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Imagery in the 21st Century

by Oliver Grau, Editor; with Thomas Veigl
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011
424 pp. illus. 132 b/w. Trade, $40
ISBN-10: 0262015722.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
Director, The Diatrope Institute
Berkeley, CA 94704 USA


As I began this review I began to think that the refrain “we are surrounded by images today” has lost its impact (despite my being among the guilty users of it). On the one hand, it seems that many of us notice the imagery. Yet, on the other hand, as we increasingly engage with our visual culture certain norms for our critical investigations are also developing.  I’m not sure where this leaves us.  To be sure, the nature and complexity of our image-abundant culture is extraordinary.  Images are no longer sparse and highly treasured. Rather, we have visual social media, scientific imaging tools, and even static objects like paintings populate the ever-changing screens of our mobile and desktop devices. Even those among us who have resisted some of the broad spectrum of electronic options (think Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, thousands of television channels, digital games, and virtual worlds) cannot escape this new world. Posters and window displays offer smartcodes that invite us to connect with the Internet and learn more about whatever the sign is promoting.  Always on, complete with sound, are television screens in airports, restaurants and the array of imaging devices that bring us news, sports, entertainment, whatever.  Given the state of the “image” today, critical examination of channels of media and communication are needed. Imagery in the 21st Century, edited by Oliver Grau with Thomas Veigl, presents a number of perspectives on this theme, highlighting the inroads of media into art and science.  It is a valuable contribution to the topic.

Overall, the book offers systematic and interdisciplinary reflections on expanding and novel forms of images and visualization.  Drawing on a number of experts, the twenty chapters highlight new efforts to visualize complex ideas, structures, and systems. In today’s information explosion the question of where what digital images represent and where they fit in the scheme of things becomes quite prismatic.  As a whole, the chapters are quite strong; they do not suffer from the unevenness so common in collections of conference papers, which this book is.  Of particular value is the breadth of the essays.  Researchers from the natural sciences and the humanities explore the wealth of diverse functionality that images have evolved to offer to our lives, that includes lab applications, social commentary, humanistic questions, and experimental art projects.  The spectrum of topics include: database economy (Sean Cubitt), telepresent images (Martin Schulz), ethical boundaries (Eduardo Kac), the emergence of a future web-based video aesthetic (Thomas Veigl), brain research (Olaf Breidbach), medical illustration (Dolores and David Steinman), interdisciplinary practices (James Elkins), the role of source code (Wendy Hui Kyong Chun), the interface (Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau), the museum (Peter Weibel), cellular automata (Tim Otto Roth and Andreas Deutsch ), cultural analytics (Lev Manovich and Jeremy Douglass) and a digital version of the Warburg Image Atlas (Martin Warnke).  Even this abbreviated list offers a glimpse into the diversity of efforts to expand visual competence through providing cross-disciplinary exchanges among the arts, humanities, and natural sciences. While this range makes the volume a valuable tool for examining this subject across disciplines, the title, Imagery in the 21st Century, is likely to seem a rash overstatement in a few decades, given that the century has hardly begun.

Chapters focusing on applications and innovations offer the most of substantive value, in my view. “Toward New Conventions for Visualizing blood Flow in the Era of Fascination with Visibility and Imagery” by Dolores Steinman and David Steinman falls into this category. Well written and comprehensive, these authors set the stage by pointing out that medical images (drawings, woodcuts, engravings) have always played a key role in educating practitioners and knowledge development. They then follow with case studies that illustrate their efforts to represent blood flow in the context of the living body and conclude with some commentary on medical imagery as art and in popular culture.

James Elkins’ chapter, “Visual Practices across the University: A Report,” also stood out. Elkins presents a brief summary of a book called Visual Practices across the University that was published in German in 2007 and is little known outside of the German-speaking world. The essay summarizes an exhibition project that was initiated by sending email to faculty in the sixty-odd departments at University College, Cork asking for exhibition proposals from anyone who uses images in their work.  What stood out in his commentary is how differently scientists, humanists and artists think about images and imagery. In this case, he found that while most visual work in the university is done outside of the humanities, most of this work is invisible because the routine image making and image interpretation is not considered as important to the goals as what the images represent and the science that they make possible.

Oliver Grau, the editor, is a Professor for Image Science and Dean of the Department for Cultural Studies at Danube University, the author of Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion (2003) [1] and the editor of MediaArtHistories. His collaborator, Thomas Veigl, is on the scientific staff of the Department for Image Science at the Danube--University Krems.  Their opening chapter, Introduction: Imagery in the 21st Century, sets the stage well and is available at http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/chapters/0262015722chap1.pdf . Grau’s concluding section on “Media Art’s Challenge in Our Societies” offers an overview of image studies today.  Parts of the chapter are useful but, because some sections in it are so focused on his professional efforts to meet today’s challenges rather than the challenges overall, the text read like an infomercial at times.

Throughout the book it is clear that there are the endless options for image manipulation and that while new media presents us with both interactive opportunities it also raises challenging questions (about human autonomy, entertainment, interaction, etc.).  The editors note:

“Images increasingly define our world and our everyday life: in advertising, entertainment, politics, and even in science, images are pushing themselves in front of language. The mass media, in particular, engulf our senses on a daily basis. It would appear that images have won the contest with words: Will the image have the last word?” (p. 6)

Perhaps images will have the last word.  On March 12th of this year (2012) the Encyclopaedia Britannica announced “it will cease publication of the 32-volume printed edition of its flagship encyclopedia, continuing with the digital versions that have become popular with knowledge seekers in recent decades.”  The press release also noted that “[The Encyclopedia Britannica] was originally published in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1768 and has been in print continuously ever since [2]. When I grew up, like many of my generation, this book was like browsing the web.  I used to love to turn the pages, looking at the images and reading the articles that related to images that caught my fancy.

Of course, the Grau book itself raises another side of the question about whether images will have the last word. At this point in time it is not available electronically although sections of the text (without the images!) are on Google Books; moreover Google Books does not offer active links to all the many, many websites the Grau book references. Amazon’s page for the book does not link to a Kindle version.  Instead, Amazon has a link asking visitors to tell the publisher to offer a Kindle version.

So, will images have the last word? Perhaps. Or perhaps we need to ask: Is it a good thing for images to have the last word?  I did not think that the depth of this kind of question was fully addressed in the book since its focus was on the importance of understanding images as vital and dynamic parts of our world today. Thus, my primary concern about this volume, which I recommend overall, is that the reflections and analytical approaches offered did not seem to balance the euphony and cacophony of our experience today. While I’m not exactly sure how this relates to whether images will have the last word, I do know that at times all of the changing images surrounding me feel very cacophonic.  As a participant in the movement is to reverse the dominance of textual sources in our approaches to knowledge, as we celebrate our visual abundance, visualization methods, the distribution of images, and how imagery benefits our lives; it seems foreign to have evolved to the point that I think so much about the visual noise.  Even in this book I found that some of the projects seemed strikingly cacophonic, and thought that the theoretical assumptions of the authors overall are more biased toward euphonic reactions to our visual culture than the harshness and discordant qualities that are congruent with our visual culture?

Perhaps the next step is making sure we address that the cacophonic side is actively included in our critical analyses or imagery.  Grau does stress that using an historical lens is an aid in understanding our imagery today. This perspective opens the door for a balanced analysis of the visual and textual and I support him in this effort. Therefore, while the book is only a slice of the imagery picture today, I think readers will gain much from spending time with Imagery in the 21st Century.

[1] See my Leonardo Review at http://leonardo.info/reviews/feb2003/GRAU_ione.html.
[2] “Encyclopaedia Britannica To End Print Edition, Go Completely Digital,” http://www.corporate.eb.com/?p=508.

Last Updated 5 April 2012

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