Annual Humanities Center Lecture: Nicholas Mirzoeff on #BlackLivesMatter

Professor Nicholas Mirzoeff of New York University delivered the annual Humanities Center Lecture and discussed the relationship between public space and the Black Lives Matter movement.  


PROVO, Utah (Mar. 11, 2016)—On August 14, 2014, just five days after the shooting of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, hundreds of protesters in New York City rushed into the streets out of restaurants, houses and bars in a striking manifestation of group solidarity and outrage for Brown’s death.

Professor Nicholas Mirzoeff refers to moments like this as the “visual commons,” an idea that he describes as an individual’s feeling of being called to belong to appearance and performance in public spaces. Mirzoeff’s lecture, “The Visual Commons: #BlackLivesMatter,” discussed how space, appearance and performance are a large component of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“What are people trying to create when they take over one trillion photographs a year, post 700 million snaps a day?” Mirzoeff asked. “What are people doing when they upload 400 hours of YouTube every minute?”

Mirzoeff’s questions come down to the concept of space, both spaces of connection (such as roads and transport infrastructure) and racialized spaces (such as housing projects and racially marked neighborhoods).

Regarding questions of space and blackness, Mirzoeff discussed why it matters to be black or to be perceived as black.

“These spaces, spaces of connection and racialized spaces, are themselves connected by the police and the industrial complex, which constitute the infrastructures of white supremacy,” he said.

Mirzoeff said that the spaces of the “unmarked” – or white – are watched and have the benefit of systems looking out for them. The spaces where the “marked” appear are out of sight and there is no public there.

Mirzoeff explained that though none of this is new, the spaces where the marked appear are now visible because of cell phone videos and social media outlets that create what he calls a “co-presence” between digital and physical spaces.

“This co-presence has made possible a commons where people and their visualized data interact, in which the material environment is actively reconfigured and re-functioned,” he said. “When we make a commons then, space is reconfigured under the axiom #BlackLivesMatter and the other media we produce.”

The Black Lives Matter movement began online as a social media hashtag. It was initially a way for people to locate each other and share information. Soon, however, it led to physical manifestations in the streets.

“The commons appears to be spontaneous to those residing in the seats of judgment,” said Mirzoeff. “More precisely, after long restraint and rehearsal . . . it overflows the enormous material and physical constraints set against it at moments of intensity. It is beyond the frame.”

Mirzoeff explained that the movement is “kinetic and potential.” Because it is performed in common space, it is intensely experienced and remembered.

Yet what does it mean to situate this commons as black?

1603-30 100 1603-30 Nicholas Mirzoeff Humanities Lecture March 11, 2016 Photography by Savanna Sorensen/BYU Photo/BYU Copyright BYU Photo 2016 All Rights Reserved (801)422-7322

While incarcerated in Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “We will present our very bodies as a means of weighing our case before the conscience of the local and national community.”

Mirzoeff explained, “Whereas the civil rights movement persisted in its address to white conscience, Black Lives Matter uses persistent looking. It calls for us to see what we need to see and not to be traumatized.”

Black Lives Matter protestors have described the experience of the movement as the “meeting of the police gaze.” The construction of this commons is to position bodies deemed black in spaces deemed white.

For example, on Martin Luther King Day last January, Black Lives Matter protesters placed their bodies in the unmarked, white space of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, disrupting the flow of traffic and ultimately shutting it down.

Mirzoeff said that people found themselves “inconvenienced” by black bodies refusing to move out of the way. Many of the protestors, who had chained themselves to cars, were cut free by police officers, an act that was purposefully symbolic.

“From Ferguson to Flint, #BlackLivesMatter has formed a new body politic from vulnerable bodies that can be marked and can die to sustain a movement between grief and grievance in a judicial sense,” Mirzoeff said. “These performances reclaim the right to resistance as the right to existence, putting the right to look in the street.”

He continued, “Our title is our breathing. When we breathe, we breathe together, and we do so persistently – both to sustain the commons and require a new abolition movement.”

Mirzoeff concluded, “Be unbounded. Shut it down. Black lives matter.” 

­­—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia Cutler covers events for the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.