Why Visual Culture?

A random wall in Berlin

In 2012, I moved to the UK to pursue a Master’s degree in Visual Culture, a program that combines two of my favourite fields, Art History and Cultural Studies, and to explore the different ways we use art to express our cultural identity. But before embarking on that academic journey, I did a short stop in Berlin for inspiration.

The music, the arts, the history, all these elements animate the city in a unique way. But that banana graffiti stuck with me the most. Well, it’s not the image itself but rather the text next to it, which has been likely scribbled by a René Magritte fan. The phrase Ce n’est pas une banana — this is not a banana — echoes Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe, from his painting The Treachery of Images, which has become a cultural icon. 

Indeed, this is not a banana, this is an image of a banana. In a world saturated with images, the line between reality and representation has become so blurred that we unconsciously treat images as reality — just think of a recent image a friend posted on social media or an ad, depicting a perfectly happy life. The only difference is that these images don’t come with the disclaimer Ceci n’est pas le bonheur – this is not happiness.

The power that images have on us is one of the reasons I decided to study Visual Culture, and I particularly admire Magritte’s work because it invites us to question our perception of reality. So, I was really pleased to see this graffiti before starting the course. It was also an indirect inspiration for the first essay I wrote, What is Visual Culture, in which I explained the social responsibilities of designers.

While many assume that graphic designers are only concerned with aesthetics, I believe that we, as producers of visual culture, have a duty to understand the underlying processes of visual communication. Visual Culture was the place where I could explore communication theories, semiotics and art history, and in that first essay, I elaborated on the concept of visuality. 

Visuality, as defined by W. J. T. Mitchell, describes the relationship between how society is visually constructed and how vision is socially constructed. We learn to see the way we see; we learn standards of beauty and classify images or people as beautiful or ugly. But these standards are not universal; they are culturally specific and are shaped by society. In fact, another motivation to study Visual Culture was my curiosity to understand social behaviour. Even as a graphic design student I sought every opportunity to analyse the various ways we interact with each other, and my final year design dissertation in 2010 was my first visual culture case study.

In Voyage of a Symbol, also published here, I analysed the way people use religious symbols in the public space as markers of social and collective identity, rather than a symbol of religious loyalty. That topic interested me because I lived in a sectarian country that is still recovering from a fifteen-year civil war. One of the most valuable lessons I learned through that dissertation is the importance of doing research, which we take for granted as we often let our assumptions and biases guide our decisions and shape our worldview. Every object and every image hold layers of meanings for us to unravel.

When the time came for my Master’s dissertation paper in 2013, I examined how the shifting technological landscape has altered the meaning of presence, an underlying theme of the American Performance Art movement that started in the 1950s.

In Mediated Presence, I chose three different performances that critically reflect how technology has changed the way we interact with each other, to conclude with Jean Baudrillard’s ‘Hyperreality’, the state where Magritte’s blurred line has disappeared as we now live in a digital representation of reality.

I decided to publish all the essays here because studying Visual Culture was one of the most intellectually stimulating phases of my life and it helped me tremendously, on both personal and professional levels. From communicating with people to designing a user experience, I constantly use the research and theoretical skills, intentionally or unconsciously, as I produce and consume images.