In 1996, the journal October published the Visual Culture Questionnaire—four questions about the study of visual culture—alongside responses from art and architecture historians, film theorists, literary critics, and artists. These four questions have been republished in Chinese and English by M+, with October’s permission, to reflect on how the understanding of visual culture has changed since this 1996 enquiry. Below is Gala Porras-Kim’s response.
Studying visual culture helps to understand the contextual differences surrounding the production of artworks in different parts of the world, where visual signs have varied associations. As an artist, I have shown works in rural villages in the south of Mexico, where visual signs changed the function of objects that could be considered artworks elsewhere. At one residency in Oaxaca, artists were invited to produce works that would remain in the surrounding communities. A well-regarded European artist made an abstract sculpture that was to be installed outside of a fish cooperative and taken indoors at the end of each day—something that the locals did not think of as an artwork but as a burden. During this residency we also worked on the production of a mural, which we thought of as community service but the community thought of as a commissioned artwork since it ‘looked like art’. Without understanding the visual culture of the viewer, it is difficult to make works that will be interpreted in the way an author intended.
When I approach a project in a place that I might not be familiar with, most of my time is spent listening and learning about people’s perceptions of things. If by chance there are some signs that we have in common, then there exists a possibility of a project. But for the most part, the work manifests as a collaboration with someone who knows the signs. But even within the same geography, people can have different experiences of the same landscape depending on their cultural background. In Los Angeles, you can go to Koreatown, which is also a major Latin American neighbourhood, and you can see how Koreans and Latin Americans have totally different experiences of a space that they share.
In the past, I have worked with antiquities in institutions that have lost their cataloguing number, therefore losing the description of where they come from and what they were used for. I have researched different ways in which professionals have tried to define what objects are by projecting their understanding based on their knowledge of what certain characteristics could mean. In a way, this reflects more on the person making the projections than on the object itself, since we cannot actually know what an object’s original context was—we can just see what this specific person thinks about it. I would like to propose that, since the original function or location of an object or a visual sign is impossible to know, any individual projection is as good as the one presented by the institution.
In his writings about historiography, the American historian Hayden White argues that literary writing influences historical writing in many ways, sharing a strong reliance on narrative for meaning, therefore eliminating the possibility of an objective or truly scientific history. In his 1973 book Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, White describes the idea of ‘emplotment’—the narratological modelisation of explanation in any historiographical narration. As professor Robert Doran has summarised, White ‘held that while historical facts are scientifically verifiable, stories are not. Stories are made and not found in historical data; historical meaning is imposed on historical facts by means of the choice of plot-type, and this choice is inevitably ethical and political at bottom.’
If we extend this idea to the relationship of art history as the framework in which we see artworks, it is clear that the most prevalent interpretations in the field have come from a western academic point of view. If the authors of art history are emplotting works of art from a mainly western perspective—which is to say locating artworks within a western frame of reference—then how can they understand and write stories with artworks made all over the world? If art historians historicise artworks according to a specific form of art history and are surrounded and influenced by a specific visual culture, what does that say about the discipline of art history and its engagement with the multiplicity of visual culture when considered from a global perspective?
We should refuse the reduction of art’s study to the frame of western academia, since the prioritising of these academic disciplines of thought undermines all the accumulated visual knowledge of indigenous people and decentralised perspectives that do not share the same foundations or methodologies. There is no way to actually define visual culture since every individual experiences the subject differently, and subjects themselves are shaped by the contexts in which they are formed. In his introduction to The Social Life of Things, Arjun Appadurai argues that objects cannot be interpreted without understanding the place where they were made and the context in which they exist today. In terms of art, we can suspend belief when looking at artworks, but in the end they do not exist without the context in which they are first made and the contexts in which they are experienced.
Beyond the context in which an artwork is made, the production of works of art is increasingly inter-sensorial—that is, beyond a visual or even physical representation that prioritises the eyes over other bodily functions for its constitution and consumption. The formal qualities of the subject might not be primarily understood through a relationship between the hand and eye, but maybe the mouth and ear, such as oral traditions. Works can and do rely on other forms of communication. These differences speak to a need for a more interdisciplinary practice, through which the modes of production and the references an artwork is making are able to exist in more than one field.
The relationship between content and form is defined and studied differently by different academic fields, which in turn are constrained by their methodologies. Artists, on the other hand, can go between them because there are fewer rules. If a work of art is made in a way that it functions beyond representation—as an active contributor to the ideas it tries to consider while, bringing together different disciplines to do so—then an understanding of different disciplines is not only useful, but necessary. An artwork about memory, for example, could be useful in the lab of the neuroscientist studying where memories are formed.
Collaborations between academics and artists could enable a reconstitution of anthropology, art history, and other academic disciplines, so that these fields of study might become more inclusive in their approach to framing the discourses around the subjects they are referencing through a reconsideration of methodologies.
When it comes to studying visual culture, it is important to go beyond an art historical and anthropological framework to understand the methodologies of other fields used in the production of a work, as this will impact an object’s interpretation. It is also important to decentralise fields of knowledge so that visual images can also be understood within scientific, legal, or non-humanities disciplines—even beyond disciplines altogether.
This article was originally published on Podium, M+ Stories.
Gala Porras-Kim (b. 1984, Bogotá, Colombia; lives and works in Los Angeles) received an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and an MA in Latin American Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has had solo exhibitions at the Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito (2018); LABOR, Mexico City (2017); and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles (2017, 2015, 2013, 2012, 2010). Selected group exhibitions include the Ural Industrial Biennial (2019), Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2019), Future Generation Art Prize exhibition at Palazzo Ca’tron, Venice and PinchukArtCentre, Kiev (2019); Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul (2017); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2017); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2016); and FRAC Pays de la Loire, Carquefou (2016). Porras-Kim has received an Artadia Award (2017), the Rema Hort Mann Foundation grant (2017), Joan Mitchell Foundation Award (2016), Creative Capital grant (2015), Tiffany Foundation Award in 2015, and the California Community Foundation Fellowship (2013). She recently curated a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University (2019–20).
Robert Doran quoted in Neil Genzlinger, ‘Hayden White, Who Explored How History Is Made, Dies at 89’, The New York Times, 9 March 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/09/obituaries/hayden-white-who-explored-how-history-is-made-dies-at-89.html
The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).