Images without Borders

Advanced Seminar

May 4–8, 2008

Images without BordersImages without BordersAdvanced Seminar Co-chaired by Patricia Spyer, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Leiden University and Mary M. Steedly, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, May 4–8, 2008.Images without BordersAdvanced Seminar Co-chaired by Patricia Spyer, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Leiden University and Mary M. Steedly, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, May 4–8, 2008.

The significance of the “Images without Borders” seminar became evident when cartoon images of the prophet Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper in 2007 provoked demonstrations and riots in distant cities such as Cairo, Jakarta, and Islamabad—even as they went virtually unnoticed in Denmark. News photographs of those demonstrations then sparked counter-protests in the United States and Europe, supporting “freedom of expression.” Following a death threat against one of the cartoonists, the images were republished in February 2008 and again generated international furor, including, perhaps, the recent bombing of the Danish embassy in Pakistan. This advanced seminar examined “the relation between images and publics in the fluid and deeply saturated ‘mediascapes’ of contemporary global society,” wrote co-chairs Patricia Spyer and Mary Steedly. “How might we understand the diverse intersections of politics, publicity, and pictures in the present moment? Our seminar considered the implications of today’s radically enhanced ‘borderless’ traffic of images around the world.”

In recent years, the global circulation of images has grown in an unprecedented fashion and in ways that change the understanding and experience of public space. Intimate zones of everyday life increasingly serve both as subject matter for public display and as screens upon which images can be projected. “Never before has it been so easy to purchase, use, and then toss away a camera, so commonsensical to expect the everyday images that crowd one’s day to cover the globe, or so unsettling to see the specter of total visibility and surveillance granted such legitimacy,” wrote the co-chairs. “Television programming has become portable via MP3 players and videocast cell phones. Cars come equipped with DVD players and GPS mapping systems; cell phones are used as cameras. On the Internet, ‘webcams’ broadcast round-the-clock live action feeds on sites dedicated to topics ranging from cyberporn to traffic flows to convalescing pets. All the while, YouTube creates stars and scandals overnight.”

One of the key features of this image environment, they observed, is its virtual borderlessness, vividly illustrated by the Danish cartoon incident and its aftermath. At the co-chairs’ colloquium, SAR president James Brooks asked, “How are images that are produced in one cultural context with a certain cultural meaning received, interpreted, rejected, or accepted in another, recipient cultural context? And what does that mean politically, culturally, and for the general economy in the circulation of images?” As several seminar participants noted, the circulation of images and of technologies of visualization is not a unique feature of the present moment or without historical precedent. Seminar papers addressed these issues in a range of contexts, from the uses of photography in colonial India and in nineteenth-century China to the play of religious iconography in the aftermath of sectarian conflict and the perceived iconoclasm that informed the Danish cartoon debate.

“Unmoored from their sites of production and caught up in multidirectional flows, these mobile images may still retain traces of their original provenances, even as they are variously inflected, refracted, reframed, remixed, digitally enhanced, cropped, hijacked, amplified, and their effects intensified or muted,” wrote the co-chairs. “How might we tell the life histories of such images and their audiences? How do we trace the tangled paths of their travels and returns, unfold their effects and after-effects, and above all, scan the publics—fixed or ephemeral, situated or dispersed—that they call into being?” Co-chairs Spyer and Steedly first began talking about these concepts in 2000 in relation to their research interests in Indonesia. It soon became evident that the worldwide scope and effects of such forms of image circulation required a broader investigation. Toward that end, the SAR seminar included scholars whose work spanned the globe, including South and Southeast Asia, China, Europe, and the Middle East.

Patricia Spyer, Chair Professor, Department of Anthropology, Leiden University Becoming Image in Ambon City
Mary M. Steedly, Chair Professor, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University Transparency and Apparition: Media Ghosts of Post-New Order Indonesia
Ernst van Alphen Professor, Literary Studies, Leiden University Explosions of Information, Implosions of Meaning, and the Release of Affects
Christiane Brosius Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Heidelberg Visualizing Spiritual Mega-Experiences: The Global Aesthetics of a Religious “Theme-Park”
Steven Caton Professor, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University The Sheik: The Genealogy of an Image
Barry Flood Associate Professor, Department of History, New York University Imaging without Boundaries: Alterities, Ontologies and the Contexts of “Cartoon Wars”
Brian Larkin Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Barnard College Making Equivalence Happen: The Social Architecture of Circulation
Oliver Moore Lecturer, Sinological Institute, Leiden University Images that Enclose and Disclose: Place, Practice and Material in Photographs from China
Rosalind Morris Professor, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University Two Masks: Photography and Posthumanity in South Africa
Christopher Pinney Professor, Department of Art History, Northwestern University “Augurs and Haruspices”: Public Life as a Way of Seeing

Sponsored by The Wenner-Gren Foundation

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