Art and Terror

Art and terror are both deeply contentious terms which have often been brought into uncomfortable proximity. Both terms have two fundamental qualities in common: they are extremely difficult to define, and they carry with them—inseparably, it seems—a value judgement. In the past, art has openly glorified the violence of monarchs, churches and states; and it has of course been subject to terror as iconoclasts have sought to expunge the practices and even the memory of a faith or a culture. In this series of lectures, art historians, photographers and some of the foremost experts in photojournalism will explore the modern and contemporary nexus of art and terror. Among the questions they will examine are how images serve and magnify terror, the role of gender, the transformations brought about by social media, the issue of distance (aesthetic and otherwise) and how past conflicts speak to the present.

This series was organised by Professor Julian Stallabrass

Why Babies?

31 January 2017

Professor Mignon Nixon – University College London

This lecture considers the place of children in cultures of terror. It returns to the scandal of baby killing in the American war in Vietnam, as represented in the work of Martha Rosler, Carolee Schneemann, and Nancy Spero, to reflect upon the significance of violence against children in terror’s imaginary.

Mignon Nixon is Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at University College London and an editor of October. From 1996 to 2016, she taught the history of post-World War II American Art at the Courtauld. She is the author of Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art. Her recent publications include the Mary Kelly October File (2016) and essays on Carolee Schneemann, Yayoi Kusama, Louise Lawler, and Nancy Spero. Her current book project is Sperm Bomb: Art, Feminism, and the American War in Vietnam.

Terror and Twitter

14th February 2017

Geert van Kesteren – Photographer, writer and filmmaker

On May 1st, 2003 president Bush addressed his controversial ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech on the flight carrier USS Lincoln, 20 miles out of the coast of San Diego. In this speech, broadcasted worldwide, the war on Iraq was sold as a success story; the Saddam regime was ousted and major combat operations had ended. That same day photojournalist Geert van Kesteren arrived in Baghdad as an independent photojournalist to start working on his most notable photo reports WHY MISTER, WHY? and BAGHDAD CALLING in which he bared witness to a complete opposite reality.

This lecture examines the catastrophic consequences of the war on terror in Iraq that started 14 years ago while addressing the origins of terrorism in the age of twitter. Radical groups rely heavily on information technology, creating a virtual community of jihadis and sympathizers, and, a global community of virtual witnesses to terrorism—a group of which we are nearly all members.

Geert van Kesteren (1966) is a Dutch photographer, writer and filmmaker who has been reporting on conflict and humanitarian crisis throughout the world for well over twenty-five years – most notably Why Mister, Why? (2004) and Baghdad Calling (2008), on the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Van Kesteren’s collaboration with acclaimed Dutch designers Mevis and Van Deursen resulted in presentations that ‘breathed new life into photojournalism’. It brought him various international prizes and exhibitions, such as the ICP’s Infinity award, or at the Barbican Art Gallery. His work is part of collections, such as at the Rijksmuseum.

Follow the Americans: Photography and US Foreign Policy

28th February 2017 

Professor Liam Kennedy – University College Dublin


This lecture will consider some of the challenges faced by contemporary photojournalism in the documentation of twenty-first-century warfare. More particularly, it will examine representations of American military power in a “postphotographic” age, an image saturated era in which the violent conduct of war has become less tangible or accountable in documentary terms. It will consider some of the ideas and arguments about the limits of photojournalism and consider several strategies and practices by photographers seeking to reinvigorate the capacity for photography to represent the realities of twenty-first-century warfare.

Liam Kennedy is Professor of American Studies and Director of the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin. He is the author of Susan Sontag (1995), Race and Urban Space in American Culture (2000), and Afterimages: Photography and US Foreign Policy (2016), and editor of Urban Space and Representation (1999), The Visual Culture of Urban Regeneration (2004), The Wire (2012), and The Violence of the Image (2014). He is currently researching books on US culture and globalization and on diaspora cultures, and editing a book on neoliberalism and American literature.


Remembering Terror

14th March 2017 

Professor Julian Stallabrass – The Courtauld Institute of Art

By looking at the way in which the 9/11 attacks are remembered photographically, this lecture will examine how the ‘iconic’ image fares in an age of intensive media saturation. Can exceptional images encapsulate exceptional events, as they once seemed to do, and if not, what replaces them?

Julian Stallabrass is a writer, photographer, curator and lecturer. He is Professor in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and is the author of Art Incorporated, Oxford University Press 2004. He is the editor of Documentary, in the MIT/ Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art series; and Memory of Fire: Images of War and the War of Images, Photoworks, Brighton 2013.

Art, Terror and Distance

21st March 2017

Dr Rachel Wells – Newcastle University

This lecture will examine the ways in which contemporary artists have addressed the changing relationship between distance and conflict. For at least two and a half decades, images of conflict have been theorised in the West predominantly in terms of a moral necessity to overcome geographical and empathetic distance. Susan Sontag, in her discussion Regarding the Pain of Others, presented this overcoming of distance as a conceptual and ethical challenge faced by image consumers who are positioned ‘elsewhere’ to the location of war. While the importance of such questioning has not diminished, under accelerated globalisation distance is not only a condition of the perception of conflict and suffering, but is increasingly an inherent part of contemporary warfare and its effects: drone use presents distance as a tactic of war, terrorism thrives on its threat of omnipresent closeness, and forced displacement reveals distance as its own form of suffering.

The lecture will argue that work by artists including Jananne Al-Ani, Wafa Bilal, Steve McQueen, Trevor Paglen and Sophie Ristelhueber suggests that the relationship between distance and images of conflict must be rethought in terms that go beyond the perception of distant viewers to an expression and critique of the nature of contemporary conflict.

Rachel Wells is Lecturer in Art History and Theory at Newcastle University. Prior to her post at Newcastle Rachel was Tutor in the History and Theory of Fine Art at the Ruskin School of Fine Art, Oxford University, and Henry Moore Foundation Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She received her BA in English from Cambridge University, and her MA and PhD from the Courtauld. Rachel’s research on modern and contemporary art has been published widely, including Art History, the Oxford Art Journal and Tate. Her 2013 book Scale in Contemporary Sculpture is now out in paperback with Routledge.