From visualization to representation

By Stephanie Grimes

It was clear after about thirty seconds of conversation with one another that the visualization group had a difficult road ahead. Whether it was because we were a strong mix of philosophical thinkers or because the topic we were discussing went far beyond the practicalities of creating a clean and clear proof of concept that would solve all of art histories problems regarding visual studies within the digital realm, it’s hard to say. Similar to how one interacts with content on their phones we were continuously pinching the topic of visualization, zooming into microscopic details about individual experiences and pushing ourselves back out. Asking big questions we couldn’t answer such as:

  • What is meant by ancient?
  • What is meant by visualization? Is it a representation of what exists or a virtual restoration/reconstruction
  • How does one visualize the itinerary of an object?
  • Is that itinerary purely physical or can it also be defined in the virtual realm?

The closer we “zoomed” into the topic the more manageable our task and questions became.

First point: Visualization is too constricting.

It refers to one sense and carries this idea that only a select group of people with a one-dimensional way of seeing can experience an art historical topic. Be it through a computer screen, behind glass walls in a museum, or with complicated network visualizations of large sets of data.

The word we were looking for was representation. The question we wanted to ask:

How has digital conversion (the cultural transition from analogue to digital) affected the experience of Art History?

The second question: Whose experience?

Attempting to articulate in rather generalized but still workable explanations, the potential that digital conversion has on individuals who work with art historical content, provided us with focus to carry out the conversation of art historical representation, and how it plays into the larger sphere of digital art history.

We identified three areas of experience: researchers to researchers, teaching instructors to students, and museum staff to the visitors. Although there was significant crossover, we found that these different categories of people had different priorities.

For researchers: digital conversion has the potential to affect the methods they use to conduct research, ask further questions, develop more knowledge into specific subjects and bring that knowledge to light.

For instructors: the digital conversion can be used to emote more empathy from students, bring them a greater sense of cultural diversity and understanding, specifically for students with minimum chances of venturing outside their familiar environments.

For museum staff: the digital conversion can place objects back into their historical context in a way that can be engaging and far-reaching.

It should be noted that these findings came specifically from the working group’s personal experiences. They merely represent the researchers’ point of view within the working group, the professors’ point of view from the group, and the museum staff’s point of view within the group. It is not a declared answer for how everyone within the field has been affected by the digital realm, it is, however, a starting point for conversation that allows us to question our direct relationship with the digital, with art history, and how the two intersect.

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