The Human Snapshot Symposium

The Human Snapshot is a conference on latter day forms of universalism as circulated and consolidated through contemporary art and photography.
Organized by Thomas Keenan & Tirdad Zolghadr, in collaboration with Johanna Burton & Tom Eccles, originally based on a research project by Ariella Azoullay.

While it is commonplace today in academia and politics alike to invoke the claims and norms of human rights, the apparent conceptual underpinnings of this discourse – humanism and universalism – have been subject to radical challenges in recent years. As it happens, one of the major sites of the critique of universalism is critical discourse on the visual arts and the photographic image, which is actually one of the most important operators of what we might call actually-existing universality today.
Arguably, it is even that very critique, and the discourse of local and cultural context, which grants contemporary art the luxury and efficiency of an unchecked universalist agenda. Complex presumptions of universal communicability are always already at play in ambitious projects of international scope, and are all the more volatile as a result.

A crucial question here is to which extent the discourses of both contemporary art and human rights are irrevocably linked to a classical universalist foundation. Can the two traditions be unhinged, and what difference would the separation make? Moreover, what role does the image, in all its material manifestations, continue to play within this ideological apparatus?

These and other questions were discussed through a series of lectures and workshops in Arles, beginning with a discussion of the legendary 1955 exhibition The Family of Man, drawing on recent research by visual theorist Ariella Azoullay.

Other speakers discussed the actual channels of distribution the discourses and images of universalism have at their disposal, but also the class interests at stake in any such distribution, and, finally, the impact of new forms of technology, from the democratization of the camera image to revolutions broadcast online.

This panel took the photo exhibition The Family of Man and its critical legacy as a point of departure. Organized by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955, it selected roughly 500 images from nearly 2 million submissions, taken by 273 photographers in almost 70 countries. Among the things which set the 1955 exhibition aside, its forceful universalist agenda stands out. What are present-day pendants of the The Family of Man, and how might the exhibition’s thematic ground resonate with ongoing debates in contemporary art and human rights.

The Family of Man was one of the most widely visited exhibitions ever, and its catalogue is still among the most widely distributed. Moreover, its reception was dramatic and polarized, sparking pedagogical initiatives and polemical “counter-exhibitions”. Taking Steichen’s show as a point of departure, what are contemporary sites of exhibition that facilitate the circulation of ideas ranging from artworld internationalism to the discourse of human rights. Which narratives and imageries have proven easier to export and import, which particular shades of humanist ideology are spawned in the process, and whose interests are at stake in the configurations at hand.

The European Bourgeoisie famously developed a forceful and still vibrant tradition of framing its interests as being identical to those of humanity in general. On the other hand, the discourses of universalism and human rights have been instrumental in the articulation of struggles of the underprivileged, lending crucial visibility to otherwise marginalized voices. Historically, what special interests have been at stake in the discussion at hand, and how do their generalist claims occasionally turn against them, if they do?

Participants included: Ariella Azoulay, Roger Buergel, Georges Didi-Huberman, Bassam el Baroni, Michel Feher, Hal Foster, Anselm Franke, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Denis Hollier, Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, Alex Klein, Suhail Malik, Marion von Osten, Katya Sander, Eyal Sivan, Hito Steyerl, Eyal Weizman

This academic symposium was produced by the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, NY, as a first example of possible long-term co-productions between Bard College and the Luma Foundation.
Organized by Tom Keenan and Tirdad Zolghadr in collaboration with Johanna Burton.