Project Description – University of Copenhagen

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Negotiating (In)visibilities > About the network > Project Description

Detailed Project Description


The process of seeing and being seen is not something which is merely taking place between an observer and the observed. It is an exchange which is conditioned by a physical and social setting, one which creates certain possibilities for visibility and visuality and excludes others. This makes the cultural fabric, in which questions surrounding visibility and invisibility are embedded, significant. Changes in the relationship between what is considered seeable and hidden can currently be observed in several areas of contemporary culture. This research network has been formed as a consequence of this observation. The network furthermore responds to the fact that these questions are currently being investigated separately in different corners of the academic landscape, a situation which calls for the formation of an academic network that brings together a variety of disciplinary viewpoints. The network thus has the potential to create new understandings across disciplines and, in this way, raise questions about processes which touch on the core constituents of modern culture.
The idea for the proposed network springs from the identification of two concurrent tendencies in contemporary culture:

Since the 1990s, in most larger European cities, the appearance of a new architectural aesthetics can be witnessed, one which is often found in recently developed districts dominated by a mix of high-end dwellings and offices. These areas are characterised by a uniform architecture: they are dominated by tall and potent freestanding buildings and by an almost omnipresent use of glass and steel. One of the main characteristics of this architecture is the tendency towards extensive openings into interior spaces through large windows or even glass facades. If the use of glass constitutes the most evident material vehicle and metaphor for communication between the inside and outside of a building, then this potential for transparency is loaded with symbolic-cultural connotations. The current changes in architectural practice with respect to the use of glass as an aesthetic and functional strategy suggests that we have to do with an architecture that negotiates traditional notions of visibility and invisibility in new ways.

In the same period, what social scientists have termed surveillance society has come into being. New technological possibilities have allowed surveillance technologies, which formerly belonged in the world of intelligence services and covert operations, to permeate our everyday lives. These technologies are in operation in the widespread use of CCTV surveillance cameras in both public and private areas. But they can also be found in everyday phenomena such as the motion detectors in public toilets which, in the name of hygiene, turn on and off the light, the water tap or flush the toilet. While in public discourse, surveillance technologies often lead to polarised arguments for and against the kind of transparency they embody, these technologies also can be analysed in spatial terms. That is, it is possible to examine the influence they have on the way we use, encounter, perceive, survey and even see the spaces in which we live. From this perspective we have to do with a ubiquitous culture of surveillance, which brings about changes in the way in which the categories of the visible and the invisible are at work in contemporary urban culture.

The network brings together international and Danish scholars whose work is related to these themes. The activities of the network have an academic and a methodological output as well as broader societal relevance. The academic aim is to illuminate how notions of visibility and invisibility are undergoing transformations in contemporary culture. The methodological aim is to bring together researchers who work on issues of visibility and invisibility from different vantage points of the built environment, surveillance culture and media theory and allow their respective work to inform one another. The network will thus address the multifaceted character of the cultural and societal transformations in question in a way that is not possible within the confines of one single discipline. The broader societal concerns that motivate the activities of the network are reflected in its concern to enhance public debate about the changing symbolic-cultural connotations underlying the way visibility and invisibility is negotiated in contemporary culture.