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Invisibility Studies

Surveillance, Transparency and the Hidden in Contemporary Culture


Edited By Henriette Steiner and Kristin Veel

Invisibility Studies explores current changes in the relationship between what we consider visible and what invisible in different areas of contemporary culture. Contributions trace how these changes make their marks on various cultural fields and investigate the cultural significance of these developments, such as transparency and privacy in urban architecture and the silent invasion of surveillance technologies into everyday life. The book contends that when it comes to the changing relationship of the visible and the invisible, the connection between seeing and not being seen is an exchange conditioned by physical and social settings that create certain possibilities for visibility and visuality, yet exclude others. The richness and complexity of this cultural framework means that no single discipline or interdisciplinary approach could capture it single-handedly. Invisibility Studies begins this conversation by bringing together scholars across the fields of architectural history and theory, art, film and literature, philosophy, cultural theory and contemporary anthropology as well as featuring work by a collective of artists.
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16 Visible in Theory: Perceived Visibility as Symbolic Form – A Photo-Expedition into a Contemporary Urban Environment


The glass façade is commonly found in recently developed urban areas, suggesting an architectural typology in which transparency dominates. In modernist architecture such as Mies van der Rohe’s famous Farnsworth House (1951), large glass panes were meant to create a direct link between the interior spaces and an ideal, unspoilt natural environment surrounding them. But few people live in natural surroundings. In contemporary Western culture, it is rather the urban environment that is the most typical human biotope; and in this context, the idea that the glass façade or panorama window facilitates direct communication between inside and outside becomes problematic. Glass, of course, not only allows someone to appreciate the surrounding environment, it also allows the gazes of others to penetrate the private sphere. Yet at the same time, even highly transparent architectures give rise to a spectrum of unexpected opacities. Hence a glass façade can also function as a reflective screen: what we think is visible is, in fact, often invisible, and vice versa. We propose that such situations can be understood as an aesthetic experience of ‘perceived visibility’, according to which visuality (seeing and being seen) is emphasised – but seldom realised – through a particular formal architectural language. We are concerned here with situations in which we are simply ‘visible in theory’.

This chapter explores the aesthetic paradigm of perceived visibility as a particular form of seeing – and not seeing – that is deeply ingrained in the modern imagination, and which can be...

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