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

With contributions by
Sean CUBITT, Martin SCHULZ, Eduardo KAC, Thomas VEIGL, Stefan
Wendy CHUNG, Christa SOMMERER & Laurent MIGNONNEAU, Marie Luise ANGERER,
Peter WEIBEL, Adrian CHEOK, Tim Otto ROTH, Harald KRÄMER, Lev MANOVICH,
Martin WARNKE, Oliver GRAU and Martin KEMP

Reviewed by Trebor Scholz, Eugene Lang College The New School for
Liberal Arts (NY)
(Full hyperlinked version “New Literacies for a New Aesthetic?”
by Trebor Scholz:

As a ten year-old, passing by the Forbidden City of the East German
Head of State and his functionaries sparked my imagination. The walled
complex, tucked away in a forested area near Berlin, was guarded by an
armed division of the Stasi. Back then, you couldn’t Google for images
of this residential compound; Pinterest, Google Earth, and civilian
drones were not around. And even if they were available, there was no
grassroots way of mass-reproducing images or texts.

Images invade our consciousness. They can bear witness when words are
used up. They can mobilize, gratify and inform. They can be put to work
as evidence, argument, accusation, and proof. Images can help us to make
sense of our surroundings. We surrender to the onslaught of images;
sometimes the anti-punctum: senseless, lackadaisically composed, and
extraneous. But images also fail us: the desensitizing overabundance of
visual material does not stop all the atrocities depicted.

Visuality in the early decades of the 21st century is not merely about
image manipulation software though, it is about entirely new attitudes
toward visuality. In the early years of the 21st century, the collection
of essays Imagery in the 21st Century, edited by Oliver Grau with Thomas
Veigl sets out to understand what will constitute an image, and what are
novel ways to generate, project, and distribute pictures.

Imagery in the 21st Century resulted from a conference that Oliver Grau
convened. It traverses the disciplinary divides between art history,
anthropology, and cell biology, focusing on: the ecological and ethical
dimensions of screen technologies (Sean Cubitt), a course on image
practices in the university (James Elkins), machinima aesthetics (Thomas
Veigl), medical illustration (Dolores and David Steinman), the obsession
with source code (Wendy Hui Kyong Chun), novel cultural interfaces
(Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau), the museum as Noah’s Arc
(Peter Weibel), and the Warburg Image Atlas for a digital age (Martin

At first, I asked myself, what holds the twenty chapters in this book
together. What do all the puzzle pieces add up to? An analysis of
contemporary imagery felt like an uncomfortably all-embracing ambition.
John Berger, for example, focused on the way oil paintings primarily
reflected on the status of those who commissioned the artwork. What are
we talking about when we are thinking about contemporary visuality? The
advent of infographics, games, CCTV, animated gifs, art generated by
algorithms, histograms, 4D visualizations, or Instagram? Constructively,
the authors reflect on imagery not merely through the lens of a specific
device, genre, social practice, or social function, and it becomes clear
that image literacy can no longer be the exclusive domain of art
historians. But are we really, as the book suggests, amidst an image
revolution? “The curse of the ‘perpetually new’ is perpetual,” Bruce
Sterling writes.

Today, visual culture invades societies that are largely unprepared. We
surrender. Appropriately, one important axis of discussion in Imagery in
the 21st Century concerns the question of much-needed image literacies.
The editors aspire to extract a crosscutting literacy that can catch the
elusive phenomena of contemporary visuality. Grau calls for an image
competency for our culture that is still largely dominated by writing.
Do we speak the language of the image? Illiteracy, Grau suitably
suggests, has largely been overcome in most countries but the inability
to interpret images adequately, has not been sufficiently considered.

With the proliferation of digitization, we are inundated with heaps of
information. In this Age of Big Data, the ever growing pile of data
becomes unknowable as David Weinberger and others have pointed out.
There are ever more data but fewer theories to make sense of them. The
world has become harder to know. Visualization, aggregation, curation
and the filtering of data become core competencies not only for
designers but also for journalists, scholars, artists, and scientists.
There is no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter
failure, as Clay Shirky declared. This is also true when it comes to
“abuses of the visual,” as James Elkins put it referring to
compulsively created, senseless images. Oliver Grau and Thomas Veigl
demand new forms of visualization to face this explosion of knowledge.

For me, the visual should not merely connect us to the sciences, as
Elkins suggests, but also to the political power of images. Think of the
work of the British cultural critic Judith Williamson (e.g., Decoding
Advertising), the artworks by Alfredo Jaar, Emily Jacir, Trevor Paglen
or Alan Sekula. Or, take the recently published book Right To Look, in
which Nicholas Mirzoeff argues that “visuality has been central to the
legitimization of Western hegemony.” Such discussion of global image
power as political force is indispensable. In his chapter in Imagery in
the 21st Century, “Visual Practices the University: A Report,” James
Elkins suggests that today, learning mainly happens through images.
Already in 1924, the German art historian and cultural theorist Aby
Warburg used arrangements of images from distant times and places. In
his Mnemosyne-Atlas he combines images to create meaning. In fact,
Warburg’s writing is hard to understand without comprehending his

Do images really push themselves in front of words, as Elkins claims?
Have words hopelessly deteriorated? The editors argue along those lines:
“It would appear that images have won the contest with words.” (6)
Indeed, long-form platforms like WordPress grow slower than short-form
writing and image sharing through micro-blogging services. The image
sharing board Pinterest grows at an explosive rate. An Instagram photos
make sharing even faster than tweets. But thinking of the media
representation of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 or the Kosovo War in
1999- images failed to make these atrocities vivid enough; they did not
do very much. Susan Sontag concludes that narrative and contextual
framing establish more meaning than images. But luckily learning in
colleges and universities is still largely based on texts. Part of my
responsibility as a professor is to bring students into the intimate,
delicious sphere of reading. The visuality of Khan Academy’s
hand-written lectures on videos is an interesting hybrid. But still, we
largely discover the universe through words. The long sentence is worth
defending against the click-click moments of the networked cacophony.

Sean Cubitt’s in his chapter “Current Screens” instructs us to consider
specifically the ethical-ecological layer of discussions about screen
technologies. Her emphasizes that our culture is highly material,
especially when you consider the ecological footprint of the raw
materials. LCD screens, for example, are poorly biodegradable and
potentially significant water contaminants. Sean Cubitt demands that
next steps cannot be achieved without respect for the poor and for the
ecosphere. Cubitt’s essay also reminded me of the fact that an avatar in
the virtual world Second Life consumes as much electricity as a real
life person in Brazil. The “immaterial” can’t escape the burden, the
solace, and social costs of the material world.

In this discussion of visual culture, media art has a role to play. How
can we rescue digital artworks from oblivion? Oliver Grau’s warns of the
total loss of our cultural memory of digital art of the past ten years.
Most definitely, hardware and operating systems change and without
explicit, thoughtful, and well-funded efforts, most works will indeed be
lost. There is no one-fits-all preservation solution. Oliver Grau, who
is also the author of Virtual Art: From Illusion to Immersion, provides
impressive examples of indispensable media artworks like Jeffrey Shaw’s

Peter Weibel, in his chapter, states that a degree of democratization
and personalization of technology has helped to empower users. We are
all consumers and producers of visual culture. Art, too, is included in
this democratization. Painters no longer have a monopoly on creating
images ever since photography made it possible for everyone to take
pictures. Artists have lost their monopoly on creativity. Museums,
Weibel suggests, are floating crates. They are meant to store works in
their bellies, just like Noah’s Ark. They are meant to assure that
artworks do not perish. If we inquire how many works have been preserved
during the last century, the estimates vary between 1% and 7% of the
whole production of art. Museums have done a poor job, Weibel states.
They have passed judgments with the guillotine of history–separated out
the majority of art and rejected it.

Today, when I return to the former East Germany, my GPS powered
cellphone will not only lead my way, but it will also reveal all that
was hidden back when I drove by Erich Honecker Secret City. Smartphones
embed geographic location in the photos that I capture. While pressing
my fingers into the hardcover of Imagery in the 21st Century, I can’t
stop myself from asking why a publication that is so much about the
liquidity of the frameless image, the shrinking shelf life of the jpg, a
book that so heavily relies on hyperlinked references, is not published
online. High quality images, animated gifs and videos could be included
this way. An interactive, web-based publication, however, could have
better served as an open educational resource, made the content
available to far more people, very much supporting the kind of thinking
that the publication encourages. This is not a shortcoming of the
editors but it behoves all of us to find adequate and creative responses
to the old business models of mechanical reproduction. I was thrilled to
read Grau’s Imagery in the 21 Century and I will use it in my teaching.
The book can be brought into productive conversation with Nicholas
Mirzoeff’s Right to See, David Weinberger’s Too Big To Know, Cathy
Davidson’s Now You See It, and also Design Studies: A Reader, edited by
my New School colleagues Hazel Clark and David Brody. Imagery in the 21
Century is a fabulous resource for the reflection on contemporary