#BlackLivesMatter and visual activism

Nicholas Mirzoeff's lecture on visual culture and a democratizing Q&A system for audiences point to a changing conversation on campus. 

By Ian Askew '19

On Nov. 12, Nicholas Mirzoeff, professor in the department of media, culture and communication at New York University, presented The Visual Commons: #BlackLivesMatter, a talk focused on the #BlackLivesMatter movement and its activist ancestry. The scope ranged from Haitian independenceNicholas Mirzoeff to mid-20th century civil rights movements. I hadn’t thought of the museum as being a place for a #BlackLivesMatter event, but Mirzoeff also connected the theme to the pop artist Corita Kent, whose work is currently on exhibit at the museum. Mirzoeff discussed the politics of looking, the creation of spectacle and the formation of a space in which communities freely create that which cannot be owned, which he calls the visual commons.

Mirzoeff flipped through images both familiar and novel to the audience. Attendees collectively sighed at images from protests in Ferguson days after the murder of Michael Brown. And despite the size of Menschel Hall, which Mirzoeff referred to as an intimidatingly large space, the room felt small as he presented images of the crime scenes that were used in the trial of Darren Wilson, the officer who was later exonerated. The audience members, many of whom frequently had their heads down taking notes or tapping their phones, fell silent and focused on the images projected at the front of the room. But Mirzoeff was mindful of the audience, including students of color, explaining that he chose not to show many pictures because "at some point there has to be a limit to the spectacle of black death."

Listening to Mirzoeff’s powerful words but occasionally scanning over the audience, I became concerned about how many attendees were looking down at their phones. It turned out that their focus was in the right place. The museum was trying out a new system called Social Q&A where Photo by Ian Askew '19audience members type short questions into a running list and vote on their favorite questions. At the end of the lecture, Mirzoeff was handed an iPad and immediately started answering questions from the top of the list. Although he seemed to find the shifting collection of tweet-sized inquiries disorienting, there was a stunning democracy to the system that seemed fitting for a lecture about the Internet and social justice.

The introduction of these topics and this new Q&A system are both a result of the changing conversations on campus and an effort by the museum to be at the front of these developments. Jessica Martinez, director of academic and public programs, remarked that Mirzoeff had not been asked to talk about #BlackLivesMatter, but that they were excited by his offer to discuss his work on the subject. "#BlackLivesMatters matters deeply to the museum," Martinez said. She explained that the museum can be "a place to form community,” and she hopes that events like this can make the space more open and welcoming.

As for Mirzoeff, he said he struggles with the discipline of visual culture, seeing the term itself as inaccurate. He suggested the term visual activism, but said the particular name of the discipline isn't the point: "I just care that it makes sense." He maintained that while we may not fully grasp the visual commons of #BlackLivesMatter, we have a responsibility to pay attention. Mirzoeff reminded the audience, "We have to keep looking. Keep looking."