W. J. T. Mitchell Seminar Two : Media · Technology · Memory

Time: June 24th, 2018. 10:00-17:30

Venue: The University of Chicago Center in Beijing, 20th floor, Culture Plaza, No.59 Zhongguancun Street, Haidian District, Beijing, China

Organizer: OCAT Institute

Co-organizer: The University of Chicago Center in Beijing

Sponsor: Shenzhen Overseas Chinese Town Co.,Ltd.

Contact: info@ocatinstitute.org.cn

If images are a form of life, mediums are the place where they reside. Images need to be contained within objects to display and visualize themselves. As the carrier and the intermediary, the medium acts as both the tool and the host of images, aggregating the aesthetic practice of images. In the past two centuries, the consecutive invention and rapid development of photography, film, television, Internet and virtual reality have dramatically updated the ways in which people imagine and think about the media. Science and technology advances the evolution of media, and the latter has such a significant impact on the ways in which we perceive the world that it has led to a transformation of our viewing mechanism. The present-day discussion of the media tends to position it as a cultural construction concerning human labor or technology. In a sense, it has achieved the common operation of culture, technology, society, aesthetics and cognition. In the 1960s, the pioneer figure in communication studies and the Toronto School, Marshall McLuhan proposed the idea of Understanding Media; whereas more than three decades later, Mitchell then suggested warily that we can only ‘address’ the media.

Following the theme of ‘Word and Image’ of the first seminar, in June we hosted another W. J. T. Michell seminar on ‘media’—the most frequently discussed subject in the study of visual culture. The five speakers invited to our event have backgrounds in various academic disciplines, including painting, architecture, film. The speech of Professor Zhang Xiaojian is primarily based on the theories of Fried and Greenberg, during which he discussed the concept of the ‘media purity’ and the relationship of the media and the objecthood, attempting to investigate the changes of media consciousness in modern art. Later, Professor Zhou Shiyan based her speech on Mitchell’s suspicion of ‘visual media,’ and discussed whether the long-standing tradition of linking the media and the visual perception together is appropriate. She responded to this paradox by reviewing the theories of several 20th-century thinkers. In the afternoon session, Professor Tang Hongfeng traced back to the late 19th century and explored from a media archeological standpoint, how the ‘magic lantern’ (幻灯) and other early forms of moving images created sensory experience for the early modern Chinese audience. Correspondingly, Professor SING Song-yong focused on the present and used experimental video works of Godard and Apichatpong Weerasethakul as examples to explore how digital images eliminate the specialty of films and recordings as mediums, and how they reconstructed the historical genealogy of memory. The last speaker Professor Feng Yuan presented a re-interpretation of the causes of ‘Culture Drift’ and visual reconstruction in the early 20th century through case studies. These five presentations of various topics and the following round-table discussion illuminated the complexity, diversity and intrinsic ambivalence of the media. Meanwhile, exploring the ‘mediums’-- an essential topic in visual culture studies--is undoubtedly an excellent breakpoint for understanding Mitchell’s theory.

Schedule and Synopsis 

June 24th, 10:00am - 12:00pm

Speaker: Zhang Xiaojian (Ph.D, Associate Professor of Wenzhou University College of Fine Arts and Design)

Topic: The Problem of Media in Modernist Critical Theory


Michael Fried’s critique on the ‘theatricality’ of Minimalist art was based on the Greenbergian notion of ‘media purity’ and ‘medium specificity.’ This speech began with the arguments of Fried and Greenberg, traced back to the theories of Baudelaire and Lessing, and discussed the changes of the concepts of media in art. Meanwhile, drawing on the theoretical origin of formalism, Professor Zhang illustrated that the Friedian and the Greenbergian formalism and modernism were both in fact rooted in the theoretical model of the differentiation of modernity, and on this basis, he presented a contemporary reflection on the modernist critique.


Speaker: Zhou Shiyan (Ph.D, Associate professor of School of Arts and Humanities of China Academy of Art)

Topic: Are There Visual Media?


The emergence of ‘visual culture’ is primarily a kind of discourse, rather than a cultural reality. In many cases, it illuminates the importance of the so-called the ‘visual media’. The paradox is that although all media are ‘mixed media’ in terms of modes of perception, we still insist on emphasizing the special relationship between some forms of media and the visual perception, as if they are entirely visualized and dominate a kind of experience and perception specifically tied to the modern world. With this experience and perception, the social world and the construction of its subject is inevitably and closely connected to visual practice and viewing mechanism. This speech addressed this paradox from the points of view of three thinkers in the 20th century who have explored the media/intermedia in different disciplines, and investigated the problematics of the visual culture studies proposed by Mitchell.

June 24th 14:00-16:30

Speaker: Tang Hongfeng (Ph.D, Associate Professor of School of Arts and Communication of Beijing Normal University)

Topic: Archeology of Projection: Object, Image and Media--Starting from Kang Youwei 


This speech studies Kang Youwei’s view of a moving image presentation based on the Franco-Prussian War to analyze the relationship between objects, images and media. Kang’s written description of the technical visual experience suggested the deterritorialization among objects, media, and images was an essential characteristic of modernity. According to Mitchell’s theory, media are a system of material practices in which images are formed and transmitted. However, fundamentally, images are projections and representation is replication; in this sense, media are the images in either their deterritorialized or reterritorialized material practices. This can explain the problem of life/desire of images that Mitchell intends to prove: media construct the body of images, images then become the objects/world, and they are always uncanny. Kang therefore tied emotions and media closely together, and also attributed the  ‘pain of others’ (Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others) and the ancient proverb ‘benevolent heart’(不忍之心) to the media--photography, ‘magic lantern’, and ether. We can take this opportunity to think about ‘what are images’ and ‘what is the function of images.’ A war image frightened Kang Youwei, but behind it there is a rich and complex discourse of modern nationalism and cosmopolitanism.

Speaker: SING Song-Yong (Ph.D, Professor and Chair of Graduate Institute of Animation and Film Art of Tainan National University of the Arts)

Topic: The Plasticity of Memory: On the Pensivity of the Moving Image Arts


For more than a century, film, as a machine to recall memory, shows its excellent position and posture. When Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98) was released, not only did it further promote this topic, but also questioned the superiority of ‘film-memory’ through videos. The love-and-hate relation between movies and videos was analogized to Cain’s relationship with Abel. The subsequent emergence of digital images have eliminated the medium specificity of the two to a certain extent and have further transformed the public/private memories into video art. This speech begins with a study on the recording of memories in films and video works, to a discussion of the ways in which how digital images can reconstruct the historical genealogy of memory, and finally examines the plasticity and pensivity of contemporary Chinese and Western moving image arts.


Speaker: Feng Yuan (Ph.D, Professor of The Visual and Culture Research Center of Sun Yat-Sen University)

Topic: Culture Drift and Visual Reconstruction


The cultural transformation in China in the early 20th century was mainly manifested in two aspects. The first problem was how to introduce the Western modern culture: from the standpoint of the ‘self’, becoming the ‘other’ was equivalent to the ‘cultural drift.’ The second is how to reshape the tradition-based ‘self.’ This reshaping strategy brought an eclectic manifestation—integrating the ‘tradition/modernity’ contradiction by the means of visual reconstruction. The Sun Yat-Sen University was established in 1925, but because of Mr. Sun, the construction of its campus can be traced back to 1900s to 1940s. The three stages of campus architectures reflect the above two strategies of cultural transformation. An analysis of the background and architectural heritage of three buildings in Sun Yat-Sen University undoubtedly provides the most successional examples to reinterpret the cause of ‘cultural drift’ and visual reconstruction in the early 20th century.


Round-table discussion



Guo Weiqi (Academic Director of OCAT Institute, and Associate Professor at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art.)

Kang Chong (Public Project Department of OCAT Institute, Ph.D of Panthéon - Sorbonne University)

Discussants: Zhang Xiaojian, Zhou Shiyan, Tang Hongfeng, SING Song-Yong, Feng Yuan