From Berkeley to Spain: A Summer of Digital Art History

23 Oct, 2017

From Berkeley to Spain: A Summer of Digital Art History

Pictured above: Justin Underhill scans the interior of the Cathedral of Malaga with laser mapping technology

For two weeks in early September, three instructors and 30 graduate students convened in the port town of Malaga, Spain, for a rapid-paced, hands-on bootcamp in art history and digital humanities. In its second year, the Digital Art History Summer School (DAHSS) brought UC Berkeley together with its sister institutions, host University of Malaga and LMU Munich, with students hailing from five different continents. Two of the three instructors were from Berkeley: Greg Niemeyer, BCNM Director and Associate Professor, and Justin Underhill, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Digital Humanities.

The DAHSS students first plunged into a 3-day introduction to the field and how digital methods inform the instructors’ work, then split into three project teams. For the remainder of the program, the teams were deeply immersed in developing their respective projects in an intense, collaborative atmosphere reminiscent of a hackathon – born, perhaps, from the nature of their work. These weren’t traditional research projects, but rather produced entirely with digital tools and methodologies, and students were pushed to hit the ground running to create actionable results by the end of the program.

“If they’d done it alone, it would’ve taken 6 months” to complete the projects, explained Niemeyer. Instead, bringing together different minds and talents in a uniquely open-minded environment allowed the DAHSS teams to drastically accelerate their progress.

Each project pushed the boundaries of art history, as digital methods allow historians to ask questions that haven’t been asked – or even conceived – before. The team under LMU professor Harald Klinke (@HxxKxx) analyzed the metadata of millions of artworks at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Congregating big data around the artworks’ costs, origins, and how they were collected allowed students to delve into the decision-making process behind which artworks are selected for exhibitions at The Met and beyond. Studying 3-D reconstruction of places that may no longer exist, Underhill and his students mapped the interior of the Cathedral of Malaga with lasers, in an examination of how music and architecture relate to sacred experience. With new technologies, the laser scanning process took only half an hour. Lastly, Niemeyer’s team created a virtual experimental game called “Matching China” to access whether the presentation structure of a set of images would affect the viewer’s ability to retain memory of those images. Is one order better than another, or no order at all? Do we use the existing master narratives of history? The answers to these questions could illuminate better ways to get people to appreciate works of art, beyond geographical and other restrictions.

Far from the stereotypical art historian hunched over a book, the three teams pushed forward with 8-hour daily sessions, which took place in a shared workplace, to produce their research outputs. Though groups were separated by partitions, other teams’ discussions were audible in the negative space, and the nascent nature of the digital technologies allowed instructors and students alike to learn together, without the fear of appearing ignorant. Even the instructors had the space to challenge each other. “It was amazing to be halfway across the world, doing what I love and hearing another Cal person doing what they love,” commented Underhill, especially when his students began to take charge of the work. It went from “learning for yourself to discovering for the world,” Niemeyer aptly described.

After all, the field of digital humanities was a global movement at its roots, and DAHSS became a “temporary assembly” of an existing global community, with students from Croatia, France, Argentina, and more. Within the context of BCNM, DAHSS is one of three summer programs (the other two in Victoria, BC, and Berkeley), which Niemeyer and Underhill hope to see connect further, and invite Malaga to experience this side of the globe.

When asked what they anticipate to see at next year’s summer session, which is likely to take place in July 2018, Niemeyer mentioned his hope for more Berkeley students to join the experience. “This summer session exemplified how people [in the digital humanities] came together from around the world to collaborate,” he said. Although DAHSS only lasted for two weeks, the program was proof of the diverse backgrounds, languages, and ways of thinking of this unique global community.

Reporting by Emily Liu