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Imagery in the 21st Century

Mathias Fuchs

Oliver Grau’s recent publication “Imagery in the 21st Century”, that he edited with Thomas Veigl, is an interesting collection of essays with a misleading title: It is only the first decade of the 21st century and the multi-disciplinary use of images that the authors are concerned with. The common assumption amongst contributors from such diverse fields as interactive arts, cancer cell biology, art history, or high performance computing, is that we live in a society that is surrounded by images of different type and shape, and that never-ending streams of images prepare us for a new mode of thinking reliant on iconic cognition and iconic reasoning.  

“We can be seen as living in an image-based society” (Kemp, p.383) and “Never before has the world of images changed so fast” (Grau and Veigl, p.1) presuppose that a quantitative increase in representation, simulation and visualisation changed the way we use images in a radical way. Martin Kemp’s essay on the “Ubiquity of Images” compares our iconic culture with former cultures that produced dense figurative environments. Kemp’s example of the Romans in Pompeii and Herculaneum is certainly valid even if he gets things wrong when he talks about “Bourgeois households” (p. 383) in the Roman empire. For Olaf Breidbach the potential as well as the danger of images lies in the possibility to reduce complexity (Breidbach, pp. 116), whereas Elgin states that images can increase the amount of information conveyed and quotes quantum physics theoretist Bernd Thaller in regard to the power of images to “express properties of objects that can never been seen.” (Elkins, p. 156) The process of  making images of nonvisual objects  is a “habit” – as Elgin calls it – of contemporary science to use “forced imagination” for the visualisation of the invisible. This process – once declared as a distinctive feature of the arts – seems to have become common practice in the world of economics, physics and medicine. The potential of images could however also bring to the front connotative aspects of images that lie beyond rational, enlightened, and explanatory aims. Marie-Luise Angerer asks whether digital images tend to favour the corporeal and haptic aspects of information and whether digital images arouse affects in the recipients. (Angerer, pp. 224) It seems completely plausible, when she arrives at the conclusion that it cannot be the images alone that do so, and that other factors, social, historical and others, contribute considerably. Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau present an insiders’ report from the artistic front of image making and of image manipulation. Their essay on interactivity as a mode for the presentation of visual material compares sociological, cybernetic, artistic and technical  ways of looking at interactivity. There is one author, Sean Cubitt, who digs deep into hardware, codes and codecs to find a reason why the imagery we are surrounded with has such strong political and aesthetic implications. In his essay on “Current Screens” he describes how hardware and software substructures inform the visual superstructure (pp. 21). The essay is an excellent reminder of changes we have almost taken for granted. It also explains in depth and with a critical view on the recent accomplishments in streaming technology, mobile and ubiquitious computing, that the images we consume are in no way historically neutral and that “our ‘immaterial’ culture is highly material.” (p.24)

The book about imagery ironically has a problem with the images reprinted within. It is hard to understand why many illustrations are printed in low-quality black and white print and then again on another page in full 4c. It is probably MIT Press’s responsibility that the black and white images are of very bad reproduction quality, but the image editors should have been more selective in their choice of illustrations. There is no need to reproduce a page from Google Earth as everybody knows how the planet looks like in Google Earth. Also the film poster from Avatar does not tell us much that we do not already know. The book does not withheld contributing to the critically investigated inflation of the iconic, by reproducing images twice in the same publication and by reproducing images that do not require reproduction at all. This said, there are other images that are innovative and reflection upon them is what the book’s main objective is.

By virtue of the diversity of disciplinary approaches and a good range of contributing authors “Imagery in the 21st Century” is a good reader and a recommended starting point for discussions in the classroom.