Visual Contagions. Art, Images, and the Globalization of Cultures from the Printed Era to the Internet (1890-today)


The VISUAL CONTAGIONS project, conducted by Prof. Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel at the university of Geneva (Switzerland), examines the global circulation of images in the print era from 1890 through the begging of the internet. It is funded by the Swiss National Fund for Research (SNF). This project describes and investigates how certain images circulated more than others - via reproduction, copy, imitations or pastiche - through which paths et according to which timeline these images were spread. The ambition is to understand what makes an image successful, while grasping how image circulation has contributed to the globalization of culture, and if it stems from the symbolic domination of specific nations or cultures according to certain periods of time.

Content and Goals of research

This project is made possible by the unprecedented corpus of digital images (exhibition catalogs, magazines, posters, artworks, picture repositories). These sources can be studied on a quantitive, worldwide and long-term scale before applying more traditional approaches. We could identify which would be the most recurrent images of previous century (even if they are forgotten); what differentiates the authors; their visual properties; their medium of circulation. We could highlight the geographical and chronological aspects of their diffusion as well. Accordingly, it could be possible to observe the factors of the historical success of images. It also puts into question the idea of a general cultural homogenization through images and the questions of center and peripheries that goes along with it.

Three approaches will be selected: the worldwide circulation of style through 2 centuries, the spread through bills with radical visual vocabulary (from the 1917 revolution through the end of the Cold War), and the global expansion of new images of women in the general illustrated press since 1945. We aim to define what makes an image “successful” in the 20th century and if the idea of a cultural globalization - americanization has roots in the history of the image spreading.

We will offer contemporary artists to appropriate our work to produce, with AI software, new hypothetically successful images. The successful images of the past and the future will be exposed together. This experience invites to think about collective memory, one’s forgetfulness, the potency of images and their contemporary geopolitics. This should also interrogate today’s process of visual creation in a context where it appears we are running out of imagination.

Scientific and social aspects of research

Visual Contagions is a Digital Humanities project: digital methods are applied to social science problematics (art and cultural history in our case) while still using some traditional methods. The team employs quantitive analysis, geographical visualization, digital analysis of texts and artificial vision as well (algorithmic description of content, style, era and detection of a style.) These methods allows us to process and compare these massive corpus on a global and long-term scale. The results of the digital study are then confronted to historical, stylistic and cultural interpretations. This project also overlaps with questions relating to cognitive science and epidemiology.

The digital tools developed to compare and visualize images and their circulation on interactive maps could be repurposed for other researches on the spread of images. Particularly, they allow the study to be extended to the realms of the internet and social media. These tools could also serve to picture professionals who are interested in tracing the history of images. The political stake of these tools is doubtless in era of the “fake news” et the ever-present influence of social media. .