7-2 | Table of Contents | DOI 10.17742/IMAGE.VOS.7-2.10 | SilvaPDF

Abstract | What is the relationship between visual images and the social imaginary? The following article argues that the social imaginary is built on aesthetics and that this fact creates conditions of perception belonging not to art but to the social realm. It also means that it is possible, therefore, to construct a triadic model of social perception, according to whether an empirical fact or an imagined event dominates in any given phenomenon. How then is visual perception created through the production of the imaginary? If an imaginary is a state of aesthetic cognition then there is an epistemic relationship of continuity between the visual image and the construction of the social imaginary which precedes all representation.

Résumé | Quelle est la relation entre les images visuelles et l’imaginaire social? Cet article soutient que l’imaginaire social repose sur l’esthétique et que cela crée des conditions de perception appartenant non pas à l’art, mais à la sphère sociale. Cela signifie aussi qu’il est possible de construire un modèle tripartite de la perception sociale selon qu’un fait empirique ou un événement imaginé domine dans un phénomène donné. Comment la perception visuelle est-elle donc créée en fonction de la production de l’imaginaire social? Si l’imaginaire est un état de connaissance esthétique, il existe une relation épistémique de continuité entre l’image visuelle et la construction de l’imaginaire social qui précède la représentation.

Armando Silva | Universidad Externado de Colombia
Geraldine Barandiarán | Translator


Imaginaries Built on Aesthetics

I begin with the proposition that what we identify as an imaginary has the social capacity of “causing astonishment” (Silva, Imaginarios). I thus identify the construction of imaginaries as those instances in which the aesthetic function is dominant, not, I must clarify, as art, but rather as part of social interactions which, insofar as they are instantiations of affect, develop within a group setting and, as such, in an interaction of affects.

The group setting implies that which is common; it involves an interplay between closely related others, the “nos-otros” [Spanish for “us”, literally, “we-others”], which designates myself and the others. We are referring here to the psychological force of a collectivity, their perceptions largely emancipated from any verifiable or logical argumentation, assuming form through social circulation with the result that the sensation of astonishment dominates the referential dimensions of the object which has generated it. In art, the imaginary is free to represent social coexistence, so the artistic work presents various kinds of explicitly political content, as in performances or works of public art which seek to spur citizens to take action. In social imaginaries, however, aesthetics is part of the living body of each subject within the collectivity; its truths are assimilated as part of existence and, as such, we react to them as if faced with a certainty of identity. At play here are the ways in which the words or images which a subject employs in order to create imaginary categories materialize into action and become programs for urban living, the central concern of scholars in this particular field. Our object of study can be described thus: through imaginaries, we study those social processes in which the aesthetic function becomes dominant as the means by which a collectivity perceives and behaves. In Figure 1, for example, one can see something amazing: suddenly a horse enters the urban scene and turns the moment into a phantasmatic illusion that makes the citizens who perceive it participate in an aesthetic event.[1] Along these lines, then, if we want to understand the materials from which imaginaries are made, we must look for our explanation in aesthetic feeling, insofar as we take this to be a constitutive part of social perception.

Figure 1

The early years of the new millennium saw the emergence of art works that spoke of relational aesthetics, cultural ecology, emerging aesthetics, or of an art of social processes.

These involved various kinds of expansions of object-centred environments for situating and stabilizing individuals, defining their identities “in the same way that communities and families used to” (Ladagana 56). Outside of art, people have generated collective forms of subjectivity, focused not only on specific demands but around particular expressive forms. The question we ask is this: “Can the aesthetic dimensions of citizen participation be considered a part of culture, or are they, more radically, contextually appropriate means for communicating the ‘content’ of certain affective demands?”[2] The latter corresponds to an aesthetic sense of imaginaries, one in which citizens engage in political acts by producing images and aesthetic forms based on their common desires.

The figural, then, designates both the object and the relationship between subject and object. As a result, the function of those figures perceived as images in social contexts is not only that of instituting distinctions but also those of introducing values and shaping behaviour. Everything is inscribed in a constellation of relationships with other symbols, and the symbolic forms, which range from the religious to the magical, and from the aesthetic to the economic and political thus constitute, as Baczko has shown, “a (figurative) field in which images, ideas and actions are articulated,” thus ensuring that social imaginaries will be the force regulating social life in every collective organization (30).

However, if we accept as true that imaginaries are constituted by aesthetics, we must emphasize that both the cognitive and the emotional fit in the latter, and that an imaginary vision is based in feelings. That is, it does not originate in knowledge, but rather springs from ways of knowing in which feelings dominate. Accordingly, there are certain feelings in social life that construct dominant imaginaries, such as fear, revenge, hope, hate and yearnings for the future. Of all these feelings, the one marked by greatest consistency in contemporary urban culture is perhaps fear, which is itself a residue of other feelings motivating people to act. If we examine its modes of existence, we will better understand the trigger mechanism of an imaginary which, in any given moment, can come to dominate social perception.

An exemplary case of media-induced fear, which I wrote about in 2004, took shape around what was called “swine flu”, which was first detected in Mexico in 2009, and then spread to the whole world, moving more quickly in the media, and especially through television, than did the actual pandemic itself.[3] In Mexico, during the second half of that year, tourism fell by 80% in cities such as Cancún, and in other “infected countries” it worsened because of photos showing citizens using oxygen tanks and masks to protect themselves from the fatal virus that besieged them. Images like these, shown around the world, portrayed Mexicans as extraterrestrials oppressed by the illness. In actual fact, the virus was the result of an avian strain compounded by two more strains of the swine flu virus. The origins of this new strain were not known and the World Health Organization (WHO) declared at the time that it was easily transmitted among humans because of a mutation that was yet to be identified. The fear increased even more when it was announced that it could be transmitted “through saliva, by air, by close contact between mucous membranes or by hand-mouth transmission involving contaminated hands.” This terrifying description, put forward by an international scientific authority, produced an imaginary of fatality with unpredictable chain reactions, and led to the establishment of new behavioural rituals. People no longer wanted to shake hands on greeting each other; they stopped eating pork, whose price fell, to the point at which it was being given away for free in many places; hand sanitizers were placed everywhere, first in all the arrival and departure gates of airports, and then in all public places such as schools, offices, and homes. Countries with cases of infection were discriminated against, and the crisis reached such heights that there were diplomatic protests and international altercations (as in the case of Argentina and Mexico, when the former closed its gates to flights coming from the latter), while television joyfully tallied up the number of deaths and new infections, and the world began to fill up with signs of the apocalypse.

The WHO decided to start over, remaking the image of the virus by rendering it more abstract and thus more difficult for the mind to visualize, changing it from the figure of a pig, whose malignant image spread as the virus’ primordial and fatal symbol, to the more scientific label “H1N1.” Very soon thereafter, the same media began to report that it was not as dangerous as it had been thought to be at the beginning and that there would be no more fatal outbreaks. In a third phase of anti-media sentiment, the WHO was criticized and even cursed for its exaggeration, accused of wanting to benefit labs that were gearing up to produce a vaccine against an unstoppable pandemic, as if its own behaviour was worse than that of any imaginable and horrific virus.

In this stunning episode, we see how the capacity for rational communication was absent in the face of emergency, as a contagious terror spread among the citizens of the world, demonstrating that it is possible to create realities both real and artificial whose global effects cannot be addressed or controlled. Truths competed with the fantasies about them, but, in this case, it appears that, socially at least, imaginary perceptions gained greater credibility. Situations that were heavily charged with emotion were resolved in group contexts through emotional representations, fears, and collective hysteria, while the media’s voracity ultimately swallowed both science and the academy. Fear, because of its intrinsically changing properties, took the form of a kind of urban dust.

Having introduced the above as an example of the “incarnation of feelings” in collective behaviour, let us examine the modes of their social production, using a model that assumes three different situations, each of whose possible manifestations can be viable in the construction of an urban space, one not bound to the physical city itself but rather to cultural interactions and to the ways in which citizens use and perceive their physical surroundings. As I have argued in Imaginarios: el asombro social, the physical city as perceived and used rests on an imagined city.

The Incarnation of Urban Imaginaries: Modelling Social Perception

I have come to the conclusion that our model for the social production of urban imaginaries may be based on three model situations. These are presented here, along with the formula used in field work carried out in several major cities.[4] This work was undertaken under my direction as part of the Urban Imaginaries project, which was carried out between 1998 and the present in 26 cities of Latin America, the United States, and Europe using the same methodology. The results are organized as a series of “Imagined cities,” from which I have taken the examples which follow.

In methodological terms, one might wonder what “Imagined Cities” means to the reader of this text. This term was used in the attempt to define the place of social perceptions in the use and experience of cities, and to evoke citizens’ desires for a form of urbanism that they themselves conducted. To be even more specific: the “Imagined Cities” are works of urbanism, but they are not so much studies of cities per se as of the ways in which a citizen urbanism shapes the ways in which cities are built. This is the difference in our approach: the material resides in the citizens because it is they who are concerned with the materiality of the city. And this is what makes our focus unique: its materiality lies with the citizens, in their perspectives and ways of thinking and feeling urban representations rather than the physical city.

The relevance of each situation will be shown through the relationship between two terms, which I identify as I (Imagined) and R (Real). The triad is rearranged in three models for the “perception of reality”, such that either one of the three access points of the model will dominate at any given time. In this way, and in order to demonstrate the logical foundations of my argument, visual images become necessary. In turn these images come to constitute an imaginary in themselves.


This occurs when an event, an object or a story does not exist within an empirical reality, but is imagined by a collectivity that experiences these things as truly existing and causes a gesture of citizenship.  These are the most evocative and less empirically verifiable situations, those most likely to be marked by the eruption of urban phantoms.Reality 1: The first type of reality is constructed when the Imagined dominates and the Real elevates it to a certain power, so I is raised to the power of R.

In Mexico City, Hidalgo Avenue was known for its foul smell because of open sewers that had not been properly channeled. The government fixed this problem in 1999 and the foul smells disappeared, but only in objective reality insofar as citizens continued to perceive the smell for some time thereafter. In order to remedy this olfactory problem, the authorities decided to install a great yellow sculpture, the “Cabeza de Caballo” (popularly known as “the little yellow horse”) by sculptor Enrique Carvajal, commonly known as Sebastian. The eye-catching sculpture was placed right at the place at which the terrible smells had originated. Only then was the offensive olfactory perception replaced by a grand, modern equestrian image. This example shows that perception, in this first instantiation of our model, is generated through an imaginary, lacking any sort of empirical base, and that it takes time for this new reality (the change from a foul smell to the image of a sculpture) to be accepted and perceived as a new image and thus a new reality.

Figure 2

Valparaiso is a city situated in the central region of Chile’s coastline (92 km northeast of Santiago, the capital of Chile). In 2002, the city built a bridge which served as an overpass over the beaches of the Pacific to facilitate a pedestrian route. However, it was never brought to completion and so remains as visual testimony to a barely “imagined bridge” (see Figure 2) which people visit and photograph to imagine how it would have looked if it had been completed.

Figure 3

In Figure 3, we see I raised to the power of R. The image depicts a scene in Buenos Aires’s Avenida 9 de Julio, where a large imaginary tear is produced by an advertisement that tries to tell us, ever so subtly, what might take place inside these apartments. The beautiful model is literally embedded within the apartment building. This scene could very well be entitled sex and architecture. At the same time, in Montreal, Canada, a young woman with her back to the viewer (Figure 4) is carrying around her waist a bullet belt as part of her aggressive attire, with which she intends to draw our attention to the real ghost of violence. In Figure 5 we see a Mexican construction worker in New York City in the costume of the heroic TV character Chapulín Colorado, which powerfully confers upon him the role he imagines for himself: the costume is supposed to give him the real strength with which to perform his demanding job on a daily basis.

Figure 4

Figure 5

As we can see, this first instance of the production of urban imaginaries, following our proposed model, is located outside of the margins of empirical proof and comes to perception within an extreme social subjectivity which does not admit any proof according to the traditional methods of the social sciences. It is precisely in this first situation that the most fundamental element of the collective Imaginary, the ‘urban phantom,’ emerges. This is the undecipherable presence of a symbolic mark of the lived city, and as such, it sustains a relationship which has more of an imaginary than an empirical character. The phantom undergirds the subject’s sense of reality as a basis for this very imaginary construction, “since reality is the phantom of the real, not the real” (Lafont 22). One may observe that the production of the phantasmatic increases when the evoked object does not exist in a tangible or verifiable reality, but is imagined and even seen and experienced.

Reality 2: The second type of reality is constructed when the Real is dominant and the Imaginary elevates it to a certain power, such that R is raised to the power of I.


In this case we are dealing with an object, event, story or image that possesses an empirical and referential existence that is not used or evoked in social fashion in an urban context, either by the general collectivity or in any part thereof. As opposed to the previous example, this category includes the most empirical and realistic of situations, ones distinguishable by their status as forgotten places, objects erased from our memories, historical events that no one remembers and places no one visits—in other words, by urban invisibility.

The above applies in the case of downtown Montevideo, which the authors of Montevideo imaginado have proven “only exists in reality” ( Álvarez and Hubert 39) and not in the collective imaginary of the majority of residents, who do not even visit or refer to it. When Montevideo’s downtown began to lose its recognition value in the minds of the citizens who used it, visited it or drove through it, its centrality passed onto the Paseo de las Ramblas, which came to be seen as its modern extension, a place and passage which better condensed the positive qualities of the Montivideo imaginary.

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 8

In certain cities of Latin America where Indigenous people constitute a minority, as is the case of Bogotá, they became invisible to the majority of urban residents. This abandonment creates invisibility, as shown in Figure 6, where this person appears as a an element of urban décor in a social displacement typical of those which govern visual systems. In Figure 7 we can see what, to everyday society, is an “invisible reality” that the image nevertheless makes obvious: the social division between the wealthy and the working classes evident in the relationship between the East and West ends of a large avenue in the city of Caracas. Something similar happens in Figure 8, an image of Buenos Aires in which two women travel in the metro, both absorbed in their own inner world of indifference; it seems like each one of them lives their own loneliness with no interest on their social environment.

As we can see, reality 2 of our triadic model describes a factual event that a collectivity does not consider as worthy of articulated speech, leading to its perceptual abandonment on the part of a significant number of urban dwellers.[5] There is a denial of sorts concerning a particular part of the city or social fact, while that which is denied continues to exist only in reality.


La Paz, Bolivia, is one of the cities that most uses its streets as a medium of aesthetic and political expression. This profound relationship between the real and the imagined, between the performance of art and protest, between a festiveness both real and evoked, is described by Carlos Villagómez in La Paz imaginada (2007). Year after year, he writes, the rhythms and ancestral dances re-enacted during the various religious or cultural folkloric events continue to be heard, literally “taking over the city”. Musical groups and dancers perform or rehearse their dances all year round, creating a permanent sense of festivity. Irrespective of social class or economic standing, the folkloric celebrations [Figure 9] form a continuous movement, a sound constantly perceptible in the atmosphere of the La Paz, and along with the topographic folds of its mountains also show the folds of the skirts of the cholitas that consolidate our collective imaginary of interaction between nature and festivity.

Reality 3: This refers to the third type of construction of reality, one that takes place when I, the imagined, is equivalent to R, the Real, which in the dynamic of the imaginaries means that I’ has seen its meaning enriched by R. I’ is used to indicate that we are dealing with something that is similar to, but not the same as the initial I, which has been affected by a new interpretation of the Real which brings about a re-signification of I.[6]


Figure 9

In this same situation—no. 3—we can include the collective perception of certain places as unsafe in ways that conform to empirical statistics. That is, citizens know about certain dangerous places in the city, and their perception coincides with actual facts, with everyday statistics generated by the police, as shown in Bogotá imaginada (Silva, “Imagined Bogota”). This happened during the term sof certain city mayors (1992–2002) who based their administration on these perceived certainties in order to institute successful public safety plans for the city.[7] However, when we tried to apply this model to the city of Caracas, that is, to compare perceptions as to where crime and danger existed with the real places in which crimes were taking place, we found that there was no correlation between them. This means that the people of Caracas at the time (2005) were unable to identify those places where the highest number of murders were happening such that, wherever they thought they were taking place, they actually were not. Theirs was only an imaginary perception, fitting the model already proposed, when the Imaginary is dominant and raised to the power of the Real as described in Я1= IR, the domain of the urban phantom.

We can borrow another example from the city of Bogotá, one which allows me to specify relationships between the modern Impressionist movement and what we understand today as a condition of aesthetic astonishment in the imaginary perception of the city. The city dwellers’ perception of time coincides with the different times of day as these are reflected on the night-time emblem of Bogotá’s skyline—the Colpatria building. The photographer Lopez Restrepo captured this image [see Figure No. 10] right at the moment at which the moon appears above this building. This contrasts with the next image, when the moon has disappeared and dawn is breaking (see Figure 11). In this case city residents perceive impressions, on whose basis they collectively recreate the represented object. The Impressionists argued that it was not the Paris cathedral they were painting, but rather the effect of the sun’s light on it at noon. We might say, referring to our previous discussion of aesthetic facts, that in this case, as well, it is not the object, the Colpatria building, but rather its status as nocturnal emblem of the city which makes us see it in all its shades and degradations of colours and form depending on the time of the day. This example shows how the temporal dimension of imaginaries may be sustained over their own spatiality. I would reiterate that while the anthropology of a place is based on the space of a city, as that which is theorized, its imaginary is founded on time, movement and circulation, not on the place per se, but on position. City dwellers are not fixed to a place, but rather locate or position themselves within it.

Each new urban situation can reconfigure the existing “city blueprint” because the line between the real and the imagined is very thin, especially when an affective turmoil is present. However, situation No. 3 occurs when citizens achieve a positive equilibrium between the real and the imagined: it is real because the collectivity imagines it as such. Through this triadic model we may better understand that imaginary states of embodiment, with their corresponding social astonishment, allow for a gradation and that the collectivity may be “inhabited” by these states to the extent that the aesthetic dominates perception.

We may even ask one final question regarding the condition of social astonishment: Can there be imaginary production without social astonishment? In such cases, we experience what we might call “faded imaginaries” as moments of factual cognition, as a vision of the world articulated in tits historicity, as knowledge assimilated within the protocols of social behaviour and citizen action. The aesthetic function appears with its ghostly evocations to then bring the collective under a spell, filling it with visuality. Once the “collective spasm” of the imaginary eruption has happened, the aesthetic function will shrink, becoming part of a collective way of knowing whose judgements are not simply aesthetic. Astonishment, then, is nothing more than a way of expressing the aesthetic (and, thus, variable and hierarchical) condition of everyday urban life. By speaking of urban imaginaries as “affective embodiment,” I seek to describe an articulation of languages and objects with feelings. This is not to say, however, that knowledge and feelings are perceived separately; rather, we must understand social thoughts on the basis of the emotion that produces them. In this way, we do not present two separate worlds of subjects: the rational and the affective, instead, the social world is a result of thoughts which are represented by feelings. And therein, precisely, lies its aesthetic character.[8]

These above arguments have served as foundations for the paradigm of the “imagined city,” a term I use to refer to the city built through the urbanism of city dwellers, who imagine and use it, and invoke it even when it does not exist: IR; or because it exists but is not imagined as existing: RI; or because it exists but is not imagined to exist; R(I)=I’. Through these models, we see that the imaginary is not unreal or only describable as belonging to fantasy. The imaginary plays a role in the construction of social reality, and we thus must make explicit the process whereby social imaginaries are ‘incorporated’ into the physical environment of the city, and thus projected as an expression of citizens’ culture.

Works Cited

Álvarez, Luciano and Christa Hubert. Montevideo Imaginado. Bogotá: Taurus, 2005. Print.

Baczko, Bronislaw. Los imaginarios sociales, memorias y esperanzas colectivas. Buenos Aires: Nueva Visión, 2005. Print.

Gregg, Melissa and Gregory Seigworth. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

Ladagana, Reinaldo. Estética de la emergencia.  Buenos Aires: AH, 2010.

Lafont, Robert. Anthropologie de l’écriture. París: Centre Pompidou, 1984. Print.

Silva, Armando. Imaginarios: el asombro social. Bogotá : Silueta y Universidad Externado de Colombia, Bogotá 2013. Print.

—: Atmósferas ciudadanas: grafiti , arte nichos estéticos. Bogotá: Silueta y Universidad Externado de Colombia, 2013. Print.

—. “Imagined Bogota.” Various, Città. Architettura e società 10, Mostra Internazionale di Architettura, La Biennale di Venezia. Venezia : Fondazione La Biennale, 2006. Print.

—. Imaginarios urbanos: hacia el desarrollo de un urbanismo desde los ciudadanos. Metodología. Bogotá : Convenio Andrés Bello y Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2004. Print.

VillaGómez, Carlos. La paz imaginada. Bogotá: Taurus, 2007. Print.

Links to Consult





Image Credits

Feautured Figure: Arte urbano, Laura Inés Silva Abello, Bogotá, Universidad Nacional, 2007

Figure 1: Caballo imaginado, María Adelaida López, Bogotá 2007

Figure 2: Puente imaginado, Armando Silva, Valparaíso, Chile, 2006

Figure 3: Modelo en muro, Armando Silva, Buenos Aires, 2009

Figure 4: Decoración con balas, Armando Silva, Montreal, 2012

Figure 5: Obrero como Chapulín, Nueva York, Dulce Pinzón, 2012, Exposición MAMBO

Figure 6: Indígena invisible, María Adelaida López, Bogotá 2008, Bogotá

Figure 7: División Este/ Oeste, Gerardo Rojas, Caracas Thing Tang, Caracas, 2005

Figure 8: Soñando en el Metro, La Nación, compilación de Liliana Alburquerque, Buenos Aires, 2007

Figure 9: Chola bailando, Nelson Martínez, La Paz, 2007

Figure 10: Icono nocturno de Bogotá con Luna, María Adelaida López, Bogotá 2009

Figure 11: Icono nocturno de Bogotá sin Luna, María Adelaida López, Bogotá 2009


[1] The various images used in this research on urban imaginaries are documentary ones, which are archived and classified in verifiable data bases. The original documents have not been altered in any way. At this time, we are in the process of employing a variety of digital tools to organize them so they may be viewed by publicly and at no cost. Some collections may be viewed at: http://datos.imaginariosurbanos.net/espanol/ www.imaginariosurbanos.net

[2] Cf. Silva. Atmósferas ciudadanas  where I deal with social aesthetics as aesthetic niches anchored to graffiti and public art experiences.

[3] See Silva, Imaginarios urbanos: hacia el desarrollo de un urbanismo desde los ciudadanos.

[4] From the project “Imaginarios urbanos,” carried out in 26 cities of Latin America, the United States, and Europe between 1998 and the present, available at http://datos.imaginariosurbanos.net/espanol/ Also at : www.imaginariosurbanos.net and some concrete examples of the use of images as aesthetic archives may be seen at at http://bogotaimaginadaas.wix.com/armandosilva. At this time, we are working with a platform called Omeka in order to visualize our databases for all the imagined cities included in the project. Preliminary results may be seen in English at : http://www.open-ing-source.net/imaginary-cities/ ; and in Spanish at: http://ciudades.maylin.cc/items/tags

[5] In our statistical work, we consider as significant any urban point of view which more that 10% of surveyed city residents have as a shared perception. Perceptions may be filtered through categories such as gender, age groups and social class ( ver: Metodología de investigación en imaginarios urbanos, 2008)

[6] This third locus of the model of social perception which I propose here was suggested by María Angélica Suavita Ramírez, who holds a degree in Mathematics and is a PhD candidate at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. She studies the relationship between social imagination and teaching and learning processes in mathematics. I am grateful for her contribution.

[7] See: http://www.laviedesidees.fr/L-apparition-de-Bogota.html

[8] This focus has some parallels with studies on affect by Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth (Affect Theory) at Duke University, where they study the body as movement and rest, speed and slowness (2010:10). They provide an excellent comparisons between aesthetics, ethics, and politics—another important aspect of our project.

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