Kolleg-Forschergruppe Bildakt und Verkörperung » Research programme

Research programme

Research programme

Mission statement

On the basis of historic picture-related phenomena, the Collegium for the Advanced Studies of Picture Act and Embodiment intends to develop a Picture- and Embodiment-Theory able to function as the theoretical foundation of research on current questions concerning imaging techniques, image processing, and embodiment in the cognitive sciences, and hence to profoundly further our understanding of the human ability of reflection. Picture Acts and pictures in general will only then be fully comprehensible, or so the working hypothesis maintains, when their specific form and liveliness, their ability to act as substitutes, and to represent non-objective sentiments are examined on the basis of embodiment theory. To these ends, developing connections between historically oriented Bildwissenschaft and research results of embodiment theory in philosophy and cognitive science becomes indispensible.

The central theses are: first, that in any process of image recognition the eyes are not the only sensory organ involved; it is instead the entire body which experiences the image; and second, that images never merely depict, but always also engender what they portray by means of a picture act.

Art History and Philosophy

The joint task assigned by art history and philosophy of developing a Picture Act Theory can be subdivided into three areas which structure the analysis: first, form, which is a prerequisite of the picture act as it contains its dynamic power within the dimensions of space and time; second, the apparent liveliness of pictures; and third, the potential personal union of the speaking beholder and the object. A corner stone of any image theory must be the discussion of form, which is hence also a central theme within the research group. Form qualifies the picture act and preserves its momentum in both temporal and spatial dimensions. The two other phenomena are closely linked and possess a long-standing tradition in image history (Bildgeschichte), although they have been sidelined by the language-centered epistemic theories of recent decades: the vitality of images and the substitution of body and image. Both concepts were often regarded deprecatingly as Bildmagie. Currently though, such supposedly archaic questions pertaining to the vitality of pictures and the relationship between the body and depiction are gaining considerable momentum in the cognitive sciences.

Thus, the two focus areas of “picture act” and “embodiment” are intricately related. This is evidenced by the fact that they are concerned with the same research areas of “Form,” “Vitality,” and “Substitution” (see diagram). In their subject matter, the two superordinate focus areas are closely linked to the particular scholarly interests of the project supervisors.
The grant applicants are supported by research assistants who carry out their own projects on a broad empirical basis within these three research areas. Their projects are designed in close agreement with the supervisors and serve to collect and classify relevant material as well as to verify or falsify the theoretical deliberations underlying the project. The Collegium is particularly interested in ensuring a continued dialogue between the individual research areas on a long-term basis.

Research Area: Form

In keeping with Leon Battista Aberti’s (1404-1472) definition, the Collegium considers all matter that has been subject to minimal human intervention as pictures. The consequence of this creative human imprint is form: it represents the beginning and the effect of the picture act theory.

The fundamental origin of the picture act lies in the relationship between bodily schemata and form. The significance of bodily schemata for navigating the world is undisputed, but their role in the production and understanding of images, not to mention the part they play in picture acts, has been but insufficiently explored. However, their relevance is already evidenced by the fact that even people who were born blind are able to understand and create images drawn with raised lines. Furthermore, in order to steer the body through space, the nervous system must necessarily possess some form of representation – call it the bodily schema – next to a map of the surrounding space. While mirror images or shadows were traditionally considered the beginning of image competence, basic forms of image recognition lie even deeper. Conscious and subconscious familiarity with one’s own body not only allows for a consistent bodily performance in space, but also enables even people who were born blind to draw images: their bodily schema makes it possible for them to create forms.

The art historical scholars working in the research field of form focus on the differentiated process of image production. This phenomenon was frequently described by Leonardo da Vinci, who believed that creative drawing could render images which are capable of influencing men with the immediacy and lasting effect of self-determinately acting, animate beings. Drawing can procure an affective excess that does not imitate reality, but instead creates a surplus which points to a ‘super-reality.’

Research Area: Vitality

One of the fundamental characteristics of images is that they seem to be alive. Even natural objects can appear animate, as demonstrated by the popular and age-old game of discerning faces in the clouds. Regardless of object representation, also abstract images, such as action paintings, convey a sense of liveliness. Throughout the Early Modern Age, the connection between visual objects and aspects of vitality was held in high esteem. However, during the Enlightenment, the increasing reverence paid to rationality as a comprehensive interpretative category sidelined this concept. Images were henceforth denied their own vitality and independent existence, thereby destroying a tradition dating back to the beginnings of representation (Bildlichkeit). In the technically advanced present-day world of imagery, notions of internal as well as external vitality re-emerge in practice and, in a broader perspective, bear the potential of re-determining the interpretation of visual objects. At the same time, the emergence of strongly opposing theoretical tendencies can be observed which try to suppress the combined factors of vitality and imagery with the argument of irrationality.

In this regard, “picture act” research serves as a bridge between older and newer concepts regarding the description and interpretation of images. Main philosophical questions arising in this field are: To what extent is the apparently animate character of images – their emotional expressivity (as opposed to their consistence of mere rigid lines and colorful marks) – based on the corporeality (Körperlichkeit) of human beings? How independent is this effect, which is particularly apparent in images of violence, from language and symbolic processes as a whole?

Research Area: Substitution

The ability of an image to represent other aspects than the picture itself begins with embodiment. The substitution of a physical body or an object by an image is a familiar theme in cultural anthropology and theology, and has become the subject of neurological research today. Changes in body image (for instance clothing worn during ritual dances) can lead to an altered sense of self. Certain types of clothing can give the dancer a new body image and identity. Accordingly, ritual objects are experienced as the dwelling places of spirits.

The relationship between an object and a beholder, who – given the possibilities of the picture act – can be viewed as its spokesperson, introduces the concept of substitution. Without this, the far-reaching mechanisms of representation would not dispose of such a profound political and social effect.
The fundamental identity of body and image is thus confirmed and can be more closely determined by the description and interpretation of both the process and the object. Hence, the broadcasting of videos of executions by terrorists gives rise to a fateful form of substitution that merely gives testimony to its own existence and that of the act itself. The images stand for the deed, just as, in reverse, the deed is only motivated by the possibility of its visualization. The question why one does not – as in countless movie scenes – consider these images staged, points to the core mechanism of substitution, which causes for the image not to be read as a representation of the deed, but as the deed itself.