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Picture Atlas 

Pictures are everywhere all the time, and they are powerful. Pictures, largely communicated by the media, convey world-experience. They take over and interpret reality and so they define ideas on what action is possible in the social world and where its limitations are.

This collectively shared knowledge of "social reality" forms the basis for the "imagined community" (Benedict Anderson) of collectives, above all for the idea of a common national identity, but also for ideas of identity models, with gender-specific differentiation, and of ethnic-cultural attributions in a pluricultural society.

The Picture Atlas has its social-political or democratic-political point of departure precisely in the existing lack of competence to analyze or to reflect critically on our permanent "visual surroundings" and to inquire into the hidden power structures that work through them ("picture-regime"). It originated in the Project ICONCLASH - Collective Pictures and Democratic Governance in Europe

Central Research Questions

In the Information Age, how do collective ideas on "social reality" and its ordering principles come about? What - subliminal - power structures are involved in this? How is the scope of action (and its boundaries) staked out in the democratically conceived European citizens? society by this imaginaire of "reality" (given that photographic and filmic images conveyed by the media are viewed as the authentic reproduction of reality)?

These questions form the starting point of a plan of research that takes up topical democratic-political questions: The area of tension existing where national identity meets emerging trans-national political structures in the process of European unification and expansion and where the construction of effective symbolic pictures guides action.

These symbols are not limited simply to the traditional repertoire of national images in "places of remembrance" (Pierre Nora) such as hymns, flags, museums etc, although these "super-icons" still play as important a role as ever; this is shown for instance by the design commissioned for a new European flag (Rem Koolhaas), which crops up again in the current logo of the Austrian Council Presidency. Regarding the social imagination of abstractions like "nation" or "European Union" (and their associated political spheres and power structures), those pictures that in the media society refer directly to the political sphere of action have the stronger effect. Precisely because they are not "suspected of symbolism" but seemingly reproduce "reality" in an authentic-neutral way, this world of pictures (that is to say the conception of those staged political events whose fall-out is found in the print and electronic media) is hardly observed critically at all but is rather seen as a self-evident reproduction of "reality."

Picture Sources and Criteria of Selection

Pictures from various picture archives (EU Mediathek [Audio-Visual Library]). EU brochures, APA Picture Archive, ORF-Archive, from school text books, print media) have been selected with an eye to the context in which they are used. They have been grouped into categories.

In setting up the categories, the following questions predominated: What function does the picture fulfil, what is it supposed to represent, convey, "show", "illustrate"? What visual argument does it contain? How is the "imagined community", EU-Europe, represented, where are its boundaries drawn, its "otherness" symbolically marked? These categories generate identity: How can they be analyzed in each of the pictures? They can be analyzed in a variety of ways, in the way they reproduce political forms of action, for instance, or relevant events, in historical presentations (the way they visualize EU-history), in their presentation of symbols (flag etc.) and of political productions/rituals at the EU-level (e.g., "family photo" at summit meetings); in the "illustration" of EU-relevant themes or spheres of conflict (e.g., transit, agriculture, EU-expansion), in trans-national comparisons (such as the graphic presentation of social statistics ), in the presentation of EU-institutions and administration (organigrams, "Brussels"), in the way they represent "European space" and Europe's borders (maps), in the way they visualize internal European normality or deviance (for example, tabular labour market statistics as a format for trans-national "ranking" which graphically illustrates standard values by tabulating "best practices", for example, and placing "problem countries" at the bottom of the table); and in the conveying of visual concepts of the "foreign" or the "Other" Europe (for example in pictures of "the East", shifting between expansion euphoria and postcolonial resentment or of the "headscarf" as an icon of a non-European canon of values and norms).

A further criterion for selection was the deepening and changing of the visual narrative: Do the motifs connected with EU-Europe (integration, expansion etc.) undergo change? Do certain motifs repeat themselves, gain new deeper levels of significance? Are certain motifs emotionally charged in a specific way? What emotional formulae can be identified in connection with EU-euphoria but also with negative images and visualizations of failure (a new image-statement arising in connection with the EU-constitutional summit in Brussels in December 2003). Do icons take shape from all this (repetition, relevance as, e.g., cover-picture etc.)?

Three different dimensions can be accessed in the pictures selected under a particular topic: The dimension 'series' offers an overview of the pictures selected for a theme or a category; the dimension 'time' makes it possible to trace chronological development; the dimension 'cluster' fills in thematic relationships, variations, etc. Attached to each picture there is, or in some cases there will be in the coming weeks, a picture text which both describes the picture and also contains the necessary background information.

Gertraud Diendorfer
Petra Dorfstätter
Vrääth Öhner
Oliver Rathkolb
Heidemarie Uhl

© Demokratiezentrum Wien

About the Project

The Picture Atlas is a product of the project ICONCLASH. Collective Icons and Democratic Governance in Europe

Demokratiezentrum Wien
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