures and cultures and interviews with members of staff, the head of the department, and a selection of students. Inspired by the work of Gillian Rose,27 Sarah Pink,28 and Jennifer New,29 I also employed visual ethnography. Of particular interest to my project are Pink’s discussion of knowledge production through photography and Rose’s discussions of interpretations of visual empirical material. Furthermore, in the interviews, I used an associative visualisation exercise that I developed during the Performing Knowledge project.30 Thus, my camera was my tool, and thousands of photographs and drawings became field notes as well as empirical research material. By using these visual methods, I argue that I have been able to cut through words and thereby achieve a deeper understanding.

The research funcing I had received stipulated that my home institution The School of Arts and Communication (K3) at Malmö University, Sweden, should be my main focus and to which I should provide feedback on the pedagogic results of the project. My choice of other academic institutions with which to do the field studies fell thus on institutions with similar allodoxic ideological standpoints as K3. They all want to cross the border between traditional academic theoretical studies and arts-/practice-based learning. They all also have degree projects that are constituted by a double perspective having both a traditional theoretical (dissertation) and a practice-based part. The others are the arts and design school Fakultät des Gestaltung, Bauhaus University, Weimar, Germany; the media and design school Department of Culture, Society and Medial Gestaltung (KSM), Linköping University, Norrköping, Sweden; and the School32of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC), University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Field studies were done during 2012.


As a side result of the Performing Knowledge project, we also found that in those academic institutions working outspokenly with knowledge production and learning processes based on a double perspective, and to which faculty has applied for this very reason, there were interdisciplinary conflicts between practical/arts33 and academic staff.34 K3, the school where I have my tenure was amongst them, and I have been participating in the cultural construction for some years. Through the research project, with the help of my fellow researchers, I started, however, to observe.

What I found at K3 was indeed an interdisciplinary “meeting place” as stated in K3’s ideological manifesto,35 but they often turned into places of conflict. This was particularly so during almost every school-away-day, when definitions of “theory and gestaltung/practice-based learning” was discussed. What were intended to be co-operative discussions became heated, often aggressive, argumentations. Watching the research film from one of those discussions,36 it was obvious that faculties with similar background grouped together and used academic argumentation skills as well as invectives and gestures to both distance oneself from, and diminish, the other side.

In one section of K3, the conflicts were specifically tense over issues concerning epistemology and pedagogy. At several section staff meetings that I attended, fierce fights arose over whether aesthetic learning was as effective, or indeed as appropriate as traditional learning (lectures, seminars, and written notes), and whether multimodal examinations were at all academically valid and whether they could replace written examinations. Although all agreed on the basic idea of working with a double perspective, what that entailed differed. More traditional academic staff saw traditional academic texts as superior and argued that multimodal work should be used as illustrations of theoretical thoughts to spice up the text. Practical/arts lecturers saw the practical as the main subject and the theoretical as an aid to create better practical/visual products. Everything from put-off gestures to derogatory name-calling and loud aggressive verbal fights were used to defend one’s position. This also happened in classes in front of students. In everyday work, things were not always heated, but subtle distinctions of who had coffee with who to back talk was common.37

It was therefore with curiosity and eagerness that I went to the Bauhaus university in Weimar—the famous place of the origin of the Bauhaus manifesto that K3 was modelled on, and where I thought I would find answers to how one could work in the in-between space of Theorie-und-Gestaltung — without destructive conflicts. Instead, I found more conflicts than I had experienced in any other place of learning. I have ever visited. This article is the result of that disappointment I felt and a wish to understand these conflicts.

Arriving at Bauhaus I thought I was in heaven, walking around in spacious studios where arts-based PhD students and professors worked with students, making them reflect on their doing. I soon realised, however, there were decisive distinctions in every part of the university. A couple of years prior to my study the school had been divided, because of a long-standing conflict between two senior professors and their respective teams. As a consequence, the more academic subjects and staff had moved out and created a Faculty of Media. Interviews with staff from both faculties showed that the split was a necessity, resulting from a fundamental split in views on issues such as how to do research and on what, the most appropriate methods and object of learning. Even at the remaining Faculty of Gestaltung (based on the original Bauhaus ideas of Theorie-und-Gestaltung—as well as physically placed in the old Bauhaus building), I experienced deep-lying conflicts, running along several demarcation lines, though mostly between academics and artists. The Faculty of Gestaltung was strictly hierarchically organised with traditional academic staff having the higher posts, better work conditions, and higher salaries than staff with an art background. In the interviews, this was a subject often brought up by the latter as an issue of frustration, but taken for granted by the former as the natural order of things. The artistic–academic conflict went as far as two professors—sitting in offices next to each other—having their academic argumentation out in the local newspaper. The issue was the examining product of the, then, newly started arts-based PhD-program. One professor wanted the PhD products to be an equal part art and dissertation as the “dissertation is the essence of a PhD,” whereas the other wanted most emphasis put on the art part, followed by a 15-page report, as “arts students do not write well.”

Spatial doxa

“Culture sits in the walls” is an everyday Swedish expression meaning that an organisational culture is ingrained in the very building. Bourdieu38 writes of geography as a reflection of the socially constructed space. The media researcher Zaman39 argues that the geography of the workplace can be used as a strategy to keep women in their place. Gendered or not, walking around, observing, I indeed experienced physical manifestations of the dichotomised doxa I talked of above. It showed itself, not only in ways of thinking and acting but also in the planning of university buildings: who sits where, modes of dress, who takes coffee breaks with whom, etc.

Despite ideas of open meeting places, I found closed corridors where everyone sat in their offices with little interaction with others. These were spaces for researchers/senior lecturers. At the same time, arts-based/journalistic lecturers shared rooms or were placed amongst students in open studios.

Corridors at Gestaltung, Bauhaus, SJMC, Dar and KSM, Norrköping


Research offices and open office-landscape at K3


Research seminars in Norrköping and Dar es Salaam


Gestaltung-students at Bauhaus during my “theoretical” lecture


Sarah Ahmeds Bodies. Degree work by KSM master student


Journalism Class at the SJMC in Tanzania


At KSM in Norrköping and SJMC in Dar es Salaam, I found the least obvious distinctions and conflicts. Lecturers worked together and had similar educational ideas. Particularly at KSM, I was told of a conflict-free teaching department, and it was difficult to cut through the very positive stories told about their lived ideology. Towards the end of interviews, however, tales of hierarchy and unfairness were told—often when the tape recorder was turned off. KSM lecturers, whether with arts/practical background or with PhDs, expressed frustration that they were seen as “only teachers” and given no time to research, whereas researchers at the adjoining research institute had very little lecturing to do. In most departments, teaching and research staff are the same, or at least overlapping. In Norrköping, the organisational choice has been to separate the two into two different institutions, thus avoiding more common internal cultural conflicts within the teaching school. To emphasise this, research and teaching were situated in different geographical spaces. One lecturer wanted to explain his frustration and did so by abruptly standing up, taking me by my arm and saying:

I’ll show you the differences. We are literally seen as below the researchers. Here we are [he showed around the corridor] and there are the others [he pointed towards the ceiling].

The research seminar was another tangible area where hierarchic doxa was spatially reflected, and which was brought up in interviews at K3 and KSM as an example of hierarchical staff differences. Research seminars were perceived by practical/arts lecturers to be exclusively for researchers, that is, excluding anyone with a practical/arts background, whereas lecturers with PhDs and PhD students perceived practical/arts lecturers’ absence from these seminars as lack of interest. At SJMC, the prominent position of researchers was overwhelmingly visible at the research seminars I attended. From a raised platform, protected from the sun, researchers loudly read out written words whilst the rest of the staff was seated in the blazing sun, listening.

Common conflicts

Anyone reading this article, from whatever subject, will reflect that academic conflicts are universal in most universities. And indeed, the historian Anita Göransson40 shows commonplace cultural conflicts in academia, which she argues, referring to Pierre Bourdieu, arise from powered conflicts of how to define academia and its traditions. In discussions of arts-based and practice-based research, it is shown that these practices create conflicts when being introduced into academic institutions with traditional (social) scientific or humanistic doxa or for that matter when scientific methods are perceived as being forced into art schools.41 But how can this be explained?

Pierre Bourdieu42 argues that at the root of any social conflict lies the fight over the right to define social space and what is construed as important. In the academic field, there is a power dimension in defining what is academia, power of deciding what university courses should contain, of what is academic and useful knowledge, and what is unnecessary knowledge. These are at the core of the doxa, and that is why any conflicts over these are so sensitive, and so common. There are long traditions of such powered conflicts between different academic disciplines, for example, social science–humanities, psychology–psychiatry, art–technology, art–art history. Bourdieu43 elegantly explains these as the natural way of controlling the social world, where the winner takes it all, in this case the opportunity of defining doxa, what is academic research, what is mumbo-jumbo (or art, or journalism), what is interesting course literature, what is important curriculum, what is proper pedagogy. Bearing this in mind, the result I found in the different schools is not surprising at all. Thus, interdisciplinary meetings meant that different staff with the wished-for different competencies as a consequence had different meanings of what academia is and should be, or what a particular course should be about. All safely based on their own academic tradition and culture, with their different theories of knowledge, teaching practices, meeting tradition, dress codes, etc.44 Thus, all the architects, interaction designers, artists, filmmaker, photographers, writers, journalists, philosophers, typographers, and media studies scholars came prepared with their own version of academic culture. In Bourdieuian terms,45 they all had their own habitus, which decides their entire outlook on life, and life in academia, as well as bringing with them doxa from their respective field. This was the intended situation. The problem was not the differences nor the conflicts. Meetings were, however, destructive, not creative, and differences swept under the ideological carpet of all-inclusiveness, whilst lecturers used their different habitus and cultural capital to define their power positions, which in turn was used when fighting over positions, curriculum, pedagogy, course literature, and marking criteria. This is what Bourdieu46 terms symbolic violence, and thus shows the powerful nature of small things in life.

One could argue that this is the natural order of things in academia. My point is, however, that this takes place even in allodoxic academic schools that are deliberately striving to bridge gaps, to expand academic doxa, indeed to deconstruct the dichotomy so that arts/journalism is academic. These schools have high reputations for doing exactly this, and their faculty has pursued positions because they want to work in this kind of in-between-space, and interviews showed indeed an overwhelming wish to embrace a double perspective. The doxa (from whatever field originally) is, however, so ingrained in all of us after decades of studying and practicing, that it is hard to discard.47 We cannot simply take off the doxa as we take off a coat.

This doxic strength became visible when juxtaposed. At the Bauhaus university of Weimar, all teaching was either theoretical or artistic, held by theoretical and artistic professors/assistants, respectively. No overlap was possible. And this was the usual order of things, which became visible to those involved by a big faux pas that I made. As a “theoretical” visiting professor, I was to give a “theoretical lecture” on cultural theory. I started this, however, by introducing a drawing exercise48 where students were asked to draw specific words (such as culture, theory, power, woman, and man). As if using drawing material in a theoretical lecture was not enough, I made an even bigger faux pas when theorising these drawings. The assistant lecturer, and one of the professors, was bewildered and shocked at this visual way of teaching, but also intrigued. They discussed this “strangeness” in a departmental meeting, as an issue of whether this way of working could be used in the future.

Ideology turns political economy

In my world, there are always political and economic reasons behind most conflicts, albeit doxic. Seeing the four schools from a political–economic perspective, they were not only created from deep ideological conviction but also from political ambitions on both national and university level. This follows a global trend of democratising and broadening tertiary education.49

From this perspective, I observed that at all four schools, conflicts arose or were particularly fierce, in difficult times. At K3 the conflicts escalated after having had six deans in 4 years, being forced to move into a new building, and integrated into a new faculty, with decreasing funding as a result. At Weimar, the spark was the fight over the new PhD course, with angry post-graduate students pressing on, and the German government eagerly awaiting the result. At KSM there was frustration over lack of recourses and research funding for lecturers and in Tanzania lecturers, with no economic possibility of getting a PhD, felt threatened when the university board—to raise the school to higher international standard—pressured them to do a PhD.


Is there only gloom and doom, cultural conflicts, and constructed dichotomies in these schools that actually attempt to bridge across disciplinary differences? And are we deemed to a dichotomised doxic academic life, where borders are upheld by our colleagues—and ourselves? Pierre Bourdieu50 would have answered yes, that it is very difficult to break these patterns, as the academic tradition is built into the walls of every department, every lecture hall, every art school studio, every syllabus. Then, is it at all possible for students, or staff, to work in/through a double perspective? I do not share Bourdieu’s pessimism and I argue that it is indeed possible to find in-between meeting places. Although cultural conflicts became a substantial part of my findings, I found students and staff learning and researching in/through a double perspective.

One tangible thread that ran through all interviews was the expressed difficulties in understanding what is meant by “double perspective.” The big difference was that most faculty members came up with theories of what this could mean, whereas all students I spoke to expressed frustration over not really understanding something they were inclined to do. This frustration is understandable. Having lecturers and professors who fight—even openly—and who have no actual knowledge of the double perspective students are supposed to learn and perform, made the learning situation for students difficult. The solution for these students—at all four schools—was to try and do it anyway. Students worked for years trying out professors’ theories of this double perspective. Failing. Trying again. Failing. Trying again. Through this trial-and-error learning process, they learnt by doing.51

With all these conflicts, all this frustration, is it worth the price? My immediate answer is yes, and this has several reasons. First, the trial-and-error process of learning through the double-perspective maze might be frustrating, but it paid off. Many of the students I interviewed emphasised the joy they felt when they worked things out. They might not get answers from their lecturers, but they worked together and learnt together. Second, working outside the box of the specific course traditions gave a surplus value. Media studies students emphasised how learning became not only fun and inspiring through working practice based but they also understood theories better. German and Swedish arts students talked of how their whole world opened up through theoretical readings. One concrete example of this is a KSM master student, with a previous art degree. She told me how she started to understand the artwork she had previously done by the way she had theoretically reflected on her doing during the master course. In her final degree work, she investigated the gap between scientific and artistic knowing, and commented visually on the learning process she had gone through.

Thoughts are in our bodies and theories are embodied. So everything I have learnt about Sarah Ahmeds theories about bodies are in those bodies I have made, and now I understand. Really. (KSM master student)

Third, learning in/through a double perspective gives transferrable knowledge and skills that are most useful in professional life. Throughout the two research projects that were conducted at K3, alumni students52 were interviewed alongside students. That means that some students that were part of the Performing Knowledge project as students were interviewed as alumni in the later project. They all told how the combination of practice-based and theoretical teaching gave deeper knowledge of the subject area they had studied. Even if they were frustrated by this while taking the courses, they now realised the value of this process. Learning through a double perspective also gave something above that. They all stated that they had in fact got the positions they had because they had this “double knowledge” [sic].

Fourth, there are democratic aspects of learning in/through a double perspective. At K3, I was able to follow three cohorts of students, observing their learning processes, compiling statistics of their results, and analysing their degree work. This shows that weaker students have difficulties in understanding and doing a double perspective and their degree work was relatively mediocre. The opposite were students with generally high results, and with high academic and cultural habitus. They also showed understanding for problematised double perspectives and could argue for how they would use it in their future careers. The reader will hardly be surprised by this result. More interesting is, however, that this academically strong group, who master the academically written practices, also performed well in the practice-based subjects, creating impressive multimodal work—even if they had never practiced any arts prior to entering K3. Arguably even more interesting is that students with prior arts or practical training produced really good degree work, both the dissertation and the multimodal work. Put in Bourdieuian terms: the habitus and capital you carry with you have bearings on your results.53 My point here is that it is interesting to see that academic knowledge is not the only prior knowledge that matters, and different kinds of capital makes a difference to the learning process. It shows the possibilities of practice-based learning processes, which together with theoretical work, could create both deeper and broader knowledge and understanding within a subject area.54 Furthermore, this has democratic aspects. Students with little prior academic capital could be given possibilities both to learn and excel through a combination of traditional academic and practice-based learning forms.55

Another democratic aspect of visual/multimodal learning is lack of resources. SJMC was the place where most value was put on traditional academic knowledge and the education was mostly theoretical. One reason was that the previously practical journalism school had been incorporated into the University of Dar es Salaam, which created demands for academisation. This process took place in several African countries striving towards more international university systems.56 Another reason was that the technological equipment was about to break, with little possibilities of renewal. So instead of learning to film by going out and filming, students learnt to film by being lectured on how it worked, and taking turns at using the one film camera available.

Given the result from the other schools, this ought to make the Tanzanian students the most frustrated. Instead, I found students happy because they were told what was expected of them by lecturers, who knew what they were talking about. Salaries are low and resources few, which means that everyone needs a second job. Thus, those with PhDs also worked as filmmakers, journalists, photographers, or artists. And professional filmmakers, journalists, photographers, or artists also worked at the university, teaching theoretical modules. The latter might not have a formal theoretical or research background, but took what opportunities there were to read academic books. In a sense this is the upside-down world to the European schools. At SJMC, it is the lecturers that have an embodied knowledge of in-between spaces, whereas their students do not have the same opportunity to learn in/through a double perspective.

But of course there is a but. It takes time to learn both academic and practical skills. A K3 student pointed to these opportunities and difficulties:

The integration [of theory and practice] has shown a complexity within the field and shown a gap that often exists between theory and practice. When this gap is discovered it is also possible to investigate it. But this takes time! Therefore integration must be prepared and understood prior to the degree-work, in order for the student to get time to get all the way through the research. (K3 Media Studies Student, 2010)

Time is what it took this student, who did both a degree in photography and one in media studies and he argued this was necessary in order to investigate this gap properly. His media studies degree project is interesting in several ways and has become a focus for dispute. He attempted to disclaim the idea of objectivity in photography by showing how one can get completely different truths by using different lenses, different types of cameras and taking photos at different times, all from the same point in town. He backed his theses up with heavy theoretical discussions. Both the practice-based research (photographs) and the theoretical analysis of these was shown and discussed in the same academic dissertation. What made this dissertation special is that his analysis consisted only of images, not a single word.

So, back to cultural differences. Colleagues with an arts background thought the work was brilliant and wanted to reward it with an A. The more research-oriented colleagues (with PhDs) wanted the student to fail. One of the latter stood up at a staff conference, when degree works were discussed, looked through the dissertation of the student above with large gestures, and then tossed it behind his back with an exclamation “I don’t recognise any of the references. And there are only pictures. So it can’t pass.”


The question that has led me through two large research projects, and which is the starting point of this article, was the search for in-between spaces of knowledge, and knowledge creating through a double perspective. To summarise the findings presented here, even in institutions that outspokenly worked to overcome the borders between academic and practice-based learning and research, there were cultural conflicts along these lines. This created problems for students’ learning processes, particularly lecturers’ lack of personal knowledge of working in/through a double perspective caused students frustration. Also, working doubly sometimes takes double the time, time not always available within the framework of a bachelor course. I am, however, left with an overwhelming amount of research results pointing to the surplus value of learning in/through a double perspective.

I argue that students learn more by working in/through a double perspective. First, seeing a subject from different perspectives means students learn to see more of a subject than had they only used one learning-model. More importantly, they learn to see different sides of the subject. By using words like seeing and perspective, these conclusions are fairly obvious. I argue, however, that working in/through a double perspective gives knowledge above that of the subject matter. In students’ work where multimodal forms of knowledge are intertwined with theoretical forms of knowledge, the research processes are approached in different ways, thereby becoming more visible. As a result methodological issues are easier to encompass in their learning processes.57 On top of that, it increases students’ ability to communicate complex phenomena through a multitude of modes.58

The allodoxic position of working in/through a double perspective, doing and reflecting at the same time has a critical potential. In many ways. To follow the allegory of perspective, it allows students to see things differently and to understand that there are many forms of knowledge, many forms of doing, and many forms of truths. It thus gives students an inclusive and democratic way of seeing knowledge.59 Henk Borgdorff60 argues that artistic research invites both the researcher and the audience to reflection and provides not only an “explanatory grip” of traditional (scientific) research but also insight and understanding. A reflexive standpoint.

Artistic research is therefore not just embedded in artistic and academic contexts, and it focuses not just on what is enacted in creative processes and embodied in arts products, but also engages with who we are and where we stand.61

Appropriating Bergdorf’s argument and applying it to research and learning in/through a double perspective, I, as a feminist researcher, see this reflexive standpoint as the most valuable of the surplus values. It means that by working—in Aristotelian terms—with both theoretical and practical knowledge, the third, ethical wisdom will evolve. I do not believe that one becomes more ethical through working in/through a double perspective, but possibly wiser. And a double perspective as facilitating learning processes, I argue, is more democratic. It gives different kinds of students, with different kinds of prior knowledge, different opportunities to learn the same thing. But differently. Having a high degree of educational, cultural, and academic capital, knowing the academic codes, having the right class background have long been keys to successful academic studies.62 The results I presented here show, however, that other kinds of capital, cultural codes, and social background are also given weight and become useful in courses with double perspective and where students learn through varied learning processes and are given varied assessments and examinations, for example, visual, multimodal, performative work, traditional academic essays, group work, and oral examinations. This also applies to students with some kind of perceived handicap (such as dyslexia, blindness, deafness, and psychological illness).63

Furthermore, students (and some staff) show that it is indeed possible to research and to work in-between and to embody a double perspective. It influences their entire way of doing and seeing their subject area. Whereas most lecturers at the four schools I studied fumble around their own practices to find an answer to what this double perspective is, these students and staff with deep knowledge of both arts/journalism and academia got on with the business of doing. To them the issue of in/through a double perspective is easy; they have an embodied knowledge. And they produce new exciting knowledge. Furthermore, this “double knowledge” is transferable which students can bring into professional life. So, with Søren Kjørup,64 I argue for plurality in academia. This is, however, not easily achieved. It takes time to accomplish multi-skills from different subject areas. Introducing new ways doing and thinking, allodoxic practices, into academia stirs up conflicts as I have shown.

Finally, I found support for my standpoint, as well as answers to my main question, in the place I least suspected: the school where I work. The intense conflicts that were found at K3 in the Performing Knowledge project, were not evident 5 years later. One reason is said to be the decade of continuous discussions and conflicts around theory-and-gestaltung,65 that is, that conflicts were brought out into the open, taken seriously and discussed in earnest. Another reason could arguably be the three new full professors with double competence, and the fact that several K3 PhD students who have graduated on dissertations that are both traditionally academic and arts based, are now members of the faculty. Furthermore, there have been attempts to raise the research-competence of arts-based lectures. Thus, as in Dar es Salaam, there are now faculty members who embody a double perspective.

My final argument is political–economical in nature. There is very obviously no shortage of willpower and ideology involved in establishing interdisciplinary academic schools that aim to create meeting places of learning in/through a double perspective. However, what is also needed is an awareness that this does create conflicts, and a willingness to deal with these, to make them creative processes and not destructive. It is furthermore important to work with the competencies of faculty, not only students. This could mean changing research policies so as to encourage “practical” lecturers to partake in research activities, encourage “theoretical” lecturers to learn practical skills, and encourage teamwork in teaching and in research in/through a double perspective. This way a “double knowledge” will become embodied also amongst faculty.


1. Cf. Pierre Bourdieu, Homo Academicus (Oxford: Polity Press, 1988); and James Young, Art and Knowledge (London: Routledge, 2001).

2. Bourdieu, Homo Academicus; and Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993).

3. Pierre Bourdieu, Om Televisionen [Sur la television; On Television] (Stockholm: Brutus Östlings bokförlag, 1998); and Margareta Melin, Gendered Journalism Cultures. Strategies and Tactics in the Fields of Journalism in Britain and Sweden (Göteborg: JMG, University of Göteborg, 2008).

4. Bourdieu, Homo Academicus; and Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production.

5. Tom Barone and Elliot Eisner, Arts Based Research (Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2012).

6. Young, Art and Knowledge; and Henk Borgdorff, “The Production of Knowledge in Artistic Research,” in The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts, eds. Michael Biggs and Henrik Karlsson (London: Routledge, 2010), 44–63.

7. Borgdorff, “The Production of Knowledge”; and Barone and Eisner, Arts Based Research.

8. Lisbeth Elkær, ed., Re-searching. Om praktikbaseret forskning i scenekunst [Re-searching. About Practice-Based Research in Scenic Art.] (Nordscen–Nordiskt center för scenkonst, 2006) 19–37.

9. Pelle Ehn and Jonas Löwgren, eds., Desigh [X] Research. Essays on Interaction Design as Knowledge Construction (Malmö: School of Arts and Communication, Malmö University, 2004 #3).

10. Sven Persson, Research Circles—A Guide (Malmö: Resurscentrum för mångfaldens skola, Malmö stad, 2009).

11. Jen Webb and Donna Lee Brian, “Addressign the ‘Ancient Quarrel’: Creative Writing as Research”, in The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts, eds. Michael Biggs and Henrik Karlsson (London: Routledge, 2010), 186–203.

12. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916).

13. Donald Schön, Educating the Reflective Practitioner. Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1987).

14. Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1969).

15. Dana Holland, “Between the Practical and the Academic: The Relation of Mode 1 and Mode 2 Knowledge Production in a Developing Country,” Science, Technology & Human Values 34, no. 5 (2009): 551–72.

16. Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research (London: Sage, 2007); and Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials (London: Sage, 2007).

17. Cf. Fredrik Lindstrand and Staffan Selander, Estetiska läroprocesser [Aesthetic Learning Processes.] (Lund: Studentlitteratur, 2009); and Bernt Stafseng, “Estetikk pedagogikk–ungdom: en trist historie” [Aesthetics, pedagogics-youth: a boring history] Uttryck, intryck, avtryck-lärande, estetiska uttrycksformer och forskning [Expression, impression, imprint–Learning, aesthetic forms of expressions and research]. Vetenskapsrådetsrapportserie No. 4 (2006), 19.

18. Ulla Lind, “Blickens ordning. Bildspråk och estetiska lärprocesser som kulturform och kunskapsform [The Order of Looks. Language of Images and Aesthetic Learning-processes as Cultural Form and Knowledge.]” (PhD thesis, Stockholm University, 2010).

19. Karin Becker, “Perspectives for the Study of Visual Culture,” Idun, Nordic Studies in Education 24, no. 4 (2004): 243–50.

20. Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography.

21. Michael Polyani, The Tacit Dimension (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2009).

22. Staffan Selander and Gunther Kress, Design för lärande–ett multimodalt perspektiv [Design for learning–a multimodal perspective] (Stockholm: Norstedts, 2010).

23. Pelle Ehn, “Manifesto for a Digital Bauhaus,” Digital Creativity 9, no.4 (1998): 207–16.

24. Anette Göthlund and Ulla Lind, “Intermezzo—A Performative Research Project in Teacher Training,” International Journal of Education Through Art 6, no. 2 (2010): 197–212.

25. These were the School of Art in Stockholm, the University Colleges of Falun and Södertörn and at the universities of Örebro and Malmö. Anette Göthlund et al., “Kunskapens framträdandeformer–ett projekt om kunskapsutveckling och en högskolepedagogik med dubbelt perspektiv: teori och gestaltning,” [Performing Knowledge–A projcect about knowledge processes and a university pedagogic with a double perspective] Resultatdialog 2011 [Diologues of Results], Vetenskapsrådets rapportserie 7 (2011).

26. Cf. Bourdieu, Homo Academicus; and Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production.

27. Rose, Visual Methodologies.

28. Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography.

29. Jennifer New, Drawing from Life. The Journal as Art (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005).

30. Margareta Melin, “Olikhet som resurs [Difference as a Resource],” in Inkluderande möten i högskolan [Inclusive University Meetings], eds. Margareta Melin and Elna Johansson (Lund: Studentlitteratur, 2012), 105–24.

31. K3 is an abbreviation of Konst, Kultur och Kommunikation (Art, Culture and Communication).

32. The term Academic school refers here to a cohesive entity at a university that could be termed a faculty or a large department. The term is used by two of the institutions studied as a way to emphasise the practice-based elements and to distance itself from the traditional university faculty-structure. To simplify the language of the article I will use Academic School for all four institutions.

33. It is difficult to find an abbreviated term to encompass lecturers of photography, film, set, sound, lighting-design, creative writing, journalism, interaction design, programming, architecture etc., and I use practical/arts as an inclusive term.

34. Göthlund et al., “Kunskapens framträdandeformer”; and Melin, “Olikhet som resurs [Difference as a Resource].”

35. Ehn, “Manifesto for a Digital Bauhaus.”

36. Dennis Augustsson, “Estetiska lärprocesser och visuell kommunikation [Aesthetic Learning Processes and Visual Communication.]” (Master diss., Arts Pedagogy, School of Art and Design, Stockholm, 2013).

37. Melin, “Olikhet som resurs [Difference as a Resource].”

38. Bourdieu, Homo Academicus; and Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production.

39. Akhteruz Zaman, “Newsroom as Battleground. Journalists’ Descriptions of their Workspaces,” Journalism Studies 14, no. 6 (2013): 819–34.

40. Anita Göransson, ed., Maktens kön [Gendered Power] (Falun: Nya Doxa, 2006).

41. Cf. Webb and Lee Brian, “Addressing the ‘Ancient Quarrel’”; Torsten Kälvemark, “University Politics and Practice Based Research,” in The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts, eds. Michael Biggs and Henrik Karlsson (London: Routledge, 2010), 3–23; and Barone and Eisner, Arts Based Research.

42. Cf. Bourdieu, Homo Academicus; and Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production.

43. Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid.

46. Bourdieu, Homo Academicus; and Pierre Bourdieu, Om Televisionen.

47. Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production; and Bourdieu, Om Televisionen [Sur la Television].

48. Margareta Melin, “Inkludering som pedagogiskt arbetssätt [Inclusion as Pedagogic Ways of Work.],” in Inkluderande möten i högskolan [Inclusive University Meetings], eds. Margareta Melin and Elna Johansson (Lund: Studentlitteratur, 2012), 125–36.

49. Holland, “Between the Practical and the Academic”; and Kälvemark, “University Politics and Practice Based Research.”

50. Bourdieu, Homo Academicus.

51. Cf. Dewey, Democracy and Education.

52. In all 15 alumni K3 Media Studies students were interviewed, from 2010 to 2012. Prior to the interview their degree project (dissertation and multimodal work) was analysed. The interviews focused on if /how their appropriated double perspective knowledge were used in their professional work situation.

53. Cf. Bourdieu, Homo Academicus.

54. Cf. Göthlund and Lind, “Intermezzo—A Performative Research Project in Teacher Training”; Lind, Blickens ordning. Bildspråk och estetiska lärprocesser som kulturform och kunskapsform; Selander and Kress, Design för lärande—ett multimodalt perspektiv; Søren Kørup, “Pleading for Plurality: Artistic and Other Kinds of Research,” in The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts (London: Routledge, 2010), 24–43; Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography; and Sarah Pink, Doing Sensory Ethnography (London: Sage, 2009).

55. Melin, “Olikhet som resurs [Difference as a Resource].”

56. Holland, “Between the Practical and the Academic.”

57. Selander and Kress, Design för lärande—ett multimodalt perspektiv.

58. Göthlund et al., “Kunskapens framträdandeformer”; Göthlund and Lind, “Intermezzo—A Performative Research Project in Teacher Training;” and Helena Danielsson, “Double Perspectives: Multimodal Degree Projects and Society,” International Journal of Education through Art 9, no. 1 (2013), 197–212.

59. Göthlund et al., “Kunskapens framträdandeformer”; and Peter Pericles Trifonas, ed., Pedagogies of Difference. Rethinking Education for Social Change (New York: Taylor & Frances, 2003).

60. Borgdorff, “The Production of Knowledge in Artistic Research.”

61. Ibid., 51.

62. Bourdieu, Homo Academicus.

63. Melin, “Olikhet som resurs [Difference as a Resource].”

64. Kørup, “Pleading for Plurality: Artistic and Other Kinds of Research.”

65. Augustsson, Estetiska lärprocesser och visuell kommunikation.

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