Did you know that there are more images published every day now than there were in the whole of the 19th Century? Nicholas Mirzoeff has written a brilliant book about this fact, entitled How to See the World. Here’s Nicholas on the myriad ways in which this mass of visual information impacts our perception and creativity, and the “exciting, inspiring and anarchic” effect it might have.
In 1972, astronauts on Apollo 17 pointed their camera at the Earth far below. Quite by chance, they were the first (and so far last) astronauts to see the entire surface of the globe fully illuminated. The resulting photograph, known as Blue Marble, is said to be the most widely reproduced photograph of all time. It inspired hopes of a world government, pushed the young environmentalist movement and made the world seem a hopeful, unified place.
I look at that photograph as being in many ways the beginning of the era in which we live – a global system connected and made intelligible above all by visual culture. To say we live in a culture that visualises is an understatement. One trillion photographs were taken in 2014. 700 million Snapchat photos are exchanged every single day. Every minute no less than three hundred hours of YouTube video are uploaded.
“To say we live in a culture that visualises is an understatement. One trillion photographs were taken in 2014. 700 million Snapchat photos are exchanged every single day. Every minute no less than three hundred hours of YouTube video are uploaded.”
I wrote How To See The World to try and understand what brave new worlds all these images were trying to capture and understand. In four key ways, we now live in a world quite unlike that of 1972. Since 2008, more people live in cities than in rural areas for the first time. Most people worldwide are now under 30 years old. And in 2014, roughly half of us had access to the internet. From selfies to Vines and Instagrams, the young, urban, networked majority is trying to make sense of the world it has suddenly inherited, using visual forms.
But it does not do so in a manner of its own choosing. Governments and spy agencies are watching us with an equally extensive new array of devices from drones to CCTV cameras that make the ambitions of George Orwell’s Big Brother seem quite modest.
If government surveillance and war are old activities in new digital clothes, there is a new and present danger. Since 2008, the internet by which we share all our images has become a greater source of carbon emissions than air travel. Our bodies sense the way the seasons and weather are “out of joint.” We respond by endlessly documenting our time in tiny slices – photographs, videos and other forms of time-based media.
Given all this, it’s not surprising that current events are increasingly driven by visual materials, whether it is the cellphone videos of US police brutality, the attack on the French cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, or the destruction of art and antiquities by insurgents and terrorist groups that, as they know, generates far more publicity in the west than yet more killing of local residents or even foreigners. Like it or not, the opponents of the west have perhaps unconsciously revealed what a high premium we place on visual culture.
The response has been the rise of what I call visual activism. Visual activists – artists, academics, community groups and many others – are linking visible online presence to real-world interventions to create social change. Think of the students occupying the streets of Hong Kong, challenging China, one of the world’s most dominant powers, by making themselves so visible to the global internet audience. Or the way that the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police became a national scandal because of the random coincidence of a cellphone video and some CCTV footage.
Where does all this lead? It’s too early to tell. When the printing press was first invented, no one foresaw the impact of mass literacy. This is another such moment. It’s exciting, inspiring, anarchic and worrying at once. Unlike the Apollo astronauts, we’ll have our feet planted firmly on the ground. But there’s far more to see than they ever imagined.
Nicholas Mirzoeff is participating in a panel discussion about How to See the World at the ICA this evening. Book your tickets here.
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