Doing Digital Art History: Dispatches From Camp

Doing Digital Art History: Dispatches From Camp

Monday, October 20, 2014

This summer my colleague Matt Lincoln, a PhD student in seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish art, and Professor Abigail McEwen, our Latin American art specialist, participated in two of the four institutes for Digital Art History convened across the country. Dr. McEwen crossed coasts, heading to UCLA in late July for the Getty-sponsored Beyond the Digitized Slide Library. A few weeks later, Matt made his way to Vermont for the Kress-sponsored Mapping and Art History at Middlebury College.

Grad students and faculty gathered last week in the Michelle Smith Collaboratory for a lunchtime debriefing about these experiences. We heard how the two institutes were structured, what progress our colleagues made on their own distinct projects, and core messages they had digested over the course of their weeks at camp. We were eager to hear from Matt and Dr. McEwen about issues pragmatic and strategic, from responsibly manipulating metadata to sustainably archiving digital projects. Many in our community experiment with digital methods in scholarship, from faculty research to dissertations, and in pedagogy (especially those of us serving as graduate assistants in the Collaboratory). As our department prepares for a major symposium in fall 2015—Art History in Digital Dimensions—with our partners at MITH and vital support from the Kress Foundation, the curiosity in the room was palpable.  

I left digesting these big picture questions and provocations:

  • Digital Art History describes processes and methods not solutions. You may articulate a well-defined, critical, humanistic question as a theoretical starting point—say about constructions of place across a historical timescale or the nature of a particular social network—but your question morphs as you work it digitally. You discover the limits of the technologies at hand and find yourself pushed to be far more precise about what you want to know. Rather than some utilitarian scheme to elicit answers, the most productive digital approaches challenge you by posing complicating (albeit quite interesting) questions.
  • Metadata is not neutral. Data is predicated on terms and concept with shifting rhetorical meanings across time and space. Datasets may also come with hidden errors that skew results.
  • In fact, there’s a data canon. Metadata is not available across all art historical areas. Visualizing data on the simple basis of what’s already out there will simply reinscribe traditional hierarchies. Collecting digitized images and metadata is labor intensive and costly. Access to funding and infrastructure is radically uneven. If we privilege digital tools, will we exacerbate these divides?
  • Resist a singular, unified data model. While modeling is fundamental to computational work and provides an important contextual backdrop to your research, keep in mind that any model is an abstraction of the world. Set various data models in counterpoint, exploring that which each reveals and conceals.
  • Not every project should be digital. Not all projects benefit from digital application. Digital projects take vastly more time, energy, and resources than any print publication.
  • Accessibility and public knowledge.  How might we use digital tools to make our research discoveries—image scans, archival documents, correspondence, evidence of travel, and so on—accessible to a wide public, alongside and en route to the more focused academic book project? 
  • Digital methods have histories and contexts of their own. Digital literacy means more than technical know-how. It requires us to ask what it means to take a method, say GIS mapping, out of its original sphere and to reapply it to an art historical question. The gap between the history of the method and the art historical subject may turn out to be a very productive site of inquiry.
  • Digital projects are differently archival. Don’t assume your project will endure, especially given the rapid life cycles of digital technologies. Your end-product, from beautiful map or model to online exhibition, likely will not live on. The underlying code, on the other hand, representing your decisions and analytical processes should be archived.
  • The best projects may be digital in method but not in presentation. Though you use digital methods—network analysis or text mining, for example—to build your argument, your final work product may be best expressed in a (linear! print!) book or article.  
  • What are my responsibilities as a digital art historian? If I create a dataset, from a simple list to a complex research database, am I obligated to make it open to other scholars? To the public? Should I open up opportunities for my students to collaborate on my digital projects?
  • What new protocols does digital art history require? How do universities evaluate this kind of work?  Should outside readers with relevant technical expertise serve on dissertation and tenure committees? Where might motivated scholars turn for training and mentoring when technical expertise is not available in one’s home department?
  • Do digital art history with an open mind! Don’t think about how digital tools can supplement art history as you already know it, but about how digital approaches can speak back to our discipline and transform the questions you thought you were asking.
  • What kinds of institutes and convenings do Digital Art Historians need moving forward?

 Finally, an open and provocative question posed by Dr. McEwen at camp:

 Can metrics and metadata approximate the discursive and imaginative substrate of humanistic inquiry?


[Dr. Abigail McEwen (far right) shares a provocation at the concluding symposium of UCLA's Beyond the Digitized Slide Library institute. ]

Cecilia Wichmann
MA Student, Contemporary Art + Theory
Graduate Assistant, Michelle Smith Collaboratory for Visual Culture