Leverhulme Durham Doctoral Training Programme in Visual Culture
Centre for Visual Arts and Culture, Durham University
The first summer school of the Programme will take place in Durham next summer with a keynote by Gillian Rose (Open University). The keynote will address the theme of “Visual Research Methods in an Expanded Field: Mutable, Mass and Mobile”.
We invite proposals for short papers on any aspect of visual culture, and welcome papers in the following areas:
- Intersection of visual culture with other fields
- Relationships between visual culture and visual research methodologies
- Using visual evidence in communication
- visual culture and how it relates to the construction of knowledge
- Relationships between environments and visual culture
- Relationships between the sacred and visual culture
- How visual culture supports and fosters interdisciplinary research
- Critical approaches to visual evidence
The PhD summer school provides an open and welcoming intellectual space in which postgraduate researchers can present work in progress. We are inviting applications from postgraduates (MA and PhD) from any discipline whose work explores current issues in visual culture, including visual research methodologies.
Our aim is to act as a forum where interdisciplinary research is examined, negotiated and explored through the lens of visual analysis. The Visual Intersections I workshop invites students to share their research and aims to support a multidisciplinary exchange of ideas and approaches.
Please submit an abstract of 250 words (including name and institution), as well as a one-page CV, including key research areas and academic interests.
All proposals and enquiries should be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org by 29th February 2016.
Applicants will be notified of the outcome within two weeks of the closing date.
The summer school will include a walking tour of Durham geared towards visual culture and a reception and private view at the Oriental Museum.
For more information on the Centre for Visual Arts and Culture, please refer to our website https://www.dur.ac.uk/cvac/.
Professor Hubert Locher, ‘God’s Own Junkyard’. Architecture, Photography, and Society
Hogan Lovell Lecture Theatre, Durham University.
Tuesday 1st December 2015
Reviewer: Vanessa Longden, PhD Researcher in History and Visual Culture
Follow her on Twitter @VanessaLongden
Hubert Locher, currently a Senior Research Fellow of the IAS (COFUND) at Durham, is Professor for the history and theory of visual media at the Philips-University Marburg, and director of the German Documentation Centre for Art History – Bildarchiv Foto Marburg (www.fotomarburg.de), since 2008. For more on his work and publications, see here.
Professor Hubert Locker presenting ‘God’s Own Junkyard’. Architecture, Photography, and Society.
Photographed by the author.
Professor Locher’s lecture was titled God’s Own Junkyard after Peter Blake’s 1964 publication of the same name. The title, which plays on the well-known American phrase “God’s Own Country”, is a wry play on words and sets the parameters of Blake’s humanistic outlook on architecture, photography and society. Blake was born in 1920 in Germany and attended school in London where her trained as an architect. While his training was never completed, a chance encounter with the head of the Museum of Modern Art, Philip Johnson, led to Blake attending the symposium entitled: ‘What is happening to Modern Architecture?’, and he subsequently took up a position as curator at the museum.
For Blake, architecture not seen as a series of structures but established spatially. His publication called for a new critical architectural approach where landscape integrated within architecture and enacted upon one another in a reciprocal process. This insight was also shared by the likes of architects Mies van der Rohe in his construction of Farnsworth House, Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22, and in the works of Robert Venturi. The latter took interest in Blake’s work and
included two of his images in his publication Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form (1972), the gas station and the infamous duck structure served as both architectural type and a visual signifier for Venturi’s postmodern message for a new approach towards architectural history and a break from the modernist aesthetic ideals. Referring directly to Blake in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), Venturi wrote, ‘But the pictures in [God’s Own Junkyard] that are supposed to be bad are often good.’ (p.102)
Pierre Koenig’s The Stahl House, Case Study House No. 22, Los Angeles (1960).
Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois (1945-1951).
At first Blake’s photo book may appear an obvious vehicle for the architectural critic’s modernist outlook. But on closer analysis we find that the publication is more than an aesthetic piece, in fact it is overtly political, encapsulating themes of land development and the shaping of environment,
how photography is used as a supportive evidence, and the nexus between image, text and cultural criticism. The first section of the photo book is pure text followed by various ‘scapes‘: Townscape, Landscape, and Skyscape are purely illustrative. Blake shapes his book as a coherent public discussion and so his words and images are to be communicated both verbally and visually, where “words and images [are] … composed in tandem, and mutually supportive.” (Blake, 1993, p.164). Locker notes that Blake’s choice of the photo book is also significant: integrating images and text results in a more conversational reading where the two entities ”speak” to one another; pictures on their own speak for themselves; while the photo book presents the visual as ”firm” evidence. In this case, the text calls and the image responds.
Peter Blake’s God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape, New York: Holt, Reinhart & Winston (1964, 2nd enlarged edn. 1979). Cover design by Elaine Lustig.
Like a court trial, viewers are presented with the visual evidence followed by Blake’s final verdict.
The photographs are used as ‘evidence’ in the original sense of the word. The images are curated as a visual argument which displays the spatial totality of the American environment. Remaining true to his brief architectural training and curatorial experience, Blake compares past and present images which was a traditional practice in both Art History and Architectural Criticism. These images are arranged vertically, the negative image always takes the lower position and is narrowly cropped. Following the formal criteria of Classical Art, the positive image is given more space as well as a clear structure where the viewer’s eye is directed towards a central focal point. The spatiality is clearly defined.
In an attempt to engage with current public opinion, Blake criticises cultural consumerism, the rise of residential structures and standardised social housing. While the latter were cheap to make Blake insisted that their ‘lack of imagination’ and standardised design would lead to ghettoization, socialisation and the loss of individual and communal identity. Images of Levittown are used as Blake’s prime examples, the rows of “little boxes” are photographed from the air and as a result are somewhat detached. No description accompanies the image which implies that Blake thought the monotony of the town was plain to see, the photograph is instructive; no caption is needed.
Arial view of Levittown, Pennsylvania. Designed and built by William Levitt, (1952-1958).
Future perspectives of the modernist city were destroyed by chaotic consumerism, debased American culture, ugliness, apathy and junk. Blake insisted that “No people has inherited a more naturally beautiful land than we: … the only trouble is that we are about to turn this beautiful inheritance into the biggest slum on the face of the earth.” (Blake, 1964, p.8) Upon viewing Times Square, New York, Blake does not see architecture, but untidy, cluttered advertisements. The viewer is not faced with buildings, but visual images. What we have is an image of an image, which is also spatially constructed. The billboard of the 1962 film The Counterfeit Traitor starring William Holden evokes the notion that advertisements are dishonest from the outset and are not to be trusted. Yet the montaging of images and employment of billboards were a common technique in the Pop Art movement and often acted as a visual pun on social and political concerns. Further questions over the aesthetics of consumerism the disposability of junk are also raised, thus depicting the multifaceted nature of images as they are deployed and transformed through time and space.
Billboard of The Counterfeit Traitor in Times Square, New York.
The images provide a rather neutral idea of progression, yet Locher asserts that anything depicted in a photograph become bearable to the viewer as the event is from a distant time and place. But later, the double pages convey degradation and death, adding a weightiness to Blake’s argument as seen in the employment of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s image of the crucifix. The images conceive a condensation of the verbal argument: the photographs speak a clear language where Blake acts as curator when choosing which images and well-known artists to use.
Self-consciously chosen images imperative. While the image of the duck-as-architecture embodies abstract aspects of irony, for the disparity between its form and function – which later became an exemplar for Venturi’s postmodern aesthetics – the duck is also humorous and ambiguous. It is not a critical image, paralleled with a photograph of people feeding ducks – families of people and families of ducks – Blake’s main concern is confirmed: that social structure shapes our environment.
The Big Duck otherwise known as the “Long Island Duckling” (1931), Flanders, New York
This new idea of perception, of the spaces in between and the uses of both space and architectural place not only renewed the idea of architecture and the town as an integrative landscape but turned towards the notion of a new environment. Blake’s understanding of architecture is one of shaping nature at large. While pictures may serve as evidence they may also in fact provide new solutions and intertextual perspectives between architecture, photography and society.
It is often taken for granted that people visiting a museum will learn by looking at the exhibited objects. Yet the exact ‘practices of looking’ in museums have so far escaped further reflection. The workshop ‘Museums, Knowledge and Visual Evidence’, which brought together an interest of the Centre for Visual Arts and Culture (CVAC) in the impact of the visual in society, and this year’s theme of the Institute for Advanced Studies (ISA) concerned with the concept of ‘visual evidence’, aimed to pave the way for a more detailed understanding of the ways in which visual evidence in museums can be communicated to the public.
In the form of concise provocations and open discussion, professionals with a background in teaching and curating museums combined diverse perspectives on the realities and potentials of visual evidence in museums.
Ludmilla Jordanova (Durham) opened the discussion in a first session mapping the field of ‘Visual Evidence and Museums’: As museums are concerned with the past and the artefacts of the past are for the most part visual, debates about visual evidence and culture need to be brought to the museums. It is time to reflect on what museums are able to teach by displaying objects, and to reconsider whether visual evidence can be employed as an active concept that is relevant to particular problems, rather than a passive one.
In the second session on ‘The Educator’s Perspective’, Sarah Price (Durham) and Susan Raikes (British Museum) highlighted the importance of the practice of looking at visual evidence encountered in museums for the teaching profession by stating that ‘no-one is borne knowing how to use a museum’. While objects may lack any intrinsic ‘power’, they can tell powerful stories in the interpretative process of being looked at. Any mindset brought to the object by the onlooker and any interpretations emerging from the act of looking ought to be encouraged. ‘Objects can inspire’, which is why teaching visitors to look at and engage with any object that catches their interest is to be endorsed. The educational aim therefore is to display objects in a way that encourages mindful reflection and facilitates creativity, and not to restrict the learner’s experience through an authoritative focus on curricular targets.
The stress on the practices of looking at visual evidence in museums also featured in two public evening lectures. Mungo Campbell (Hunterian Museum, Glasgow) explored William Hunter’s collection of scientific instruments as a eighteenth-century precursor to the modern approach towards visual evidence in museums that visually conveyed knowledge about scientific practices. This notion was underlined by Tilly Blythe (Science Museum, London), who argued for museums to place visual evidence in the wider context of society. A socio-cultural understanding of science (‘techno-science’) and display of visual evidence in museums, Blythe argued, can outline the presence of science, technology and scientific practices in everyday life and in this way stimulate engagement with and understanding of the exhibits. Rather than the didactic learning of scientific principles, visual evidence in museums is meant to inspire critical thinking and locate science within society. Tim Boon (Science Museum, London) added that in addition to the visual sense, a ‘synesthetic museum’ also incorporates auditory and tactile experience in order to conserve the entire perception of human performances and practices.
In the third workshop session on ‘The Curator’s Perspective’, Tilly Blythe (Science Museum, London) urged for a change of the construction of narrative in museums. Exhibits ought to become the active narrators of stories, not mere means of illustrating presupposed grander narratives. Curators should begin any narrative with the objects themselves. This, however, also requires a change in the evaluation of ‘teaching success’ of museums. Proper museum evaluation should aim to measure critical thinking and creative engagement, not the memorisation of certain narratives or even the duration of the stay in a certain exhibition. How such a reversal of traditional museum narratives opens up visual evidence for multiple narratives was demonstrated by Craig Barclay (Oriental Museum, Durham). An everyday object such as the British pound coin, for example, can become the point of origin for questions on the universal history of money and economy, the symbolism of numismatic iconography, the practices of striking (and forging) coins, and the politics of the United Kingdom. Mungo Campbell expanded on his previous talk to discuss the further challenges of bringing the dialogue together between science and the humanities. Finally, Tim Boon’s contribution gave an insight into the practicality of arranging objects and narratives in the museum’s space. Intellectual sequences are converted into suggestive arrangements in space in order to provoke mental associations between the objects. Yet the museum’s space does not limit the individual exploration of the narrative as, for example, television does, which constricts the spectators to a linear experience of the narrative.
In the closing discussion, Ludmilla Jordanova underlined the close connection of museums, visual evidence, and knowledge, and underlined the importance of accounting for the complex history between the display in museums, the communication knowledge, and visual culture. Museums, she concluded, needed to allow for curiosity and wonder—they need to be permissive up to a point.
Marcus Meer and Vanessa Longden, November 2015