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EVENT REVIEW: “Digital Humanities Meets Art Galleries” at NYU Center for Humanities

“Digital Humanities Meets Art Galleries”

NYU Center for the Humanities

Speakers: Jonathan Hay, Sara Demott, Deena Engel, Joanna Phillips, Glenn Wharton

The event that I attended this semester in lieu of a cancelled DH Week workshop was called “Digital Humanities Meets Art Galleries”, an interdisciplinary panel of NYU professors who had come together to share the details of their current projects at the intersection of the titular fields of study. Moderated by Professor Marion Thain, the panel was introduced to the audience as foremost “a meeting point of diverse crowds,” suggesting immediately that the collaborative element of DH and DH pedagogy would play a significant role in the conversation. Structured as four separate slide show presentations, the event allotted ten minutes to fifteen minutes per talk with unfortunately too little time at the end for questions.

The first presentation was given by Jonathan Hay, a scholar at NYU of ancient Chinese paintings who shared a little about the structure of the Institute of Fine Arts. As Hay explained, the Institute contains a sizable conservation institute within its premises, and he has long been interested in using technology for conservation work. Hay’s presentation centered on a project with the Cornell programmer Rick Johnson in which the two developed an algorithm to count threads in oil paintings. Using color presentation theories not unlike those I studied in Info Viz, this algorithm allowed Hay and Johnson to generate computed weave maps which revealed unique strip patterns found in rollmates, tracing the color patterns to see how certain canvas would have been cut and the provenance of materials. Johnson had evidently applied this algorithm previously to make a case for the authenticity of a Vermeer painting that was contested by art historians. The conclusion of Hay’s presentation, which included his admission that he was not entirely sure how the algorithm worked given Johnson’s technical skill set, was that this same method might be applied to ancient Chinese paintings that Hay suspects were less scattered than they’ve long been considered to have been. To evaluate the canvas for consistencies across works might reveal key patterns across works that suggest a diasporic movement of these paintings across the entire country.

The second presentation was by Sarah Demott, a scholar of European and Middle-Eastern migration patterns (specifically mobility between Sicily and Tunisia) working out of the Bobst library. Demott’s presentation was titled “Recollections in the Media with Hamadi Ben Saad” and recounted her chance receipt of the artist Hamadi Ben Saad’s digital artistic oeuvre on a flash drive. Unable to find the artist again after that initial meeting, Demott took the work back to NYU and tried to decide what to do with this digital collection. In the presentation, Demott discussed a few different digital humanities tactics she thought might be applicable: creating a digital interactive exhibit through Omeka, which stalled because she had no metadata; creating an ArcGIS story map, though she confessed she was merely trying to stuff her material into the tool without actually seeing how the bias and visualization of mapping would benefit the works. Overall, she concluded there was more work to be done, even after finally tracking the artist back down and working with him to fill in some of the gaps.  Credit goes to my classmate Heather Hill for articulating this concept in our DH II class discussion, but Demott’s presentation tapped into a recognizable aspect of DH project work which is navigating the potential for failure. Croxall and Warnick offer a tiered understanding of failure in digital humanities pedagogy that I found useful for understanding Demott’s roadblocks: “At the second level, the tools function as intended, but students encounter difficulties either in deploying them or in understanding how the tools might shift their analysis of the humanistic text. In both cases, the cause of the students’ failure is not the tool itself but their framework for encountering the tool.” To Demott’s credit, she acknowledged the limits of her understanding of how a DH method such as mapping would benefit the art collection, and in this way demonstrated how failure within DH is just another iteration of the process.

Next up was a collaborative presentation between Joanna Phillips and Deena Engel. Phillips is both an NYU adjunct and a curator with connections to the Guggenheim, while Engel is in the computer science field at NYU. The nature of their presentation was to highlight the ways in which they worked together to catalog and archive twenty computer-based artworks in the Guggenheim’s permanent collection. The academic requirements of their student apprenticeship program required students to “capture the artwork experience” through scanning, analyze the source code of a custom-built database made by Engel, and pair the files with conservation metadata for storage in the database. In a way, the project seemed like hard digital archive work, but Engel’s portion of the presentation brought a greater focus on digital humanities pedagogy. Engel stressed the value of bringing humanities opportunities to STEM students and vice versa, as well as how the project is careful to stress what she called software remediation: “remediation must be done within the structure and aesthetic of the work.” On the one hand, this echoes the Croxall and Warnick warning against students misunderstanding how digital tools shift analysis. Engel’s welcome focus on how to actually teach DH projects reminded me of Stephen Brier’s “Where’s the Pedagogy? The Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities” which I read around the time of my Digital Humanities I coursework. It is one thing to focus on the domain research of DH as well as the methods, but the reflective component of DH work – pedagogy, remediation, critical views of researcher bias when choosing and working with technology – is perhaps the most distinctive part of the field in my mind. Even if the topic of this presentation was more art history than I knew what to do with, Engel’s discussion was a welcome voice in the panel’s overall conversation.

The final presentation was given by Glenn Wharton, a former MoMA conservator-turned-professor who talked about his current work to preserve the work and papers of a late artist: “The Artist Archives Initiative – David Wojnarowicz.” Wharton briefly discussed the implications of doing collection management work for an artist who is deceased and unable to contribute to modes of exhibition design, and he discussed his efforts to create “a skeletal WordPress” which would house the David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base, an enriched database Wharton described as essentially a wiki. Lastly, Wharton bulleted out what he saw as fundamental to digital archives projects: database and web design, open source software that’s easy to install, and controlled vocabularies.

The panel had time for each person to answer a question about collaboration in projects with a follow-up about how to teach collaboration, and all five members fully embraced the notion of digital humanities as interdisciplinary and collaborative. Hay and Phillips/Engel focuses their answers on how traditionally tech people were able to help traditionally art history people and vice versa. Demott and Wharton both spoke of collaborating with artists even as Wharton acknowledged his current project lacked that element. This round of answers led to a final call for questions which went unheeded by the audience. In response, Hay addressed the audience directly to say he found the lack of engagement “interesting…we’re all hearing about all these different things that are going on [in DH], but how to make sense of the landscape? Are we all working towards one larger project we can call DH? Or alternatively, is the digital simply the air that we breathe now in the sense that the digital is going to affect not just our tools but also our epistemology?” Hay raises an intriguing point about whether “the digital” and DH’s accordant reflective practice about how and when to utilize it will even continue to be novel in a way that warrants such domain-focused events as “Digital Humanities Meets Art Galleries.” Like the panelists, I appreciate the opportunity for co-ed tech and humanities conversations, but the event’s focus more on content and specialty as opposed to methods and analysis did leave me wanting me more of the “Digital Humanities” than the “Art Galleries.”

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