Professor, Department of Media, Culture, and Communication
"Televisions, computers - even cell phones now - bombard us with images constantly. We need to understand and interrogate exactly what this means."
“The contemporary world is hypervisual,” says Nicholas Mirzoeff. “We are inundated with images wherever we go. Televisions, computers - even cell phones now - bombard us with images constantly. We need to understand and interrogate exactly what this means.”
Mirzoeff arrived at NYU to do just that. After more than a decade of writing about and teaching visual culture, most recently at SUNY Stonybrook, Mirzoeff decided to join the Department of Art and Art Professions in order to create a cross-departmental and cross-disciplinary visual culture program. “This is a very exciting opportunity,” says Mirzoeff, who considers the new program a validation of the field of visual culture, once considered a subdivision of art history.
The new program in visual culture also signals the primacy of the visual image, he believes, which affects our lives to a greater and greater extent each day. “In fact, what it means to be a citizen in the 21st century is going to require a visual literacy that will be as fundamental as reading, math and science literacy.”
Mirzoeff’s recent book, Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture, enlarges upon this intriguing notion. “The book is an attempt to think about the experience of ‘watching’ the Iraq war,” he says. “In one sense, it’s a war of images. We were shown the war live on television, we were told the war was over on the basis of a staged visual event on an air craft carrier, and then the war was placed in a very different light by a set of digital photographs taken at the Abu Ghraib prison. Of course the war is as real as anything could possibly be, but the way the war has been experienced by many of us has been through visual media of various sorts, and continues to be.”
To examine this idea of “watching” the war even further, Mirzoeff recently launched a public series on war and violence, focusing on the Iraq war in particular. “It’s a continuation of a visual culture seminar that I ran prior to 9/11 with Merritt Stange, who is a member of the Humanities faculty at Cooper Union. When I came to NYU it seemed sensible to revive the series because issues of war and the representation of violence are so important today.”
The seminar also illustrates a public service component of Mirzoeff’s work that has long been present. His first book, Silent Poetry: Deafness, Sign and Visual Culture in Modern France, was about sign language and its relationship to painting. “I am hard of hearing, so I rely on my visual sense perhaps more than other people do.”
In thinking about this, Mirzoeff looked at a group of artists in 19th century France who happened to be deaf who used painting as a means of representing themselves to the hearing. “Their work said: we see the same world that you do, so therefore we’re the same as you. We’re not different and we’re not second rate.”
The book is now used quite frequently in disability studies, which Mirzoeff finds “hugely rewarding. I discovered an element of advocacy in my work that was beyond the usual scope of my research.”
Professor Mirzoeff is excited about his interactions with students in the department of Art and Arts Professions who, he says, engage him. “Students live in a visual culture in a way that is wholly natural to them, so I learn things from them I wouldn’t otherwise know. It’s crucial for me to be in constant dialogue with my students in order to find out where the culture is.” And because his students are artists who grapple with the issues surrounding a pervasive visual culture, “the kinds of questions they ask tend to have an urgency. Trying to help them answer those questions keeps me honest.”