Urgent analysis of the role of the networked image during the COVID-19 pandemic
While we have not yet grasped the scope of the pandemic and its economic, social and environmental impact, we do know that everyone is vulnerable to its effects. A shared worldwide vulnerability that has brought a sense of collectiveness while also exposing the inequalities in which our world and capitalism, the system that rules it, is rooted.[^1] The designation of some of the lowest-paid as key workers, or the health imbalance that put Black and other racial minorities at an increased risk of getting sick and dying from the virus, unveil the discriminative nature of the economic system in which we live in.
Both the fear of a capitalist acceleration and the hope for a new process of world repair and revival have emerged simultaneously during the lockdown in the first half of 2020. An exceptional time in which restrictions on physical interaction have forced professional and personal relationships into the online space. While streets have been emptied, screens have been filled with work meetings, family gatherings and drinks with friends; and interactions have become necessarily mediated by networked images. The subordination to their quantities, qualities and accessibility —features that are also constrained by the structural and technological development as well as the free speech legislation of each country— have conditioned the access to essential activities such as labour, schooling or care. The human reliance on these technologies fulfills everything their creators envisioned and their critics warned about, fully realised not because of their efficiency or exploitative nature, but because the virus seemed to leave no other choice.
At the same time, the institutions that ‘take care’ of images have closed their facilities, cancelled or postponed their activities, or adapted them to the internet. The sharp decrease in international tourism seems to highlight the limitations of the capitalist model of managing prominent museums, in which the pursuit of an endless increase of visitor figures and the continuous development of oversized structures is economically unsustainable. The institutions that managed to stay open and active online during the lockdown have launched a wide range of curatorial strategies, mechanisms and experiments in response to the health crisis. The traditional understanding of the networked image by most organisations devoted to photography has, until now, only been as a tool for communication or illustration. Installation views and reproductions of printed photographs have been used to create a failed illusion of an online ‘exhibition’, and live-streamed conversations have been marketed as innovative or experimental while ignoring the networked nature of the image they rely on. A reckless approach in a time in which private companies and governments are already exploiting some of its diverse and complex possibilities. The wide deployment of automatized image production, its role in biometric control tools or the increased reach of surveillance capitalism – supported by the profits made by the attention economy that has flourished even further during isolation[^2], are two persuasive examples.
Civil right movements have also been gathering around networked images, as clearly exemplified by international movement against racism and police violence ignited through the documenting and dissemination of George Floyd’s murder. The viral circulation of images of injustice can mobilize. Even more so when relationships, labour, culture and care coalesce through the same channels and devices where those images circulate. However, it has also been demonstrated, that images rarely generate change by themselves. Images of violence against Black people in the US, whether through photographs of lynchings from the early twentieth century or the current increase of cellphone videos recording state and social injustice, have done little to affect the structural racism in that country or elsewhere.[^3]
This itinerary aims to analyze and question the role of the networked image during the COVID-19 global health crisis. At a time when the world has been forced to move even more extensively online, the contributors to this collection of essays will help to answer the following questions: What is the role of the networked image during a global health crisis? Has the pandemic changed how images operate, and what is the scope of that change? How are the organisations, individuals and automatisms that regularly interact with the networked image adapting to the new scenario?