Visual Media Workshop

The VMW is
a lab/
workspace/
creative zone/
vertext/
forum/
platform/
initiative/
experiment

that

sits at the intersection between/
falls between established disciplines of/
crosses the fields of

art history and information studies/
humanistic inquiry and technology/
established humanistic and new data-driven approaches

(Alex Oliver, April 2014)

VMW

  •  

    The Future of the Elgin Marbles in Itinera

    This week, just about all of the known Elgin Marbles have been submitted into a spreadsheet as preparation for Itinera.  However, we're having a couple problems with actually inputting the Marbles, and there are some issues with organizing other museums that are not the British Museum:

    1) We need to get permission from the British Museum to use their cataloged photographs of the Elgin Marbles.  This museum has the largest portion of the Elgin collection, and they also have the most accurate and thorough metadata for our purposes with Itinera.  Until then, we'll be finding images on the internet that we can use without having to ask for permission.

    2) We're still figuring out how we are exactly going to input the Marbles into Itinera.  We need to figure out how we're going to organize the metopes, the friezes and any other larger portions of the Marbles within the database.  Some portions of the Marbles, like the west pediment figures, are individual, so those will be easier to input into Itinera.  But the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum have different ways of categorizing the Marbles, so it will be more difficult to submit them both into Itinera since they use different units to divide up the Marbles.  There's more information about the Marbles at the British Museum or the Louvre than at the Acropolis Museum or any of the other museums that have Marble fragments, so organizing the Marbles at these other museums presents more of a challenge.

    Starting after spring break (3/18), I'll begin submitting information from my spreadsheet into Itinera.  I'll start with the people whom I've researched (Lord Elgin, Mary Nisbet, etc.) and work my way through some of the individual figures and fragments from the west pediment.  At the very least, there will be lots of traveling going on around the Marbles, at least through Turkey, England and a little bit of Russia.  Let's hope I'm better at programming the second time around.

    Categories: 
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Itinera
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW
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    Update on Latest Sketch Up Model

    Here is what I have constructed so far for Rivera's Detroit Murals! 

    Categories: 
    • Current Projects
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW
  •  

    Where the Elgin Marbles Were In February

    For the time being, I know where the Elgin Marbles have been and how they traveled around Europe for all research purposes.  This information is sitting in a spreadsheet in my Google Drive, organized by sculpture number, location, donor, etc.  All this information, that is, for the 120 Elgin fragments in the British Musuem.

    For the past two weeks, I've been organizing the metadata of the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.  This is a long and tedious process because it requires me to comb through museum catalogs to find information and pictures (when possible) for these artifacts.  Now that I've finished categorizing the pieces at the British Museum, I have to do the same thing for the Marble fragments in France, Italy, Denmark, Austria, Germany, Russia and Greece.  Oh my!

    After organizing the Elgin Marbles' metadata, I will input this information into Itinera itself.  

    Most of the Elgin Marbles are in the British Museum, but a large portion of the Marbles are still in Athens, Greece.  The Musée du Louvre and the Vatican Museums house Marble fragments, and there are many Marbles at the National Museum in Copenhagen and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, according to my research.  Still, a lot of the Marbles live in the University Museum in Würzburg and the Glyptothek in Munich.  Earlier in December and January, the British Museum also lent a statue that was believed to be a representation of Ilissos to the St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum in Russia.  So, the Elgin Marbles are pretty spread out throughout Europe.

    Recording the metadata for the Elgin Marbles is tedious and rote - it takes hours to find the metadata and file it away for future use.  The goal is to have all this information prepped and ready so that it can go into Itinera by the end of the semester.  Seeing as it's taken me two weeks to file just the information for the British Museum, this is a lofty goal, but it is a goal nevertheless.

    However, like I mentioned before, a great deal of the Marbles are at the British Museum, so then here are fewer fragments in these other museums.  Theoretically, it should be much quicker to organize the rest of this information, so let's see how this goes.

    Categories: 
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Itinera
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW
    Tags: 
  •  

    Abstract Writing Pt. II

    Here's my second attempt at the Itinera abstract, after some comments from Jen:

    The humanities are ingrained in the history of our species, and they study people and objects to reveal what it means to be human.  In our rapidly-digitizing age, history can be more easily preserved through the use of new technologies to avoid dissolving into itself.  Through the database Itinera, we are able to preserve art history online by tracking culturally-motivated travel in an interactive forum, which is more accurate than preserving art history through traditional, textbook media.  The database helps to make people more aware of and connected with our historic past, going beyond the confines of bookcovers and webpages, extending the history and making it easier to visualize.  In a collaborative project like Itinera, multiple scholars can contribute to make new connections about old data through digitized configurations.  My contribution to Itinera concerns research in tracking and documenting the Elgin marbles.  These artifacts were ancient Greek sculptures, inscriptions and adnornments that decorated the Parthenon in antiquity, but migrated throughout Europe during the early 1800s.  In my research, I will be able to deduce where and why these objects migrated, and ultimately, I will better understand the cultural reasons for moving these ancient art pieces in a 19th century context.

    Categories: 
    • Identity
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Itinera
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW
  • Image Credit: MacRumors

     

    Alison's Stab at Defining the Humanities in the Age of Big Data

    Trying to explain what humanists do and how they take an interest in their object(s) of study...

    Humanists study humans in all of our variety. The art that we create, the writings we leave, the receipts we generate, the programs we write, the games we generate, the music we compose, the poetry we craft, the buildings we design, the policies we implement, the dances and plays and movies we produce—all such activities are the stuff of the humanities, and humanists often study them through the only means left to us: their records, data, traces, leavings. Sometimes we study this material closely, one piece at a time, sometimes we study it in the aggregate, finding large-scale patterns and shapes, but at all times we study and describe what it means to be human.

    Humanities scholarship has always been deeply invested in, and tied to, its research data. Indeed, the totality of the source material studied by humanists is amongst the bulkiest, least thoroughly-investigated, most valuable data that humankind possesses. It fills millions of cubic feet of space in the archives, museums, libraries, attics, and crypts of the world. It now also fills terabytes and petabytes of storage space on computers scattered across the globe—sometimes in places inaccessible even to their creators. The material that the humanities takes as its primary sources comprises the totality of the enduring records of human existence.

    Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, many disciplines of humanist inquiry are acknowledging and confronting the vast amount of source material not yet tackled by our predecessors. It is almost as if it had not previously been possible for us to fathom what it would mean to grasp at the totality of the information stored in all the various sites of human recordkeeping. While it is doubtful that any humanist assumes that we can read it all or know it all about ourselves—generations of past humanists have already made it clear that this is not a fruitful line of attack—digital technologies have offered us the power to transform our approaches to this immense amount of material, allowing us to make thinkable many issues and questions that we had not dared approach previously.

    What is more, the very means by which all scholarship is being produced is undergoing radical transformation. Before the global reach of the Internet, before the assumption of instantaneous communication and collaboration across the planet could be made, humanities research had the habit of being a solitary activity—the researcher against his/her currently available sources. At the present historical moment, however, collaborative research, often enabled by technology, has not only become possible, it is showing its advantages. For one thing, it allows the disciplines of the humanities to interact and reinforce one another, as different perspectives are often present to challenge and transform assumptions that do not always hold true. For another, working together, we can see more than we could individually. Indeed, final research products are also taking on new forms—such as interactive digital projects or publicly-available web sites—that not only allow researchers to investigate new methods for visualizing and presenting their studies, but also allow them to reach audiences and publics that proved more difficult to address when academic print publishing was the de facto norm.

    Categories: 
    • Temporalities
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • VMW
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    Let's Have a Go at Writing an Abstract

    The First Experiences in Research (FE-R) program requires its students to write abstracts about their research projects.  So, here's the first draft of mine:

    We care about people and objects because they are ingrained in the history of our species.  However, in our rapidly-digitalized age, these old details can be easily misplaced.  Through the database Itinera, we are able to preserve art history.  The database is a resource to help make people feel more aware and connected with our historic past.  In my research tracking the Elgin marbles, I am able to deduce where and why these objects traveled around Europe at the turn of the 1800s.

    Categories: 
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Itinera
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW
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    The Men on the Cards

               This semester, I’ve taken a more active role in the research of Decomposing Bodies headed by Project Lead, Alison Langmead, and Project Manager, Aisling Quigley of the Visual Media Workshop. One of my tasks is to transcribe Bertillon prisoner identification cards of the Ohio Penitentiary, a collection comprised of around 40,000 cards created throughout the late nineteenth to early twentieth century; a pre-computer database of criminals.

               At the start, my progress was slow. My eyes were still getting accustomed to reading the rushed scribbles of numbers and my fingers were still working on developing the quickest and most accurate way of inputting the information into the database. I was only focused on efficiency; the montage of the indifferent young or aggressive old held their place only as unfamiliar faces in a century old crowd.

               By the next day, I had a swift system going.  With my right hand splayed across the number pad and my left draped atop the space, tab and ctrl+c, I was able to swiftly complete the transcription of each card in under a minute without having to look down.

               There seemed to be something cruel, though, in devoting such short lengths of time to each card. These cards were created to define the men depicted on them. For some, it was most likely the only ever recorded photo or official document of himself, the only mark proving his existence in history. (yes, I realize I have a tendency of romanticizing the smallest of things, bear with me). Although these cards are in no way accurate representations of the people they were meant to capture and though I am not glorifying the crimes the men may have committed, zipping through the documents felt akin to disrespecting their existence, downgrading each status from “individual” to “card” to strictly “numbers”.

               I’ve since made a conscious effort to devote more time to each individual card. This effort was also motivated by my want to understand the work I was doing, my thought process being that I should have knowledge of the subjects being described on the cards and be on the lookout for interesting outliers. Of course, if you asked me whether or not I recognized a man, I would still find it extremely difficult to remember him in the crowd of thousands, but I feel it’s granted me a more personal connection and appreciation for this research project.

                Focusing on the cards themselves, it’s interesting what information was prioritized. The front face of the cards are fully dedicated to numerical facts, listing first the Bertillon measurements, followed by codes of the eye-class, age, forehead size, profile dimensions, etc. Any personal facts such as the name or occupation are included on the back, as if unimportant second thoughts. With the goal of efficiency in sorting in mind, this admittedly makes the most sense; one could easily falsify statements about his name or his permanent residence, while restructuring facial features may prove to be a more ambitious task. However, the decision of ordering the data in this way further encourages a disconnect between the man on the card and the user. The man becomes reduced to his list of numbers (hence, decomposing bodies <into a set of data>), and while they may be digits specific to himself, it is nevertheless a cold description that doesn’t hold the same personal weight as one’s name might. Decades later, it makes it easy to dismiss the fact that these are cards of previously existing humans, to regard them as statements of data rather than cards of heavy biographical weight. (maybe that was the intention?)

                Most of the questions that rose in my mind through the transcriptions were ones regarding the process of obtaining these numbers and photographs. Were the photographs taken before, during, or after the measurement appointments? Some cards include second or even third re-measurements, what situations prompted those, the leaving or re-entering into the system? Were the prisoners and officers inclined to exchange words? How long did each appointment take? The routine probably required a decent amount of time, and was also a somewhat intimate process, seeing that the measurements needed are of small areas such as ear or finger lengths and observations of bodily scars. The most pressing, though, is how this technical system has evolved and inspired other such programs over time.

                People like knowing who other people are. This is especially prominent now, with our population increasing into the billions. How far might this practice of identification pervade into the daily lives of the public? As of now we have the standard issued drivers licenses, passports, fingerprints, what have you, but in the last few years, more advanced systems have begun to arise, namely facial recognition. This developing program uses a similar set of measurements as the Bertillon system to identify people, which may grant higher safeties but at what cost? As was read in Jen Donnelly’s research through her post discussing the application of the Bertillon system to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act, there was a sense of breached privacy and humiliation involved in the use of one’s physical measurements, though it was in part due to the connotations of Bertillon measurements at the time. Even still, with the advancements of these systems of identification, the definition and importance of privacy begins to shift.  

                In the course of the next couple months, I plan on exploring these questions and topics further, namely focusing on the argument of how biometrics may or may not cause change in the social structures standing today and what benefits or repercussions this new sort of identification may bring.

     

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW
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    What's Been Going on in Itinera for the Past Couple Weeks

    For the month of January, I've been researching for Itinera to catalog the travels of artists and artifacts around Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries.  The project has had its ups and downs, but so far, all is well.

    When I first started working in Itinera, my graduate mentor Jen assigned me to input information straight into the database.  I have no past experience with computer programming.  This was actually one of the reasons why I chose this research project, in the hopes that it would prepare me for more tech-oriented positions in the future.  I was a great programmer, when Jen sat directly next to me and dictated instructions on how to individually do each step.  But it wasn't all that great when she let me do it on my own.

    NB: Right now, I am really bad at computer programming.

    The information that goes into Itinera is important and public.  You're tracking the cross-country movements of real people who have lived and died, and real art that has existed for hundreds of years.  This is not something an undergraduate researcher wants to mess up.

    Since then, Jen has taken pity on me.  I'm now directly researching information and prepping it to go into Itinera.  So we've taken a couple leaps back.  This task is much less stressful and requires more page turning than button clicking.

    I'm currently researching the Elgin Marbles (or the Parthenon Marbles), which is a collection of antique sculptures, inscriptions and architectural pieces that decorated the Acropolis in Greece from about 447 BCE up through 1800.  By that time, Athens was pretty miserable and sketchy in term of being a city.  But they had their Marbles!

    Cue: Lord Elgin.

    Around the turn of the century, a Scottish diplomat named Thomas Bruce (but I'll call him Lord Elgin, since that's one of his titles), decided to seize the Marbles from the Parthenon and send them over to London.  Elgin initially sent a group of artists to Athens under the assumption that they would just sketch and study the sculptures at the Acropolis.  But after a lot of back and forth, he decided that he wanted the Marbles, so he basically just took them.

    The Elgin Marbles are tricky to track because rather than being one solid object, they're broken up into seperate sculptures and friezes at different countries and museums throughout Europe.  Most of the collection is either in London or Athens, but Paris, Copenhagen, Vienna, and parts of Germany have some sculptures as well.  Since Elgin was a diplomat, he traveled a lot between England and then-Constantinople.  Elgin also sent other people on Marbles-related missions around Europe during this time.

    The overall story of the Elgin Marbles is pretty dramatic, laced with political controversy and ethical questions.  So far in my research, at least two people have been imprisoned.  There is a lot of sneaking around and stealing about this affair, too.  I've even found one account of adultry between Elgin's wife and her lover.  It'll be interesting to see how the Elgins' marriage [spolier] fell apart.

    Tracking the movement of the Elgin Marbles and all the people involved is pretty fascinating.  It's interesting to see why there was (and continues to be) all this controversy about the Elgin Marbles when, with an unsentimental eye, they're really just a couple hunks of old rock.  But caring about history means being sentimental about old things, so I think the Elgin Marbles are pretty awesome.

    Photo courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elgin_Marbles#mediaviewer/File:Elgin_Marble...

    Categories: 
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Itinera
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW
  • Ill-Treatment of Chinese at San Francisco.  From Arthur H. Smith, "A Fools Paradise," Outlook, March 24 1906.

     

    The Search for Bertillon Cards from the Chinese Exclusion Act

    For the past few months, Aisling and I have been searching for the identification cards created for Chinese immigrants using the Bertillon system of measurement.  While we have found many earlier and later identification cards from the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Bertillon cards created during the system’s short-lived period of use, between 1903 and 1906, have eluded us.  The Bertillon system was used to create a database of Chinese laborers who were exempt from the Chinese Exclusion Act and thus allowed to remain in the United States.  While the law only required laborers submit to measurement, the definition of laborer was ambiguous, and any Chinese immigrant suspected of being a laborer, as many were, could expect to be measured.  The Bertillon system was considered incredibly degrading by those Chinese immigrants who underwent measurement, as Bertillonage was known as a method of criminal identification.  The repeal of the Bertillon system was part of a moderate liberalization of the Chinese Exclusion Act after the- Chinese boycott of American goods in 1905.

    In the absence of the any Bertillon cards used during the Chinese Exclusion Act, there is at least one first hand account of the process written by a Chinese immigrant: “First, the person’s picture is taken, full body and from the waist up.  Then the face, frontal view; and then from the back of the head, and facing left and right.  Afterwards, a machine is used to measure the width of the skull.  The distances between the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth are measured as well as one’s height and the length of one’s hands and feet.  The distance between the shoulder, elbow, and wrist are measured, as are the distances between the hips, knee, and calf.  The arms are measured out-stretched and bent as are the legs measured while standing and in-step.  All of these measurements are taken while the person is nude.  The length of the fingers and toes between each joint is also recorded.  There is nothing that is not recorded in great detail.” Liang Qichao Ji Huagong jinyue. Excerpt translated in K. Scott Wong, “Liang Qichao and the Chinese of America: A Re-Evaluation of His ‘Selected Memoir of Travels in the New World,’” Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Summer 1992): 3-24.

    The striking revelation from Liang’s testimony is that the Chinese immigrants were measured in the nude.  Compare this to the account of an Ohio prisoner: “The second day of my imprisonment I was taken to the room for the identification of prisoners by the Bertillon method.  My photograph was taken with my glasses off, front and side view, with my prison number 31498 fastened across my breast.  Then I was weighed and measured in many dimensions, and my own clothes were taken from me, except my underclothing and shoes, and I was put into the gray uniform of the highest grade allowed to be given to any prisoner on his first coming there. “ Charles C. Moore, Behind the Bars; 31498, Lexington, K.Y. 1890.  While Moore’s self-aggrandizing tone leads one to question the reliability of this account, his reveals the Bertillon process as the critical moment in the transition from citizen to prisoner.  Moor associated the loss of his street clothes, which he claimed happened after measurement, with his (uncharacteristically enthusiastic) achievement of the grey prisoner’s uniform.

    If we take Moore’s account to understand Bertillon measurement as a moment of transition from one state of identity to the next, what does that mean for the Chinese immigrant?  This person is also transition.  He or she is passing between national boundaries, transforming from national-citizen to immigrant-outsider, and being distilled from a complex background into two dominate identities: “Chinese” and “laborer.” According to Simon A. Cole in Suspect Identities, what emerged from the Bertillon system “was a new way of visualizing criminality: the authorities did not read criminality in the body itself, but rather used the body as an index to a written criminal record.”  The physical traces of the anthropological “born criminal” was replaced by the Bertillon system’s preference for the individual’s unique mark.  In other words, the grasping overreaches of the search for the identifiable characteristics of criminality in the nineteenth century were replaced by a system in which the criminal’s body was itself a unique trace of criminality.  Such an identity was permanent and unambiguous.  For the Chinese immigrants, this becomes more complex.  The enforcement of Chinese Exclusion Act was based on broad generalizations of  “Chinese-ness,” leading to infinite confusion and appeal as to the definition of identifiable physical and cultural characteristics for identifying those Chinese laborers to be turned away from the United States.  With the adoption of the Bertillon system, the Chinese immigrant was subjected to a method in which the label “Chinese laborer” was no longer a generalization, but the unique mark of their person, exposed in the moment of transition from an assumed state of personhood to the pretext of criminality.  Thus, for now, we continue to search for these cards.

     

    Categories: 
    • Research Groups
    • Agency
    • Identity
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • VMW
  •  

    Rivera's Detroit Murals

    I am excited to announce that construction on my third three-dimensional model is well underway.  For this model, I am recreating Diego Rivera's famous Detroit murals, which includes four walls of imagery.  For this will have to construct a virtual room, which will prove to be a challenge and I hope to have it completed before the semster ends.  

    Categories: 
    • Current Projects
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW

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