Visual Knowledge

We come to know the world not only through words and texts but also through visual images anchored in real spaces.  Pictures, diagrams, illuminations, architectural constructions, museum displays, statues, and scientific visualizations reflect, as well as crucially establish, doctrines and ways of knowing that may also exist in discursive form. Just as our work investigates relations between visual media and non-visual formations, it also concentrates on relations across different visual media and on the ways that visual objects become irreducible to text.


Visual Knowledge


    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?

    • Agency
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW

    Public Humanities

    I've attached a short, interesting piece arguing that historians need to be more engaged with nonacademic publics.  The author makes the interesting point that in in the early to mid 20th century most PhDs in American history got jobs outside the academy, and they took it for granted that they needed to be able to talk about their research with a very wide audience.  Then with the big boom in university employment in the 1960s, PhDs became much more focused on academic jobs and academic audiences, and the profession as a whole acquired the luxury of being insular.  So in fact the current turn toward a more "public" humanities is a return of sorts, to an era in which humanities scholars understood their livelihood to depend on reaching beyond academia.

    • Agency
    • Temporalities
    • Identity
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Graduate Work
    • Faculty Work

    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.

    • 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??

    • Visual Knowledge
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW
  • Map of the Indian Tribes of North America.


    Delineating Humanity: Individual and Type

    Can the features of an individual or properties of an artifact stand for a larger idea – a nation, an ethnic group, or a time period?  What do the physical traits of faces and objects reveal about history or the cultures to which they belonged?  Some of the ways in which people and human-made things have been configured and grouped to represent larger categories are explored in this room.  Included in this space are visualizations from social and human sciences such as anthropology, ethnography, and history, which build knowledge based on the observation and comparison of particulars.
    Visual documents arrayed on the walls relate to imagery deployed in the timeline of history at the center of the gallery.  This remarkable document invites close scrutiny.  The author’s selective use of textual sources and incorporation of visual evidence construct a larger narrative about differences among peoples and the role of technological innovation throughout human history.  Despite its obvious biases, the timeline not only reflected beliefs prevalent in the United States when it was published but also contributed to shaping understanding through its use as a support for teaching.
    The timeline includes a number of image types such as portraits of famous individuals and views of important monuments, intended to represent various cultures or key historical moments.  Identifying, describing and delineating significant features or characteristics of people and buildings are procedures that depend on visual training and selection grounded in a given set of disciplinary criteria.  The material in this room provides insight into shifting assumptions about what has constituted meaningful visual evidence in a number of disciplines, and permits comparisons of different methods for making graphic documents that construct understanding about human societies, ethnic groups, and cultural products.

    Adams, Chronological Chart (1876)

    Kylynn Jasinski

    The adjacent timeline aspires to capture almost 6,000 years of human and biblical history in a 21-foot long scroll, originally mounted on rollers and displayed in a wooden frame with hand-cranks.  Published in 1876 by Sebastian C. Adams, A Chronological Chart of Ancient, Modern and Biblical History, was intended as a didactic tool for instructing young children.  The timeline was a popular method to visualize history: equal spaces represent equal amounts of time, enabling the viewer to understand the temporal distance between events.
    Text and images are combined by Adams to create a dense matrix of data.  The choice of what information to represent related closely to Adams’s target audience and cultural milieu.  Theories about the evolution of species and the geological history of the earth are completely ignored, while Biblical history is interpreted literally, following the chronology established by the seventeenth-century Irish Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656).  This material is combined with an array of visual evidence, including recently discovered pre-historic tools, portraits of famous people, buildings, and vignettes of historical moments.
    The timeline as a whole can be divided into four quadrants.  The Crucifixion of Christ establishes a clear boundary between the left and right, delineating the two major historical epochs of the Christian world.  The top left register, from Adam and Eve to Christ, uses the life spans of Biblical figures to document Christ’s genealogy and includes vignettes illustrating Biblical scenes.  The bottom left quadrant focuses on profane history, with paragraphs of text, cultural artifacts, and examples of historic scripts to explain historical developments parallel to the Biblical narrative above.

    The top right quadrant, from the Crucifixion to the late nineteenth century, is devoted almost exclusively to vignettes and architectural depictions, concluding with the founding of the American colonies and portraits of American presidents.  Finally, the bottom right quadrant is devoted to the lineages of nations, historical figures, and leaders of contemporary states.  Modern ideas about race, nationalism, and technological progress clearly informed Adams’s decisions about the choice of material and hierarchies embedded in his Chronological Chart.


    Fischer von Erlach, Plan of Civil & Historical Architecture (1730)
    Durand, Recueil et parallèle (1800)

    Jennifer Donnelly

    The two atlases of architectural history exhibited here represent distinct approaches to constructing visual knowledge about the built environment.  The earlier book – A Plan of Civil and Historical Architecture (Entwurff Einer Historischen Architectur, 1721) by the Austrian architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656-1723), represents the “famous pagoda near Nanking” in an evocative landscape peopled with figures that give a sense of scale and context.  By contrast, the Recueil et parallèle des édifices de tout genre (1800) published by the French architectural theorist Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand (1760-1834) eliminates contextual cues and renders individual buildings in simplified, measured drawings (ground plans and elevations). Fischer von Erlach organized his book by chronology and geography, including a map of the Mediterranean Sea showing the locations of the Seven Wonder of the Ancient World (also indicated on Adams’ Chronological Chart).  Durand groups buildings by type or genre to facilitate comparisons, similar to Linnaeus’s schematic approach to natural history.
    Fischer von Erlach’s history was a work of self-promotion dedicated to his patron, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI.  Durand produced his book for training professional engineers at the new École Polytechnique in Paris.  Both authors believed that understanding architectural history as a global phenomenon was an essential component of elite, professional training.  Working in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Durand’s work responded to a new political reality in which public education was understood as the principal means to “regenerate” the French people and humanity in general.  Durand's Recueil was a carefully organized group of specimens, much like museums being formed in Paris at the same time (such as the Louvre and the Museum of Natural History).
    The copy of Fischer von Erlach’s A Plan of Civil and Historical Architecture (1730) from the Frick Fine Arts Library is extremely rare: the English translation is known to exist only in a handful of libraries worldwide.  Durand’s Recueil was used by generations of architects, as the copy from Carnegie Mellon University makes clear.  In 1915, an American reprint was published in New York, evidence of the dominance of the French model of architectural training in the early twentieth century.

    Garnier, Histoire de l’habitation humaine (1889)

    Kylynn Jasinski

    Between May and October 1889, visitors to the Exposition Universelle in Paris could experience a fully immersive overview of architectural history in the form of 44 full-scale buildings representing the “History of Human Habitation.”  Designed by the eminent French architect Charles Garnier (1825-1898), the 44 structures were located at the base of the newly erected Eiffel Tower.  Arranged in a single row along the Seine, Garnier’s installation purported to represent a global history of housing from pre-history to Renaissance Europe. The houses were arranged in more-or-less chronological sequence, resulting in strange juxtapositions.  After viewing the “Etruscan” house (Italy), for example, the visitor immediately encountered the “Hindou” house (India) and then the “Persian” house (Iran) with no explanation for these adjacencies.
    Garnier ascribed a high level of authenticity to his designs, characterizing each dwelling by distinctive ornamentation and materials.  The “Egyptian” house, for example, was built of stone while the “African” house was constructed from straw and mud.  Non-European houses were generally distinguished by less durable materials and fanciful decoration, as can be seen on the “Phoenician” house with its tall spires and colorful patterning
    Not surprisingly, Garnier organized his “History of Human Habitation” to give priority to European traditions – especially the contributions of France at different points in time.  The houses of non-European nations were either placed in a section devoted to pre-historic dwelling or grouped together at the very end of the installation.
    The architectural histories of Fischer von Erlach and Durand represent real structures (for the most part) – principally monuments and public buildings (temples, churches).  In Durand’s Recueil, dwelling is represented in three pages of villa plans designed by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio. 

    By contrast, Garnier’s “History of Human Habitation,” consisted entirely of modest, generic houses.  His 1889 installation is notable for fusing contemporary ideas about ethnography with architectural history, developing the notion that a single structure could stand as a type, representing an entire nation, people, or historical period.

    Pennsylvania Museum Extension Project, model dwellings

    Drew Armstrong

    Pittsburgh is home to several collections intended to illustrate history through the experience and comparison of buildings, the most remarkable being the Hall of Architecture in the Carnegie Museum of Art.  Created in 1907, the collection of full-sized plaster casts permits the observer to examine sculptural components of major European monuments without leaving the city.  The lobby of the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University includes plans of four major monuments laid into the floor, while and array of important buildings are painted on the ceiling.  The architects of both buildings were trained in Paris and were no doubt familiar with the works of both Durand and Garnier.
    A distinct set of priorities shaped the collection of architectural models created in the 1930s by the Pennsylvania Museum Extension Project, a component of the Works Progress Administration established during the Depression.  The six plaster models were intended for use in public schools to provide students with an “authentic and comparatively complete graphic presentation of the human race’s evolutionary efforts to house and clothe itself.”  Like Garnier’s “History of Human Habitation,” generic dwellings provide insights into the materials and construction techniques that characterize a nation, a people, or a period.
    Around 110 different models were produced and included contemporary American house-types as well as more exotic structures.  A comparison of the models suggests that a small range of formal choices could be combined and articulated by different peoples using a variety of materials.  Thus, the “Modern Country House” [#1] – inspired by the most up-to-date European functionalist aesthetic – might be compared to the flat-roofed “Pueblo” [#5] and the “Egyptian Dwelling” [#3].  Though the “East India Dwelling” [#6] and the “Monterey Provincial House” [#1] are characterized by traditional gable roofs, the former is built on wooden posts recalls modernist principles, which eschewed structural walls in favor of slender supporting columns. 

    Unlike Garnier, whose “History of Human Habitation” focused on ornament and emphasized “progress” in the development of form, the WPA models seem to suggest that materials and basic construction techniques result in a relatively restricted range of possible solutions to the problem of dwelling.


    Perrault, Les Hommes illustres (1697-1700)
    Warhol, Polaroid Portraits (1976-1986)
    Drew Armstrong

    The arrays of images reproduced here suggest what serial portraiture can capture about two distinct moments in history.  The eight Polaroid portraits taken by Andy Warhol and organized in alphabetical order by last name are drawn from thousands shot by the artist.  The best – as selected by the sitter – served as the basis for large-scale silk-screen paintings.  Celebrity or “visible knownness” does not apply to all the individuals captured in Warhol’s photographs.  What historians of celebrity call the “It-effect” defined as “a certain quality, easy to perceive but hard to define, possessed by abnormally interesting people” may or may not be apparent in these head-shots.  The term “icon” is applied to those individuals made recognizable to the public by mass-media and whose facial features serve to trigger particular associations in the mind of the beholder.
    By using portraiture to explore contemporary social values, Warhol participated in a long-standing Western artistic tradition.  In Charles Perrault’s Les Hommes illustres qui ont paru en France pendant ce siècle (1697-1700), serial portraiture is a vehicle for shaping perceptions of seventeenth-century French history for a contemporary audience and for posterity.  The work is an atlas [recueil] containing 100 engraved portraits of notable individuals whose existence contributed to the gloire of King Louis XIV. 

    Perrault’s recueil is organized by a strict notion of rank.  The First Estate begins with a portrait and brief biography of Cardinal Richelieu and runs through 21 other clergymen in descending order of dignity.  The Second Estate is divided into members of the military nobility (15), followed by magistrates and other state officials drawn from the aristocracy (16).  The Third Estate is divided into two groups: men of letters (31) and artists (16) whose productions were deemed no less worthy than the conquests of the military elite.

    The wall of 100 portraits respects the ordering of estates foundational to French society before the Revolution of 1789.  Thus, while all of the engraved portraits in Perrault’s book are of a standardized format, seriality implies hierarchy by the order in which they appear.  The absence of women cannot be attributed to a complete lack of female participation in government or accomplishment in literary production.


    Prichard, Natural History of Man (1843)

    Drew Armstrong

    A member of the Aborigines’ Protection Society and president of the Ethnological Society of London, James C. Prichard (1786-1848) spent his career studying the languages and the physical characteristics of different human groups.  Building on contemporary theories about acclimatization, domestication, and the modification of species by descent over time, Prichard marshaled visual material about human groups from around the globe to demonstrate that all belonged to a single species or family. 

    Prichard rejected claims that there were 3, 4 or 5 basic races, seeing instead many varieties, each of which had diverged from the same stock and adapted to different environments.  Particularly influential for Prichard was Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, George Cuvier’s Le Règne Animal (1817; The Animal Kingdom), and de Candolle’s Physiologie végétale (1832; Plant Physiology), works which began to outline the impacts of environment on animal and plant species and the mechanisms of adaptation and hybridity.
    Prichard learned of George Catlin’s Indian portraits when the American artist exhibited his work in London.  Prichard subsequently commissioned Catlin to produce ten portraits for his book The Natural History of Man, reproduced as small color lithographs.  Catlin’s portraits generally include the artist’s name and the name of the sitter, but were intended to stand as representatives of tribes, and thus as types.
    Other visual data marshaled by Prichard were scull and bone measurements, and microscopic studies of skin pigmentation and hair from different human individuals and animal species.  The visual evidence tended to show that despite the diversity of human groups, differences existed within a confined range that could be ascribed to environmental causes and the “agency of climate”.  But for Prichard, language provided the most conclusive evidence of the close family relationship among all human groups.  An atlas of six large maps accompanied Prichard’s Natural History of Man, drawing on many sources, including the work of Albert Gallatin on North American languages.  Prichard constructed his maps to represent the geographic distribution of dozens of language families on every continent.  The global scope and scholarly rigor of Prichard’s study reconfigured older racial categories, replacing superficial physical differences with affinities among languages to establish a more nuanced understanding of human groups.

    Catlin, North American Indian Portfolio (1844)

    Annika Johnson

    In the print O-jib-Be-Way Bucks and Squaws, George Catlin (1796-1872) portrayed Ojibwe men and women both as individuals and as representatives of a type.  The three horizontal registers each employ different conventions to convey information about his subjects.  In the upper register, figures wear traditional attire and hold weapons and ceremonial objects.  This overt display of exotic dress and artifacts reflects the ethnographic dimension of Catlin’s project.  Likewise, the animal hides, fur, claws, and feathers worn by the Sauk Chief in the print at the far right were understood as important signifiers of his “primitive” status, providing insights into the development of humankind.

    The middle register of the Ojibwe head studies demonstrate Catlin’s sensitivity to individual facial features and his skill as a portraitist.  Many scientists in the nineteenth century believed that studies of Native American skulls and other physical characteristics could reveal the distinctive traits and intellectual capacities of different Native groups.
    Crests and heraldic devices often accompanied representations of important European and American leaders – as in the series of portraits of French individuals at the end of this room.  In Catlin’s Ojibwe group portrait, the bottom register of animal pictographs corresponds to each male figure, which viewers at the time read as signatures or totems of a tribe. 

    The Ojibwe portrayed in Catlin’s print were indeed individuals, members of a troupe that traveled with the artist and his gallery of Native North American portraits to Europe in 1843.  In London and Paris, they performed “tableaux vivants” – public exhibitions of ritual dances and daily activities to educate and entertain.

    Catlin began his career in the 1830s sketching Native North Americans during journeys to forts and remote villages west of the Mississippi River.  He visited the Mandan people represented in Archery of the Mandans in 1832.  Catlin’s first public exhibition of his gallery of Native American portraits took place at the Exchange Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh in 1833.

    Curtis, The North American Indian (1907-1930)

    Maria Castro

    These seven images all come from the massive oeuvre The North American Indian, published by Edward Curtis (1868-1952) between 1907 and 1930.  This extraordinary project, which comprised 22-volumes of narrative texts and photographic images that concerned the aboriginal peoples of this continent, raises important questions about visual conventions, disciplinary contexts, audiences for images, and picture-making media.  By the time Curtis began this project, which received initial financial support from the banker J. P. Morgan, Native Americans had been objects of systematic pictorial depiction for decades.  Some of these depictions emerged within the domain of the sciences of man, and adhered to pictorial conventions that, even today, allow viewers to identify the images as “anthropological.”
    Curtis specifically wanted his images to be of use to anthropologists and ethnographers.  He went so far as to have the renowned American anthropologist Frederick Hodge (1864-1956) edit the texts of The North American Indian.  In addition, he explicitly sought to distinguish his pictorial output from the non-ethnographic work of Catlin, doing so on the grounds that the “popular” Catlin “had his readers too much in mind and yielded to a desire to interest.”  Yet, Curtis’s work also draws on visual conventions that have their provenance in domains that are seemingly distant from those of ethnography and anthropology.  Above all, the soft focus of many of Curtis’s works immediately sets up affinities between them and the self-consciously artistic, “Pictorialist” photographs that dominated visual production in the United States and Europe in the early twentieth century. 

    While Curtis clearly loved the Native peoples he dedicated his life to photographing, he also became involved in their commercial exploitation.  In 1915, he helped produce the film In the Land of the Headhunters.  Famous as the first movie to include Native Americans in the cast, the film inculcated in audiences the fanciful belief that “headhunters” had once populated the Pacific Northwest.
    Part of the reason Curtis’s work promised new resources to the sciences of man centered on the basic fact that, unlike the output of Catlin, it was photographic.  Yet, in order for photographs to be useful to inquirers in any field, they must also be made in accordance with rules, conventions, and sometimes arbitrary standards.

    Portraits of George Washington

    Isaac King

    Since George Washington (1732-1799) never crossed the Atlantic, portraits traveled in his place.  Paintings captured his features but prints multiplied his image and made Washington known to an international public.  Portraits gave Washington a visible presence abroad, defining the identity of the rebel-turned-President.  By extension, portraits of Washington also stood for the character of the new nation he helped to found. 

    From the outset of the Revolutionary War, the face of “General Washington” was disseminated in clumsy prints of questionable provenance distributed across Europe.  Washington’s remote theater of action, the scarcity of professionally trained portraitists and printmakers in America, and the restricted commerce of the war long delayed the arrival of more trustworthy alternatives.  Valentine Green’s print after John Trumbull (1756-1843) was the first image of Washington widely available in Europe with a reliable pedigree, though it wasn’t produced until nearly five years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

    Trumbull depicted his former commander from memory while studying painting in London.  The resulting image presented the General towering over his slave, William Lee, and his horse, demonstrating Trumbull’s exposure to European conventions of honorific portraiture.  The parallel with Catlin’s Sauk Chief is unmistakable.

     In the years following the Revolutionary War, the prospect of capturing the likeness of now President Washington enticed many European artists.  The American-born painter Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) left the European art world permanently in 1793, gambling that one good likeness of Washington could sustain him for the rest of his life.

    In his own lifetime, Washington’s face was taken down from nearly every angle, measured with calipers, cast in plaster, and traced in silhouette.  The resulting images were only one step in the process of rendering Washington legible.  Hung in prominent locations or included among celebratory pantheons (such as the adjacent timeline), Washington’s portraits mingled with many notable contemporary and historical figures.  As his image proved worthy to sit comfortable alongside other canonized heroes, he slowly became indistinguishable from them.

    Reading George Washington

    Isaac King

    The relationship between an individual and a portrait is elusive.  The influential Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) had an unshakable belief that facial features provided certain insights into the character of an individual, but frequently expressed his dissatisfaction with portraits. The failure of a given portrait to capture an individual’s character was evidence not of the limits of representation, but of the limits of the artist’s skill.

    Comparing George Washington’s features to those of Julius Caser and Isaac Newton, Lavater concluded in disappointment: “If Washington is the author of the revolution which we have seen him undertake, and so successfully accomplish, it must necessarily follow, that the Designer has failed to catch some of the most prominent features of the Original.”

    • Underwood and Underwood, Traveling in the Holy Land through the Stereoscope
    • Six Degrees of Francis Bacon
    Underwood and Underwood, Traveling in the Holy Land through the Stereoscope

    Underwood and Underwood, The Pool of Siloam, --outside of Jerusalem, Palestine, 1900, 2 photographs mounted on card; (8.5x17cm). From a collection of stereo views of Israel/Palestine c.1900. Collection of Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto. 


    A Reflection on Debating Visual Knowledge

    Earlier this month, students in History of Art and Architecture and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh hosted Debating Visual Knowledge, an interdisciplinary graduate symposium. It was an honor to have Patrick Jagoda and Simone Osthoff participate as keynote speakers, as well as many other inspiring and diverse thinkers and makers. Highlights included a panel on curating with Terry Smith, Cynthia Morton, Alison Langmead, and Dan Byers, opportunities to experience the work of filmmakers Ross Nugent and Mike Maraden, Ella Mason and Joanna Reed of Yes Brain Dance Theater, and a Finnbogi Petursson exhibition curated by Murray Horne at Wood Street Galleries. We heard 14 presentations on a huge variety of topics from grad students who had travelled nationally and internationally to be here, and were able to workshop papers by two participants. We also toured Configuring Disciplines: Fragments of an Encyclopedia at the University Art Gallery.

    I hope that we can continue the many specific and fascinating conversations raised that weekend as we post videos and further thoughts to the Constellations website, collaborate with our graduate journal Contemporaneity, and produce digital projects that present the results of this event. I think we have an opportunity here to become a network of researchers who are a resource for each other because of some common interests. We take images seriously as sources of new knowledge, not just reflections of other knowledge. We share a concern about focusing on “the visual” as something specific, as something that matters as a historical concept, but not always, not necessarily, as separate from other domains. Most of all, we think that the study of visual material and sensory experience does not belong to a single discipline. We all have to reckon with traditional disciplinary boundaries in our work and can benefit from the support of a community in doing so.

    When we started developing the symposium, we were intentionally vague about what we wanted to happen, and the conversations throughout our process were both exciting and confusing. We took a risk and refused to decide what exactly we meant by ‘visual knowledge’, what kinds of material would count, or which scholars would fit. Really the only thing the CFP asserted (besides that visual knowledge is in many places and means many things to many people) is that visual knowledge is different from language, a choice that continues to bring up important questions. By working as a multi-disciplinary group, we were able to invite work across a broad variety of areas and in formats other than papers--like posters, artworks, and workshops. At the same time, we learned how difficult interdisciplinarity can be to achieve, and I think our CFP still spoke most readily to humanities scholars. There is so much ground that must be covered in order to make non-superficial bridges between the cultures, communication networks, and languages of different disciplines.

    We took some baby steps though, and the biggest payoff for me was that our CFP, and the idea of visual knowledge being put forward jointly by art historians and information scientists, attracted people who all shared a feeling that their work requires interdisciplinarity. I believe that this sensibility alone is a powerful idea, that young scholars who have this feeling should get connected early on to affirm that their work can develop in this way. We also were successful in experimenting with traditional conference structure and in thinking about what it is we really want to get out of a graduate symposium. It is clear to me now that while opportunities to present in front of auditorium audiences are important for us as developing scholars, working groups and roundtables are where we really have the productive conversations of which we are in search when we travel to conferences.

    I am really excited about how collaboration between people in different disciplines permits work that could never be done by one person. Humanities scholars don’t publish multiple-author papers very often, but to me this seems necessary. Twentieth-century photographer Berenice Abbott commented, when talking about how she tried to collaborate with scientists to make photographs to teach physics in the late 1950s, that one of her main arguments with them was that photography is a lifetime profession too, and that if true expertise in photography could be combined with other scholars’ expertise in physics, the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts. Many other examples of this kind of situation came up in talks during the symposium. We need also to talk about the difficulties in collaboration—how it can be slow and inefficient, how it can be socially and emotionally demanding.

    Debating Visual Knowledge is aiming to extend outward the constellations model that the History of Art and Architecture department at Pitt has been working with for the last few years. In our department, the identification of important themes and terms facilitate a specific kind of scholarly collaboration between experts in different fields. This environment has resulted in co-authored digital projects, co-taught courses, and this symposium, which seeks to apply these approaches beyond our department and make contact with others who are working in convergent ways.

    This reflection is cross-posted on Nexus, a blog hosted by University of Maryland’s Michelle Smith Collaboratory for Visual Culture.


    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects
    • Debating Visual Knowledge
    • Graduate Work
    • UAG

    Andy Warhol's Bob Indiana Etc. (1963), with John Giorno and Marisol


    Artistic Matchmaking

    On Friday night I attended the world premiere of “Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films,” at the Carnegie Music Hall, an appropriately lavish and cozy venue for an intimate evening with Warhol and five pivotal songwriters. The “Exposed” project, a partnership with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, represents a collaborative, cross-disciplinary endeavor of a very public sort.

    The five songwriters each provided an unique soundtrack to three not-yet-publicly screened Warhol films, so the relatively small audience (honestly, I was surprised that the house wasn’t packed) was privy to a total of fifteen, 3-4-minute shorts. Stepping back for a moment, I will briefly mention a similar event that I attended back in 2011 at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. Marc Ribot, the avant-garde guitarist, played his live score to Charlie Chaplin’s movie, The Kid, thus re-animating and reinterpreting the then-ninety-year-old film.

    I’m interested in these types of collaborative projects because they present a very particular set of creative constraints, and require the melding of two (or more) artistic voices: that of the original artist (filmmaker, director, auteur) and that of the musician interpreting the imagery and film narrative. In the case of Marc Ribot and the five musicians that performed last night, the musicians face not only the challenge of creating a musical score that they feel somehow matches or heightens the experience of the film, but also must navigate the complicated reality that they are reinterpreting the work of the dead and the highly-revered (and even idolized). Which begs the question: How does one collaborate with a dead artist? Does the living artist have more power than the dead artist or the other way around?

    Music, arguably, has the capacity to completely alter the experience of a film. Stripped of any diegetic sounds, the unique soundtracks have the ability to transform the mood and atmosphere of the entire visual experience.

    I was attending the premiere partly because one of my generous friends offered me a free ticket, partly due to my interest in the creative challenge described above, but also because I’m an unapologetic fan of some of the musicians involved in the collaboration. Watching Tom Verlaine (b. 1949) lope onto the stage in his modest way, yielding a guitar, was tantamount to going on a bike ride with David Byrne (I’d imagine), or eating dinner with Alice Waters. Best known as the frontman of the band, Television, Verlaine provided bare yet poignant musical accompaniment for Warhol’s films: John Washing (1963), Jill (1963), and Bob Indiana Etc. (1963). Sitting alone on the stage, Verlaine filled the auditorium with his mesmerizing and reverberating guitar sound, sticking to simple and repetitive melodies that were nonetheless effective.

    Martin Rev (b. 1947), of the electronic punk band, Suicide, stood in stark contrast to Tom Verlaine, wearing vinyl pants, a tight t-shirt, and red goggle/sunglasses. Where Verlaine’s music was spare, Rev’s was aggressive and unrelenting. Yet, his pure energy and noise also worked in its own way, demonstrating the skill Rev exerted to imbue the films with his own aesthetic sensibility without destroying the film’s integrity. At this point in the performance I wondered if the musicians had any say in selecting the films that they scored. After all, Rev’s raw force was well-suited to the hyper-sexual Superboy (1966), Allen (1964), and the disturbingly enchanting Jack Cigarette (1964).

    Then came Eleanor Friedberger (b. 1976) in all her tall, slim, chique-ness, a figure who would have undoubtedly graced Warhol’s lens if she’d been the appropriate age or ever occupied his social sphere (she was only eleven-years-old at the time of his death in 1987). I have to admit that I’ve never been a fan of Friedberger’s band, The Fiery Furnaces, but she did provide a peppy and poppy accompaniment to Screen Test: Donovan (1966) and Screen Test: Edie Sedgwick (1965). The most memorable film and music match-up was Marisol – Stop Motion (1963), a gem of a film featuring the beautiful sculptor, Marisol. This film seems to have truly brought the best out of Friedberger. There must have been something in the moving pictures themselves that resulted in something that is, perhaps, even better than the two things experienced separately. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of any collaboration?

    Dean Wareham (b. 1963) performed three songs that seemed very much inspired by the Velvet Underground, and that were appropriately matched with Paraphernalia (1966), Nico/Antoine (1966), starring Nico, and Kiss the Boot (1966), revelatory of Warhol’s foot fetish.

    The performance finished with a set by Bradford Cox (b. 1982), the frontman of Atlas Sound and Deerhunter, and someone I’ve long admired. This was my third time seeing Cox perform, and he brought his usual off-kilter nature to the stage in the form of a graduation cap and gown. He scored two of my favorite films of the night, Mario Montez and Boy (1965), a spectacular short film featuring two men, a hamburger, and a sumptuous kiss, and Me and Taylor (1963), which contained a dance sequence perfectly punctuated by Cox’s atmospheric riffs. My only disappointment was that Cox didn’t sing. Whereas I wished Wareham had only performed instrumentals, I was longing for the warm embrace of Cox’s voice.

    The concert finished within 75 minutes, without any intermission, leaving the well-dressed audience to spill out into the streets at an amazingly respectable hour. Left with images of thickly-lined eyes gazing at a screen, and so many cigarettes smoked, I felt refreshed and rejuvenated by the experience. In my opinion, Warhol’s films were enhanced and elevated by their new, 2014 scores.


    • Visual Knowledge
    • VMW

    CH Waddington (British, 1905-1975). Epigenetic Landscape from The Strategy of the Genes. Published by Allen and Unwin, 1957


    Knowledge Production at DVK 2014

    The first panel of the DVK Symposium is currently underway in the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater, an attractive lecture space on the ground floor of the Museum. Although physically situated in an institution committed to the display and collection of fine art, the symposium promises to address visual knowledge in a variety of realms. 

    Colleen O'Reilly, a doctoral student at the History of Art and Architecture Department and an organizer of the event, introduced the symposium by addressing the topic of visual knowledge directly. Colleen emphasized that the aim of the symposium is by no means to determine a precise definition of visual knowledge, but rather to consider it as a "point of convergence," or a meeting point for interdisciplinary collaboration. Jocelyn Monahan, a doctoral student at the School of Information Sciences, reiterated that the process of organizing the symposium itself demonstrated the elusiveness of a precise definition of visual knowledge. Indeed, its lack of a definition is what makes it such an ideal topic for an event such as this. 

    The panelists presented provocative arguments on various topics, including evolutionary and functional biology, data visualization, and agnotology, and I could not capture them all here. However, here are some of the main sticking points:

    • Through an analysis of CH Waddington's illustrations, and his epigenetic landscape in particular (1942), Matthew Allen (History of Architecture, Harvard University), discussed the tension that exists between concepts and scientific illustrations. Allen spoke about the challenge presented by scientific images that are intentionally obscure, and the ways in which these images actually impede knowledge transmission. Yet, Allen also alluded to the strange power of the seemingly nonsensical image. The most popular depiction of the epigenetic landscape is characterized by sharp, confident lines that are perhaps suggestive (or attempting to suggest) of the authenticity of the scientific ideas encased within (see image above). Allen suggests that this interpretation fits with the twentieth century notion of developmental biology. As mentioned above, I cannot attempt to capture the entirety of Allen's talk here, so hope you will forgive my somewhat abrupt summary. 
    • Catherine Falls (Art History and Information Science, University of Toronto), provided an absorbing narrative about Roman Ondák's "Measuring the Universe," eliciting comparisons between the interactive artwork and the genre of data visualization, as a whole. The human traces represented in Ondàk's work, manifested in dashes, names, and dates inscribed in black marker on a white gallery wall, accrete to produce what Falls identifies as a "norm": the thick black line. The installation suggests the primacy of gathering knowledge about ourselves as a group of people rather than of ourselves as individuals. 

    More to come....

    • Visual Knowledge
    • Graduate Work

    New forum to discuss constellations event 2016

    For those of you who weren't at the Agency meeting on Sept 28, we decided that we would take up the challenge offered by Barbara to help create a "signature" event for the Constellations to be held in Spring 2016.  The basic goal of the event is to bring national/international attention to our constellations model here and to forge possible collaborations with scholars and others outside our university.  We are clear that we don't want to do the standard keynote + conference panels, and that instead we want to put into practice what we are preaching here -- new models of collaboration and research practice, pedagogical innovation, and public engagement.  Barbara's initial idea was to build on the question posed by Gretchen, WHAAM (why history of art and architecture matters).  Some good discussion of this idea pro and con took place at the meeting.  If I can offer my takeaway from that discussion, it was this: while we do need to make our work matter to people outside our subfield, discipline, and instittution, we also need to give those external constituencies some good reason to join us.  

    I have set up a forum to brainstorm and discuss this event.  Go to forums in the navigation bar up above and you will find it listed.  Only constellations registrants can see the forum for now. 

    • Research Groups
    • Agency
    • Temporalities
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    • Mobility/Exchange
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Current Projects

    A Selection of Visualization Resources, as Curated by Alison in September 2014

    From time to time I am asked to speak about the process of visualization, especially in the context of humanities research. Each time I set about doing this, I look over my list of resources on this topic and curate a list of them. The list does not change dramatically over time, but it does vary. Below is the list of projects, resources and tools that I presented in September 2014 here at Pitt:

    Projects and Resources

    Tools of Note for Humanists

    These are a smattering of different types of packages...investigate for yourself! Fool around with them and see what happens.That's often the best way to learn.

    And, please don't forget about Excel and Numbers. They can often be your first, best path. If, for example, what you want to display adds up to 100%, please consider the benefits that a pie chart has to offer...

    • Visual Knowledge
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW