Professor Nicholas Mirzoeff is one of 12 recipients of the prestigious ACLS/Mellon Scholars and Society Fellowship for the 2020/21 academic year. Mirzoeff's research for the project will be conducted as a Scholar in Residence at the Magnum Foundation in New York. We spoke with him about his work and its connection to this current period in American culture.
My work is about reclaiming cultural forms designated as “art” for cultural and social justice analysis. — Nicholas Mirzoeff
You are a leading figure in the field of Visual Culture. For the uninitiated, please define the kinds of concerns that interest scholars like you. How does this intersect with your present focus on media and visual activism?
This is, and has been for a long time, a visual culture, meaning a culture that communicates (and fails to communicate) by means of visualizing and visual media. When the academic field of visual culture began in the 1990s, many were skeptical of this claim. In the world of Zoom, when 400 hours of video are posted to YouTube every minute and 3.5 billion Snaps appear on Snapchat every day, it’s now clear to everyone that visual media give one key vector to analyze society. I’m particularly interested in the history of visualizing as a tool of coloniality and white supremacy, ranging from mapping to statues and the face-to-face encounter. Visual activism—everything from a claim to look the way you want, to be seen by others, to refuse surveillance and overturning statues—puts that analysis into everyday use.
A powerful element of your work is its grounding in a global cultural history. Referencing archival images from Algeria in the 1960s, sugar plantations of the 17th century, it’s a reminder of the pervasive and enduring themes you write about. Can you speak about the centrality of history (and art history) in your scholarship?
I studied Modern History as an undergrad and my PhD is joint Art History and History, so it’s no surprise that I think historically. My goal is always to visualize the history of the present, which I see as being comprised of multiple layers of pasts, presents and possible futures. The metaphor I often use is Photoshop: what appears to be a single image is in fact densely layered and that affects both its meaning and our response. At a time when Confederate statues are being overturned, when the formerly colonized are claiming the return of their art removed during colonial rule, and the Indigenous are reminding all of us who are settlers in the Americas that we live and work on stolen land, such histories feel more present and active than ever.
I also see my work as a teacher as being one of intersection, where students bring into the room their lived experience of digital spaces and global culture, and I offer a sense of history. Sometimes that can be surprisingly recent history. I gave a seminar in California last month in which participants selected an essay of mine from 2005 to discuss because they had never heard of, or seen, the Abu Ghraib photographs that were such a critical issue shaping attitudes to the Iraq war. In relation to art history, my work is about reclaiming cultural forms designated as “art” for cultural and social justice analysis.
For students just starting out, how might learning to analyze the visuality of the current moment be a helpful way of doing racial justice work and reimagining a more just media representation?
Anyone under thirty who lives in a city and has access to the Internet is now part of the new global majority that has come into being in the last decade. Many of the social movements worldwide result from that majority making a claim on social, political and cultural power. Nowhere is that more true than in work centered on abolition and anti-racism. When a police officer sees a person, they make an instant judgment based on their assessment of that person’s ethnicity and act accordingly. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by police in Cleveland two second after a vehicle arrived. 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson in “less than a minute,” according to police testimony that I analyzed. By contrast, after Dylann Roof killed nine people at the AME Church in South Carolina, police not only arrested him safely but bought him a hamburger. The New York Times led the way in characterizing Michael Brown as “no angel,” although he had no secure place to live but had nonetheless gained entry to community college, where he was about to start when he was murdered.
So much history, judgment and politics goes into that moment when one person looks at another. If one of those people is authorized to kill, then it is a moment fraught with danger if prejudice and stereotype act as filters to that encounter. Most students won’t encounter such a moment. But when a Black NYU colleague pointed out to me that they could not run or carry a metal object in their hand without being afraid of arrest, I realized that almost every day at that time, I ran across town to W4th St station, carrying my phone in my hand, because I was commuting and did not want to miss my train. What I learned was that it is in the everyday moments that whiteness claims its privilege—even if unasked for—every day. It is the work of those of us identified as white to undo that designation of our own bodies.
If you had to select the most important visual of 2020, what would it be and why?
Here there is no question. It would be 17-year-old Darnella Frazier’s video of the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Her film is what I call a “countervisuality” to that filtered, prejudicial interpretation that sees any and every Black man as a permanent threat. Frazier had the presence of mind not only to film but to stay with it for the eternity of eight minutes and forty-six seconds. In recent years, data plans have become cheaper, often offering unlimited use, so she was able to post the full video online. George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter later said “Daddy changed the world.” And he did. But it was possible because of the actions of another young woman. For a while in June and July 2020, substantial majorities of all people supported the Black Lives Matter movement for the first time, even if the acerbic presidential election later generated a new polarization. What that visual record did was show that another world is possible, one in which police don’t kill people based on the color of their skin because the majority of all people understand the perhaps rather simple lesson that it is wrong to do so. It showed, too, that making social change through visual media is not only possible, it happens all around us.