Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.MM.12.2.12 | PDF


Mak­ing Sense of What We Can’t See Annette N Markham

Making Sense of What We Can’t See: A Visual Retrospective of COVID-19

Annette N Markham

How do we make sense of the glob­al and gran­u­lar at the same time? This visu­al essay explores the rela­tion­ship of the macro and micro through every­day prac­tices of image mak­ing, crop­ping, and shar­ing. It asks whether new ways of know­ing emerge or if per­haps pat­terns of sense­mak­ing pre-exist, a psy­cho­log­i­cal or social equiv­a­lent to frac­tals in nature. This becomes rel­e­vant when we con­sid­er that it is pre­cise­ly with­in the mun­dane details of every­day actions of sense­mak­ing that future struc­tures are born. In won­ders about how, in times of glob­al trau­ma, might these micro prac­tices rein­force or resist exist­ing rela­tions among humans, tech­nolo­gies, and the planet.

Com­ment don­ner un sens à ce qui est à la fois glob­al et gran­u­laire ? Cet essai visuel explore la rela­tion entre le macro et le micro à tra­vers les pra­tiques quo­ti­di­ennes de créa­tion, de recadrage et de partage d'images. Il pose la ques­tion de savoir si de nou­veaux modes de con­nais­sance émer­gent ou si des mod­èles de créa­tion de sens préex­is­tent, un équiv­a­lent psy­chologique ou social des formes frac­tales dans la nature. Cela est par­ti­c­ulière­ment per­ti­nent si l'on con­sid­ère que c'est pré­cisé­ment dans les détails banals et les actions quo­ti­di­ennes de créa­tion de sens que nais­sent les struc­tures d'interprétation futures. Alors que l'on tra­verse une péri­ode trau­ma­tique à l'échelle du globe, l'essai s'interroge sur la façon dont ces micro-pra­tiques pour­raient con­tribuer à ren­forcer ou à résis­ter aux rela­tions exis­tantes entre les humains, les tech­nolo­gies et la planète.


Figure 1: Balancing in the wind. Photograph by Annette Markham. Used by permission.

How does a mas­sive and incom­pre­hen­si­ble glob­al cri­sis like a pan­dem­ic con­nect to the micro­scop­ic moment of lived expe­ri­ence of COVID-spon­sored iso­la­tion? In this visu­al essay, I explore a core premise behind my design of “MMS,” the large scale project “Mas­sive and Micro­scop­ic Sense­mak­ing in Times of Glob­al Trau­ma” (2020).

Begin­ning in March 2020, I spent 113 days in near iso­la­tion from oth­er humans, walk­ing obses­sive­ly on the cold and windy shores of the north­ern Dan­ish coast­line. In tem­po­rary hous­ing and a coun­try I couldn’t call my own, I explored the nat­ur­al land­scape through image mak­ing, in equal mea­sure with doom­scrolling the news on my smartphone.

It felt chaot­ic, as if I was slip­ping on con­stant­ly shift­ing ter­rain. Yet the visu­al evi­dence I find now in my jour­nals and cam­era defy my own mem­o­ry, build­ing a sooth­ing sym­me­try of ret­ro­spec­tive sense­mak­ing about this sit­u­a­tion. What’s hap­pen­ing at these every­day micro­scop­ic lev­els, where the human, the plan­et, the tech­nol­o­gy of the lens, and mem­o­ry prac­tices meet?

My body (as it made its way through storms and sea­son­al changes) inter­sect­ed with frac­tal pat­terns in nature (as wit­nessed through my phone), along with over­lap­ping swirls of infor­ma­tion (as expe­ri­enced in my con­stant search­ing and con­sump­tion of more, more, and more news about COVID), and ebbs and flows of friends (pres­enced in var­i­ous time­zones through social media).

Figure 2: Wandering. Photograph by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

In these days, I found myself image crop­ping more than any­thing else, which I attribute to the desire to explore depths of field my own eyes could not see, even behind glass­es. My cam­era is a phone. And like a fight­er pilot’s air­frame, I trust it as an exten­sion of my body. There is a type of blind­less­ness in the per­cep­tion of see­ing through a cam­era because one is unable to do oth­er­wise in scream­ing winds and dri­ving rain.

Figure 3: Walking in the wind. Screenshots of camera video. Image by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Through post­ing (on Insta­gram, or Face­book), I rec­og­nize an impulse to con­vey a par­tic­u­lar sen­sa­tion, share the affect of a moment. This effort is a cre­ation of my own sense, more than sim­ply an “exten­sion of the sens­es” in the way McLuhan describes our rela­tion­ship with a tech­no­log­i­cal medium.

Zoom­ing in and out and crop­ping a moment for oth­ers becomes a rhyth­mic per­for­mance to extend my under­stand­ing of my Self. By ‘extend,’ here I mean that it deep­ens and com­plex­i­fies my sen­si­bil­i­ties, as much as ‘aug­ments’ my phys­i­cal abil­i­ty to see.

Figure 4: Even glasses don’t help. Screenshot of Instagram post. Photo and screenshot by Annette Markham. Used with permission.
Figure 5: Wind carved microscopic sand cliff. Photo by Annette Markham. Used with permission.
Figure 6: The process of making a post. Photo collage by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

This effort (exer­cise) to under­stand what I thought I was try­ing to cap­ture is not a solo act, but a per­for­mance with oth­ers, actu­al or imag­ined, the suc­cess of which relies on the respon­sive­ness of oth­ers. Mean­ing requires rever­ber­a­tion in the network.

While I sought to gen­er­ate a dis­tur­bance in the exosys­tem, the images them­selves seem to present only a cer­tain still­ness. It is only in the crit­i­cal junc­ture of Self and Other(s), in inter­ac­tion, that this dis­tur­bance occurs. Then, a rever­ber­a­tion of echo­ing sig­nals returns to me a sense of my sens­es. Through ret­ro­spec­tive sense­mak­ing I dis­cov­er, as an after­ef­fect, some of the things I could not see or know in the lived moment.

Figure 7: Reaching out to the universe. Screenshot of Instagram post. Photo by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Repeat­ed pat­terns and tex­tures bespeak an appar­ent calm of sooth­ing col­ors and syn­co­pat­ed rhythms. Amid the lived expe­ri­ence of chaos and anx­i­ety, per­haps this is a serendip­i­tous lev­el­ling of affect, as if to pro­duce delib­er­ate­ly a counter-punc­tum to the nau­se­at­ing spin of dai­ly news from around the plan­et. There is both a recog­ni­tion and a for­get­ting, espe­cial­ly as time and the encounter of Self/Other has passed.

Figure 8: Pattern Recognition Type I. Photo by Annette Markham. Used with permission.
Figure 9: Pattern Recognition Type II. Photo by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Frac­tals are rec­og­nized by their pat­terned fea­tures. They are the prod­uct of recur­sion, and present as rhyth­mic, because they repeat at dif­fer­ent scales, as well as across dif­fer­ent dynam­ic systems.

Figure 10: Pattern Recognition Type III. Screenshot of iCloud photo album on laptop. Photo by Annette Markham. Used with permission.
Figure 11: Fractals in Nature. Photo by Annette Markham. Used with permission.
Figure 12: Fractals in Tech. Screenshot of photo editing glitch on iPhone. Screenshot by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Akin to rhythm, rever­ber­a­tion has become a fruit­ful tool for con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing rela­tion­al­i­ty and con­nec­tiv­i­ty. Tak­ing seri­ous­ly the eco­log­i­cal metaphors used by schol­ars in the 20th cen­tu­ry to depict the com­plex­i­ty of self and social­i­ty (e.g., Bate­son), or life lived in and through media (e.g., McLuhan), terms like res­o­nance, rhythm, and rever­ber­a­tion fore­ground cer­tain ele­ments of the imme­di­ate media ecol­o­gy with­in which we are mak­ing sense of the world around us. The emerg­ing rever­ber­a­tions car­ry their own chronol­o­gy, dif­fi­cult for me to see until well after the fact.

Rever­ber­a­tion pays atten­tion to the echo­ing qual­i­ties of the sens­es. Even in the seem­ing­ly orig­i­nal turn of the camera’s gaze toward some­thing that caught the eye, this expe­ri­en­tial moment is not ‘raw,’ but a con­tin­u­a­tion of a rela­tion. Per­haps the pat­terns are always already there.

Figure 13: Partial Fractal A: Onion. Photo by Annette Markham. Used with permission.
Figure 14: Partial Fractal B: Tennis Ball. Photo by Annette Markham. Used with permission.
Figure 15: Partial Fractal C: Jellyfish. Photo by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Frac­tals are scale irrel­e­vant, which means we can see pat­terns at the micro- or macro­scop­ic lev­el. But they are nev­er sin­gu­lar; frac­tals are only noticed or under­stood in and as a rela­tion. Whether we use Mandelbrot’s clas­sic notion of frac­tals or Latour’s 2012 revival of the con­cept of the mon­ads, the part is always greater than the whole. Or, as William Blake’s now com­mon idiom reminds us, we can “see the world in a grain of sand.”

The mas­sive is thus always reflect­ed in the micro­scop­ic. The only ques­tion is how we might inter­pret this, and which micro­scop­ic ele­ments we are pay­ing atten­tion to any giv­en time. To under­stand the lived expe­ri­ence of a pan­dem­ic, there­fore, is not about gen­er­al­iz­ing but spec­i­fy­ing, with­in the details of a lived moment. To extrapolate.

Figure 16: Partial Fractal D: Trees and Lichen. Screenshot of Instagram post and photos by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Frac­tals have rhyth­mic prop­er­ties, or per­haps vice ver­sa. For months of iso­la­tion dur­ing these ear­ly days of a glob­al pan­dem­ic, I felt the world’s rhythms by virtue of the mas­sive inter­rup­tion in the flow. At the same time, I felt the flow of infor­ma­tion as a mat­ter of breath­ing. As Lefeb­vre not­ed, “In suf­fer­ing, in con­fu­sion, a par­tic­u­lar rhythm surges up and impos­es itself: pal­pi­ta­tion, breath­less­ness, pains in the place of sati­ety” (2004, 21). There’s a moment, between the in breath and the out breath, when every­thing just stops. A sus­pen­sion of time, an end­less wait­ing to breathe again.

Figure 17: The tide breathes deep. Sighs a little. Screenshot of Instagram post and photos by Annette Markham. Used with permission.
Figure 18: Precarity. Erosion. On the edge. Screenshot of Instagram post and photos by Annette Markham. Used with permission.
Figure 19: Disorientation. Photo by Annette Markham. Used by permission.

The dizzi­ness of not know­ing. I can­not ori­ent myself. My body knows the world is pre­car­i­ous; its equi­lib­ri­um is gone.”

—Jour­nal entry March 21, 2020.

I can’t help but iden­ti­fy pat­terns that already exist. I might ini­tial­ly notice an anom­aly, and once this dif­fer­ence is picked up (some­times lit­er­al­ly as I’m walk­ing along), all sub­se­quent notic­ings are about find­ing sim­i­lar data points. One might ask if the pan­dem­ic only high­light­ed pat­terns that were already there, or if the world, and all of us grains of sand, swift­ly found pat­terns in how to make sense of the sit­u­a­tion. The col­lec­tive gasp catch­ing in the throat; a glob­al moment that returns to a rhyth­mic sense of being in the world.

(Par­en­thet­i­cal­ly, if not con­clu­sive­ly, one might as well be describ­ing Instagram’s rel­e­vance algo­rithm, since it is designed to gen­er­ate these pat­terns, pre­sent­ing more of the same, over and over, until one sim­ply believes the pat­tern was always already there).

Figure 20: Pattern Recognition Type V. Across the Networks. Screenshot of Instagram post by Annette Markham. Used by permission.

Works Cited

Lefeb­vre, Hen­ri. Rhyth­m­analy­sis: Space, Time and Every­day Life. New York: Con­tin­u­um Books, 2004.

Latour, Bruno, et al. “‘The whole is always small­er than its parts’: a dig­i­tal test of Gabriel Tardes’ mon­ads.” The British Jour­nal of Soci­ol­o­gy, vol. 63, no. 4, 2012, pp. 590-615, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-4446.2012.01428.x.

Man­del­brot, Benoit B. “Frac­tal Aspects of the Iter­a­tion of z →Λz(1- z) for Com­plex Λ AND.z.” Annals of the New York Acad­e­my of Sci­ences, vol. 357, no. 1, 1980, pp. 249-259, DOI:10.1111/j.1749-6632.1980.tb29690.x.

Weick, Karl E. The Social Psy­chol­o­gy of Orga­niz­ing. Boston: Addi­son-Wes­ley, 1969.

Image Notes

Fig­ure 1: Bal­anc­ing in the wind. Pho­to­graph by Annette Markham. Used by permission.

Fig­ure 2: Wan­der­ing. Pho­to­graph by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 3: Walk­ing in the wind. Screen­shots of cam­era video. Image by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 4: Even glass­es don’t help. Screen­shot of Insta­gram post. Pho­to and screen­shot by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 5: Wind carved micro­scop­ic sand cliff. Pho­to by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 6: The process of mak­ing a post. Pho­to col­lage by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 7: Reach­ing out to the uni­verse. Screen­shot of Insta­gram post. Pho­to by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 8: Pat­tern Recog­ni­tion Type I. Pho­to by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 9: Pat­tern Recog­ni­tion Type II. Pho­to by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 10: Pat­tern Recog­ni­tion Type III. Screen­shot of iCloud pho­to album on lap­top. Pho­to by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 11: Frac­tals in Nature. Pho­to by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 12: Frac­tals in Tech. Screen­shot of pho­to edit­ing glitch on iPhone. Screen­shot by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 13: Par­tial Frac­tal A: Onion. Pho­to by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 14: Par­tial Frac­tal B: Ten­nis Ball. Pho­to by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 15: Par­tial Frac­tal C: Jel­ly­fish. Pho­to by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 16: Par­tial Frac­tal D: Trees and Lichen. Screen­shot of Insta­gram post and pho­tos by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 17: The tide breathes deep. Sighs a lit­tle. Screen­shot of Insta­gram post and pho­tos by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 18: Pre­car­i­ty. Ero­sion. On the edge. Screen­shot of Insta­gram post and pho­tos by Annette Markham. Used with permission.

Fig­ure 19: Dis­ori­en­ta­tion. Pho­to by Annette Markham. Used by permission.

Fig­ure 20: Pat­tern Recog­ni­tion Type V. Across the Net­works. Screen­shot of Insta­gram post by Annette Markham. Used by permission.