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Lightning Talk

By Øyvind Vågnes on 08.06.2012 (07:00).

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Last week I gave a five minute "Lightning Talk" at Now! Visual Culture in New York City, in an opening session titled "What is Visual Culture Now?" It was my first attempt to present some preiminary reflections on the events that shook up Norway last summer and that we still have only begun to grapple with. Here it is.

The attempt to develop a critical vocabulary in the face of contemporary events, and allowing terminology to take shape in response to what seems urgent in the now, are in my view testimony of the intellectual vibrancy of visual culture studies. And so it is my training as a scholar of visual culture that enables me to look at this image and think of how this kind of landscape, which is very typical of Norway, and as beautiful as it is ordinary to me, has now been transformed.

As scholars have observed, the Norwegian Trekking Association has standardized and unified the Norwegian landscape in such a way that following a trail somewhere outside of Oslo involves the same techniques as following trails through the high passes of a mountain range – and through these processes a national landscape, as well as a nationalistic and touristic image of it, is produced. This imaginative geography has now been disturbed.

During the cause of a few afternoon hours on July 22nd last summer, a car bomb exploded in the executive government quarter in Oslo, killing eight people and injuring more than two hundred. Then, less than two hours later, at the summer camp of the Worker’s Youth League held every year at Utøya island – where this press photograph is taken – a gunman dressed in a homemade police uniform killed 69 of the participants there and injured more than a hundred.

In response to the question, ”What is visual culture now, in Norway,” one obvious and immediate answer would be: transformed by those events. Now, almost a year later, we’re nearing the end of the seventh week of the trial against a mass murderer who claims to have acted in defense of his country. Scholars from academic institutions across Norway have analyzed and commented on the various societal and political controversies that have followed in the wake of the brutalities: Debates on the quality of preparedness and crisis management; Heated discussions on the status and authority of forensic psychiatrists, who disagree on the question of the sanity of the mass murderer.

A few weeks ago the steering committee for the national July 22 memorials submitted its report to the Norwegian government, arguing for two specific sites of commemoration and describing the reasons for their selections. At every such decision made, I sense a heightened critical awareness in my own response. Will we end up being what Marita Sturken has called ”tourists of history”? Certainly, a national television award show recently proved without a doubt that Norway is not beyond the kitschification of these events. 
Then there is the extensive circulation of images of the mass murderer on the front pages of national newspapers, leading people to turn them around at newsstands – a senseless proliferation of his image and the ill-fated prohibition that followed.

The media coverage of the ongoing trial is strictly regulated, and the media has protested the decision that most of it would not be broadcast. Instead of live images and audio we saw the massive distribution worldwide of the image of the mass murderer saluting the world with his raised, clenched fists.

The first visual art, a tremendously controversial portrait of the killer as a sad clown, was exhibited in April, and plans are being made for numerous documentary films. Commemoration books that resemble coffee table books in design have already been published.

In his skeptical introduction, James Elkins warned scholars of visual culture and of the humanities more widely to be cautious that ”[W]riting about 9/11 has been a poor decision for many scholars.” But this is the time and the place to say that these ongoing events in Norway have compelled me to describe and analyze them to the best of my abilities, in spite of any warning that it might be a risky decision.

Some of you might remember that the mass murderer published his visions of a crusade against what he described as ”Marxists” and ”multiculturalists” in his so-called manifesto on the internet just hours before the attacks. Just last week an anthology was published consisting of articles by Norwegian scholars from a wide range of fields, each debating a central tenet in that manifesto, offering a critique of the foundations of its right wing extremism. The title of the book was Motgift, Norwegian for ”antidote” – a term that signals an intent to counteract a form of poisoning. What I’d like to leave you with is this question: 
What would an ”antidote” look like from the perspective of visual culture studies? A strategy of countervisuality?

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