Q&A with Visual Culture Conference Organizer Nicholas Mirzoeff

The three-day biennial conference of the International Association for Visual Culture (IAVC) kicks off on Thursday, May 31st at New York University. Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication Nicholas Mirzoeff is Deputy Director of the IAVC, and has been the primary organizer of next week's event, which will feature over 50 leading international scholars, artists, filmmakers and new media practitioners. Mirzoeff is himself a leader in the field, having literally written the textbook on visual culture and other seminal works on the subject. He answers our questions about the field and the conference below.

How do you define visual culture, and in what way does it diverge from other fields of cultural study?
The definition of visual culture changes all the time but I tend to say it is comparative visual media. That is, it has no fixed object of study but it is interested in the interplays between and among visual media and the work of visualizing. That's also its main difference to other fields that tend to be defined by their object, such as film studies. 

What are some compelling new avenues of inquiry in the field of visual culture?
Increasingly, we can make visualized work as well as write about it. We're working with artists, musicians and performers. We've found extraordinary transformations in the present from satellite imaging to the memorials of trauma and the global Occupy movement. We're rethinking past histories from the representation of war in ancient Babylon to the African diaspora deity Mami Wata and iconoclasm in Islam. So in short: visualizing religion, war, politics and the economy, and their interfaces and interactions.

The conference program features scholars and practitioners (i.e. artists), and you yourself collaborate with artists. What is gained from this coupling? 
Visual culture is the practice of theory and the theory of practice. It is something you do, whether what you make is a three-dimensional object, a piece of software or some writing. It would be entirely false to set up an opposition between theory and practice, although past university structures have, of course, done just that. I think this will become the new normal as the digital humanities grow and generations who have known nothing but multimedia worlds move into universities.

The event is billed as a "participation event." Could you speak to the format(s) you envision? 
The central purpose of the event is discussion, exchange and debate among the international participants. In this case, the audience is the protagonist of the event. So we have 5 minute lightning talks to cover as much new work as possible, sessions devoted to learning skills collaboratively, a stress on breakout groups rather than Q&A, a talkback at the end of the event, rather than a keynote at the start. We've kept the space small enough for discussions and the registration to a manageable group. We didn't over-fill the schedule so that people have plenty of time for informal discussion. There are are also a graduate student forum and a general assembly of the new International Association for Visual Culture. So we hope that the event will feel more like a happening, if I can still use that word!

The field must intersect (in interesting ways) with the evolving field of technology. You are involved in several digital publishing projects, and I see that one of these, Scalar, will be discussed at the conference. How is this new platform allowing you to present your work differently?
Scalar is a born-digital multimedia platform. In practice this means first that I can seamlessly display still and moving images alongside text. I can use text performatively to move the reader in different ways than simply by reading. I also have to recognize that in this non-linear format, the user is in charge: you can begin where you want and go where you want so I have to open the project up in a very different way than I would with a print text. It's challenging and liberating at once. Once you get used to it, plain old writing seems very restricting!