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

  • 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
  •  

    Sisterhood

    Sisters Mary and Agnes Berry, daughters of Robery Berry, born in Britain only 14 months apart, naturally had an insepreable bond. Their mother passed away when they were quite young in childbirth, and so did what would have been their third sister. Their fathers story is tragic, in that 18th century kind of way, his Uncle left all his money and estate to Robert's younger brother, William, because Robert had failed to create a male heir (of course)! Mary did not forget this, she wrote, "For many years afterwards," she could not of the will, "without my blood boiling in my veins, and lamenting that I had not been present to support and reply for my father," (Journals and Correspondance of Miss Berry). Although Mary did not need to stay for long in Britain lamenting this disrespect because in 1783 she convinced her father to give up thier house in London and travel abroad, fullfilling Mary's lifelong dream of fleeing British society. In Naples she was invited to the court of Caroline, daughter of the Austrian Empress Maria Thersea and Emperor Joseph II, in Rome she was presented to the Pope, and on following trips she conversed with famous mathmetician Pierre Simon Laplace and personally met Napoleon Bonaparte. The sisters travelled to "the Continent" together nine times in their life before their death only months apart.

    Today, I must choose what I would like to research with the VMW this semester, to help build a web of knowledge about the Grand Tour. My choice is simple-- women who travelled-- exploring thier world and educating themselves. Miss Berry never married but instead dedicated herself to being a role model for her sister and guide to her father (and not the other way around). She is an impressive women, whose adventures in Europe deserve a chance to be documented and logged into the world of Itinera! It is my little way of supporting sisterhood. 

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Current Projects
    • Itinera
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW
  •  

    Debriefing on DB: January Edition

    On the eve of winter break, Alison Langmead, Josh Ellenbogen and I once again emerged from our cozy domiciles at a cold and dark hour and found our way to I-70, onward to Columbus. Columbus: the 15th largest city in the United States, the namesake of Christopher Columbus, and home to over 40,000 Bertillon identification cards.

    The Ohio History Connection (OHC), our destination, is vital for Decomposing Bodies, the VMW research project investigating the implementation and interpretation of the Bertillon system in the United States. In the high-ceilinged reading room at the OHC, we have explored and photographed thousands of inmate cards. On this most recent trip, however, we devoted our time to the documentation that occurred outside the edges of the cards: Bertillon ledgers, Warden’s reports, scrapbooks, inventories, blue prints, postcards, newspaper clippings, etc.

    The Ohio Penitentiary’s robust Registries of Anthropometric Descriptions provided documentation of the first recorded fingerprint classification of Ohio Felons in June 1910 (see image), and helped us to concoct various hypotheses about when and how Bertillon measurements were taken—and when this data was transferred from the cards to the ledgers (simultaneously? retroactively? why weren’t the measurements of pardoned or transferred inmates included in the ledger, while escapees’ measurements were?). Although we didn’t answer these questions, the process of investigating them provoked thoughtful conversations…

    Indeed, the trip provided more evidence of redundant or inconsistent recordkeeping than anything else, but also helped contextualize the cards in a way they hadn’t been previously and certainly substantiated further research.

    Transcription of the cards continues on the home front, but the related records will certainly be incorporated into our ongoing work. A new configuration of the research team will reconvene in Columbus next week, and we will undoubtedly return with new theories and questions that will contribute to this rapidly unfurling research project. Stay tuned. 

    Categories: 
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Graduate Work
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW
  •  

    Radical Contextualization

    Tim Hitchcock gave a lovely talk at the British Library at the end of last year on "Big Data, Small Data, and Meaning," that contains the following reflection that I found galvanizing this morning as I was listening to him speak on youtube (also embedded here):

    There are any number of research council initiatives, European funding calls, and twitcy private sector start-ups out there, ragging at the edge of established practise. We are advised to seek ‘disruption’, and to pursue the shiny. But it is important to remember that the institutions we have inherited – libraries and museums in particular - were created in service of a deeper purpose. It is not simply that we value them because they are ancient and august. Instead, we value them as a means of preserving memory, and acknowledging worth. And as importantly, we value them as part of a complex ecology of knowledge discovery, dissemination, and reflexion. So while disruption and the shiny, are all good; it remains important that libraries, continue to serve the fundamental purposes for which they were created.

    And then also here, near the end:

    To do justice to the aspirations of a macroscope, and to use it to perform the humanities effectively – and politically – we need to be able to contextualise every single word, in a representation of every word ever. Every gesture contextualised in the collective record all gestures; and every brushstroke, in the collective knowledge of every painting.
    Where is the tool and dataset that lets you see how a single stroll along a boulevard, compares to all the other weary footsteps? And compares in turn to all the text created along that path, or connected to that foot through nerve and brain and consciousness. Where is the tool and project that contextualises our experience of each point on the map, every brush stroke, and museum object?

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW
  •  

    Current Conversation about Topic Modelling and "Plot Arcs"

    For your perusal, the following are links to a conversation happening currently about topic modelling and plotting the plot of a text. Members of the conversation include: Matt Jockers, Ted Underwood, David Bamman, Ben Schmidt, and Lynn Cherney.

    Ben Schmidt, "Fundamental plot arcs, seen through multidimensional analysis of thousands of TV and movie scripts," December 16, 2015: http://sappingattention.blogspot.com/2014/12/fundamental-plot-arcs-seen-through.html.

    David Mimno, "Where do themes occur in novels?" undated: http://mimno.infosci.cornell.edu/novels/plot.html.

    David Bamman's find, and ensuing conversation, January 3, 2015: https://twitter.com/dbamman/status/551440390361194497

    Matt Jockers, "Plot Arcs (Schmidt Style)," January 5, 2015: http://www.matthewjockers.net/2015/01/05/plot-arcs-schmidt-style/

    Ben Schmidt, "Mimno Clone," undated: http://benschmidt.org/mimnoClone/.

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW
  •  

    Blake to Bunker-Haskins

    This semester will conclude my time as an undergraduate at Pitt for the second time. Having graduated in 2009 with a degree in English lit, I returned two years ago to have another go at it- this time with art history. I’ve come to really enjoy the ways in which these two disciplines may inform and enrich each other and, in particular, the kinds of conversations that circle around the book as a material artifact. Reading facsimile versions of William Blake’s poetry a few years ago was a truly transformative experience that served to fuel my belief in the vital importance of preservation.

    All of this resulted in my spending Friday mornings in the Visual Media Workshop. The VMW has provided me with a space to feel out the field of library science, one that it seems is a logical place to direct my interests. I’m not one that you would call tech savvy so I entered my research assistantship with some trepidation. But over the weeks, while contributing to the digitization of the Bunker-Haskins slide collection and spending plenty of time with the scanner; I’ve gained some confidence in that arena.

    More importantly, perhaps, is the effect that the field has become much less abstract. Being a part of the nuts-and-bolts aspect of archival work, in addition to receiving a bit of a crash course in metadata, my understanding of the profession has totally shifted. My romantic notion of a librarian acting as the steward of dusty stacks of paper has pretty much been dispensed with- the project that I participated in was far more dynamic and engaged in nature. The versatility of work to be done and the breadth of intellectual concerns that attend that work continue to excite me.

    Categories: 
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW
  • Tom Bech, Frayed Rope and Wooden Dock,CC-BY-2.0.

     

    The Ends of Expertise

    In the text of a recent a talk that Bethany Nowviskie gave for the Digital Library Federation, she offers a powerful argument for the importance of the contemporary critical thinking about the notion of "expertise." She uses the phrase, "the ends of expertise," in two punnish senses, that is, "the point of expertise" as well as "the demise of expertise."

    The balance between generalist knowledge, which might seem easiest to connect with the "broad picture," and highly-specialized knowledge, which is often about devoting such large amounts of time and brain power to one thing that other types of knowledge recede into the background, is indeed to me a crucial conversation of the moment. Not least because the notion of the PhD as an incredibly specific type of textual production that focuses so often on the tiniest of sub-subdisciplines, is currently under reconsideration in some circles. Nowviskie makes the wonderful point that graduate education is about the student's growing ability to demonstrate capable humanities scholarship.

    But what does "capable humanities scholarship" look like for the mid-twenty-first century, and how do we train our students to become this type of scholar when we, as advisors, may not have had this type of training ourselves?

    For me, it is a moral imperative (as Nowviskie also discusses) to be capable of carrying on a larger supra-disciplinary conversation while also claiming membership in one particular discipline. That is to say, there can be no supra/inter/transdisciplinary conversation without the disciplines. If there is no "me," there can be no "us." But even still, as we train our students to become members not just of our discipline, but of a sub-discipline within a discipline, we ask them to bend their minds to the almost (but not quite) entirely overwhelming task of "catching up" on decades upon decades of disciplinary knowledge to become members of that community.

    I watch their eyes glaze over sometimes when I mention a larger conversation, say, about digital methods. "I have to engage with that TOO? I don't even know my own subject expertise yet..." This is what they seem to say with their faces.

    "Resisting the isolation of extreme specialization," as Nowviskie puts it, seems a critical endeavor for the humanities at the moment. But how do we open the door for the next generation to participate in this larger conversation—and here's the crux: preferably sooner rather than later? Do they first need to do the hazing that is disciplinary "content overload" that all that the past generations of PhD-wielding academics have done?

    In order to talk intelligently about the general, do they first have to develop contempt for their own expertise?

    What would graduate education have to do to allow young scholars to be able to take part in larger conversations while also developing the healthy underpinnings of a useful specialization? I might argue that to do this they do need to push a feeling of "knowledge overwhelm" to its very limits. By undertaking research in both general and specialized subjects throughout a graduate education the utility of vascillating between the broader supradisciplinary issues and the more specific disciplinary issues will not only be shown to them, it might also have the effect of changing humanist practices for us all, now. The current crop of graduate educators will need to staff these classes, and to do so they will need to experiment with what it means to teach "about the broader picture beyond our discipline," as this is something, I dare say, few of us were taught to do as students. There is a conversation afoot that could only be made better by more participation by diverse individuals.

    Will this result in less time devoted to sub-sub-disciplinary expertise by modern-day graduate students? In this day and age of pressure to reduce "TTD," yes. It will.

    But, is this what "capable humanities scholarship" looks like anymore? Isn't there time after completing a PhD to continue learning about sub-sub-disciplinary knowledge while maintaining a conversation with others doing the same? When we are done graduate school, are we done learning?

    In this way, it seems to me, I may be arguing for something akin to  a "more-tightly-focused, advanced liberal arts education" at the graduate level. I'm not entirely sure that is what I mean, and I encourage any and all comments that might help clarify this point. After all, we do need to balance generalist and expert knowledge, not erase the experts. However, I do know that by imagining that bestowing another PhD means winding-up a new mechanical academic, all freshly pre-loaded with "all of the information necessary to become a specialist," does not seem like a useful metaphor any longer.

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW
  •  

    The Italian Renaissance vs. a Clueless Undergraduate

    A project I have been working on these past few weeks in the Visual Media Workshop is the scanning of images from two texts suggested by Professor Chris Nygren: Votive Panels and Popular Piety in Modern Italy authored by Fredrika Herman Jacobs and The Miraculous Image in Renaissance Florence by Megan Holmes. The task was pretty straightforward. I was required to scan every image in the two texts and input the accompanying data into the history of art and architecture image library. 

    Before the completion of this section, I was informed of a part two: the organizing of Nygren's images, taken during his ventures through Italy. To be completely honest, I wasn’t very confident I could contribute much to this portion of the project, as I only have a very limited knowledge on the subject. I’m not even an art history student, much less a connoisseur of italian renaissance works.

    During my work through part one, I had taken some liberties in time and stole moments to skim through paragraphs describing the intentions and symbols behind the artworks and to my surprise, as I sifted through the hundreds of Nygren’s born digital images, I realized how much I must’ve subconsciously retained. I was able to recognize important figures, who they might be, and what scenes were being depicted. Of course, it still wasn’t close to the amount of background knowledge I would need but it was interesting to note.

    I first tackled the task by assorting the images into broad categories: Location 1, Location 2, etc. Differentiating between each site was relatively easy. Painting styles as well as interior details (level of fading in colors through time, lighting, material of the structure) were of great help. It was like piecing together a puzzle, taking small clues from each photo and connecting them in some way to the next. After grouping the images into the general categories, I went more into detail. Generally, within each location were photos taken in multiple rooms of multiple artworks. Using context clues, I created separate folders devoted to each so that the only step left would be to identify each fresco or sculpture.

    Overall, it wasn’t too difficult. The task took longer than expected, as I had to repeatedly refer back to earlier photos to determine whether they were of the same fresco. In some cases, the only clue I had to go by would be a corner of a hat or a flailing stray arm in the shadows of an image. I think its a project any undergraduate student would be able to work on with success.

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Undergraduate Work
    • VMW
  •  

    Is Your Cloud Truly Open?

    How long has the question asked above been thinkable? Is it even yet thinkable? Check out the entire image up there. Why don't we just substitute "server" for cloud? Because if we do that, the fact that IBM is talking about robust server-terminal architectures suddenly becomes one of #areyouSTILLtalkingaboutthat rather than something more existential like, how can clouds be closed??

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW

Pages