Etikettarkiv: visual studies

Welcome again to Visual Studies – its 14th year at Åbo Akademi

Illustrating a theory about photography

An important statement of Visual Studies: From an exhibition by the artist Alfredo Jaar in 2013. Source:

Hello! This is still the blog of the Visual Studies minor at Åbo Akademi University and I am still Fred Andersson, a Swedish art historian who has been running this business since it started in 2008. Recently I discussed the topic of blogs with some of my art history students – ”is there anyone who actually reads them anymore?”. Anyhow, we agreed that if you have a text-based blog, you probably write it mainly for your own sake, for testing ideas, using the blog as a ”sketch-pad” for more finished texts, probably also as a strategy to get rid of writing blocks. There are people who use Facebook and Instagram updates for similar reasons, sometimes posting full essays, but especially in the Smartphone mode the reading experience is not very pleasant. Let’s therefore continue with this Visual Studies blog. I guess I will still be the only one writing for it, and if you happen to be some people out there reading it, don’t hesitate to email me if you have questions or ideas (you’ll find my info in the ”Våra kurser/Our Courses” tab at this page). I had to disable the ”comments” function because of massive amounts of spam. All new entries will from now on be written in English, because over the years we have seen that to an increasing extent, exchange students are in majority among the participants of some of our courses.

A random example in Visual Studies: This image was ”made” a century ago in order to capture both the boys and the now demolished building in the background. The image ”tells us” about the situation of its making. Without text and archival information, it doesn’t tell much else. (Source: private.)

We have now, hopefully, left the COVID pandemic behind, and in the meantime the study structure at our faculty section KHF (Culture, History, Philosophy) at Åbo Akademi University has underwent some structural changes. It is, as yet, not very clear what consequences these may have for the future role of the Visual Studies subject. With continuous information work and ”marketing efforts”, for example the maintenance of this blog and the circulation of course information to mailing lists and in the Visual Studies Facebook group, I have been able to attract a sufficient number of students and to keep most of our courses running every year since 2008. However, due to other demanding tasks and the time-consuming adaptation to online teaching during the Pandemic, I have not been able to maintain these outreaching activities for the past two years, and the effects of this neglect are now clearly noticeable.

A small subject is always in a precarious position, especially at a small university with only one single individual (that is me) employed as full-time teacher and researcher of the subject. This single individual is probably even the only teacher in the whole of Finland: even though Visual Studies now exists at Tampere University also, the people there present the subject as a research network and don’t seem to offer any undergraduate courses (Tampere Visual Studies Lab, Some other Finnish universities have courses in Visual Culture, which is not necessarily the same – I will soon explain why.

I have noticed that most students taking our courses are no longer aware of the existence of Visual Studies as a ”short minor” (in Swedish kort biämne) at our university, i.e. as a small program that you can choose as a parallel complement to your ”major” (in Swedish huvudämne). Some have found single courses that have been recommended as optional in other subjects or study units (in Swedish kurshelheter), others are probably interested in only certain specific aspects of Visual Studies (such as film studies), and many exchange students have realized that some of our courses are among the few in the humanities that are given in English. All this is well and good, but it is obviously time for a reminder that Visual Studies exists as a separate discipline at universities worldwide, and that there are certain reasons for its existence. These reasons are also the reasons why our courses look they way they do, and why they should preferably be taken in a certain order if you want to choose Visual Studies as your minor subject. (See the ”Våra kurser/Our Courses” tab.)

Visual Studies has an obvious connection to Art History – a much older subject that has been taught at European universities for at least 200 years. Most scholars who regard themselves as belonging to Visual Studies have a formal education as art historians, and most research groups or departments with ”Visual Studies” in their official names have been sub-sections or ”outgrowths” of departments of Art History. Because of its organizational connection to Art History, Visual Studies is typically regarded as the study of human visual culture – or more specifically as Visual Culture Studies. The difference with Art History is simply the word ”art” – Visual Culture is not limited to what we usually refer to as ”art” (for example objects exhibited at ”art galleries” or collected at ”art museums”). The history of visual culture is the history of how humankind has shaped its visual environment and developed means of visual symbolism and communication. When limited to Visual Culture Studies, research in Visual Studies normally focuses on aspects of human behavior that are dependent on culturally determined conventions and codes, the dominant research paradigm being that of cultural constructivism.

Reality: a cake moulded by language? (Source:

When taken to extremes, cultural constructivism tends to result in a rather limited worldview, according to which almost everything in life could be explained as dependent on language, culture and learned behavior. One case in point is the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics, which states that our perception and our understanding of the world around us is shaped or ”moulded” by the terms and concepts available in our language, and not the other way around. In its strong version, which is today abandoned by most linguists, this hypothesis would potentially lead to such resasonings as this one: Let’s assume that a language has only three basic color terms, and that these are black, white and red. Then, its speakers would not be able to perceive other colors.

How are we to test if this conclusion is true? Indeed, there are still people who in their childhood only spoke a language with no other basic color terms than those mentioned – for exemple some languages spoken by indigenous groups in Australia. Today, they most probably speak English too. If, in their childhood, they were subjected to various psychological tests designed in order to determine whether they could see or not see what ”we” Westerners see, such tests would still beg the question of what it means to ”see” and to perceive. Do we have, ourselves, names for all chromatic nuances we can distinguish? Hardly so: we would then need thousands and thousands of colour terms, and be able to remember them and distinguish between them. There is no room in our verbal memory for such massive amounts of fine linguistic distinctions that only refer to color. The visual ability of distinguishing colour is evidently not dependent on the number of color terms in language. Paintings and other visual artifacts produced in cultures with limited color terminology is by no means less colorful and nuanced than in other cultures, and most probably a more developed terminology has never been needed for social interaction in the group. Similarly, the term brun in old French covered a range of nuances from brown to dark violet – there was not yet any need to attach those nuances to separate word labels.

Research in perception repeatedly demonstrates that seeing is both a biological mechanism and a social activity. When someone or something draws our attention to a detail in our environment we ”attend” to that detail and tend to neglect the rest. This is shown in a well known experiment, in which people watching a ballgame don’t notice the actor in a gorilla suit entering the scene, because they are busy counting the number of times the ball is passed (Watch here, Thus, vision partly works in a ”top-down” fashion, as psychologists use to say, because we constantly move our eyes and activeley seach out what we want to see or what we expect to see.

But vision also works in the opposite, ”bottom-up” direction. Raw visual data is received by the photoreceptors in our eyes (or, more correctly, in the retinas of our eyes), and is processed for the extraction of only those features and contrasts that are necessay for perception. Vision is selective and active. The supposition that we would not ”see” things if we cannot ”name” them rests on a limited understanding of the relationship between sensation and meaning, or between raw perception and developed cognition.

Neuro-electrical excitation levels of responsive fields (with ON and OFF regions) when registering different points around a light/dark border. Responsive fields only partly overlapping the borders have the highest response levels (above and below zero level), resulting in the perception of a sharp contour. (Source: Thompson, Trosciano & Snowden, Basic Vision)

Actually, ”meaning”, in a wider sense than only ”verbally expressed meaning”, is generated already at the ”primitive” level of extraction of contours by the photoreceptors. As anyone who has ever tried to draw a picture of an object would know, there are no contours ”on” the object. There are only surfaces. Producing a drawing with contours is a process akin to how the organisation of photoreceptors in networks of ”responsive fields” is optimized for the registration of changes in light intensities in a perceived scene: the borders between lighter and darker regions are decoded as contours, from which higher functions in the brain can ”conclude” what kind of object or shape we are perceiving. After some 100 years of advanced neurological science we still know very little about how this actually works. Scientists surely know how visual features, such as size, placement, orientation, colour and movement are processed by specialized regions in the brain, and that these regions are all interconnected in a neural network of amazing complexity, but there is still no clear answer to how all these features and pieces of information are coordinated and understood as something we can point to and refer to with a term in language, for example ”a ball”, ”a cube” or ”a house”.

It seems that the more we study these matters, the less we know, and the more we will refrain from simplified generalizations such as ”there is nothing outside of language!” or ”everything is biology!” Sometimes, Visual Studies can provide space for sharing and comparing contributions from different disciplines: what do historians, sociologists, linguists, computer scentists, biologists have to say about the use of visual skills in their work, and how can their own research contribute to our knowledge about the visual? To the extent that this sharing and cooperation is not limited to the humanities, Visual Studies could then be defined as a more open and inclusive field than Visual Culture Studies, or as Visual Culture Studies without ”culturalist” bias. The same is true of the developments in interdisciplinary language studies, often involving pictures and ”visual thinking” also, that are known as cognitive linguistics and cognitive semiotics.

Freedom of speech 2: Jan Myrdal and Aron Flam

After of our thematic weeks about social and political aspects of comics, the following update by Fred Andersson:

Some weeks ago I promised a Part 2 of my reflections on artists, satire and the freedom of speech (previous post). After Visual studies started as a separate teaching subject at Åbo Akademi in 2008, I have been interviewed in Finland-Swedish media on a number of occasions when these issues have been up for debate, for example after the assassination of the Charle Hebdo cartoonists in 2015, and in connection with attempts to prohibit the display of certain parts of the ”canon” of Finnish art history (the Gallen-Kallela ”Aino and Väinämöinen” case in 2018, link to picture and comment in Finnish by Susanna Pettersson here).

Similarly to a number of colleagues at the different arts and culture departments at Åbo Akademi, I refused to sign the call in October 2018 for the cancellation of an event in which the Swedish ultra-liberal mediastar and ”masculinity-theorist”, Alexander Bard would participate. I cannot speak for others, but in my personal case my refusal was not motivated by any sympathies whatsoever with Bard’s sensationalist political agenda and confused Jordan Peterson-style rhetoric. Instead I acted out of a conviction that at University free debate must not be silenced because of pressure from activist groups within the staff. Probably I acted out of a belief known by some as ”first amendment fundamentalism” (yttrandefrihetsfundamentalism).

Alexander Bard (left) and Aron Flam, or ”The Aryan of the Jew”, publicity picture from their cooperation in 2018. Image source:

However, this kind of ”fundamentalism” is not without it problems, and of course it is not my own invention. (It is an important part of intellectual ethics to acknowledge that all that we know and think, we have originally recieved from others. Therefore we write footnotes and references.)

I received my ”first amendment fundamentalism” primarily from the work of an international intellectual who has influenced and also angered generations of younger writers and journalists in Sweden. His name was Jan Myrdal (1927-2020) and on 30 October he passed away at an hospital in Varberg, very close to my usual homestead at the West coast in Sweden. Of special interest in the context of Visual studies and Art history are Myrdal’s books and articles on political satire in Europe, and on ancient and medieval iconography in France, Kampuchea (the Khmer name of the country more known as Cambodia), and Mexico. His wife, the artist Gun Kessle (1926-2007), cooperated with him in all these extensive projects as photograher and critical friend.

The Myrdal-Kessle couple also belonged to the rare group of dedicated and systematic private book collectors in their time; during their many travels, they collected a total of more than 30.000 items, including complete issues of many important journals and book series. After 2013, the collection has been kept and catalogued by the Jan Myrdal society in Varberg, in a house donated by the philantropist Lennart Diding. Items can be searched and ordered though the Swedish bibliographic system Libris ( and the collection is open for scholars and the main public at appointment with the Society. Information in Swedish about the Jan Myrdal library here: Information om Jan Myrdalbiblioteket.

Jan Myrdal (1927-2020). Image source: Wikipedia.

Jan Myrdal was a lifelong communist of Marxist-Leninist orientation, and unusually consistent in his political views. Because of his consistency, he ended up being perceived as rather lonely. Differently from most other leftist public intellectuals in Europe, he refused to denounce the policies of communist leaders later exposed as responsible for economic disasters and mass purges. To the end, he defended his belief that humanitarian reasons for condemning the rules of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot are not valid; he saw their policies as historically necessary. Of course, he also defended his right to speak out this belief in a political climate and at a time in which fewer and fewer shared them. To a very great extent, he used to his own benefit the freedom implied by the first amendment of the American republican constitution. Many commentators remarked that in societies of the type preferred by Myrdal, he would probably have been the first to be shot.

Myrdal had no university education at all, and he was in this respect ”self-taught” as a journalist, writer, social theorist and historian. One could fairly say, however, that he was born into the top intellectual elite of the European labour movement, and that he therefore didn’t need a university. His parents were Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, both nobel laureates whose social reseach made them highly influential both in the Swedish social democratic party and in the development of welfare policies in the USA and the UN. The young Jan Myrdal very early felt a need to denounce the ideals of his parents and to identify with the life of common people and more radical politics. He compensated his bad school results with extensive reading habits, and in spite of obvious reading- and writing difficulties he insisted on becoming a freelance journalist and writer (free from the parents, whom he later denounced rather brutally).

In his teens, Myrdal also became a member of the youth organisation of the original Swedish communist party, SKP. However, he distanced himself from the party in the 1960ies, partly because of its new reformist tendencies (known in the Communist movement as ”revisionism”), but also because of its traditional connection to the Soviet Union. In the Sixties, the anticolonial cause grew in importance, and in this context China was increasingly seen as representing the hope of Socialist society against Soviet stagnation. At this time, Myrdal’s books and articles were recognised internationally as part of a wave in which Western writers freed themselves from eurocentrism and dedicated themselves to studies of the ”third world”, as an act of solidarity with its popular movements.

It is significant that one of the books with which Myrdal had his international breakthrough had the English title Confessions of a disloyal European (1968, in Swedish 1983). Disloyalty towards European powers and European educational traditions, especially if associated with conservative politics, was very important for Myrdal and other supporters of anti-colonial struggle at the time. The transformation of rural life in the People’s republic of China was the topic of an earlier book by Myrdal, written in cooperation with Gun Kessle as photographer: Report from a Chinese Village (1963, first Swedish edition the same year). This book was praised as the first in-depth report by a westerner from inside the huge social experiment in China. It focused in an almost ethnographic manner on living conditions and traditions largely unknown outside the country. At the time of Myrdal’s and Kessle’s first visit to the studied Liu Lin area, most peasants there still lived in cave-like dwellings, carved out of the rock and soil with a special technique.

Later, however, when the negative consequences of Mao Zedong’s ”big leap” and cultural revolution had become common knowledge, Myrdal and Kessle were accused of having been pawns in the hands of the regime, totally and naively dependent on government guides and translators. Similar accusations were mounted in connection to the couple’s visits to Kampuchea and their expressions of solidarity with the communist Khmer Rouge movement.

Myrdal and Kessle first visited Kampuchea in order to collect material for their study of the ancient Khmer kingdom and its national sanctuary Angkor Vat: Angkor: An Essay on Art and Imperialism (Vintage books, 1970). They established friendly relationships with prince Norodom Sihanouk, dictator of Kampuchea at the time (also king of Kampuchea 1941-1955 and 1993-2004). Sihanouk’s close diplomatic ties to China and North Korea secured his escape when he was deposed as head of state in 1970; later he could return because of his support for the Khmer Rouge. It is obvious that Myrdal and Kessle were strongly dependent on their contacts in the political establishment of Kampuchea for their access to travel and studies in the country; they developed a strong loyalty with the Khmer Rouge regime of 1976-1979, but they claimed to have witnessed no signs of the atrocities soon reported in Western media.

The cover of Jan Myrdal’s and Gun Kessle’s Angkor Vat. Image source:

The Kampuchea case remained the great unresolved paradox of Myrdal’s political legacy and has greatly tainted his and Gun Kessle’s reputation in most quarters. When pressed on the matter, Myrdal’s usual response was that he would surely welcome an investigation of the whole extent of the Kampuchean tragedy, but only on condition that it was carried out in an impartial manner, and that it also would include the effects of American aggression during the so-called ”Operation Freedom Deal” between 1970 and 1973. (This operation was motivated by a wish to target Viet Cong forces hidden in Kampuchea, and it was disastrous for the country.)

However, a very different aspect which complicates the picture further is the substantial material support from both the USA and China to Khmer Rouge after 1979, securing the continued guerilla struggle of the movement. After the Vietnamese intervention in Kampuchea, which ended the Khmer Rouge rule, the USA obviously aimed at a continuation of the Vietnamese war through Khmer Rouge. Therefore, a continued sympathy for the Khmer Rouge and their ”farmer’s revolution” meant, in the new geopolitical situation, an obvious contradiction in relation to the anti-American sentiments that had fuelled earlier activism for the Vietnamese cause in the international left. It is no wonder that Myrdal became an increasingly problematic figure not only for his usual opponents but also for former leftist friends.

Later, in the Nineties, it became evident that Myrdal was prepared to follow the logical consequences of an unlimited freedom of speech to its extreme end-point, for example when he defended the initiative to invite Robert Faurisson, the infamous denier of the Holocaust, to speak in Sweden. Many were also chocked by Myrdal’s refusal to condemn the Iranian regime and its fatwa against Salman Rushdie after the publication of the Satanic Verses. As in other similar cases, Myrdal’s standpoint here was essentially strategic: Rushdie’s right to describe the Islamic world and culture in a manner seen as blasphemous should be defended, yes, but strategically an alliance between leftist movements and the Islamic republic against the USA must be prioritised.

As the proverb goes, ”the enemies of my enemies are my friends” (or the friends of my enemies are my enemies), but Myrdal’s actions often gave the impression that all enemies of American or Soviet imperialism were his friends. A couple of years ago, when Myrdal was ninety years old but still very active, he spoke at an anti-imperialist peace conference i Moldova, attended by representatives of a number of far-right organisations. Not long before, he had caused another scandal by publishing, as invited author, a number of articles in a magazine that supports the policies of the rightwing Swedish populist party Sverigedemokraterna. The conclusions were evident for most of us at the time: Myrdal had ended up in the ”brown camp”, he had lost it.

Or were we judging these things in a manner too black and white? Why was it the connections to rightwing extremism which finally made emotions boil over, and not the defence of Mao and Pol Pot? And why have I, by the way,  already dedicated the main part of this post to Myrdal? What is the relationship between him, Charlie Hebdo and the comedian Aron Flam? OK, we will come to that. What I have written about Myrdal this far probably does not inspire much sympathy.

But apart from Myrdal being an outstandingly productive writer whose literary work will survive (especially his self-biographical novels) I also think that we can learn a great deal from his life, and from his research into the political and cultural history of Europe. First of all, of course, we can learn that at the exteme ends, political opposites often meet. The political contradictions in which Myrdal became entangled serve to demonstrate the problems associated with a non-compromising application of ”first amendment fundamentalism”. It also seems that in these matters Myrdal often relied heavily on the French republican tradition of  laïcité (a concept often repeated in the Charlie Hebdo debate), and that this tradition is hard to reconcile with the political logic of Northern Europe, and of Sweden in particular.

What usually happened when Myrdal was attacked publicly for having done or written something outrageous (or against the normalised ”political correctness”) was that he wrote lengthy and learned replies, full of references to historical examples and circumstances with which most of his opponents were not familiar. Of course one cannot risk losing a debate by admitting one’s lack of knowledge. Better then to merely repeat the original accusations. Therefore, because of lack of common ground, the debates mostly confirmed the established view of Myrdal as an ”impossible” individual, or a réfractaire. That was the French term which he often used in reference to himself, i.e. someone who refuses to obey anyone.

Myrdal also felt that he was a follower of August Strindberg in attacking the provinciality and narrowmindedness of Swedish academia and the Swedish literary establishment (especially the Swedish Academy). He associated this narrowmindedness with Strindberg’s notion of ”the public lie”, and gave a speech in French on the topic at the university of Caen (Bretagne) in 2014. He acted offended, but was probably amused, when no magazine in Sweden was willing to print the speech. Instead it was printed in the Finland-Swedish leftist-liberal magazine Nya Argus, link here: Myrdal’s article ”Den intellektuelle och makten: Sverige och den offentliga lögnen” in Swedish.

To my knowledge, there is hardly anyone in academic art history, with the notable exception of Anne Lidén at Stockholm University, who have commented upon or referred to Myrdal’s contributions to art history, and his role as a collector of popular art and prints. The Angkor Vat book has already been mentioned. In Swedish, Myrdal and Gun Kessle also published books on medieval art in France and Norway (När västerlandet trädde fram, 1992), and on art, politics and religion in Mexico (México: Dröm och längtan, 1996). During their stays in Paris and along with their book collecting, Myrdal and Kessle also collected a huge material of political and satirical prints from the first French revolution until the 1940ies. Many of these prints they found in the fleemarkets by the Seine.

Parts of the French print material has been published along with Myrdal’s comments in three books in Swedish: Franska revolutionens bilder (1989), Sälja krig som margarin (2005) and När gatan tog mediemakt (2016). The last one, När gatan tog mediemakt (picture below) deals with the political imagery and satire of the Paris commune in 1871, and was published as the year book of the Worker’s Cultural Association (Arbetarnas kulturhistoriska sällskap) in Sweden. In conjunction with the publication, parts of the material was donated to the Archives of the Swedish Labour Movement (ARAB) in Stockholm. In these books, readers of Swedish can familiarise themselves with the French satirical tradition continued today in magazines such as Charlie Hebdo. A translation into English of the books would be welcome: Myrdal himself often lamented at the end of his life that he had not published more in English.

Jan Myrdal’s book from 2016 in which he writes about the pictures of the Paris commune.

It so happened, that during the last year of Jan Myrdal’s life, questions of freedom of speech and the limits of political satire were on the top news in Swedish media. And this was because of a book by an author who quite clearly belongs to the opposite political camp. (But, again, the opposites sometimes meet.) I am referring to the stand-up comedian and Jewish-born intellectual Aron Flam. Se image at the beginning of this post, in which he is photographed with his friend, the ”aryan” Alexander Bard. Flam had written a book with a basic message easily predictable from a frustrated laissez-faire liberal in a welfare state. It tells (again) the story of the vicious ”indoctrination” of the people in Sweden by the social democratic party (SAP), especially during the Second World War, during which the Party collaborated (or ”upheld friendly diplomatic relations”, according to more official accounts) with Nazi Germany, and commanded public silence with a famous poster by the cartoonist Bertil Almqvist (1902-1972). This poster shows a blue and yellow tiger with the sentence EN SVENSK TIGER (wordpun, ”a Swedish tiger”, ”a Swede keeps silent”). Less has been said and written about Flam’s book than about his debut as a collage artist: for the cover of the book, he took the tiger from Almqvist’s poster and equipped it with a Nazi salute and a swastika. See below.

”This is a Swedish tiger” (detail of cover of Aron Flam, Det här är en svensk tiger, Samizdat publishing 2019.

About half a year after the publication of the book by Flam’s own enterprise Samizdat publishing i August 2019, an objection was filed by representatives of the private ”Military Readiness Museum” (Swedish name Beredskapsmuseet) in southern Sweden. The Museum had earlier purchased the copyright of the original image from Almqvist’s heirs. According to the Museum, Flam was guilty of copyright infringement (not having contacted the Museum) and plagiarianism. This developed into a lawsuit in which Swedish police confiscated the whole remaining edition of the book from Flam’s storage in June 2020. This summer I followed the case rather closely and often listened to Flam’s podcast, entitled Dekonstruktiv kritik (deconstructive criticism,, which is self-aggrandising and slightly paranoid in Flam’s usual style, but also ambitious in its selection of topics and guests.

Flam received almost unanimous support in the media, it spite of his often controversial ideas (and in spite of the book getting generally bad reviews). The case received international attention, for example here in The Brussels Times: ”A Swedish Tiger Without Protection. In Swedish television (SVT Morgonstudion, aired 24 September 2020), the comedian Sandra Ilar expressed worries, shared by many, at the prospect that Flam could be found guilty: ”It would be a disaster. All the satire one has enjoyed, jokes, drawings that make fun of history, these had not been possible to produce” (Det vore förödande. All satir man har tagit del av, skämt, teckningar som driver med historien, de hade inte gått att göra.) Another segment of the SVT media platform, the satirical show Svenska nyheter (Swedish news) supported Flam’s case with the construction of a ”Tiger Generator” in which anyone can generate a seemingly unlimited number of varieties, and also share them online: The SVT Tiger Generator.

Finally, on October 9th, Flam was freed from all charges by the special court for patents and commercial affairs in Stockholm. Obviously the ”Military Readiness Museum” tried to benefit from a weak point in Swedish copyright legislation. In contradistinction to many other member states in the EU, Sweden has no clear exception for parodies and paraphrases. Now, the Aron Flam case can be used as a precedent, and hopefully the Museum will not contemplate a similar case against another paraphrase of Almqvist’s wartime message. That is a paraphrase which has actually been widely used and circulated for more than 25 years. It is the logo of of the leftist (more precisely Syndicalist) Swedish newspaper Arbetaren (The Worker) which says: THE WORKER DOES NOT KEEP SILENT! Photographed below from my own private T-shirt.

T-shirt of a ”politically correct” Åbo Akademi university teacher.

Pinged at

Visual studies and Art history

A typical picture for Visual studies? One can say a lot in sociological terms about this. This is the type of pictures people usually ask us about.

Art history is an important part of Visual studies, and most of us who work in the field are art historians by profession. The somewhat problematic relationship between Art history and Visual studies is discussed in an open and inspiring manner in the collective volume Farewell to visual studies (2015), edited by James Elkins and composed of transcripts and responses from the 2011 Stone Art Theory seminar. The seminar brought together over 30 distinguished scholars who have made substantial contributions to Visual studies and related fields in different countries.

Some conclusions are quite clear from the discussions in the book: Visual studies is primarily a British and Anglo-American phenomenon, it has been dominated by social/sociological issues in connection to the Cultural Studies tradition, with much focus on content (or what an Art historian would call ”iconology”) and less on form and aesthetic/psychological aspects. The provocative title ”Farewell to visual studies” is probably intended by the organizer and editor James Elkins as a farewell to Visual studies as it has been, in its more limited aspects. Elkins would like Visual studies to become more ”difficult” (or complex, or interdisciplinary), less focused on contemporary Popular culture, and more open towards other types of images and longer historical perspectives. He asks why for example the scientific image has been largely neglected within Visual studies, and agrees with such scholars as Michael Ann Holly that Visual studies has increasingly lost contact with History prior to the age of Photography, Television and Internet.

Few ask us about such pictures as this. This is also a political picture and very interesting for Visual studies. (”Holy Olav, etarnal King of Norway”, newly painted Icon for the Orthodox chapel in Stiklestad).

Few of the contributors to Farewell to visual studies disagree with Elkins on these points. Some suggest explanations to why we have this situation. One quite natural explanation has to do with competition and the need in a new field to distance oneself from ”tradition”. Clearly Art history and History at large represents ”tradition” in this academic game. Still, practitioners of Visual studies are often Art historians or at least Arts people by training, and there is a reluctance towards studying pictures for which the usual methods and analytical tools in the Humanities are insufficient. Somewhat paradoxically, Visual studies seems to have become too unhistorical in terms of the choice of topics, yet too dependent on existing methods and theories in Art history. I think we’ve been trying to avoid these traps here in Åbo. It can be done by focusing more on methods and the development of alternative metods, rather than certain topics and periods. It is good to visit seminars at other departments and facultites (Philosophy, Psychology, History, Sociology, Biology…), and it is good to contribute to both Art history and Visual studies and teach both subjects in order to avoid narrow specialization. One excellent option to learn more about medieval culture and iconography (i.e., ”the study of pictorial content”) was the 2018 Iconographic Symposium in Trondheim/Stiklestad, Norway. There I found the newly painted icon of the Nowegian national saint Olav in the local orthodox chapel. In this picture the ancient rules and symbols of Icon painting are adapted to a contemporary national context in which the Orthodox communities only represent a tiny minory. More about the Iconographic symposium soon, I hope.



Visual studies into the future…

James Elkins proclaimed ”Farewell” to Visual studies in 2016, as an ironic gesture. The Stone Art Theory Institutes: Volume Five.

It was almost three years ago since anything was last posted here. Probably blogs are already outdated as a means of communication; things develop at an increasing speed (technology, industry, culture, economy, World population), and things which used to be effective become obsolete almost overnight.  Anyhow, I have decided to test this medium again in order to probably reach some souls outside the building in which I work.

This ”I” (ego) which is writing is Fred Andersson, art historian and responsible for the Visual studies initiative at Åbo Akademi University. I started writing this blog in 2012 in order to inform about our activities. From now on I will write all posts in English, simply because that is the only language in which I can make myself generally understood in Finland, and not only for the Swedish-speaking population. Every year quite many exchange students from different countries take our courses in Visual studies and Art history.

To begin with I have some announcements:

  1. Åbo Akademi has given me a regular full time position as University Teacher in Visual Studies (universitetslärare i visuella studier, anställning tillsvidare), which means that Visual studies will continue here. There is a future, in spite of James Elkins (one of the founding ”fathers”) who ironically bid ”Farewell” already in 2016.
  2. The Åbo Akademi web pages and the Åbo Akademi course catalogue and registration system have been completely changed this year. In the process, much information has become unavailable for those without access to the intranet. For safety, I have created an open page with all our courses. Click the link ”Våra kurser/Our courses”. For Åbo Akademi students with access, it is possible to register directly though links to the Moodle pages.
  3. There has been an ongoing project about art criticism in Finland and Sweden. It belongs to Art history rather than Visual studies, but material from the project is now available in Swedish though the ”NAC (Nordic Art Criticism) register och statistik” link.
  4. I will probably write short postings, starting immediately. Consider this as the ”sketchpad” of Visual studies at Åbo Akademi. It is nice if someone reads it, but comments are de-activated due to massive amounts of spam.

Vi-Ser (Visual Studies Seminar) starts in Turku next week!


guerlainDrawing of guerlain_metereorites_unsharp_binary guerlain_metereorites_unsharp_binary guerlain_metereorites_binary guerlain_metereoritesIntermediary level / ämnesnivå: Vi-Ser (Visual Studies Studies Seminar) now starts! As a student, you can follow the seminar this Autumn as a 5 ECTS course called ”Content Analysis in Visual Studies” (130027.1). Content Analysis of texts and media is an etablished method of social research, and widely used in evaluations of public relations and media strategies. With the increasing importance of visual messages in media, content analysis of images has emerged as a specialized field. In this Autumn’s seminar/course, we will study how linguistic theories have contributed to content analysis, but also get an overview of how technologies for pattern recognition have made automated visual analysis possible. These issues are related both to the development of Digital Humanities and the current focus on Big Data in science.

Schedule for the Vi-Ser seminar / Content Analysis in Visual Studies, Autumn 2015:

Tuesday 27.10 Initial Orientation: Digital humanities and automated visual analysis. Text: Lev Manovich, “The science of culture? Social computing, digital humanities and cultural analytics” in M. T. Schaefer and K. van Es (ed.), The Datafied Society. Social Research in the Age of Big Data, Amsterdam University Press 2016, forthcoming. Download the text on Lev Manovich’s homehage, here: & ssi: articles

Tuesday 3.11 Content analysis of images in the social sciences. Text: Gillian Rose, ”Content analysis I” in id., Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials, Sage 2001, pp. 54-69. Read the chapter at EBrary, here:

Visual Methodologies (link only works from a connection to the system)

Tuesday 10.11 Content analysis as design methodology. Text: Martin Krampen, Die Welt der Zeichen: Kommunikation mit Piktogrammen / The World of Signs: Communication by Pictographs (bi-lingual text, illustrated), Avedition 2007. A pdf of the introduction (pp 14-48) will be distributed

Tuesday 17.11 Methods for Measuring Visual Semantics. Texts: 1) Hartmut Espe, ”A Cross-Cultural Investigation of the Graphic Differential” in Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, vol. 14, no 1 (1985), pp. 97-111. 2) C. Lawrence Zitnick and Devi Parikh, ”Bringing Semantics Into Focus Using Visual Abstraction”, conference paper, IEEE conference on computer vision and pattern recognition (CVPR), 2013. Pdf:s of both papers will be distributed.

Tuesday 24.11 Automated visual analysis I. Text: Alberto del Bimbo, Visual Information Retrieval, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers 1999, pp. 1-68 (chapter 1). The book is avalaible in Alma.

Tuesday 1.12 Automated visual analysis II. Text: del Bimbo, pp. 81-131 (chs 2-3).

Tuesday 8.12 Automated visual analysis III. Text: del Bimbo, pp. 134-198 (chs 4-5).

Tuesday 15.12 Automated visual analysis IV. Text: del Bimbo, pp. 203-258 (chapter 6)


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These courses will start during MARCH 2015 in VISUAL STUDIES

posterbild_photographymareyINTERMEDIARY LEVEL:

Photography and the Moving Image (130026.1) 5p.


Fourth mandatory course for students at the intermediary level. Other students of ÅAU and exchange students can also participate. The philosopher Antony Fredriksson (see previous post in Swedish) and the Culture and Religion scholar Sofia Sjö give an introduction to the history and theory of Photography and Film. They are both conducting research on Film as a channel for ideologies and world-views. Film screenings are included (e.g. Eisenstein’s October, Marker’s Sans Soleil and Minh-Ha’s Reassemblage)

Introduction: Mon 16.3 4-6 PM, Camera Obscura (E201), Arken

Schedule: Mon during w. 12-14 and 16-19, 4-6 PM; screenings 2-4 PM (w. 14, 17, 19)


poster_autumn2014_johnbullINTERMEDIARY LEVEL:

Applied Cultural Imagology (130025.1) 5p.


Optional course for students at the intermediary level. Other students of ÅAU and exchange students can also participate (English at BA or MA level is recommended). What is a national stereotype? What does smell and sound mean for the identity of a place? What kind of mental images do we make when we read a text? Such questions are asked in Imagology – a research field created by scholars who want to understand the connections between the Psychological and the Social. Your teacher is professor Anthony Johnson of the English department at ÅAU.

Introduction: Thu 19.3 4-6 PM, Camera Obscura (E201), Arken

Schedule: Thu during w. 12 and 15-19, 4-6 PM; reading/writing period w. 13-14


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Understanding Basic Vision

Contemplation of Basic Vision, according to the famous philosopher Descartes (1637)

Contemplation of Basic Vision, according to the famous philosopher Descartes (1637)

This is a little report on what we have been doing the past weeks in the Visual studies program. We now start every academic year in English, and with perception. As the title of our course book Basic Vision says, the perception course is really about the very basics of vision and brain. ”Why do you need vision science in visual studies?” some people ask, believing that visual studies is not a scientific field.

They are partly right, if we use the word ”science” in its more limited sense, meaning hard and objective science. Visual studies is a continuation of programs in Cultural Studies and ”Visual Culture Studies”, beginning in Britain in the Sixties as a part of sociology and cultural history – disciplines that some proponents of hard science would associate with witchcraft rather than science. Some people have grown tired of the one-sided ”culturalism” of these circles and proposed that Visual studies should learn less from Cultural studies and more from for example Medicine and Computer Systems.

There is a growing awareness that our conceptions of Nature and the Universe are now increasingly based on scientific images that are very different from those we know from earlier times. These images are visualizations of highly complex sets of data, and it is not possible to understand the principles and processes behind them if you don’t have access to some specialized knowledge. Thus, the divide between the ”two cultures” at universities (i.e. the scientific and the humanistic) tends to widen even more. If populated with open-minded people with a broad range of knowledge, Visual studies might help the two cultures talk again.

A very basic phonomenon of basic vision. The two lines are exactly the same length. Why don't they look like they were?

A very basic phenomenon of basic vision. The two lines are exactly the same length. Why don't they look like they were? (In fact, vision science is still struggling with this question.)

The first priority would be that we learn to talk about our own field of study – images and vision – in a scientific way, if only on a very basic level. This is what we do in the course Image Perception and Cognition. Our participants represent a wide range of interests and fields – some are from the humanistic field, some study computer science, and some are in the master’s program of the Bioimaging group in Turku. These bioimaging students will soon work independently with scientific imaging. Maybe they will end up in a research group studying the brain, and then contribute to bringing new knowledge to the field of vision science! Image Perception and Cognition is our most popular and successful course this far – mainly, I think, because it is basic and inter-disciplinary.

Tarja Peromaa (Image source: Visual Science Group)

Tarja Peromaa (Image source: Visual Science Group)

Being essentially ”culturalists”, me and my colleagues here at the faculty of arts must of course adopt a quite humble attitude in these contexts. How lucky we are that we have an experienced vision scientist and brilliant teacher to handle this course – Tarja Peromaa of the Visual Science Group at Helsinki University! Under her guidance, we have now read the first four chapters of Basic Vision and started to orient ourselves at ”the first steps of vision”. We are starting to understand that vision is both dynamic and selective, and we are beginning to remember the names of the different pathways, regions and cells involved in the visual system. It is like learning to talk a language. Before you know the basic terms and structures in a language, it is impossible to form sentences or to understand them. Soon, we will all know the meaning of terms such as ”cornea”, ”fovea”, ”retina”, ”ganglion cell” and ”lateral geniculate nucleus”, and understand a bit of what vision scientists are talking about when they are describing perceptual processes that art critics have been talking about all the time, but in a much more intuitive and everyday manner.

The eye as a camera (before the camera), according to Descartes.

The eye as a camera (before the camera), according to Descartes.

Vision science is not a new thing – in Europe it has been going on at least since Leonardo da Vinci tried to figure out a way to inspect the ”picture” projected inside an eye from a dead cow, hoping to see the world in the same way as a cow does. This idea was based on the same kind of misunderstanding as the diagram by Descartes that I show details of here. What misunderstanding? Well, the misunderstanding that Consciousness (of a cow or a human) is like a small person sitting somewhere inside our heads, looking at the pictures of our retinas (the ”screen” at the back wall of our eyes) like someone visiting a movie theater. The philosopher Antony Fredriksson will discuss the history of this idea in our course about moving images. Modern brain research gives ample proof that visual perception or any perception doesn’t work like that at all. In fact, there is no picture to be seen on some inner movie screen, but only a myriad of light-sensitive cells – the so called photo-receptors of the retina – each picking up a certain wavelength and intensity of light from a certain point in the environment, then sending it upwards through the numerous crossroads of the visual pathway. Somewhere – but definitely not in one place only – all these isolated signals are finally ”computed” together to form a part of our current field of consciousness. In this way, the digital camera with its receptive screen of isolated sensors is a better metaphor for vision than the traditional analogue camera.

Modern picture of the basic visual pathway. The blue patches at the center are the LGNs (Lateral Geniculate Nucleae)

Modern picture of the basic visual pathway. The blue patches at the center are the LGNs (Lateral Geniculate Nucleae)

Most people know that we have two kinds of photo-receptors in the retina – rods and cones, rods being responsible for night-time vision and cones for color perception. What happens further along the road is less common knowledge. All the different signals from the photo-receptors are ”cabled” through the two optical nerves that meet at the first crossroad – called the ”optical kiasm”. That is what you see in upper half of this picture. Then the signals from the left side of the field of vision (of both eyes) are cabled to the right side of the brain, and vice versa. This happens in the ”cables” known as the visual tracts. The signals arrive at the small nucleae with the difficult name – the Lateral Geniculate Nucleus, or LGN. They are located deep inside the brain, within each side of the central region called Thalamus. The LGNs consist of at least two types of cellular layers, responsible for transmitting different kinds of information to different parts of the cortex (the cortex is the outer, ”wrinkled” parts of the brain). In this way, high-contrast information and most color information is sent through the parvo-cellular layers, while low-contrast information about movements is sent through the magno-cellular layers. It is believed that some problems with reading and writing could be due to deficiencies of the magno-cellular system.

In the lower half of the picture above, it is shown how numerous axons forward most information to the main visual center of the cortex, which is located at the very back of your head, in the region that we call the occipital lobe. And this is where we were in the course this week, learning how different cells at this ”station nr 1” (or V1) of the visual cortex are responsible for decoding specific kinds of information, for example the orientation and position of edges.

Akiyoshi Kitaokas "ormar".

Basic Vision, 2006 edition with Akiyoshi Kitaokas "snakes".

Probably our students are already busily reading the chapters for next week’s lecture, dealing with depth perception, color perception, and movement. Then, we will learn more about other visual cortex regions apart from V1 – Vision science discovers new regions all the time! Of special importance are V4 and V8 (centers for color perception) and V5 (movement perception). Look at this cover from the 2006 edition of Basic Vision. It is a popular perceptual illusion that was created by the Japanese artist and researcher Akiyoshi Kitaoka. It is basically a pattern of striped circles-within-circles, but the illusion that they are moving and the addition av small red tongues makes it easy to interpret them as snakes. Why do they seem to move? It is actually because of the division of different signals at LGN and the fact that green-black and blue-white contrast is higher than blue-black or green-white contrast. Still unclear? The exact answer is in Chapter six in Basic Vision, and in the next post on this blog.

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Perception, Imagology and Visualization this year

Professor Anthony Johnson

Professor Anthony Johnson

After the student’s texts last week, I will now publish some posts in English, due to our current courses in English and all the positive interest that we receive from exchange students!

On this Thursday two of our courses in Visual Studies will start, and both are given in English. The first one is simply called Image Perception and Cognition, and it explains the basics in current neurological and psychological knowledge about the human visual system. You will learn some anatomy of the brain and the mechanisms at different stages in its processing of visual information. It will be a mind-boggling and exciting journey, all the way from the ”simple” registration of light at the retina, up to the cognitive job of consciously interpreting what we see!

The second course to start this Thursday is very different from the first one, so this way you really have a chance to get a clue of how broad and open the field of Visual studies really is! It is a course in arts and literature, given by our professor in English language and literature, Anthony Johnson, whom you see a picture of here. He is a legendary lecturer, and a jazz musician too.

The subject of his course is not so far away from psychological concerns as one might believe, because it is really about Imagology – a research field created by scholars who want to understand the mental images we form, for example when we read a certain text. In some respect, imagology was founded almost 100 years ago, when the American journalist and scholar Walter Lippmann developed his theory on the stereotypes we use when we describe members of certain nations or groups.

Anthony’s course is called Cultural Imagology – An introduction, and because it is about cultural imagology, he will not only talk about national and social stereotypes but also about the way people conceive of literature, geography and music. In the first lecture this Thursday, he will however begin with defining what an image is, or could be.

For those of you registered in the Image Perception and Cognition course, I will give an introduction on this Thursday, September 5th at 2 PM, in the Arken building of human sciences and languages here in Turku, room E201 (Camera Obscura). Then there is a one hour pause, and at 4 PM Anthony Johnson’s lecture starts in the same room. It will last for two hours.

Maybe you are a biologist or a student of computer systems who is also interested in art and literature, or maybe you are a student of literature who wants to know how the brain works? Then you are welcome to attend both courses!

Screen-Ddump from looking at tissue layers in BioImageXD.

Screen-dump from looking at tissue layers in BioImageXD.

In October and November I will myself give a course on Comics together with Folkloristics and Sociology. Further information in English is here. At the end of January a fourth Visual Studies course in English starts. Its name is Visuality and Visualization of Information.

This course will really give rich opportunities of combining arts with knowledge of the brain, because it is about why certain design strategies are better than others. We will use a textbook by the American psychologist Colin Ware, who is currently one of the internationally most acclaimed scientists in the expanding field Visualization.

This is a field in which neurological research, which may seem technical and abstract to many, is really put to practise in the form of effective strategies for visualization. It could be of use for marketers and web designers, but not the least for students and scholars who want to communicate research visually. There is a joint Master’s program in Bioimaging between Åbo Akademi University and Turku University, and many of our perception students have been from there. The Turku Bioimaging center (se link at top right here) has generously given all of us an opportunity to see how modern visualization works. They have created the free image processing tool BioImageXD that anyone can download at the BioImageXD page.

After downloading and opening the program, you can experiment yourself with multi-layer microscope images that you download as a free sample package at the SourceForge download page (see links at the bottom of the BioImage XD download page). The image that I show here is from a session that me and one of my students had with the program. We noticed that the possibility of generating views in 3D really added a lot to the precision of the visualization. In the Visuality and Visualization of information course we will study both simple and complex visualizations, ranging from comic books to medicine and physics, and at the end you will have the opportunity to realize a new visualization yourself.

For more inspiration, see:

”Genes to Cognition” page with an interactive 3D brain (very good for training at the Image Perception and Cognition course)

A short text defining Imagology

A Vimeo lecture on visualization by Colin Ware


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