Digital Humanities
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Digital Art History in Practice Lightning Talks Review

On February 10th I attended Digital Art History in Practice, a series of lightning talks part New York University’s Institute for the Fine Arts Digital Art History Day as part of DH Week. The second half of the day’s program consisted of an afternoon workshop where participants could learn how to use a few digital humanities tools, these include CartoDB, Cytoscape, D3.js, and bibliographic tools including Zotero. Jason Varone, Artist; Web & Electronic Media Manager, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, gave the opening remarks which included an introduction to the NYC DH online group as well as the Digital Humanities community in the New York City area.

The program’s first speaker was Emily L. Spratt, Director of the Program in Art and Artificial Intelligence and Visiting Lecturer in Byzantine Art and Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies in the Department of Art History, Rutgers University. Spratt’s presentation was title “Through Machine Eyes: Art, Artifice, and Artificial Intelligence.” She began her presentation by describing the intentional demolition of many Byzantine-era world heritage sites in countries such as Iraq and Syria, and the race to create digital surrogates of them so future generations can study them. Spratt gave the example of virtual reality projects that would allow users to be completely immersed in previous destroyed sites.  This discussion of experiencing historical sites in a virtual environment lead her into discussing a 2014 survey conducted with art historians as part of her and Computer Science professor Ahmed Elgammal’s publication “The Digital Humanities Unveiled: Perceptions Held by Art Historians and Computer Scientists about Computer Vision Technology.” In Spratt’s survey, a majority of the art historian’s polled were supportive of the idea of incorporating digitization into the field. Although in other circumstances, such as if computers would be able to successfully analyze a work the same way an art historian would, were met with skepticism. Spratt began discussing the role of replicas, both digital and physical, on the original work. Spratt used the example of a digital archive, even though there are digital surrogates of a piece the work in it’s original physical being is held with the higher value no matter how detailed the digital version is. The discussion then turned to replicas of lost works. When a lost work has a replica created in it’s likeness, the original is held in an even higher regard where the replica becomes, in Spratt’s words, “a place of mourning” for the original. She presented the program Byzantium 1200, a digital project created to immerse users in the ancient world. Projects such as Byzantium 1200 are heavily debated because even though they present a detailed and immersive version of ancient cities,  they lack the psychological connection between the site and users When concluding her presentation, Spratt discussed how computers may have the capability to aesthetically evaluate art but there still needs to be human aspect included.

The second presenter of the morning was Louis Wood Ruby, Head of Photoarchive Research, The Frick Collection and Frick Art Reference Library, with her presentation “Seeing the Future: PHAROS, ARIES, and Digital Imaging.” During her presentation, Ruby discussed the digital tools and projects being implemented by the Frick and the international photo archive community. Ruby discussed the PHAROS project, which gathers digitized works from the Frick, Fondazione Zeri, and the National Gallery in London all in one site. The purpose of this site would be to create a one stop shop for researchers. A more research intensive related tool for PHAROS is slated to be in BETA later this year, estimated by the summer time. The expanded version of PHAROS is being created by John Resig with tools similar to Ukiyo-E. The expanded version will included analytical tools that will allow art professionals and researchers to compare versions of works, such as before and after shots of pieces that have been conserved. An example that Ruby used was comparing a photo of a painting against an etching created from the same painting for an auction catalog. Another digital project that is being utilized by the Frick Digital Art History Lab is ARIES: ARt Image Exploration Space. Aries serves to be an interactive image system, comparatively described as a digital light box tool. ARIES allows curators separated geographically the opportunity  to work collaboratively on projects through this digital tool. Curators can compare images, pull images from multiple sources, and even layout exhibitions in the ARIES workspace.

The third speaker of the morning was Samantha Deutch, Assistant Director, Center for the History of Collecting, The Frick Collection, with her presentation “Data: Collecting, Consolidating, and Analyzing.” Deutch’s presentation consisted of discussing tools that she uses to carry our research. The first tool she showed off was Kimono, an easy to use API tool that is unfortunately shutting down most of its services later this month. Deutch demonstrated the tool by using Kimono to scrape a Sotheby’s auction site in order to create data sets. She also spoke about the Archives Directory for the History of Collecting, and some of the data collecting and analyzing work that has gone into that database. One of the tools used by Deutch is Tableau which is used to analyze different data sets in her work, for example using it to determine the buyer who bought the most during a specific auction. Tableau also includes visualization tools that prove to be handy in Deutch’s research. The last point in Deutch’s presentation was using sites such as Google Maps to map out the activity of specific collectors and their collections, with some of the information coming from social media and micro-blogging sites such as Pinterest.

Overall, I found the lighting talks to be very engaging. I certainly connected with Emily L. Spratt’s presentation in regards to looking at art and historical sites in a digital lense. While I am anticipating more incorporation of computer based technology, I agree with the art historians included in her poll that were skeptical about computers being able to properly analyze paintings the same way a person would. Her discussion on how digital surrogates of works are perceived in the art community is certainly one that should be more widespread throughout other academic fields. The presentations from Deutch and Ruby gave an interesting insight to how a major art institution utilizes digital tools, like Kimono and ARIES, to carry out major projects.

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