Visual culture scholars have long asserted that things lead social lives, linking up and separating as they traverse networks. In particular, ideas about the flow of commodities across national, geographical, cultural, and linguistic borders have directed critical attention to how global networks connect previously isolated peoples and cultures.1 But as the interdisciplinary venture of visual culture studies matures, we have begun to ask about the nature of those relations. What is the difference between a network and an ecology? How does each imagine the relation between the systems and its nodes or organisms? On the one hand, when we describe networks, constellations, or ecologies of images, we work to organize the visual world into particular arrangements. Those arrangements harken to earlier epistemologies of taxonomizing and modulating the world into intelligible categories and, significantly, making those categories into objects of knowledge. On the other hand, vital actants challenge the formation and viability of such “objects of knowledge,” pushing back against the will to systematize. This results in novel ways of seeing, knowing, perceiving, and inhabiting that are both generative and unsettling.
Given these conflicts, we propose ecologies as a framework for examining the relations of images to each other, thus acknowledging the social lives of pictures. In putting together InVisible Culture 20: Ecologies, we returned to questions about image relations. Opening up into a more comprehensive exploration of how images work in tandem with other images, our interest in the co-production of knowledge also engages how technologies, bodies, energies, and other non-human—though thoroughly material—agents work in tandem in the process. As the agency of images continues to fuel research in visual culture studies, questions about how we approach and organize visual culture take on renewed urgency.
Art historians have long borrowed organizational metaphors from the natural sciences, employing the biological model in particular as a means for describing the succession of art movements. This model dates to the writings of Giorgio Vasari in the sixteenth century, wherein he proposed that the arts naturally developed along the same line as the life cycle of an organism.2 Movements of art history are born, reach perfection in maturity, and decline into death, all to be replaced by the next movement, which then blossoms organically. This calls to mind, for example, the standard periodization of the Renaissance, with its early phase, high or middle period, and gradual decline and replacement by the Mannerist movement. Despite its longstanding use, the biological model does not arrive without problems. Tracing the rise and fall of art movements, such a model implicitly endorses an evolutionary logic. Nonetheless, the biological model remains appealing in that it suggests how works of art lead lives of their own, exceeding their status as mere objects. Seeking to maintain this recognition while bracketing the more problematic aspects of the biological model, we turn to another scientific term: ecologies.
Conversations regarding ecologies are longstanding in media studies. In 1968, inspired by the work of Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman coined the term “media ecologies.” In their most basic form, ecological theories propose treating media as an environment in which each medium relates to others. This paradigm was foundational to the development of visual culture studies. Responding to media ecology discourse, W.J.T. Mitchell notes that it offers an all-too alluring promise of understanding and conceptually mastering media. Against this promise, Mitchell suggests a “less ambitious” approach, proposing instead that we address media, “not as if they were logical systems or structures but as if they were environments where images live, or personas and avatars that address us and can be addressed in turn.”3 So while we are here indebted to the media studies model of ecologies, we believe that, as with scientific inquiry, the media ecology approach tends to immobilize its object in order to study it. The promise of ecologies thus moves from understanding media to recognizing how embodied, thingly relations connect images to each other and to the world.
In the twentieth issue of InVisible Culture, we identify two main threads of contemporary thinking on ecologies: first, a conception of the term as systems of organization, and second, an understanding of natural ecologies as on the one hand lively, and on the other continually threatened. Considering these two threads together helps us to recognize the vitality of objects and images in reformulating organizational models for visual culture, as well as to explore notions of life fundamental to collective understandings of nature. Much of this issue’s ecological thinking draws from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. As a response to the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment legacy of a subject-centered world, Bennett poses other forms of agency: the non-human, the thingly, and, significantly, a kind of ”vitality intrinsic to materiality.”4 Thinking beyond notions of life and agency as exclusively the domain of humankind, she acknowledges the dynamism of objects, things, and matter as having the ability to define and destabilize subjectivity. Of course, notions of dynamism and liveliness, especially with regard to ecology, originate in biology and the life sciences. Ecology does not simply convey a disciplinary approach to the natural world in the “study of the relations of plants and animals with each other and with their habitat.” It also designates an emergent critical engagement with the environment.5
In his book, Keywords, Raymond Williams notes the relatively recent appearance of the term ecology in the English language, tracing it to translations of German zoologist Ernst Haeckel’s writings from the 1870s. Williams notes the common linguistic root of ecology and economy and addresses ecology’s associations with environmentalism. The term ecology, he insists, is conducive to a preservationist mentality. Recognizing nature as an ecology helps us realize how an incremental change in any environmental factor affects every other part of a wider habitat. In an ecological system, the introduction of a corrosive or invasive foreign agent—such as oil spills in Alaska or zebra mussels in the Great Lakes—signals catastrophe. Yet despite our concerns about anthropogenic pollution in pristine, so-called “natural” environments, we recognize that distinctions between natural and manmade disasters are often unclear or nonexistent.
This issue’s articles reflect the diversity and dynamism of these relations. Each author and artist’s contribution challenged our own thinking about ecology, resulting in an issue that embodies the co-production of meaning that drove our initial inquiry. Perhaps most significant, though, were the contributions that each article made toward reshaping definitions of life, agency, and subjectivity both within and outside the natural world. Confronting both disciplinary conceptions of ecology and anthropocentric constructions of sexuality, this issue examines the impact of environmental catastrophes upon human infrastructures, while also positing the capacity for assemblages of light and energy to trouble easy distinctions between digital, theatrical, and televisual spaces.
In his article, “The Selfie in the Age of Digital Recursion,” Adam Levin unites embodied interactions and digital networks in an ecology of the photographic “selfie.” He describes the mutual constitution of the self and the selfie, describing how this interrelationship helps redefine processes of identity formation in “a new system of recursion.” Levin opens the article with a historiography of scientific thinking about ecologies, in turn connecting early understandings of ecologies with twentieth-century discourses on media ecologies. He then traces the development of the selfie, showing how digital self-portraits display some qualities of earlier media. In this vein, his ecology of selfies draws in daguerreotypes, Facebook, and magazine covers. In particular, Levin argues that selfies extend the functionality of Polaroids into social media and that the digital can help transform relatively fixed discourses of media ecology. Levin ultimately defines selfies as more than self-portraiture, as a presentation of the self as a product of interpersonal relationships that are both embodied and online. Levin concludes by considering Dzokhar Tsarnaev’s selfies.
In “Putting Penises under the Microscope,” Roberta Buiani examines the intersection between science and the visual arts by focusing on artist Maria Fernanda Cardoso’s multipart installation, It is not Size that Matters, it is Shape. The work combines different techniques (2-D printing) and objects (3-D printed sculptures) that abstract, digitize and re-materialize in different fashions the genitalia of the Harvestman, a spider native to Southern Australia. “Putting Penises under the Microscope” is composed of two parts: first, a critical analysis of the installation, and second, an interview with the artist conducted by Gary Genosko that addresses both scientific and artistic aspects of the work. Buiani presents It is not Size that Matters, it is Shape as a collaborative operation involving taxonomists, microscopists, graphic designers, and 3-D printing professionals. She argues that the display of the reproductive organs of a single species using different formats, materials, and scales, essentially dismantles the hierarchies and taxonomies that traditionally define the natural world. Ultimately, Buiani explores how Cardoso’s work exceeds the function of the natural history museum, illustrating how both the research methods undergirding the exhibition and the choice to display genitalia reflect a novel ecological approach.
Beatrice Choi’s “Message in a Bottle: Contesting the Legibility/Illegibility of Ruins and Revival in Post-Katrina New Orleans” offers a counter-reading of post-Katrina New Orleans that challenges the rhetoric of disaster imagery and reassesses the built environment as lived space. In her consideration of the vacated houses of New Orleans’s Ninth Ward, many of which still remain in ruin, Choi asks, “How do the markings on these houses act as . . . crossed-out networks of urban wreckage that embody more than visible legacies of catastrophe?” Approaching the larger ecological complexities in post-disaster New Orleans and the contingencies of its liminal residents, Choi interrogates the terms “post-traumatic landscape,” “illegibility,” and “disaster imagery” by comparing two case studies. The first is renowned photographer Robert Polidori’s photographic series After the Flood. For Choi, the series shows how exploitation accompanies material desolation in New Orleans. Choi contrasts Polidori’s work with her own experiences of the Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours in order to refute the visual framing of Hurricane Katrina in terms of the sublimity of “natural” disaster.
In “The Lightest Distinction,” Hans Vermy explores the distinctions that have historically separated theater, film, television, and the digital. To challenge those distinctions, he evaluates the light sources common to those mediums, by way of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play—a production based upon America’s longest-running and arguably most familiar cartoon, The Simpsons. Developed in 2012 by The Civilians, a New York-based theater company, Mr. Burns imagines a world in which the electric grid ceases to exist after the meltdown of nuclear power plants. In the wake of this electrical apocalypse, the play presents a world lit only by fire, inhabited by a group of people united by their memories of The Simpsons. As Vermy points out, Mr. Burns is about “light that pretends to be another light”—electricity “posing” as firelight for the play’s production, for instance—but also, importantly, the electrical assemblages and surges of shared energy that crisscross the spaces of theater, the televisual, and the digital. Looking outside of Mr. Burns and the material confines of its production, Vermy explores a history of theatrical lighting as well as the extension of the national grid: a dynamic constellation of energy, beings, and things in “dispersed levels of connected agency,” working in tandem with an “aesthetic ensemble that also includes human labor.”
Three artworks expand on the theme of ecologies in issue 20. Making use of IVC’s open access electronic format, these works take on several forms: artist interview, installation documentation, online book, and photo essay. In our interview with EcoArtTech, new media art duo Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint discuss ongoing investigations into the environmental imagination, remixing natural and built spaces, and notions of wilderness and the urban. The interview focuses on their recent “ecological happening” workshop-installation “Basecamp.exe” (2013/14) and the participatory mobile app “indeterminate hikes+” (2012), through which EcoArtTech offers new “opportunities for moments of mindfulness, and for reflection about what it feels like to be a technical human-animal dwelling in the here and now.” By contrast, the text and images comprising Elçin Maraşlı’s “Controlled Denotations” present an archival conversation on the March 5, 2007 al-Mutanabbi Street car bombing in Iraq and interrogate the dividing lines between knowledge and imagination, metaphor and abstraction. The title itself evokes the planned disposal of explosives, highlights the “primary meanings of words and images,” and challenges “processes of abstraction that assign them symbolic significance for ideological purposes.” Eddee Daniel’s immersive photo essay, “Hard Ecology: Rethinking Nature in an Abstract Landscape,” presents a compelling convergence of humanity, nature, and culture, and proposes ways in which images construct understandings of nature. In this work, nature is found abstracted, suggesting contradicting realities.
In light of these ongoing and complex dialogues, this issue draws upon ecology’s connotative richness, especially the vitality that comes out of interconnectivity. Furnishing an awareness of habitat, rooted in the Latin verb “it lives,” ecology refers to the dynamism of the natural world. But it also lends to an understanding of the dynamism of different kinds of environments, from the virtual to the visual. Ecologies—whether image ecologies or ecologies of energy and matter—are animated precisely because of the relationship of component parts to one another. For image ecologies, meaning is produced in the encounter between and across the visual spectrum. Signaling the potency of these relations, “Ecologies” thus refers to systems that are themselves never static or centralized, but instead variable and dispersed.