Alexander Kiossev, Milla Mineva

Milla Mineva in conversation with Alexander Kiossev

Milla Mineva in conversation with Alexander Kiossev
title: Milla Mineva in conversation with Alexander Kiossev
year: 2004
place: Sofia
publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia
language: english
author(s): Alexander KiossevMilla Mineva
source: Visual Seminar. Resident Fellows Program 1: Sofia as a Sight, 2004, Sofia: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia

Alexander Kiossev: As far as I know, sociology is a scientific discipline dealing with those laws governing the social world that are invisible for those who participate there. When it was conceived sociology was involved with the research of invisible constant structures and tendencies in society that were not at all noticeable for the participants in this society. In this sense, isn’t the project of visual sociology marked by a paradox, is it possible to deal with sociology of the visible provided sociology is striving to be sociology of the invisible?

Mila Mineva: Indeed visual sociology looks like a paradoxical project from the point of view of a traditional sociology. However, it is an attempt to reconsider precisely the traditional ways of research of the social world. Visual sociology itself started as an answer to a certain condition of sociology, which is experienced as a crisis. It happens as a critical reflection both on the standpoint of the researcher and on the definitions of the social. Research coming from other scientific paradigms and interpreting the gaze as a historical construct provide arguments for re-thinking the research position of the sociologist. At the same time, the image is conceptualized as interpretation rather then perception and that allows for the reconstruction of the social through analysis of the ways of seeing.

A.K.: We are back at the initial question. Do these images reveal relevant aspects of the social world because the sociological premise is that the substantial laws are hidden for their agents?

M.M.: The problem is how does one approach the “hidden-ness”, that is those laws and regularities that are not transparent for the actors themselves. The kind of sociology, which is using serious methods, is able to reach the hidden orders by conducting interviews with the social actors concerned, by observing the practice, etc. It is trying to find explanations on the basis of this fractional everyday life knowledge of the participants in the social reality and through scientifically pre-constructed concepts and theoretical models. What visual sociology is doing is to widen the research in the direction of the image, i.e. it is investigating not only the discourses used by the social actors to explain the social reality but is beginning to interpret the images as having been produced by participants in the social reality. Furthermore, visual sociology is born at the precise moment when contemporaneity is approached through the term “visual culture”, a term that is supposed to describe the centrality of the visual perception in everyday life. If we are living in a visual world, which is to say a world that is producing its meanings through images, then we have to research its images in order to understand it and to reveal its hidden laws.

A.K.: Following Roland Barthes I would say that there are privileged codes in the allover semiological system and these are the verbal codes, the word codes because they have the ability to be at the same time codes of reality and codes of reflection, i.e. meta-codes, thus they always provide the opportunity to interpret something in the ordinary, everyday life language. Somebody dealing with the visual codes will not after all describe these through pictures but will write an essay about them, will describe them in a highly theoretical though still verbal language. In the final analysis, isn’t the verbal referential system the basic one through which all cultural codes are being read? Is there a possibility for a purely visual world?

M.M.: Let me start from the end. Even if such a possibility for a purely visual world would exist such a world would hardly be terribly interesting. For me it is rather more interesting to think about vision and text as possibilities to produce meaning and to discover the links or the tensions between both. If go back to the beginning of your question, I would say that the problem is not which one is the main referential system, this is not about distribution of privileged positions. It is rather the problem of image-oriented sociology that today’s reality is too visual, i.e. it is precisely images that are the filtering agent through which the world is perceived on an everyday basis. The social actors are submerged in images and one can reconstruct the world they inhabited through the things they see. It is in this way that the image is revealing substantial things about the social reality because its meanings are produced through the image.

A.K.: What in your view is the specific of the visual code? In what way is it different from the other cultural codes? 

M.M.: I will concentrate on the aspects that I am dealing with in this study and I will use quotations from Nicolas Mirzoeff. He says that the vision does not replace the discourse but is transforming it into casual understanding, makes it more democratic, faster and more efficient. That’s precisely the specific of the visual code which makes it possible for me to research postcards in order to try and reconstruct the understanding of urban space. The images on the postcards are demonstrating the concepts of urbanity as they have been formulated in this specific social and cultural reality. And they are showing the concepts as part of everyday life and practice where the social actor is identifying his own idea of the city by selecting the postcard to send or just buy and keep for himself. Thus the image is demonstrating the everyday functioning of the grand narratives of the city, which ones of them have been transformed into immediate visual representations of the city specifics, and which ones have remained outside of the casual circulation of images. There is another aspect of the specifics of the image that is a challenge for its research as a social construct and it is easiest to introduce that through Walter Benjamin’s term “the optical unconsciousness”. There are certain details in the image, which the epoch producing it does not notice because these are part of what sociology calls casual self-evidential. The gaze from another cultural context recognizes these details as strangeness and as roughness, as a punctum of the image. The understanding of these as normal provides for the understanding of the casual self-evidential of the epoch that has produced them.

A.K.: Can one say in this respect that visual sociology is dealing with what’s invisible in
the image?

M.M.: It is dealing with what the social reality, which understood exactly these images it has produced for itself as normal, is. This presupposes the understanding, if I may introduce the distinction through Barthes, of the studium as well as of the punctum of the image. In a way one may say that sociology is not dealing so much with the invisible in the image as it is dealing with that, which has made it invisible, or rather with that, which has made it a part of everyday understanding.

A.K.: I will give a funny example here. One of the first visual anthropologists decided to show a movie to some tribe. I was one of the early silent movies. The audience watched the film in mute attention and when they were asked about what they had seen, the members of the tribe said they had seen the hen. According to the anthropologists there was no hen in the movie yet, when they showed the film again they saw that due to bad organization of shooting, indeed at some point there was a hen running across the screen. And that’s exactly what the members of a different culture saw in this movie. Well, when you were observing Sofia through the postcards, what kind of hen did you see, what punctum were you able to pin down?

M.M.: I will give only one example and that’s from the socialist period. I must admit that the postcards from this period surprised me the most. To begin with,
they are the most concrete, i.e. the ideological effort is the most visible there. The first thing that startled me was the very ideology these images are representing, the ideology of the happy everyday life. The second thing though is indeed a punctum in the postcards – the people taking a walk, which is a favorite image in these cards, are actually carrying shopping bags. That had become part of the representation of the city and I think that that’s exactly on the level of the casual self-evidential. I can imagine how the big ideology was made casual through these images on the postcards. In a way these shopping bags are cracking the image of the happy everyday life. But they are also showing a concrete kind of practice to handle the “economy of deficit”. They are showing how this is happening to the ordinary actors in the social reality and how it is defining their ways of action.

A.K.: You are researching Sofia and you wrote an essay that readers could see in this book. Was there anything you did not know about Sofia before but you learned now?

M.M.: Firstly, I thought that Sofia would be changing quite a lot because that’s the dominating narrative about the city. Not so, through its images Sofia looks relatively stable and definitely more stable then it wants to admit. There are the same representative locations in spite of the historical period of the city, which means one can talk about stability of the city’s representations. I think now that there is a certain persisting specific of Sofia; at least wherever the vision projected by the city is concerned. I.e. there is a certain persistent understanding about the representative urban space. The locations are the same; it’s only the way they are seen that is changing.

A.K.: Do you think we can use the parallel to locations of memory in order to talk about locations of the image, i.e. there are not identical images but what is there is the same framing of the image?

M.M.: Yes, I think that’s a good metaphor and a precise description of the situation. I regret not thinking of it myself. Maybe in order to explain that I should start from far back and remind you of the strange destiny of monuments, that is of classical locations of memory. Their ephemeral character is astonishing. Each period is producing some monuments but the next one is erasing those from the representations of the city. This is related to the particular construction of the history of city space. Sofia is always bouncing off some previous period in order to run away into something else, into its own European or modern utopia. In this way the city is erasing the clear signs of its immediate past, such as the monuments, but it preserves the memory of the city space in exactly this kind of “locations of the image”, that are marked only as the wished for image of the city. The different way in which these are staged is demonstrating the differences of imagination about the city space, yet the preservation of the representative locations displays stability in the definitions of urbanity.

A.K.: How would you explain this amazing fact that against the backdrop of the intuitions and the ideologies of the city, of our expectations that the city is dynamic and fast changing, the postcard representations are identical?

M.M.: I think the city is always running away from something in its current situation. The postcards are displaying how Sofia is imagining itself rather then the city, as it was when the postcard was produced. That’s precisely why the change is introduced slowly and with difficulties. Except in the postcards from the early 20th c. when the change is the sign of the imaginary face of the city. Furthermore, in order to see the change in the representations of the city it has to be seen as a problem. Instead, the city is jumping from to another imaginary vision of itself and ends up in the same locations.

A.K.: As far as I can see the current city environment its main visual code is the code of advertisement and that’s influencing the images that various media are constructing. These images then start to “behave” as if they are advertisement. Is this visual code of advertisement being reflected in some way on the postcards of today?

M.M.: It is rather obvious that the postcards are indeed producing an advertisement image of the city. In my view the problem is in the target group of this advertisement. The postcards are constructing a kind of image, which is created along the lines of least resistance, i.e. the safest strategy for advertisement has been selected and it’s targeted at the mass consumer. I would be very glad if there is a differentiation of images, if the city is advertising itself as interesting for a multitude of addressees, if the city would identify resources it can use to seduce a variety of gazes.

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Last modified on Feb 10, 2021

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