Cogut Institute for the Humanities

Transporting Images

An “Economies of Aesthetics” Symposium
Friday, Oct. 20, 2023

Images today, digitized and disseminated online, are essentially mobile and transitory. They exist in order to be shared and sent. It is often thought that this circulatory nature of images is a recent phenomenon. But already a century ago, German art historian and cultural theorist Aby Warburg, in the introduction to his Mnemosyne Atlas, coined the term “image vehicles” and suggested that the “migrations of images” are woven into the very existence of images themselves.

The notion of image vehicles calls for a dialogue between, on the one hand, art history, iconology, or image theory and, on the other, infrastructure studies. There would be no image vehicles without what allows for their mobility: wires, cables, satellites, shipping routes, and other components of transportation.

This symposium addressed the significance of image vehicles and the infrastructures that make them possible, as well as the ways in which we can visualize these infrastructures in the form of images that can themselves be disseminated.

The event was convened by Peter Szendy as part of the Cogut Institute’s Economies of Aesthetics initiative and in partnership with the Department of French and Francophone Studies.

Image: “Cargo Cult” (from “Body Beautiful, Or Beauty Knows No Pain”) by Martha Rosler, c. 1966-1972, Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College


Session 1

  • Georges Didi-Huberman (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris) • “The History of Art Is a Story of Migration”
  • Jennifer Roberts (Harvard University) • “The Interstellar Medium”
  • Moderator: Peter Szendy (Brown University)

Session 2

  • Peter Szendy (Brown University) • “Iconoroads”
  • Shannon Mattern (University of Pennsylvania) • “World in a Box: Cardboard Media and the Geographic Imagination”
  • Moderator: Foad Torshizi (Rhode Island School of Design)

Abstracts and Bios

The discipline of art history was revolutionized by Aby Warburg’s anthropological approach. At the heart of this approach is the notion of “migration.” Nothing appears in history — and, singularly, in the history of images — that is not a moment in a psychic, cultural, structural, symptomatic (or “critical”) and, finally, epistemic (or methodological) migration.

Georges Didi-Huberman is a philosopher and art historian at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris). He has published about 60 books on the history and theory of images, some of them translated into English, such as Fra Angelico, Dissemblance and Figuration (University of Chicago Press, 1995), Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of Salpêtrière (MIT Press, 2003), Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art (Penn State University Press, 2005), Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz (University of Chicago Press, 2008), The Surviving Image: Phantoms of Time and Time of Phantoms: Aby Warburg’s History of Art (Penn State University Press, 2017), Bark (MIT Press 2017), The Eye of History: When Images Take Position (MIT Press, RIC Books, 2018), Survival of the Fireflies (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), Atlas, or the Anxious Gay Science (University of Chicago Press, 2018). He has received various distinctions, including the Humboldt-Preis, the Max Weber-Preis, the Theodor W. Adorno-Preis, the Aby Warburg-Preis, the Prix Médicis de l’essai, and honorary doctorates from various institutions. He has also curated exhibitions such as L’Empreinte in 1997 (Paris, Centre Pompidou), Atlas in 2010 (Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid; ZKM, Karlsruhe; Deichtorhallen, Hamburg), Nouvelles Histoires de fantômes in 2014 (Palais de Tokyo, Paris), Memory Burns in 2014 (Beijing), Soulèvements (Jeu de Paume, Paris; Barcelona; Buenos Aires; São Paulo; Mexico; Montréal).

The humble cardboard box, born with the rise of mass-produced paper and industrial machines, now serves as a critical extension of our global platform economy. In this talk I’ll examine how the box serves as a medium: as a means of distribution, as a buffer between inside and outside worlds, as a lithographed text to be read, as the material embodiment of logistical logics and geographic imaginations. I’ll focus in particular on how the mid-century design program of the Container Corporation of America and contemporary packaging engineering conceive of the cardboard box as an arboreal infrastructure, a system for image distribution and brand cultivation, and an ecological apparatus that both orders and transforms the terrains it traverses.

Shannon Mattern is the Penn Presidential Compact Professor of Media Studies and Art History at the University of Pennsylvania. From 2004 to 2022, she served in the Department of Anthropology and the School of Media Studies at the New School in New York. Her writing and teaching focus on media architectures and infrastructures and spatial epistemologies. She has written books about libraries, maps, and urban intelligence; she serves as president of the board of the Metropolitan New York Library Council; and she contributes a column about urban data and mediated spaces to Places Journal. You can find her at

In 1977, more than a hundred photographs were translated into sound waves, engraved into a gold-plated copper phonograph record, bolted to the sides of two NASA Voyager space probes, and launched toward the outer planets. They are still out there, 14 billion miles away and counting, in the interstellar medium beyond the edge of the solar system. Forever free from the fate of the Earth and sun, they are predicted to drift through the galaxy for tens of billions of years — longer than the entire age of the universe so far. The astronomically slim hope is that someday the Voyagers might be intercepted by an alien intelligence, and that the images on board might be seen, or sensed, again. Can we stretch our thinking about transported images to include these impossibly distant transmissions? Do our theories about media still work in the interstellar medium?

Jennifer L. Roberts is the Drew Gilpin Faust Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, where she teaches art history, print history, and material studies, with an emphasis on intersections between the arts and the natural sciences. She is the author of six books on American and European art from the 18th century to the present, including Transporting Visions: The Movement of Images in Early America (University of California Press, 2014), and a forthcoming book on the physics and poetics of printmaking, “Contact: Art and the Pull of Print.” Her latest work explores the reciprocity of art and astrophysics. She is working on a project about the “women computers” at Harvard’s glass plate astronomical collection in the late 19th century and is currently cowriting a book with artist Dario Robleto about the EEG and EKG signatures that were engraved into NASA’s Voyager Golden Record in 1977.

This presentation will sketch out a genealogy of iconoroutes and iconovehicles, in the wake of Aby Warburg’s intuitions and in dialogue with Marx’s theory of transportation in Capital. The archaeology of the invention of telephotography and of other forms of image freight will pave the way for a critical re-reading of the Deleuzian notion of “movement-images.”

Peter Szendy is David Herlihy University Professor of Humanities and Comparative Literature. Among his publications: Of Stigmatology: Punctuation as Experience (Fordham University Press, 2018); Le Supermarché du visible: Essai d'iconomie (Éditions de Minuit, 2017); All Ears: The Aesthetics of Espionage (Fordham University Press, 2016); Phantom Limbs: On Musical Bodies (Fordham University Press, 2015); Apocalypse-Cinema: 2012 and Other Ends of the World (Fordham University Press, 2015); Kant in the Land of Extraterrestrials: Cosmopolitical Philosofictions (Fordham University Press, 2013). At the Cogut Institute, Szendy leads the Economies of Aesthetics Initiative.