Monday, June 1, 2015

Wow! What a week!

I realize that I have been most remiss this semester in timely blogging, but let me reassure you that my lack of attention to this important form of communication has been because of a constant state of delicious and creative busyness working this semester with a truly remarkable group of graduate assistants and members of the D.I.G., most all of whom stuck around a week extra to help successfully launch a first-ever week of introductory workshops on popular digital art history workshops in the Collaboratory. Called "Wading in DAH Water (I know, I am a punny one): A Digital Art History Workshop for Curious Beginners," this week (really, four days after Memorial Day) offered people with little or no experience in digital art history methods, such as virtual modelling, mapping, digital publication, and data analysis and visualization, the opportunity to become familiar with these methods and to walk away at the end of the week with some fair sense of accomplishment and momentum forward. I think participants in our workshops by and large got to that point. In fact, I think the week was a tremendous success.

The week started off with a tiny keynote (really, just me introducing the concept, making some house announcements, and introducing the workshop leaders), followed by a sequence of showcases that lasted the entire first day.


The first two workshops, virtual modeling (in Sketchup), and mapping (in Google Earth), were framed as classic DAH techniques, having a long pedigree relative to the development of both the platform (Omeka) and techniques (data visualization using R), workshops that followed after lunch. I showcased some modeling projects, including many from the Collaboratory over the last few years, and Hannah Schockmel, a first-year graduate student who has done some wonderful work this past semester in Google Earth, inspired all with her showcase of a suite of maps corresponding to the curriculum of the first half of the western art survey. Really great stuff!

After a lunch on your own (we run a lean, mean budget - read:free - on our workshops) we reconvened for the final two showcases of the day, on Omeka + Neatline, and data handling, analysis, and visualization with R.

Cecilia WIchmann, Nicole Riesenberger, and Valentina Mazzotti, a "dream team" of experienced Omeka + Neatline practitioners, led that showcase. It says something of their work over the past year in the Collaboratory that they had a seemingly endless number of sites on which to draw for the showcase, and their documentation of their efforts have been noticed by significant figures around the country. The figure below reveals that the ScholarsLab, out of which the Neatline plugin was developed, is one such interested observer!

The day of showcases wrapped up with a very exciting and masterful presentation on data analysis and visualization by Matt Lincoln, who really should be counted an innovator in this growing DAH field. Though I had billed this week as akin to playing around in the shallow end of the pool to emphasize it as being for beginners, Matt took us to that point in the pool where we start to walk on just our tippy-toes! His showcase inspired many of us who were set to lead workshops for the week to dream we could be students, present author most emphatically included!

The following day, Wednesday, saw everyone off to their workshops proper, where each of the leaders took participants through a morning or all-day tutorial(s), from which participants could then spend the rest of the week developing their own projects with help always at the ready. It is a model that worked quite well, and even allowed some participants to jump to another workshop and get a taste and some pointers. It was quite gratifying to see the Collaboratory transform into a commons in which students in each of the techniques could work, side by side, and perhaps exchanging observations or ideas.

After lunch on Thursday, Nicole fired everyone up with a brief showcase on photogrammetry using the popular app 123dCatch. In no time people were busy catching their own models to edit and clean up!


One can get a lot done in a week, and yet, it was amazing how quickly the time did fly! Participants in all of the workshops, including those in my modelling workshop, were intensely focused on getting their projects to a presentable state....

because on the final day, Friday, just after lunch and while we all enjoyed homemade chocolate-chip cookie dough ice cream, some of the workshop participants showed off their amazing work, a fitting punctuation mark to a truly stimulating, exhilarating, and enjoyable week!



It was a great week to learn new techniques at a relaxing pace and in a welcoming, engaging environment. Hope to see you here next year!



Monday, February 9, 2015

This weekend I took part in the third annual ArtBytes at the Walters Art Museum, a "hackathon" in which the public is invited to utilize not only the space of the Walters' beautiful scuplture court atrium but as well the museum's digital assets, its database and images, all available through a robust API (application programming interface), to create apps and other forms of audience engagement, projects for which teams are eligible for prizes and that might go on to become part of the museum's overall audience engagement strategy. As an example, an app conceived and developed at last year's ArtBytes, Art Lies now is a featured app from the Walters.

Anticipation was high as participants gathered in the Atrium Friday night, first to tour the re-installation of the fourth floor with curatorial staff and then to pitch ideas for ArtBytes projects and begin team formation. Many great ideas were pitched, including several by the Department's own Abram Fox ('14) and Sarah Cantor ('13). I found myself drawn to an idea pitched by Lydia Animosa, who heard about the hackathon from her pal Sal Hernanadez: Lydia wanted to create an app, something that functioned like foursquare, whereby visitors to the Walters both could choose favorite works of art and comment both on them and on the choices of others, the social dimension of this app offering the potential to encourage repeat visits to the museum's collections via an unfolding socially-networked conversation about art. As someone who admires Nina Simon's ideas for museum engagement and visitor participation, particularly in her book The Participatory Museum, I jumped at the chance to work on a project to realize something along the lines of this vision.

But, I cannot code.

Really, I cannot design, at least not in UX/UI (user experience/user interface) parlance.

What I can do is think in broad, conceptual terms, and so Saturday morning I sketched out for our group the following idea:

The app we would work on for the weekend, which I dubbed Paragone, would be part of, if you will, an app four-pack gathered under the name Art Tales @ The Walters. The other three thematic offerings could be Charles St. Raconteurs (modeled on the Met's successful 82nd and Fifth), "It was a dark and stormy night..." (a short-story platform centered around works of art tied to an annual contest), and Ekphrasis (inviting a deep contemplation of a work of art and generating poetry in response, with relevant examples from the collection highlighted).

The group took to the idea and kind of liked the name Paragone, which I chose because it implies not only a conversation about and around art but a positing of one work's value, even over and above that of others. I liked the idea of people caring so much about their favorite works of art that they might engage in debate about the relative merits, which is an energy that our app seeks to foster and support.

Okay, apart from some content (aka Quint's list of ten favorite works of art - and comments and questions that did not make it into the app at time of press) my work for the weekend was kind of done. I really have no skills in the design of an app on the back end!

Abram Fox, also a part of our team, and I had great fun dreaming up with Lydia Animosa (idea generator and team leader), Nate Weiner, Harrison Tan and Sal Hernandez (with a late assist from Mike Thien) the look and feel of the app. The team bonded exceptionally well, and over the course of an entire Saturday in the Atrium in the Walters (10-midnight), we streamlined our work process, refining the design to something that was achievable within that short span of time while preserving most of the original intent of Lydia's idea.

Enough cannot be said about the abilities and competency of this team. Nate Weiner owns a small health IT firm on Federal Hill. He and Harrison, one of the three employees in his firm, chose a hackathon for their weekend fun! And it was easy to understand why. Both live, eat and breathe creative problem-solving through code, and are quite articulate about what is possible and what might be a stretch, with the gentlest of touches. Sal also was excited about a hackathon, and his tweet about it brought fellow GAer (about which more in a moment) Lydia out in the cool Friday air of Baltimore. Both Lydia and Sal are recent graduates of General Assembly DC, a very recent vocational start up that is churning out talented and hungry professionals. It turns out Harrison, who majored in business and history in his native San Francisco, was a recent graduate of the GA there, and his skills made him an attractive hire, especially through the Venture for America program (think Teach for America, but for entrepreneurs).

All in all, Abram and I chose well in aligning ourselves with this very capable group, and they likewise deeply appreciated our collective art historical acumen and our experience with the Walters, in my case both through the courses I teach and having worked there in the past, and in Abram's case as a veteran of the ArtBytes experience. We made a good team and, it turns out, a winning team! Paragone was one of three first-place winners, something about which we all are justly proud. Hopefully it grows legs beyond this weekend. Other winners included an augmented reality-based app allowing one to make a personal odyssey out of a visit to the Walters and a digitally-platformed scavenger hunt. Cool stuff!

Dylan Kinnett, who manages the Walters' web presence, is ArtBytes's gracious host, and has transformed former director Gary Vikan's bold vision into an annual event filled with possibility and deliverable ideas. It's a weekend that is exhausting but thrilling. If, like me, you are somewhat wary of the coding requirements of such a venture, do not be afraid. It is a wonderful community, and, who knows?, you may (and probably will) end up working with a first-rate team collectively achieving something both cool and useful for the Walters and its visitors.


Goodbye to a Friend
Friday, January 30, 2015

Last week marked the end of John Shipman's eight-year tenure at the Art Gallery, first as preparator and for the last five years as its director. John is assuming the position of Executive Director at the Delaware Center for Contemporary Art (DCCA) in Wilmington, the institution and city from which he came to College Park in 2006. In the eight years I have known John I have been constantly struck by his passion: for art and the state of it today, for community outreach, for collaborating with others, and for his positivity. Simply put, DCCA's tremendous gain is our profound loss. John is a visionary and this university community has been quite fortunate to benefit from his initiatives. From popular and groundbreaking shows such as Poetic Aesthetic (and check out the WETA hat tip to John's work here), Sweet, and What It Is, What It Was: Music Video as Art (which I co-curated) to community outreach in the form of Saturday drawing workshops for area high school students to converting some of the gallery space to create the Herman Maril Teaching Gallery for use by faculty and students in foundational courses to his big barn project with Bill Dunap, John has moved the Art Gallery forward in new and innovative ways. We are going to miss John's boundless energy and enthusiasm.

While he was here John was a frequent collaborator in the Collaboratory. It was here that he was first turned on to the possibilities of augmented reality in gallery and museum spaces, a topic the two of us have chewed on for a couple of years, some of the results of which was a series of AR workshops last spring and AR interventions in an exhibition this past fall, Carving out Freedom, Piecing a Community, in which the installation of a community-driven art project was adumbrated with audio and video of commentary and process triggered by elements in the show that visitors could access via gallery iPads held up to the exhibited works. This exhibition, quite small, in the back gallery, was one of John's best, or at least it drew on the best of his interests: involving the community in the making of art and discussions about and around it towards a higher goal (What is Freedom?), embracing technology when it can expand the experience of an exhibition, and it was an exhibition installed with John's characteristic intelligence and humanity.

John is taking his suitcase of brilliance up to Delaware, but I look forward to the more-than-occasional collaborative project with him and the DCCA.

Adios mi amigo.


Reflections on the Digital
Thursday, December 4, 2014

While many attended the recent public symposium organized by CASVA, including a healthy number of University of Maryland graduate students and faculty, many more who could not be physically present were able, for the first time, to tune in via a live stream, the recording of which one hopes soon wil be available for review. In this blog post, Grace Yasumura considers the impact and implications of the often-named "digital turn" in Art History by focusing on one talk that considered directly the question of digital as method and as a result of which Grace poses a question that is of significant and vital importance for our discipline as we move it forward.


For their first ever live stream of a public symposium, the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Art (CASVA), housed at the National Gallery of Art, could not have chosen a more appropriate event — New Projects in Digital Art History  opening the symposium to those of us (myself included) who were unable to attend in person. The symposium, moderated by CASVA’s Therese O’Malley and Paul B. Jaskot of DePaul University, featured papers by Caroline Bruzelius, Duke University; Ivo van der Graaff, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts; Christian Huemer, Getty Research Institute; Paul B. Jaskot, DePaul University; James T. Tice, University of Oregon; and Martyna Urbaniak, Scuola Normale Superiore. While the symposium brought together a diverse group of scholars, each emphasized how the digital opened new avenues of art historical inquiry and research.

            I was particularly interested in the work Paul B. Jaskot presented in his paper, Putting the Research Question First: Digital Mapping and the Reconsideration of the Vernacular Architecture of Auschwitz. His paper examined the built environment at Auschwitz, capitalizing on digital mapping to offer new insights into the meaning of Holocaust spaces.Previous scholarship focused on either static plans of Auschwitz or a few of its important structures. This approach left not only thousands of the smaller spaces of Auschwitz unstudied, but also neglected the spatiotemporal dimension of the site and by extension the changing experiences of the prisoners and SS guards at Auschwitz as it underwent periods of intense construction. The digital allowed Professor Jaskot to think in new geographic terms, visualizing the spatiotemporal questions of the different physical scales of Auschwitz. Through his research Professor Jaskot challenges the assumption that Auschwitz was a fully ordered and controlled architectural site. His paper concisely demonstrated how the visualization of the spatial components of enormous quantities of data is especially well-suited to the kind of visual analysis we as art historians are already engaged in.

            Professor Jaskot brings vernacular architecture, something that usually exists on the margins of art historical inquiry, into the discourse. The digital helped him reframe his questions about a well-studied site in order to recover a part of its history that had previously gone under-examined. His paper pointed me towards an issue I have begun to think more critically about, that is, the potential the digital, as a methodological approach, has to broaden the objects and histories considered by our discipline. However, by the same token, digital methodologies can reinscribe the traditional (and limiting) art historical canon. This issue is of particular urgency to me as I work in a field (Central and East European Modernism) that has not enjoyed the same amount of attention within the traditional (non-digital) art historical discourse. Central and East Europe’s exclusion from the canon has resulted, in part, in a lack of digitization of primary source materials, such as archival inventories, auction catalogs, and dealer stock books. As we begin to incorporate digital methodologies into the expanding epistemic horizon of our discipline, how might we ensure that we do not create a gaping digital divide?

Omeka/Neatline Roundtable: Part II, Technicalities and Takeaways
Sunday, November 30, 2014

Nicole Riesenberger, Cecilia Wichmann, and Grace Yasumura have been experimenting this semester with the open-source, collections management system Omeka and Neatline, its mapping and timeline plugin. In this two-part series, they sit down together to compare notes on three rather different projects and to reflect on lessons learned. Read Part I here.

GY: Prior to this project I didn’t have any background in the digital humanities. I had never thought very deeply about the epistemic and methodological implications around digitizing history. I had the double burden of being both relatively unfamiliar with the digital humanities discourse and extremely unfamiliar with computer coding and the Omeka platform. Learning and thinking critically about both the technical and discursive side of things has been an interesting challenge. What kind of technical background did you each have when you first sat down with Omeka?

NR: None. I’m on Facebook, but I’ve never blogged or created a digital project before. I played around with Google Maps a little bit when I first started thinking about how to create the mapping component to my dissertation, but it turned out not to be the best software for this project. I had no computer coding or programing knowledge at all. So, it’s been a real learning curve for me.   

CW: I have no coding or programing knowledge whatsoever. I do have blogging experience, and I have thought a lot about audience in a digital environment in my previous museum communications work. I don’t have any collections management, information science, or statistical expertise, and I’ve become interested in thinking about site navigation and informational architecture, about what kinds of data we want to associate with images, and how it links to other things on the web. That kind of logic is not intuitive to me.

GY: Did either of you find Omeka to be user-friendly? What has been your experience as you learn these digital skills?

NR: I have not found Omeka to be particularly user-friendly. I think Neatline is pretty easy to use, and it’s usually relatively easy to find the answers to whatever problem I am having there. But with Omeka, nothing is intuitive. It takes a really long time to figure out how to do something simple.

CW: And mistakes often have domino effects. One little tweak to what you think is an adjustment on one page and it messes everything up.

GY: Very true! Although the great thing about Omeka is that it’s open-source. Omeka is meant to help scholars organize, achieve, and share their research with the public. However, that being said, it is not very user-friendly. Because it is an open-source program the technical support one is accustomed to for commercial products is, understandably, not available. The only technical support available are user-generated blogs. Shifting through the thousands of posts is very tedious task. You basically have to try and see if someone else has had a problem similar to yours, hope that another poster has answered their question, and then hope that the posted answer can also be used to solve your problem. It’s a profoundly inefficient way to fix problems.

NR: I’ve had a hard time interpreting those forums because they are written by people with a lot of coding or programming knowledge and they tend to speak in a language that is not familiar to me at all. They might be talking about a problem I’ve encountered, and they’ll say ‘here use this code,’ but I won’t even know how to get to the place where I alter that code. Omeka assumes a pretty high level of computer programing knowledge and when you don’t have that knowledge, it can be very challenging to navigate.

CW: One of the reasons we chose Omeka is because of the knowledge resources on campus, the fact that Nicole had been already working with it as were other folks on campus – at the College level and at MITH (Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities). Early on, we had a really helpful workshop with Trevor Muñoz from MITH. He reverse-engineered a few sites that were built in Omeka, in a speculative way, pointing out which plugins a site used or whether it was built entirely using CSS. (He also pointed us to the awesome Cooper Hewitt Labs blog for creative ideas.) We were able to select our theme and plugins to actualize the elements we liked already aware of which wouldn’t require additional technical knowhow.

How well is Omeka meeting your needs, Nicole? I think it’s interesting that you are using it for both pedagogical and research ends.  Is it proving to be the right platform in both cases or is one a better application of it than the other?

NR: Well, it will be interesting to see how it works when I actually teach from it this winter, but so far it seems to work well. What I need it to do is quite basic. I have a collection of images that I’m teaching, and I have them linked to a map and timeline in Neatline. I think the major ‘win’ I had with my site was realizing that it’s possible to add PowerPoint, three-dimensional models, and videos to the map and timeline. That feature really expands the pedagogical capabilities of the site. For my Naples Neatline, it has worked out pretty well so far. There are some minor annoyances because it’s not completely customizable, or at least I don’t have the skill set to write custom codes. I didn’t have huge expectations when I began, and I have been relatively pleased thus far.

GY: I particularly like the didactic function of Omeka. Being able to upload PowerPoints and other media files allows Omeka to potentially be a useful study tool for student. Moreover, for our own exhibition, we are working with two stakeholders—the AMA and the university’s art gallery—who have museum education projects. I can imagine that we might upload PowerPoints on our site for educators to use in their classrooms.

CW: I really love, in the case of a group project like ours where everyone is following somewhat dispersed lines of research, the idea of having a repository, not just an archive, where all these incidental, anecdotal, really cool things we discover along the way can have a life independent of the necessarily more rigid confines of a physical exhibition. Things we might normally look at, learn from, and pass over or absorb into a more polished form. A digital companion can show the process of curating in a more transparent way, possibly. We don’t know if this is how it will turn out because it still very much a work in progress but the potential is there.

NR:  I am intrigued by this idea that your Omeka site allows you to reach community members who may not be tuned in to things happening on campus. How do you think the Omeka site will affect the numbers and types of people who come to the exhibition?

CW: I actually tend to split the online audience and the physical, in-person audience. I don’t necessarily think that there will be any overlap. I mean I think the Omeka site in one way is a promotional tool for the exhibition and may bring slightly different foot traffic, but I imagine it more as a way to make the exhibition available to people who are in other university departments or concentrations of interests in this topic that would not be able to come to Maryland and also as a way to extend the conversation around these issues after the physical exhibition has closed.

GY: I was actually hoping, although I am not sure we have the people-power to realize it, but I would love to see the site be bilingual. If part of goal of this online exhibition is to illuminate and recover histories which have been marginalized from the canonical art historical discourse it seems to me that we should then strive to make our work as accessible as possible. Making our site bilingual would allow the work we are doing to have a greater reach. Aspirationally, it would be wonderful to see more community members access the resources being brought so close to them, but for a number of reasons (accessibility, the culturally competency of our content) that may not happen and the digital companion may not be able to help us realize that goal.

CW:  It’s also a nice step in the interpretative process to think about people having pre-visit or post-visit experiences that involve the site, giving layers of information that prime visitors to interact differently with the objects, without trying to overly proscribe some particular way of reacting, actually helps people connect some of these issues we raise in the show as continuous with their lives outside of the gallery. It could make the in-gallery visit more meaningful as a result.

GY: I worry about the long term sustainability of creating content on Omeka, a platform which does seem to update with some regularity. That means that sometimes old plugins will not function on the new Omeka platforms. If part of our project, at least in part, is archiving our thought process and the exhibition, how do we square that with the ephemerality of a digital tool? It’s a huge concern.

NR: It is a huge concern, and I don’t think there is a solution yet. You have very little control when your research or class is hosted online because you don’t control the technology. An immense amount of time goes into making these digital interventions, and if Omeka is obsolete in ten years, we’ll lose everything. It’s one of the biggest concerns I have about using these tools for teaching, because if you invest time in making great PowerPoints, you don’t have to worry about this issue. There is no way, that I know of, to protect this Omeka or Neatline work.

CW: What kinds of ways have you thought about for saving the assets in your site outside of your site, like the information and structure of the research you have done? Like an Excel or Word document of all of the different headings, for example. Are there ways to back that up outside of Omeka?

NR: I haven’t spent the time to save those things, and I don’t know what the most efficient way to do that would be. I have the chapter from my dissertation that I extracted things from, but the items, record headings, descriptions, and metadata only exist on the site. If something happened to Omeka it would all be lost.

GY: Archiving our thought processes is just as valuable as the final project.

CW: I’m curious what kinds of organizations or individuals we would especially recommend Omeka or Neatline to. I think about really small museums and libraries (who do not have budgets for a web developer team) that have collections and no way to exhibit them. It’s a logical fit. Omeka’s function as a collections database is useful, a free version of MIMSY or The Museum System. There is great value in the way Omeka can handle data.

GY: I think, Nicole, your use of Omeka is really exciting. You are visualizing networks and bringing them into your academic research and making them available to students. I think giving students the ability to visually understand history, allowing them to visualize the intersection between time and space, is exciting and has a lot of potential for the way we teach and present material.

NR: I think the Neatline platform makes the material more exciting and approachable for students. The artworks that we’re teaching become more than just photographs of things, they become objects that exist in a particular time and space, and in specific relationships to one another.

After your experiences with Omeka do you think you would ever undertake another Omeka project, or a different digital project?

CW: I didn’t know much about the Neatline aspect of Omeka, and that seems really promising. I would go there again. We had three options for this project that fit within our professor’s goals for the course: WordPress, Omeka, and Scalar. I’m coming away with renewed respect for a simple platform like WordPress or Squarespace for basic web-publishing when you don’t have that collections need. I also have continued interest in Scalar. I work on contemporary art and am interested in integrating multimedia into my publications, when dealing with sound art or video or performance where the still image doesn’t go far enough in support of your argument. I think Scalar is really interesting as an almost cinematic publishing platform that lets you display and annotate all kinds of media. I don’t compare it with Omeka, though. It serves a very different purpose.

GY: I love the Neatline aspect of Omeka, and I think it’s one of the more compelling reasons to use it. Neatline’s ability to show the movement of artists, objects, and ideas is very powerful, and I would certainly use it again with my own research projects.