Globalization, Visual Communication, Difference
From 2011 to 2015, Dr Giorgia Aiello’s project “Globalization, Visual Communication, Difference” was funded by a €100,000 Marie Curie International Reintegration Grant under the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme.
The main aim of the project was to examine ways in which global visual communication integrates, mobilizes, and uses important features of social and cultural difference like, for example, nationality and race, gender and sexuality, class and lifestyle, and both place and politics.
The rise of global capitalism has been overwhelmingly associated with the increasing ‘loss’ of difference in cultural production. Due to the centrality of aesthetics and design in the global economy, the study of visual communication industries and case studies provides a fertile area of inquiry to advance the academic debate on homogenization and heterogenization, particularly in relation to a general apprehension over the preservation and disappearance of difference across cultures (Aiello & Pauwels, 2014).
Focusing on the significance and profitability of specific identities tied to locality, diversity and dissent in global communication, the project looked at a variety of visual texts and practices found in popular and consumer culture, photography, branding, and urban place-making.
Through the theme of ‘locality’, Dr Aiello focused on the significance of identities tied to place and provenance in global communication in relation to key visual and material strategies that are often used by cities and corporations to use this particular dimension of difference as an ‘accent’ and therefore also as a distinctive appeal. On one hand, she looked at how increasingly globalizing formats of urban planning (e.g. the ‘urban village’) integrate both visual narratives and material textures that point to the local character of place into the more ‘cosmopolitan’ feel of spaces aimed at key lifestyle publics (Aiello, 2013a). On the other hand, she focused on how a global corporation like Starbucks strategically embeds the homogenizing forces of its store designs in a place’s locality, for example by using and emphasizing the presence of locally sourced foods, artworks and community events, while also highlighting the materiality of fixtures and furnishings (Aiello & Dickinson, 2014).
The theme of ‘diversity’ was developed through an analysis of some of the ways in which gender and sexuality are represented and stylized in stock photography, that is, visual imagery that is actively produced to be sold globally and used across communicative contexts. Stock imagery is most often associated with a very limited aesthetic repertoire of bland and at times abstract images with little or no contextual detail. However, the aesthetics of ‘genericity’ that are typical of stock images have become increasingly complex, and in fact deeply entrenched with niche marketing and related visual trends like authenticity, texture, and ultimately also diversity. In this particular strand, the researcher conducted over 40 interviews with stock photographers (mainly in London and New York) and examined how images from this major global image bank ‘communicate’ women’s sexual difference and gender identity visually (Aiello, 2013b; Aiello, 2013c) in relation to Getty Images’ recent attempts to ‘repicture’ women through initiatives like the Lean In Collection.
Finally, as a theme ‘dissent’ was examined in relation to contemporary imagery of protest and activism. For this strand, Dr Aiello focused on how images of political dissent have increasingly entered the realm of popular communication, not only through iconic global images like the Che Guevara portrait, but also through the visual media activism practices of controversial groups like Pussy Riot and Femen, who regularly use visual signifiers of embodied difference such as masks, clothing, nudity and writing on the body to communicate their message globally through mainstream and self-produced media alike. As part of this strand of the project, she has developed a collaborative framework for the study of political aesthetics (Aiello & Parry, 2015) and visual media activism practices in particular.
The project had several important outcomes:
- A special issue on the project’s theme (Difference and Globalization) in the top SAGE journal Visual Communication;
- Seven accepted publications (four peer-reviewed articles, a peer-reviewed encyclopedia entry, a special issue editorial and an invited collaborative article);
- Invitations to speak at international universities, including University of Hong Kong, Chinese University of Hong Kong, New School for Public Engagement, University of Bern, University of Bologna, and University of Antwerp;
- A number of research events on different aspects of the project, including four ICA panel sessions, multiple conference presentations, and two half-day symposia as well as several research seminars and workshops at the University of Leeds, with guest speakers like Melissa Aronczyk, Paul Frosh, David Machin, Luc Pauwels, Theo Van Leeuwen, and Zoe Whishaw.
- A book contract with SAGE for the co-authored volume Visual Communication: Understanding Images in Media Culture (with Katy Parry, to be published in 2017).