People now, almost routinely, make claims for their rights through user-generated communication channels, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr. In images, as well as words and sounds, these claims are proffered and conveyed – we could say, demonstrated – by the self-proclaimed rights bearers themselves, addressed sometimes very directly, sometimes to an undetermined public. These images and their consequences constitute a human rights praxis outside of its conventional sites such as law, government, NGO activity, and formal journalism. They present a radical expansion and consolidation of human rights practices and institutions, and no less a new kind of universalism that underpins and is transformed by these praxes, perhaps constructing a practical communicative ethos that is yet to be understood.
Responding to the drastic changes in how political transformations in the name of justice have been organized and taken place since the first “The Human Snapshot” Conference in Arles in 2011, the second LUMA Foundation Conference in 2013, “The Flood of Rights,” will ask how technologies of image-capture and the channels of communication have in recent years transformed the very terms of human rights. That is, while “The Human Snapshot” explored the possibilities and limitations of the intersections between human rights, photography, and universalism, our focus now turns to the platforms and media of these intersections, and on how the newly produced and disseminated universalizing pressures on morality, law, civic engagement, and their institutions are themselves transfigured in the process.
Our key questions are then:
What are the technologies, languages, institutions, and interests that structure the global distribution of concepts and practices of humanism and universalism, and how do they leave their mark on these ideas themselves?
Which narratives, knowledges, and imageries have proven easier to export and import, and whose interests are at stake in the configurations at hand?
The Ubiquitous Capture of Rights Claims
As demonstrated in recent developments in the Arabic-speaking region, and in protests in the Global North, the rapid dissemination of images in today’s online culture has altered our relationship to how politics takes place, to the potential credibility of different kinds of images, and to ideas of a globalized visual culture itself. Uploading to globally interconnected distribution sites direct from phone-cameras obviates any number of editorial processes premised on selection processes of image quality, newsworthiness, topicality, and so on. Yet despite being beleaguered by the democratization of camera technology on the one hand and accusations of exploitative voyeurism on the other, photojournalism still has a vital influence in this context. How does this development affect the categories of high photography, professionalism, and archival longevity? What authority will continue to be granted to official photojournalism? Equally, do the corporate platforms of user-generated content protect or diminish a newly-ordered civil space? What counts as citizenship in these new conditions of recording, exhibition, platform-provision, participation?
Raw footage of devastation, emotional stress, chaotic movements, disorganized actions and reactions, often in low-resolution visuals with distorted sound: is the immediacy and urgency of such images key to initiating a demand for humanitarian assistance and capturing global attention? What are the affective, formal, and material dimensions of this urgent appeal? Is there a “humanitarian real” that brings certain claims to the fore as it obscures others, equally worthy of attention? Are standard media-based demands (for clarity, representation, explication, visibility) overtaken by a new formation of affectively and politically located insistence?
The European Bourgeoisie famously developed a forceful and still vibrant tradition of framing its interests as being identical to those of humanity in general. For dissident struggles in China and other autocratic states, in protests against state incarceration without trial of terror suspects, in zones of conflict generated by power over territory and resource-extraction, the discourses of universalism and human rights have on the other hand been instrumental in the articulation of struggles of the underprivileged, lending crucial visibility to otherwise marginalized voices. Extended into contemporary forms of global legitimacy, how do the new transnational circuits of art, culture, commerce, finance, philanthropy, and NGOs reproduce these historical, foundational precedents—or how do they transform them? Do these transformations benefit the vast majority who do not and can not participate in established circuits of influence? How do universalizing claims occasionally turn against the special interests of their originators, if they do?
In What Language?
Artists have long grappled with the contention that “an artist who cannot speak English is no artist” (Mladen Stilinovic), suggesting that English is not only a pragmatic lingua franca, but also a powerful yet elusive foil with its own array of political, aesthetic, and epistemic bias. What are the stakes of English as the primary language of globalization today? Which historical conditions have marked the ascent of English as a vessel for universalism and other traditions, and what factors are at play in what is widely seen as its impending decline? What role do the elite universities and research centers take as transmission channels between local talent in its multiple dialectics and those transnational circuits of influence? How do the knowledges traditionally housed in and generated by institutions change in these conditions?