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

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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    The Act of Identification: Bertillon and Chinese Exclusion

    Last week’s break-through led us to begin researching the use of the Bertillon system to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act.  The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers from 1882 to 1943.  Whereas prisons and police departments used the Bertillon system to identify criminals, the United States government used the Bertillon system from approximately 1903 to 1906 to identify those Chinese immigrants who were allowed in the United States because they met certain sets of requirements, while excluding all others.

    The use of the Bertillon system of identification to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act was short-lived, but was the result of twenty years of increasingly stricter immigration polices. After 1882, the any Chinese laborer who was already in the United States was banned from obtaining citizenship and needed to obtain a certificate to leave and re-enter the country.  Furthermore, Chinese members of the groups still permitted entry, such as students and wealthy travelers, were required to obtain certificates verifying their status and their access to enter the United States.  After 1902, the regulations were stiffened, and all Chinese residents in the United States were required to obtain a certificate of residency or risk deportation.  Shortly thereafter, around 1903, the Bertillon system was briefly implemented.  These regulations also burgeoned an extensive human smuggling and document forgery industry.

    Therefore, for potential immigrants, having, creating, or purchasing the "correct" identity was key; identification was the avenue to immigration.  Paperwork was the basis of entry and exclusion.  As the certificates of residency attest, "laborer" did not refer to an occupation but rather was a statement of fact that enabled thinly veiled racial exclusion.  In one such certificate from 1900, a baby-laborer's occupation is listed simply as "infant."  Thus, the language of exclusion was bound-up in the identification requirements, which evolved as the twentieth century approached.

    In 1882, when the law was first enacted, it was required that the Collector of Customs board all departing vessels carrying Chinese laborers to foreign ports, and "on such vessel make a list of all such Chinese laborers, which shall by entered into the registry books to be kept for that purpose, in which shall be stated the name, age, occupation, last place of residence, physical marks or peculiarities, and all facts necessary for the identification of each such Chinese laborers, which books shall be safely kept in the customs house."  Likewise, every every Chinese person who was not a laborer and who was therefore allowed to enter the United States need to be "identified" by the Chinese government in an official certificate, translated into English.  The certificate stated "the right to come, and which certificate shall state the name, title, official rank if any, the age, height, and all physical peculiarities, former and present occupation or profession, and place of residence in China" and required the applicant’s “proper signature.”  In 1884, “individual, family, and tribal name in full” were added to both methods of identification.  By 1888, the identification certificates for the eligible classes, “Chinese officials, teachers, students, merchants or travelers for pleasure or curiosity” were required to include “a full description of the person, of his age, height, and general physical features.” 

    Notably, between 1884 and 1888, fifteen years before the implementation of the Bertillon system for Chinese Exclusion, identification requirements changed from “peculiarities” to “general features.”  What does this shift mean for the nature of identification? The initial focus on “peculiarities” marks the person by his or her difference.  In this case, that difference is what permits the person to be identified as one with special rights and priveledges.  The later turn towards “general features” suggests that instead of individual marks of uniqueness, the entire body much be subjected to the systematization of the identification process.  Eventually, this will lead to the implementation of the Bertillon system.

    Furthermore, the shared use of the Bertillon system on criminals as well as immigrants created problematic parallels.  Those who received identification cards using the Bertillon system were permitted into American society, while the prisoner identification cards were meant to keep repeat offenders out.  In the case the prisoners, the act of measuring renders the prisoner into a permanent piece of metadata.  The goal, in an extreme interpretation, is to identify the person as a criminal and remove that criminal from society, made invisible behind a prison cell.  For the immigrants, the metadata is instead a tenuous guarantee to remain visible in the United States, yet also a reminder of the invisibility of the uncountable, unwanted potential Chinese immigrants banned from admission to the country.

    Thus, the act of subjugation to the system and judgment under the schematization of numbers was a humiliation.  "Lan Qiche…noted how his country people were measured 'as if they were criminals.' Like many others he found this 'an insult to our nation's dignity.'" (Parenti, The Soft Cage).  The question here lies in the nature of the insult of the Bertillon system.  What was commonly known of the Bertillon system and how was it received?  The shame of the Bertillon system was folded into a deeper institutional insult, revealed in language of exclusion of the law and its appeals.  "The exclusion of paupers, criminals, and persons afflicted with incurable diseases, for which statutes have been passed, is only an application of the same power to particular classes of persons, whose presence is deemed injurious or a source of danger to the country.  As applied to them, there has never been any question as to the power to exclude them.  The power is constantly exercised; its existence is in solved in the right of self-preservation…"

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Identity
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW
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    Visual Media Workshop Fall Newsletter

    Whether you are interested in one of our longer term collaborative research projects, primarily use the lab for short-term support for your own work, or are just curious about what’s happening, you will find that we are an interactive team interested in a variety of cultural questions and embedded in the dynamic interplay between the humanities and information science.

    Constellations Website [www.constellations.pitt.edu]: This year, all the grads in the lab are encouraged to post their thoughts on their current work every two weeks on the Constellations Website.  Feel free to browse through our work, and be sure to check out Katie’s “Knitting Subjectivity” post, an insightful comparison between knitting and the Bertillon system. 

    Decomposing Bodies [http://bodies.haa.pitt.edu]: The VMW team and Josh Ellenbogen continue to collaborate on Decomposing Bodies, cataloging and data scraping thousands of identification cards collected last fall at the Ohio History Connection in Columbus, Ohio. These cards are artifacts of the “Bertillonnage” criminal identification system, developed by Alphonse Bertillon in Paris, and a popular method of criminal systemization and identification in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  The Decomposing Bodies team is also actively brainstorming ideas for a future exhibition.  Alison, Josh, Aisling, and Jen plan to make another research trip to Columbus in January of next year.

    Itinera [http://itinera.pitt.edu]: The Itinera project, a collaboration between the VMW team and Drew Armstrong, maps culturally-motivated travel.  Beginning with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European travel, Itinera continues to expand into new geographic and temporal networks. Presently, the Itinera team is developing a set of standards that would allow a wider set of researchers to contribute data to the project.  As Itinera opens to a broader spectrum of travel, and our network becomes denser and more complex, more inter-related opportunities emerge.  For example, Jen’s work on Alexander von Humboldt expands the body of European travelers into networks within nineteenth-century South America and Russia.  

    Bunker-Haskins: In order to provide scholars digital access to the Bunker-Haskins slide collections, we have been working on configuring an instance of ResourceSpace, an open source digital asset management platform.  A key objective of this project involves enabling user-contributed metadata by subject specialists to enhance resource discovery, but users will also be able to download digital images, create collections, and more.  

    Network Ontologies [http://www.networkontologies.org]: Scholars from all over the country will convene at the University of Pittsburgh on November 21 and 22 for a workshop entitled, "Network Ontologies in the Early Modern Period," co-sponsored by a number of local and regional groups. The aim of this workshop will be to share experiences implementing data ontologies in digital humanities projects, such as our own Itinera, and to develop a metadata structure that would then support the interoperability of these networks over the long term.

    Undergrad Activities:  The work-study students in the lab have been very productive on a number of different projects.  Linda and Leah are digitizing the Bunker-Haskins slides and researching a crowd-sourcing space that would allow experts in the field to contribute descriptions.  Linda has also been scanning images to support teaching, including the ongoing project to catalog all of the images from Terry Smith’s textbook, Contemporary Art: World Currents. Dan does a little bit of everything and anything.  He is currently preparing videos on printmaking for the art gallery, working on code for the digital humanities website, and transcribing criminal identification cards for Decomposing Bodies.

    Grad Activities: Aisling, Jen, Katie, and Christie collaborate on several projects in the lab.  Aisling begins her second year working in the lab with a variety of responsibilities, including the supervision of the undergraduate students digitizing and organizing facets of the HAA slide collection and pursuing a new project related to the "Images of Medieval Art and Architecture" website [http://www.medart.pitt.edu].  Jen has been working on editing and standardizing Itinera data and expanding Itinera’s geographic network to include Alexander von Humboldt’s voyage to South America.  She is also researching Bertillon furniture with the hope of reconstructing the measuring apparatus and creating an interactive component for the potential exhibition. Everyone contributes to research on Itinera as well as a bi-weekly sprint cataloging the criminal identification cards collected during last fall’s trip to the Ohio History Connection.  In addition to Decomposing Bodies, Katie is contributing to the Bunker-Haskins Resource Space.  Christi’s projects include creating a digital space for the History of Art and Architecture Department to collaborate on pedagogy, providing social media maintenance for both the VMW and the Department of HAA, and assisting Kirk Savage with a research project.

    HAA Twitter feed: Follow the Department of the History of Art and Architecture on Twitter! Find us at https://twitter.com/haapitt

    The Digital Research Ecosystem at Pitt: The VMW exists as part of a larger ecosystem, extending beyond the HAA department, and even beyond the campus-wide DHRX [www.dhrx.pitt.edu], to the national conversation about the changing profile of the humanities in the age of digital hyperproduction. The VMW has evolved into a unique hub of cross-disciplinary energy, where students, faculty, and staff of all levels can engage not only with digital tools, but equally, with each other. 

     

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

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