What We Choose to See

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

It’s no secret that Washington, DC is a Mecca of aesthetic testaments; it is very much a town dominated by monuments, museums, memorials, and mementos. So, when I began considering my city-wide touring pursuits for Fall, I was soon presented with the challenge of editing my list.

Whether in relation to traditionally exhibited visual mediums, or simply to our active engagement with the imagery of our daily lives, the issue of choice in viewing persists. Though we may or may not be aware, there is a specific way in which we conduct our lives visually. Moreover, the particular way we each choose to use this visual data structures our lives, our personal reality, and contributes strongly to our sense of self.

national mall

I was recently exposed to the concept of “flagging,” as discussed by Michael Billig in his book Banal Nationalism , which I see as a highly productive concept here. Billig uses the term flagging as a type of extension of the word “marking,” to explain how the omnipresence of nationalized visual objects saturate our subconscious and constantly “remind” us of our sense of national identity. He posits that because we as individuals are not aware that this imagery in fact imbues us with nationalism, it is through this process which we form our banal relationship; we are nationalized but we aren’t always particularly sure why or how. While nationalism is certainly one (arguably large) element of our identity, I see this idea of flagging permeating multiple layers of our visual selves, and into our daily relationship with sight. Is our choice, or even ability, to acknowledge quotidian images and everyday visual ephemera of our world ever truly in our own hands? Furthermore, is there a definable capacity at which our visual perception operates, and if so what structures this?


The continuity of images in our daily routines restricts to our ability to react to our visual environment. For instance, this “banality” is something street art has long sought to disrupt. Often subtle, it activates a type of conscious looking; by us acknowledging, “this is out of place,” we reaffirm our comfort with that which is seen to be “in place.” We as a nation, as residents, and as individuals are exposed to visual cues in such repeated ways, to the point where it not only structures the way which we see but often affects our actual ability to be active and discerning viewers.

There is a familiarity and ease with which we organize our daily visual narratives: our reality. Individuals, simply by what they acknowledge with sight, acquire different sets of visual data and can therefore construct entirely different images in their minds of a place. We often fail to fail to consider how the way we conduct our lives geographically (ie: our visual route) contributes to visual understanding, and fail to recognize how even by participating in seemingly non-visual based activities; we systematically expose ourselves to a connected set of visual cues related to the culture (and subgroups) within which we as individuals operate. There should be plenty to take in, in the coming months, regardless of how successful I am in sticking to my list.