Organized by the Centre for Languages, Literatures and Cultures (CLLC), University of Aveiro, and the Centre for Intercultural Studies, Porto Accounting and Business School, Porto Polytechnic (CEI-ISCAP, P.PORTO)
We now live in a predominantly visual culture. Whether it be computer operating systems, with their visual equivalents for what for most of us are largely incomprehensible processing or algorithmic functions, or the wordless assembly procedures for an IKEA flatpack, we tend to take in the world and process it through images. This is not to deny the longevity and remarkable inheritance of oral traditions – only to say that the cave paintings and ancient runes have been there from the start too. Indeed, what does it mean to talk of “imagery” in writing except to suggest that the function of these verbal usages is to invite pictures in the head, pictures that may have a greater vitality than the words themselves. Conversely, when it comes to images, Eco claims, we are in the presence of macroscopic blocks of texts, whose verbal equivalent is not a simple word but a description, an entire speech, or even a whole book.
Within this framework, visual culture is recurrently used as an epithet to describe our contemporary condition, deeply immersed in the world of images. Contemporary urban landscapes have become communicational ecosystems of visual languages made up of graffiti, street-art, advertising, signs, and propaganda. The central role of audiovisual technologies and media are one possible explanation for this state of affairs, along with the growing aestheticization of everyday life via social media, and a frustration with established avenues to expression and presence. Images and visual communication are the ideal means to construct narratives and confer symbolic meanings to the world, something well-understood by power brokers everywhere, from religions to authoritarian regimes, from people who want to sell things to us to people who want to tell things to us.
The art of written storytelling from early literatures to the present day has been well covered in studies from the field of narratology. What this conference proposes is to participate in the current global conversation on storytelling through image from the modern period to the present and on into the future.
Digital cultures are carrying us forward at a dizzying pace, and some of the anchorage provided by the written and spoken word may be loosening rapidly. Nicholas Mirzoeff speaks of a visualization of existence, already claiming before the end of the 20th Century that “modern life takes place onscreen […] seeing is not just a part of everyday life, it is everyday life” (An Introduction to Visual Culture. Routledge, 1999).
But visual storytelling is not the invention of the present, nor of Europe. From the vivid graffiti found in Pompeii to the scroll narratives in Rajasthan known as Phad paintings, visual figurations of popular culture have always conferred symbolic meanings on the experiences and values shared by communities. The history of the graphic novel acknowledges forebears such as Hogarth’s series of narrative paintings in the 18thC. One might go on to reference the slideshow and silent cinema, both of which are (or are approaching) over 100 years old. Victorian genre painting could also be cited, in which artists would attempt to encapsulate by detail and suggestion a dense narrative in a single canvas. Masque, ballet and mime could also be mentioned as forms of expression which use body and movement to convey a story in 3D space. But, it may be argued, it is in the 20th century that the image came into its own. Cheaper and more ubiquitous forms of photography, followed by the possibility of making home movies, and now of making them available for everyone to see, have followed upon greater technical sophistication in mechanical reproduction of the image, as Walter Benjamin noted so paradigmatically, changing the quantity of images we process and the nature of our reaction to them. If you add to this the penetration of the home by television since 1945 and the subsequent penetration of hearth and hand by the personal computer and the smartphone, we have a society which might feel (erroneously of course) that “it has seen it all”, or at least that it has all been made available to be seen if only we had enough life.
In the contemporary iteration of storytelling exemplified by video games the conceptualisation of narrative flared up into a wholesale revisiting of our relationship to stories, particularly when structured by the rules and challenges inherent in game progression. Even if the combat sequence of this controversy has given way to more of a puzzle-solving sequence, the issue of the significance of narrative remains distributed throughout video game studies like a health bar in constant need of attention.
The presumption behind the cryptic set of illustrations for descaling your coffee machine are that anyone anywhere can decode contemporary sign systems. The utopian elimination of writing may be further evidenced in the global sharing of popular culture references which are overwhelmingly visual. Even The Lord of the Rings is now more Peter Jackson’s construction of Tolkien the philologist’s text for most people; and arguably so now is any written text once it is transformed into a movie. Lolita is as much Sue Lyons’s sunglasses as it is Nabokov’s prose.
At the same time, local cultural variations and rerouting of these shared visualities both draw on and resist the presence of largely Western imageries and imaginaries. From Brazilian Hugo Canuto’s launching off Jack Kirby’s Avengers illustrations to animate the syncretic curating of West African mythologies in his Contos dos Orixás graphic novels, to the use of Indian pictographic traditions to tell the story of the abduction of Sita in Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana, to the large number of children’s books which tell the stories of indigenous peoples with recourse to their traditions of line and colour palette, the availability of distinctive variants is larger than we might think in any medium we care to consider.
When we speak of visual culture and visual storytelling, we are referring to a system made up from a combination of universes and sub-universes, with their agents, objects and specific processes of production, dissemination, and reception. It is not a static system, but one whose constant renewal results from the rate at which its agents and technological processes change. It is also a worldview, a particular way of perceiving and portraying reality, that is not only connected to forms of seeing, but also to modes of representation which appeal to different languages, cognitive levels and sensory models. We may even admit the existence of diverse visual micro-cultures that correspond not so much to different social groups as to different moments of social life, aesthetic and ideological proposals, interests and intentions, which present alternative, though not necessarily antagonistic, ways of seeing and representing the world.
It is therefore proposed to hold an international conference on Visual Storytelling to continue the conversation on how the forms and techniques of artistic, technical and commercial production are evolving from primordial instances to modern articulations of visual narrative expression. Visually narrated stories are embedded in networks of political, economic, ideological and social circumstances, far too often hardly detectable, even by those who draw, paint, photograph or write (and live) under their influence. They have also been reinvented as profitable cultural symbols of territories dominated by tourism and globalization, very distant from their origins. Whatever we look at involves affect, according to James Elkins. How this affect is evoked, gestured to or animated must be of interest to analysis if we are not to be carried along by the multiple narrative forms proposed to us, invited by us and forced onto us.