Economies of Visibility

Annual Theme 2019/20

As early as the early 2000s, the Italian philosopher and activist Franco Berardi stated that we were living in an age characterized by an overdose of visibility and a “excess of expressivity”. Even before the development of smartphones and the spread of selfie culture, he diagnosed that our world was determined by a capitalism of signs and images.

Since then, the production of images has become an omnipresent practice that determines social life and is no longer in the hands of few experts. We live in an epoch in which the world is shaped by ubiquitous virally distributed images, bloggers, and influencers, a world in which algorithms direct our gaze, and social media platforms have risen to become the most influential global corporations. Attention economies structure global power relations in a new way and trigger new struggles for distribution. However, not everyone has become an expert in image production, and producers have long since lost control over the use of their images. So, do we live in a context of total visibility and transparency in which little can remain invisible?

In any case the structures and conditions under which visibility, attention or even public perception are attained have changed just as fundamentally as the forms of image production. In his memorable volume of essays “Economy of Attention”, published little more than twenty years ago, the economist and urban planner Georg Franck had already stated that a new era had dawned whose pictorial style was media aesthetics. In this new epoch, it was no longer enough for things to be beautiful and striking; it had to be striking that they are striking.

Today, a young generation often masters this tactic better than some media professionals. Accordingly, contemporary societies seem to be subject to erratically rising and falling waves of attention and swarming. At the same time, however, they are concerned increasingly about the monopoly of power of media groups. The Internet, once a great promise of democracy, has developed into an arena in which dilettantes, large corporations and scattered programmers - only loosely linked - create unpredictable echo chambers. The power of images and the how, when and why of public visibility therefore follow completely different logics from those of a few decades ago. A young politician can use an Instagram story to outdo powerful colleagues in the competition. A schoolgirl starts a mass movement and puts European politics under pressure. Is all this possible because today politics, power and the direction of attention and visibility are one and the same? How exactly do these developments differ from earlier image strategies?

If we want to understand these processes more precisely, it is not only image strategies that need to be analyzed, but also the handling of images and the social effects of the distribution of images. Against this backdrop, the artsprogram and the Center for Cultural Production will be dealing with the outlined topic over two semesters. This is achieved through an exhibition of photographs by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, a lecture series on artistic image strategies, individual scientific events, an interdisciplinary expert symposium on artistic and scientific methods of image analysis, and a series of performances and interventions. Under the title "Economies of Visibility", artistic and sociological image strategies in particular will be questioned and contrasted.

The exhibition project, which focuses on Bourdieu's photographs as one of the most important sociologists of the post-war period and founders of visual sociology in an open archive and study room, explores the question of how Bourdieu used photography to make visible social structures, power relations and specific culturally and socially conditioned habitus. The project follows in the footsteps of his - as the sociologist himself called it - "understanding gaze". Previously unpublished and barely sighted photographs of the sociologist will be shown in changing constellations in order to test and make plausible various patterns of order. In the context of a larger research project on Bourdieu's visual sociology, led by sociologist Prof. Franz Schultheis, who has been teaching at Zeppelin University since January, Bourdieu's images from Algeria and Béarn will be contrasted with contemporary perspectives of the same places. In collaboration with students, Schultheis has identified and compiled various thematic groups that illustrate Bourdieu's concept of habitus, female hexis, modes of religiously motivated veiling, and the development of rural regions in the Mediterranean. The photographs prove to be a decisive basis for Bourdieu's theoretical research approaches and empirical findings. Last but not least, they also show how the sociologist strives not to turn social conditions and the people he photographs into objects, but to observe and encounter them in an understanding way.
Over the course of a year, various formations of Bourdieu's photographs will be shown from an archive of 800 photographs. These pictures will be juxtaposed by newly and specially for this purpose produced hyper-resolved 4K videos. These videos will be recorded by art students from Alto University and ZU lead by Scots/Irish artist Andrew McNiven who will return to the very places of Bourdieu’s research – for one thing to follow his footsteps and then again to make the transformation of these places visible. As part of an artistic research project, McNiven, who has been involved with pictorial display strategies for two decades, will travel with the group of students to Bourdieu's home on the edge of the Pyrenees and film exactly the locations Bourdieu photographed over half a century ago again using the special opportunities of the high-resolution 4K media technology.

Moreover, the experimental designer team "Kooperative für Darstellungspolitik" will transform ZU´s exhibition and project space White Box into a reading, working and archive situation that will be made available to the public as a public study room. In addition to a digital image archive, videos, selected texts, audio stations, a small specialist library on Bourdieu, visual sociology, image theory and the documented regions will be made available here, so that students and guests of the university can use this space for study purposes or visitors can view the archive.

Parallel to this focus on the French sociologist and his groundbreaking image archive, a public lecture series will take place in spring 2020 that will discuss historical image policy as well as economies and orders of visibility from an art and cultural studies perspective. Here, art and cultural scientists will discuss the connection between power, domination, presence and visibility in exemplary works of art. Over a course of twelve lectures, the antiquity to the present will be explored and examined.

Further Information

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