Critical Digital Art History: Interface and data politics in exhibitions, museums and collections

Anna Dahlgren, Department of Culture and Aesthetics, Stockholm University,                                

Amanda Wasielewski, Department of Culture and Aesthetics, Stockholm University,

The discipline of art history has long embraced digitisation of artworks and scholarly resources, but there has also been increased interest in recent years in adopting computational methods. Scholarly activity in this area is commonly labelled ‘digital art history’ and often focuses on practical issues that impact the tasks of collection managers, information specialists and others closely allied with institutions that collect, preserve and govern art-historical collections. This focus on practical concerns means that critical engagement with what digital technology and computational methods imply for art history is often unaddressed. Little attention has thus far been paid to the theoretical and political aspects of mass digitisation in art history and the use of digital tools in museums and collections.

In this session, we seek to theorise and critically analyse the implications of digitisation for our discipline. We particularly invite papers that address these issues from a general, theoretical and critical perspective. This might entail the cultural and ideological effects of digital access or the lack thereof, philosophical and theoretical reflections on the epistemologies of digital tools, critical perspectives on digital interfaces for art-historical artefacts, or examinations of specific digital tools and their art-historical contexts. This may also encompass reflections on exhibition practices and notions of art’s audiences in relation to digital interfaces. Moreover, this could include contributions that critically examine visualisation practices in art history and other historiographic accounts of the field in relation to digitisation.

Speakers & Abstracts

Critical Digital Art History 1: Institutions and Platforms

The Age of Datum in Art History or Data as a Methodological Paradigm

Valeria Federici (CASVA – Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA)

While the digital humanities challenge material culture studies by engaging with the structure of data through innovative technologies and new approaches to pedagogy, the digital revolution has compelled us to rethink the relationship between humanities and science in general, and to reconsider the role of information technology in history of art, in particular. The appearance of data as a paradigm of art-historical analysis has altered methods of investigation. In 2011, Johanna Drucker proposed renaming information contained in datasets as capta (i.e. taken) rather than as data (i.e. given) in order to acknowledge the limits and implications of considering data as an absolute value, divested of implicit meaning. At the same time, digital humanists and digital art historians constantly face technological obsolescence and computational end-of-life. Given these challenges and considerations, this paper confronts, compares and illustrates digital art history approaches and offers a theoretical investigation, drawn from media studies, of the implications of information technology and data as both methods and structures. Case studies include an exploration of the following platforms: MediaWiki and its applications, including the Semantic Web; FromThePage and its reliance on voluntary work; and IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework) as a tool designed to replicate traditional comparative methodologies within a digital realm. Finally, the paper analyses the conundrum of web archiving and data preservation, and reflects on how data marked a paradigm shift in our perception, expectations and understanding of art and of art-historical methodologies.

Global Digital Museum Narratives: Representation, authorship and audiences

Maribel Hidalgo-Urbaneja (Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London)

The museum visiting experience and content production have exponentially shifted towards the online sphere in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. From a critical viewpoint, the increased interest that audiences have in the digital offerings of these institutions worldwide invite questions on certain issues: what are the stories and subjects presented by museums? Where do these stories originate and from what perspectives are they being told? What are the intended audiences of these stories? This paper employs digital narratology as a framework to interrogate museums’ online presence. Digital narratology, the theory that studies digital narratives and storytelling, when informed by digital humanities decolonial studies, provides the necessary critical mass to address issues of representation, narrative perspective and audiences’ reception. The paper will be focused on the study of online exhibitions, exhibition websites, microsites and other features about objects and artists from the global South in different geographic territories. It will compare the way in which their stories are represented in the global North and the global South. Additionally, it will discuss technological inequalities in terms of both production and access.

The Concealed Door: Digital interfaces and art audiences

Valentina Vavassori (King's College London)

The adoption of digital tools in museums and art galleries is progressively seen as an essential way to engage and broaden the interaction with increasingly digital audiences. However, the adoption of these tools has multiple implications: they influence both the audience and the entire physical structure of the museum.

Not only are these technologies far from neutral, but their pervasiveness and apparent objectivity require a critical recognition of the type of audience they are designed for and what digital skills and access requirements the audience has. Moreover, they affect the way objects are narrated and connected with each other, what part of their biography is selected, how the audience uses it to construct its own experience, and ultimately what impact they have on the audience.

Starting with two case studies in Milan which adopted contextual technologies, the Di casa in casa chatbot and the Museum of Augmented Urban Art, the paper explores how the presence of these technologies created ‘concealed doors’, digital thresholds which are difficult to access by most audiences. Moreover, the audience associated them with the concepts of privilege and art-historical expertise.

The paper considers how the way museums presented and structured the experience reinforced the exclusion of those members of the audience who did not feel comfortable interacting alone with digital tools but who required social interaction to acquire digital and art-historical competencies. Finally, it explores how these tools, developed to attract a new audience, ended up attracting the same museum-goer public.

Expanding the Vitrine: Co-Curation in digital space (artists, young people and researchers)

Leah Lovett (Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London)

Valerio Signorelli (Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London)

Duncan Hay (Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London)

The digitisation of museum collections is often framed as an access solution: putting digital objects ‘online’ is supposed to make them more accessible to people beyond the museum’s walls. However, digital collections frequently replicate the conceptual and spatial organisation of the museum in ways that prohibit access, with structures relying on prior knowledge and assumed perspectives that risk disassociating digital objects from key stakeholders in their cultural production.

This paper discusses co-curatorial methods of digital production to question dominant cultures of display, including the physical and digital accessibility of museum collections, and the myriad relationships between digital objects. With the research team’s development of an interactive, web-based app in partnership with the V&A Museum of Childhood, artists and young people as our principal case study, we highlight the potential for using co-design methods and new web-based digital tools to collectively reimagine the museum visitor experience. Funded by UCL-Culture, the RE-Invent: Digital Pilot app was developed in response to the early closure of the Museum of Childhood during the pandemic for a two-year renovation project to reimagine the Victorian museum as an interactive, creative lab. Far from replicating structural biases and object positions, we suggest how critically engaging the specific form and logic of digital technologies has revealed key insights for co-curatorial practice to inform the reinvention of a museum.

Critical Digital Art History 2: Data and Critical Theory

Towards a Critical Technical Practice in Digital Art History

Leonardo Impett (Durham University)

Fabian Offert (University of California Santa Barbara)

Visual research in digital art history relies heavily on off-the-shelf computer vision systems: almost invariably designed for, and trained on, digital photographs of objects in the world (natural images, in the terminology of computer vision). As search engines and visualisations, these models are increasingly used by collections, museums and art historians: but at all levels of the stack, they operationalise at best an anachronistic approach to visual data. If every algorithm embodies a way of seeing, we have reason to doubt that the visual logics of contemporary image classification networks are compatible with the practices of art history.

How, then, might one attempt to design computer vision models that embody art-historical ways of seeing? We propose re-modelling the relation of art history and computer science as what Philip Agre has called Critical Technical Practice. Re-imagining digital art history as a critical technical practice would mean integrating critical reflection into the process of algorithmic design, rather than understanding it as a post-hoc means to mitigate damage already done by improperly designed and deployed tools. By learning from Agre’s critical analysis of the previous artificial intelligence (AI) revolution and his active engagement with critical theory in particular (which itself will be modelled with the help of machine learning), we can derive not only a better understanding of the historical embeddedness of current machine learning practices in digital art history, but also a trajectory for the further development of the field: towards a critical and technical engagement with, rather than dependence on, AI research.

Agents of Mediation: What is at stake at the interface?

Kitty Barneveld (University College London)

Within digital art history, we often associate the interface with relationality between humans and machines. Situated within software and hardware, it invisibly facilitates the smooth transition from mechanic language to mythic language, or the verbal and visual we can understand. In this material and screen-centric capacity, the interface often goes unnoticed, which is arguably problematic given this substantial role as a mediator. However, the origins of the interface which predate its associations with digitality could provide a more effective and substantial critical theory for digital art history.

The interface, originally applied to fluid dynamics in the 1880s, describes the point where two distinct liquids meet. Here, the interface expands the liminal boundary zone between them, shaping the way the liquids engage and how this engagement is perceived. This provides a crucial metaphor for the contingent, fluid nature of interactivity within digital art history today. Crucially, interface theory in this capacity could provide an alternative curatorial approach based on an alternative interpretation of interactivity. The idea of an expanded zone that shapes and structures engagement could be effectively applied to the relational dynamic between the audience and an artwork, particularly in recent cases of online exhibitions. By tracing an alternative genealogy of the interface, this paper will develop a theoretical and art-historical application of the interface, and question what is at stake for the artwork, the curator and the audience in recognising and accepting this liminal boundary zone in the way we interact with art today.

Relational Materialism and Technoecological Sense – A philosophical approach to digitisation

Sebastian Rozenberg (Independent)

The gap between the intense use of digital technology and a fundamental understanding of the transformations caused by these technologies is widening. With the increase of digitisation, old distinctions break down and new connections are possible. Responding to and developing concepts of materialism in digital art history, this paper argues that the question of materiality within the field should be approached philosophically, in two interconnected ways. Firstly, through a critique of a substantialist conception of materiality, drawing on Gilbert Simondon’s critique of hylomorphism and Yuk Hui’s concept of relational materialism. Secondly, situated within the concept of a technoecological sense as formulated by Erich Hörl, the notion of a shifting sense of meaning under the technological condition. Art under the technological condition, as digital art history must be seen, is often framed as art after nature. The relation between a digitised work and an analogue original should not be seen as an opposition between natural and artificial but rather as isomorphic to the relationship between nature and technology. According to Bernard Stiegler, this is not a dialectical relation, as nature is already technological. With Stiegler, I argue that any digitised artworks are remediations both in analogue/original and digital format. These remediations can be mapped and understood, with Hui, as the existential relations that constitute the image object, the digital art object. Digitised images are individuated through their relations, and should be situated accordingly. Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas and the Closer to Van Eyck project are studied as practical examples.

Indexicality in the Digital Repository of the Online Picasso Project (OPP)

Enrique Mallen (Sam Houston State University)

The use of computers in the humanities is no longer a new trend, but the emergence of Web 2.0 as a dynamic interface has altered how users participate in educational activities. Whereas users in a Web 1.0 world were primarily consumers of information, users in a Web 2.0 world are both consumers and producers of information. Web 2.0 has also given rise to innovative data visualization. Recently there has been a renewed interest in visualisation within the humanities with the rise of cultural analytics. Visualisation has shifted from a method of statistical representation to a role in increasingly interpretive and qualitative sources. Another the issues that has come up is indexicality, i.e. the interconnection between biographical and stylistic advances. I discuss these issues in the context of the Online Picasso Project (OPP), a digital repository that documents the life events and the artistic legacy of the renowned Spanish artist with over 35,000 catalogued artworks and an extensive database of over 20,000 articles. The current model of OPP includes interfaces to visualise artworks in their context. Using indexing mechanisms, complex document transformations may be accessed and retrieved without incurring excessive computationally intensive operations. Bidirectional links also allow users to see the relationships among historical events, people and geographical location, as well as other artworks that were being created at the same time. I discuss the epistemologies of the digital tools in OPP and what cultural effects such digital access has had on a better understanding of Picasso's works.









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