Expert Meeting: The Visual Memory of Protest, Utrecht 20-22 May, 2020

Thomas Smits's picture
Call for Papers
May 20, 2020 to May 22, 2020
Subject Fields: 
Anthropology, Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Contemporary History, Cultural History / Studies, Digital Humanities


While social movements might seem to be chiefly oriented towards the future, they are also deeply entangled with the past. The memory of activism (how movements are remembered) and memory in activism (how the cultural memory of earlier struggles informs new movements) are key parts of what Rigney (2018) has called the memory-activism nexus. This expert meeting aims to generate new knowledge about the role of visuality in this memory-activism network.


While several scholars have acknowledged that social movements are ‘essentially visual phenomena’ (Mattoni & Teune, 2014)  it remains unclear how visual self-articulations and visual representations function in shaping the memory of protest. How does the first ‘event of photography’ (Azoulay, 2015) relate to its subsequent reproductions in new contexts? Do the aesthetic dimensions of image-making impact on their later take-up (as Didi-Huberman (2016) suggests)? The emergence of iconic images has been studied in incidental cases (Hariman and Lucaites, 2007; Solaroli, 2015; Olesen, 2018; Merrill, 2020), but iconisation needs further exploration with specific reference to the visual afterlives of protest and the politics of visibility associated with mass demonstrations. Moreover, as some scholars have suggested, the advent of digital photography and social media may have called into question the very possibility of iconicisation (though some other form of memory may be taking its place) since new technologies have created what seems to be a condition of ‘post-scarcity’ (Hoskins, 2017), in which the massive production and exchange of photographs makes the identification of single icons more difficult.


This expert meeting aims to develop new empirical, theoretical, and methodological insights into these issues and how we should approach them. Participants will be asked to focus on a single image and its cultural afterlives, and use this case as a basis for more general reflections.  We are hoping for a fruitful combination of different disciplinary perspectives (visual culture, cultural memory studies, cultural sociology, digital humanities) so as to move towards a more integrated understanding of the aesthetic, cultural, and social dimensions of the visual memory of protest.


Questions include:

  • What are the continuities or discernable trends in the composition of protest imagery?
  • What are the discernable trends in the transmission and reproduction of protest imagery?
  • How does the aesthetic composition of particular images play into their cultural survival?
  • How can methods of ‘distant viewing’ (Wevers & Smits, 2019; Taylor & Tilton, 2019) be usefully applied to the study of the visual memory of protest?
  • Is ‘visibility’ in new protest movements enhanced by visual resonance with earlier demonstrations?
  • How does iconization work, if at all, in the digital age?


 In order to address these and other related questions the ERC-funded project Remembering Activism: The Cultural Memory of Protest in Europe (ReAct) seeks proposals for 20-30 minutes contributions to an expert meeting on the visual memory of protest, to be held in Utrecht, the Netherlands, 20-22 May 2020. We welcome submissions from scholars in all fields and all career stages, and we are especially interested in proposals that seek to analyze the relationship(s) between visual aesthetics and the memory-activism nexus.


Travel and accommodation costs of successful applications will be reimbursed.


If you are interested, you should submit a 200-word abstract before 15 December by mailing to Applicants will be notified before 15 January 2020. For inquiries, please don't hesitate to contact Thomas Smits at: T.P.Smits[at]


More information on REACT:


Ann Rigney

Thomas Smits

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More information on REACT:

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