Christensen Distinguished Lecture with Rebecca Solnit

This is an Archive of a Past Event

Case Studies in Invisibility

Much of what’s right in front of us is too large, too small, too fast, too slow, or too conceptually challenging to perceive, and much of what affects us and we affect is now beyond the radius of our perceptoin. This is a talk meditating on invisibilities and the work of artists and activists in making visible what has hitherto been unseen.

Quite literally, some motion escapes detection by the naked eye because it is too swift. The breakthrough Eadweard Muybridge made, with the support of Leland Stanford, was to speed up photography beyond what the naked eye could see and to capture figures in motion (and other phenomena, including the water that is such a powerful presence in many of his motion studies). From this technological innovation, realms of the swift became visible as the faraway had with the invention of the telescope, the minute with the invention of the microscope. From Muybridge to the Internet is a Silicon Valley story of sorts, one that raises questions about what we gain and lose in the technological shifts that emerge from this place—and what remains of place itself in technologies of displacement.

The acceleration of photography accompanied an acceleration of everyday life in the nineteenth century that has continued to the present, when we may suffer less from things too fast to see than too slow. Taking vision as a metaphor for all perception, we can contemplate what the accelerated viewer fails to see—how history itself has become invisible in the realms that Muybridge and the empire of innovation built upon his invention brought us. What does the absence of slowness make us miss, and how long does it take to see? That’s a question that applies to economics as well as to art. The sheer scale on which we live now means that much of what we impact and are impacted by is over the horizon; simply making things—sweatshops, clearcuts—visible has been a huge task of activist work in recent decades.

There are other aspects of invisibility. We notice that we are surrounded by what we can see; we have to work, to investigate, to challenge ourselves and our institutions to see what remains invisible, classified, denied, repressed, and hidden. This too has been the work of artists, notably artist-geographer Trevor Paglen who has worked to make visible what the military seeks to keep invisible, showing black sites, secret prisons, satellites, and branching out most recently to document the internet of tubes and cables, the physical geography we don’t see that fuels the cloud we do. Feminism and other forms of intervention make invisible biases and oppressions visible; artists such as Emma Sulkowicz have found innovative ways to give tangible form to suffering and the unspeakable.

Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of seventeen books about environment, landscape, community, art, politics, hope, and feminism, including two atlases, of San Francisco in 2010 and, New Orleans in 2013; and the books Men Explain Things to Me; The Faraway Nearby; A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster; A Field Guide to Getting Lost; Wanderlust: A History of Walking; and River of Shadows, Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (for which she received a Guggenheim, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and the Lannan Literary Award). A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she is a columnist at Harper's.

This lecture is made possible by a generous grant from Carmen M. Christensen.