What is the role of the digital humanities in transforming and responding to the arts?

  • Embedded Together: Artists and Audiences and YouTube

    Kyle Stedman's picture
    by Kyle Stedman — Rockford University view

    One day, a buddy recommends Stereo Hideout’s mashup videos on YouTube. Each combines a symphonic classic with Radiohead, Coldplay, Björk.


    My jaw drops when I hear them; I don’t usually leave comments on videos, but this time I do:

    I listen especially repeatedly to a 48-minute mashup of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring with Bon Iver’s music.


    I can’t get enough. YouTube knows this and starts reminding me in the sidebar to watch it even more. I click it every time.




    I want to tell a couple of stories about how YouTube intersects with the lives of today’s musicians and listeners.


    Think about it: YouTube is embedded in our lives in complicated ways that demand the attention of today’s content-creators. Yes, embedded: I like the metaphor of a YouTube video, hosted elsewhere but sticking its head through the digital skin of any/every website imaginable. It wants you to watch.


    Can’t you hear this one whispering for you to click play, letting it play as you continue reading?





    My friend Ian Scarfe, a classical concert pianist from San Francisco, describes himself as “a modern day bard, traveling and playing shows that are a combination of classical and contemporary music, woven together with storytelling and a charismatic stage presence.” He also runs The Trinity Alps Chamber Music Festival, which combines outdoor adventures with classical chamber music.


    I asked him about the role of the digital for artists today, and he went straight to YouTube. It’s on his mind. It’s embedded.


    Ian describes YouTube as “the alpha and the omega in terms of publicityreplacing everything from our business cards to demo CDs.” He knows that in his field, people he meets are likely to punch his name into a YouTube search.


    Which means that ideally, he’ll have preview videos available for every concert, video journals with behind-the-scenes insight, and much more.


    Which means that if he’s doing everything that he could do on YouTube, he wouldn’t have time to make art at all.




    I have a plane to catch. I try to buy the Copland/Bon Iver mashup so I can listen in airplane mode, but it’s not for sale.


    You have to understand, though, that this is the music I need right now. My trip will be emotionally exhausting: my brother is in the hospital; I’m fighting with my parents. The music I need is this exact performance.


    So I download a low-fi mp3 straight from YouTube, breaking their terms of service. To feel better about myself, I click the video’s opening ad a few times.




    In my emails with Ian, he eventually boils it down to this:


    We [professional musicians] went to fancy graduate programs that taught us we were Artistes. They helped us plumb the mysterious depths of Beethoven and find the lyrical voices of Schubert and Debussy. We learned to appreciate the thorny and difficult modern works that most people can't stand.




    He’s specific about what that kind of training would mean, today: courses in video-editing, grant writing, doing self-employment taxes, using Facebook like a pro, maybe even photography and sound mixing. Yes, there are academic programs that teach these things, either with or without the artiste part. But he regrets that those things aren’t taught more often, as a standard part of the 21st-century Professional Musician’s Education.


    I’m no expert in that world, but it seems to me that Ian is doing pretty well on the digital front. The videos he makes move me; I’ve live-streamed his concerts; he recently made this video about playing Bach in the forest.


    So I don’t think Ian is complaining about the changing face of art that forces him to compose in areas beyond his training; he says he’s “not particularly annoyed” and “not alarmed” at all this businessy, YouTubey stuffjust “mildly vexed that [he] can't just sit at home and be an Artiste all day.”




    I recently made a video about the 2016 changes to MLA style. It's been successful; I often get nice emails from people (usually librarians) who want to know if they can use it at their schools. But my professional training never explicitly taught me how to create, distribute, or market this work.


    I'm a writing professor with a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition. Some days (like Ian), I’m vexed that my job is more than simply reading, writing, and teaching; part of my professional life is composing work that creates a personal, digital brandthrough videos, podcasts, tweets, and posts like this. Those aren’t necessarily compositions I was explicitly taught to make in graduate school, but they’re part of me, just as Ian’s videos are part of who he is. Our work and our selves are embedded in digital spaces.


    And really, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that my training really did prepare me for these new digital spacesjust not in the ways I might have at first expected. Think about it: I made my MLA video to help students and teachers understand a complex topic I happen to love; to increase my online presence in writing-related work, both scholarly and not; for the fun and challenge of it; to play around with online ad revenue; and to learn MLA better through teaching it. Those are the kinds of things we ask students to do all the time. By making this video, I was teaching myself.




    That Copland/Bon Iver mashup? It’s full of links to detailed “closer look” videos about composer/remixer/conductor Steve Hackman’s process (e.g.). We’re invited, through YouTube, to experience his composing process in beautifully complex ways.


    I love that. But I hope Hackman, whom I don’t know personally, is taking care of himself. I hope his next project (Tchaikovsky v. Drake!!) goes well. I hope he feels like he was able to put the time into the composition that he wanted, that his artistic quality is high, that he maybe even has a team to help with all this YouTube stuff, unless he really loves it.


    Because now, expectations are high. And in a weirdly active way, we’re all embedded in this together.

  • Questioning the Question

    Jarah Moesch's picture
    by Jarah Moesch — University of Maryland College Park 1 Comment view

    As a queer artist-scholar I have been asked to contribute, to speak to the role of digital humanities and scholarship in ‘The Arts;’ to answer this question of how Digital Humanities practices and scholarship might transform and provide unique meaning to 'The Arts.' Yet, this question has been lurking uneasily in the corners of my mind since it was originally asked of me; largely because I don't believe that Digital Humanities or 'The Arts' are monolithic, uniform entities that can 'speak' to each other. Both ‘Digital Humanities’ and ‘The Arts’ are terms that hold sets of meanings for academic disciplines and communities of practice. How they are each understood as part of a lexicon/cannon is part of the larger power struggle that seeks to define individual practices, academic and geographic locations, and ability to be funded, amongst other concerns.(1) These terms are also laden with historical prejudices, ones that are baked into their very meanings, descriptions, and forms, making it difficult to speak through the very terms I am supposed to use. (Yet I shall try.)

    Standardized terminology leads to standard questions. “Is this art” or “is this Digital Humanities” are tossed around on a sea of boundary making, of rigid disciplinary lines that define cannons, projects, media: what is integral, central, and what lies on the edge, or just outside the borders. Yet at the same time, these same terms, as disciplines, are ‘under fire’ from those on the outside who wish to destroy the arts and the humanities at large, by claiming they are not valid forms of knowledge, or even necessary within the terms of our current conditions.

    Yet in actuality, as entangled networks of practice, of fields of study, of embodied yet diffuse nodes of knowledge, ‘The Arts’ and Digital Humanities can, and do, investigate how the histories of white, Western knowledge production discount other ways of knowing through the structures that themselves produce knowledge, and ultimately consider how we might change those structures to consider other ways of knowing. (Of course, they both can also reify normative knowledge. We can easily look to the paradox of exploring multiple forms of oppression using the very technologies that continuously (re)produce these within their structures.)

    Perhaps, then, these rigid lines between so-called disciplines are actually the 'problem' or issue. By focusing on these containers that hold particular forms of knowing, we are separating and creating artificial boundaries where none need lie.(2)  They both, after all, enable us to 'know' our cultures, our practices, and ourselves, as well as to create new methods for knowing and change.

    This leads me to me second uneasy point: I am also wary of the idea that the Digital Humanities should somehow transform ‘The Arts,’ that this type of scholarship should necessarily play a role in art, while not considering how art might also transform the Digital Humanities. Yet for me, this has always been the question. I am first, and foremost, an artist. Everything I do is inflected with my particular embodied art practices, and the digital humanities are no exception.

    While both fields/communities of practice expand our perception of ourselves, explore ‘humanity,’ and extend our knowledges of what it means to be human, there are many differences in their approaches, methods, materials, and perhaps even in their very purposes. Digital Humanities comes across as intellectual, academic, attempting to organize and interpret knowledge, while ‘The Arts,’ by turning to embodied knowledges, to muscle memories, attempts to express life and (in)humanity.

    What then might it look like to consider how Digital Humanities serves to intellectualize embodied knowledge, while Art serves to be embodied knowledge? If a foundational difference between them is that Digital Humanities is about humanistic inquiry, while Art is humanistic inquiry, how do our questions change?


    (1) When we speak of DH’s role in ‘the Arts’ –which DH? Is it: work about individual objects, or larger collaborative works like The Early Caribbean Digital Archive, or the making of tools such as Omeka and Scalar, or methods such as discourse analysis and critical code studies, or perhaps Postcolonial DH, or #TransformDH? What about DH within academic institutional centers, like MITH and the Scholar’s Lab, or DH in community colleges? Or, how about DH in nations other than my US-centric list? And how does DH dis/align with media studies, and what are their influences upon each other?

    (2) I recognize that these disciplinary boundaries are necessary in our current academic environment/moment, especially for those in smaller colleges and outsider programs in order to define difference and therefore necessity.

  • Digital Humanities, Art History, and Object Authenticity

    Julia Finch's picture
    by Julia Finch — Morehead State University view

    As an art historian, I often think about how my research has evolved alongside developments in digital humanities. When I was a PhD student in 2009, I received permission from the New York Public Library to photograph the fourteenth-century French picture Bible that is the central focus of my dissertation, Spencer Collection ms. 22, in its entirety. Prior to this visit, I knew of the manuscript only through written descriptions and a few published images, most in black and white. I was given one day to photograph the manuscript in the Rare Book Division reading room, with just a simple handheld digital camera and a laptop to process images. I needed these images for a comparative study I was completing with two other manuscripts, one of which existed physically in Augsburg, Germany (I possessed it digitally on a CD of images kindly shared with me by a colleague at the IRHT in Paris) and the other in Amiens, France (a digitized version of the complete manuscript was available even then through the French database Enluminures).

    My Spencer 22 photographs would complete the digital surrogate triad I needed to finish writing the dissertation back home. However, once I had the images of all three illuminated manuscripts in my possession, a strange thing happened. I re-materialized them, made them physical again, by printing over three hundred pages of a detailed comparative table, each page showing the three manuscripts side-by-side-by-side. I did not yet feel like a digital humanist; I reverted to a more comfortable technology. I still felt it necessary to travel to see each manuscript in person. Yet without these surrogates, the visual comparisons at the heart of my dissertation would not have been physically possible. Today, not even a decade later, all three of the manuscripts, including Spencer ms. 22, are available online, and given the chance to start anew, I would likely conduct the majority of my comparative research in a digital database. Maybe I wouldn’t have had that wonderful day in the NYPL, feeling the parchment between my fingers, hearing the pages crackle softly as I turned them, smelling that old book smell.

    Art history is a discipline that values authenticity and originality even as we spend most of our time considering art and architecture in reproduction. Its relationship with the copy has evolved along with technology: From prints to slides to digital images and objects, art historians require reproductions for teaching and research. We make do with slides or digital images projected on a screen in a darkened classroom. But digital humanities are changing this relationship with the reproduction, creating authentic experiences in digital environments. Take the Rome Reborn project, a digital model of ancient Rome. A demo video gives students a virtual tour flying in and out and above the great monuments of the ancient city. Students will perhaps come to know ancient Rome better from this virtual version than as tourists encountering the ruins amongst the twenty-first century city.

    I revisit Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” often, lately wondering how digital humanities add value to the original work of art if the process of reproduction inherently depletes the aura of the original.[1] Reproductions create real and perceived distance between the original material object’s physical location and its copy, often fragmenting the original in some way through the process. Digital humanities, however, offer the means of creating a unique thing, a new digital object, each time a medieval manuscript is viewed online or an ancient Roman building is explored in a virtual space.

    Though we cannot, perhaps, detect a work’s authenticity reproduced as thousands of pixels on a screen, I think art historians are in a good position in the present moment to rethink, perhaps even let go of, the notion of aura in the Benjaminian sense. Yes, we understand the need to visit the archive or museum and view, touch, smell, and sense the art object whenever possible. We can still do good work with photographic reproductions from the comfort of our own offices. Digital humanities projects, however, often aim to transfer something of the materiality of the object through digital means. In my own field of manuscript studies, this means that we can view the work in a completely different way than its creators and original users as we zoom in to high-res images on our laptops and tablets to examine details of the page; details that we might, in an encounter with the original, understand better through a different sensory experience. For example, we touch the original manuscript’s pages to feel hair follicles that remained during the production of the parchment; in a digital reproduction, we zoom in to examine the animal’s pores and hair follicles on the surface of the page, mentally transferring our visual experience back to tactile. If we are able to check our residual anxiety over the authenticity of a digital reproduction, we will advance the history of art and architecture in innovative and multisensory research endeavors.

    [1] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 217–252.

  • #TransformDH and Feminist Creativity

    by Melissa Rogers — University of Maryland, College Park view

    In October 2015, well over a year ago now, a group of transdisciplinary scholars, artists, and activists converged at the University of Maryland for the first #transformDH (un)conference, which featured an opening plenary by core members of the original #transformDH collective, a video showcase of projects by artist-theorists and art activists from around the US, a roundtable on disability and the digital, and a keynote by media theorist Lisa Nakamura. The formal conference activities were followed by a day of group discussions, THATCamp style, that centered around the ethics of doing digital and social media research in vulnerable communities; the politics of professionalization, promotion, and grant writing as researchers who are queer, trans, feminist, and/or of color; digital pedagogy; and in general the rewarding and difficult labor of combining research, art, teaching, and activism.I highlight this event not only because it represented somewhat of a watershed moment in terms of intra-institutional collaboration and support for work that spans fields as expansive and diverse as digital media, design, multimodal and multimedia practice, literary and cultural studies, women’s and gender studies, critical race theory, ethnic studies, queer theory and LGBT studies, and disability studies, but also because it offered an all-too-rare glimpse into the kinds of creative praxis that are transforming our understandings of “the digital” and our approaches to its roles in our everyday lives. The video showcase, for example, put a range of amateur and professional filmmaking practices on display, with projects that explored embodied experiences of reproductive justice, cultural myths around the bodies of women of color, the need for and design of sign language translations and performances of Shakespeare’s oeuvre for Deaf and hard of hearing audiences, black speculative fiction and film, and the issue of water scarcity and sustainability along the multiple geographical, political, and economic borders that make up the interface between the US and Mexico. My own small contribution, pictured here, was an electronic textiles composition in cross stitch embroidery, in which the eponymous hashtag was rendered in UMD colors and illuminated by a sewable LED. Distributed in the form of stickers and flyers for the conference, the long-exposure image (created in collaboration with Reed Bonnet) referenced the futuristic vision of the #TransformDH collective while drawing attention to the “digital” labor that crafters do with their fingers and, increasingly, with electronics such as the LilyPad Arduino.

    Lisa Nakamura’s keynote, furthermore, connected the online labor of content moderation by women of color in “toxic” online spaces such as Twitter back to work such as that performed by Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in the 1980s. Nakamura used Kitchen Table as an example of what she calls “platform cooperativism”: taking control of the means of literary production and distribution to create collective, grassroots interventions in culture that may be relatively short-lived yet nevertheless have a tremendous impact. She points out that, similarly, the unpaid immaterial and activist labor of women of color combating racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and fat phobia via hashtags such as #ThisTweetCalledMyBack or #NotYourAsianSidekick, among others, attempts to make platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr safer by reducing harassment online and off, providing an invaluable but uncompensated service.

    Nakamura makes it clear that such labor is highly creative, affective, as well as pedagogical in educating our communities about the combinatory effects of multiple forms of oppression. But, she points out that it is work that is “unwanted,” as these women “are often accused of ‘policing’ social media, of lacking a sense of humour, and of imposing ‘pc’ values on other users” (Nakamura 111). In the year and a half since the conference, we have seen this unwanted labor proliferate as women of color respond not only to the white supremacist, misogynist, and xenophobic hatred that the Trump administration openly espouses, but also to white feminist movements that fail to enact coalitional politics and further marginalize trans women and gender nonconforming people, people with disabilities, sex workers, immigrants, and poor people under the guise of “unity.”

    It behooves us to materially support the crucial and transformative digital work these women do by paying them fairly for speaking and publishing opportunities, citing them generously and often, and taking on the burden of having difficult conversations in person and online, rather than assuming that merely directing more traffic to their sites is enough. While not a solution to systemic inequality, new subscription services such as the arts funding platform Patreon, which supports creative production through a patronage system, and Safety Pin Box, a network specifically for white allies that directly funds black liberation efforts by black femmes, make it easy to finance radical creative work. #TransformDH’s continuing efforts to remake digital cultures call on us to recognize and to name creative cultural labor in all its forms, from electronic textiles to art activist filmmaking to social media pedagogy. Feminist creativity can transform the digital humanities. 


    Works Cited: 

    Nakamura, Lisa. "The Unwanted Labour of Social Media: Women of Colour Call Out Culture as Venture Community Management," New Formations (86) 2015, 106-112. 

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  • Remaking the Arts through Ecocritical Digital Humanities

    Amanda Starling Gould's picture
    by Amanda Starling G... — Duke University view

    “The critical mind, if it is to be relevant again, must devote itself to the cultivation of a stubborn realism” Latour[1]

    In her keynote for the Digital Humanities (DH) conference in 2014, Bethany Nowviskie challenged listeners to think about how their scholarship might change when confronted with the ecological challenges, the stubborn realities Latour speaks of above, of the Anthropocene. Nowviskie wonders whether the digital humanities, in all of its broad forms, should embrace larger temporalities and pursue an active, engaged praxis that connects technology, the environment, and the “ethical conditions of our vital here-and-now.”[2]

    Ecocritical digital scholarship is, I propose, a viable response; it can intervene to produce what Nowviskie calls a “capacious” thinking capable of addressing Anthropocene-age challenges by operating simultaneously across scales, disciplines, and institutions. As public, global, accessible work, the ecocritical digital humanities can translate human-environmental issues into digital interventions that can meaningfully cultivate change through outreach, participation, education, and organization. Ecocritical DH can thoughtfully tend to the urgent arts-and-humanities question of how we might live in digitally-enhanced, environmentally-depleted Anthropocene habitats.

    Though the field is small, there are admirable ecocritical digital projects coming out of universities and research labs around the world. Ecocritical digital work comes in the form of digital archives, digital activism, digital data, and digitally-based research projects.[3] The critical data-saving post-Obama North American #DataRefuge project has humanists rallying to archive critical climate and environmental data from United States government websites. Projects like Climate Stories NC, 100 Views of Climate Change, @everydayclimatechange, and Postcards from Climate Change capture climate stories from people across the globe. Carl Sack’s #NoDAPL Map plots indigenous cultural areas alongside governmental geographic areas and oil pipeline sites. Researchers at the University of British Colombia and Yale, among others, have developed augmented reality projects that educate and compel users to initiate more sustainable behaviors. Mark Sample’s @Shark_Girls turns a pair of location-pinging OSEARCH sharks, Mary Lee and Katharine, into literary swimmers. In Jennifer Gabrys’s Citizen Sense work, humans become digital sensors using their smart phones and/or small DIY electronics to record, access, and engage environmental data. In so doing, they gain access to a sixth sense—one digitally mediated by technological devices—that moves environmental data from an abstract, and often unseen, concept to a concrete experience of embodiment. Projects like Soil Selfies and FutureCoast combine the mediated digitality of Mark Sample’s sharks with the human involvement of Gabrys’s citizen science projects to create wholly new experiences of human-nature relation.

    Other ecocritical DH projects digitize and archive historical environmental media, map the overlaps between poverty and pollution, provide public updates on air and water quality, illustrate the relationship between environmental and human health, and elicit public participation in local pro-environmental activities.[4] This work can also be easily brought into the classroom. In my Duke University “Global Ecological Humanities” course, my students are digitally mapping climate solutions, are using digital social media to engage in global eco-activism, and are building DIY solar-powered cellular phone chargers from recycled parts to illustrate how they might reduce their trace and reclaim the digital-environmental narrative.

    Ecocritical digital projects reconfigure our perceived contingencies. They re-narrate, through digital tools and hands-on practice, the stories we tell about humans, nature, and technology. Ecocritical digital work recognizes our technospheric condition and disturbs it, positively, by reconfiguring the problem—wasteful carbon-heavy digital use—into its solution using digital tools to ‘obtain a yield’ (as borrowed from Permaculture) through education, outreach, participation, and cultivation of new flows of behaviors with the (eco)system. Ecocritical DH gives us a spongier digital-material humanities, one that absorbs the full force of our interconnections, and leads us toward knowledge-production tailored to the concerns of our emerging Anthropocenic humanities.

    This response is adapted in part from my book project Digital Environmental Metabolisms: An Ecocritical Project of the Digital Environmental Humanities.

    [1] Latour, 2004, 18.

    [2] Nowviskie, Keynote.

    [3] It is also ideally self-reflexive while performing its work: it is aware of its ecological footprint and acknowledges its role in environmental Anthropogenic/technogenic destruction.

    [4] See, for instance, U Penn’s Da/um project, Imagine Us 2040, lexiconofsustainability.com, Digital Detroit, The Asthma Files, Environhealthsense.org, EnviroAtlas, See too the recent PMLA 131.2 (2016)‘s section on Ecological Digital Humanities edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Stephanie Lemenager.

  • Inside the Virtual Reality Canvas

    Hector M. Garcia's picture
    by Hector M. Garcia — Virginia Modeling Analysis and Simulation Center view

    Expression or application of human creative skills and imagination is how Art could be defined. Some of these expressions are typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, and the works produced are appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. Utilizing digital technologies as media for artistic expression has been around for about 50 years, but the interfaces that allow artistic expression in such media have been limited and the pursuit of a tool or technology (i.e. human computer interface) that would allow for a more natural and expressive relationship with the medium has been ongoing.

    With the dawn of commercial virtual reality (VR), we are finally getting closer to a more natural and expressive interface to work in the digital medium. And it is no accident that big technology players such as Facebook are at the forefront of enabling such a big leap in digital art creation. This new VR canvas allows for forms of artistic expressions that are not bound by reality or the laws of physics. Inside this VR canvas, artists' creations are not just appreciated, but they are experienced with a sense of presence and immersion that cannot be expressed in words or by looking at digital art on a web browser. You are placed literally in the art, becoming both an observer and a participant. VR is not just for tours of museum exhibits or playing video games anymore; it is becoming a real medium for artistic expression that can make use of multi-player gaming paradigms for the creation of collaborative art and collaborative shared experiences and human connections. In this way, gaming transforms into the platform and the medium, not the product.

    As with all forms of digital media, distribution has benefited from the internet and it has enabled new artists to enter more traditional circles of art and the academy but through very unconventional ways. You could say that the internet has ‘democratized’ the distribution of art, but not without its challenges. Furthermore, the internet has given rise to two very distinct modes of ‘curating’ art—the public and the institution based—where reviews are given by two distinct group of critics and they both coexist for the benefit of the artist, up to the point of having different platforms for giving special distinctions (awards) for their work. Traditional academies should evolve to embrace this new medium as they have in the past with prior forms of digital technology.

    Because of the versatility of the VR ecosystem available to consumers, it is not impossible to consider that VR may become its own artistic expressive platform. If embraced by the academy, it could become a new ‘renaissance’ for the arts— a new platform to help promote the cultural work of the arts community to broader audiences, a new platform to create art that is not bound by time, place or space. There is an opportunity to define this medium as it evolves akin to trying to create the paintbrush while creating the painting. VR’s ability to embody the viewer’s own aesthetic, artistic, and conceptual revelations makes it a powerful medium in any arena.

  • Digital Archives and Community Outreach: Opportunities in the 21st Century

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    by Amy Lewis — St. Norbert College view

    When 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for best picture in 2014, it was described in the popular media by a list of “firsts.”  The British director Steve McQueen was the first black director whose film went on to win best picture. John Ridley was the first African American to write the screen play for the film that won this award. It also may have been the first time that the public response to the win was markedly divided along political party lines. The Guardian newspaper reported on a Public Policy Polling survey that claimed only 15% of Republicans polled agreed that the film should have won the Academy Award, compared to 53% of Democrats. To be fair, the poll didn’t ask for the reasons why those responding felt the film fell short, yet these “firsts” set the stage for our current historical moment, when the harsh truths about the brutality of chattel slavery are widely available, but a stubborn resistance to these truths continues to divide our country. As teachers and scholars, how do we use art and the digital humanities to bridge this divide?

    As a popular film, 12 Years a Slave can reach a wide audience with its account of the cruelties of chattel slavery, but it isn’t the first time this story has been told. In 1853, when Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave was published, it was a popular and widely read account of a free African-American man’s illegal enslavement. Northup, with the help of an amanuensis, wrote about his experiences as a slave on a cotton plantation in the Red River valley of Louisiana the very same year that he won his freedom. The trial of the men who sold him into slavery was covered in the January 20, 1853 edition of The New York Times. (All those involved were acquitted.) Autobiographical accounts of slavery, called slave narratives, were consistent best sellers, and many of their authors became famous public speakers.  Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Henry Bibb, and Solomon Northup all wrote and spoke publicly about their experiences in slavery. These were not obscure scholarly works. They were popular books, pamphlets, speeches, and newspaper articles that were widely circulated in the popular press throughout the United States. In the mid-nineteenth century, first-person accounts of the realities of chattel slavery were readily available, but formerly-enslaved African Americans faced an indifferent and hostile audience. More than one-hundred years later, we have a unique opportunity to reintroduce these stories, as both narratives and visual documents, into our popular culture.

    One striking opportunity to bring the realities of chattel slavery to a contemporary audience lies in the digital archives that now make a staggering amount of primary source material available to anyone with internet access.  Sources that scholars used to find only by traveling to historical societies and university libraries are now gathered together in digital archives that are open access resources, available to anyone online. The slave narratives written in antebellum America, for example, are at the archive Documenting the American South. Another database, Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade, has complied newspaper articles and other published and unpublished sources to gather information about those brought to the United States and sold into slavery. The Black Abolitionist Papers archive has more than a thousand of the speeches and editorials produced by African Americans who fought for the abolition of slavery.

    How can we best use these digital archives to communicate the realities of chattel slavery to a general audience?  I use the primary sources available in digital archives in a course that I teach, “That Slow Poison: Slavery in Antebellum America.” Over the past five years, the students and I have analyzed the slave narratives written by Solomon Northup, William Wells Brown, Henry Bibb, and Harriet Jacobs, and we’ve replaced the traditional research paper with a visual project – the creation of digital maps that illustrate the lives of enslaved African Americans both during their enslavement and after they reached the nominal freedom of the Northern states.  As a class, we’ve discussed ways in which the digital story maps (that we create using the ArcGIS platform) are visual documents designed to reach a popular audience unfamiliar with chattel slavery in the antebellum United States. To create these visual documents, we first focus on one location or series of events that we want to “put on the map.” This phrase, “putting X on the map,” when used in our classroom, has come to signify giving something or someone a visible presence and a new importance. While escape routes are geographically interesting because they involve movement across geographical regions, we also focus on specific places, like the towns or regions we’ve studied, to illustrate the regional specificity of chattel slavery in the United States. As a final step, one that we’re still working toward, we hope to include our maps on an open-access digital commons, so that those who may never read the primary sources we study, can still see a story map that illustrates the realities of enslavement and tells the story of one enslaved African American. 

    While our story maps will never have the impact of a popular film like 12 Years a Slave, digital archives and digital mapping platforms have given us an opportunity to put enslaved African Americans on the map. They give us both the stories to tell and the tools to make those stories visible. It's our hope that these visual documents, based on careful primary-source research and literary analysis, will reach an audience outside of our classroom.

  • Facebook as a Tool for Studying Performance Communities

    Lauren Miller Griffith's picture
    by Lauren Miller Gri... — Texas Tech University view

    As a cultural anthropologist, I am at my best when I’m physically engaged in what I study: martial arts and other forms of performance. Over the last several years, however, Facebook has become an important part of my methodological toolkit. In 2008, I was in Bahia (Brazil) studying non-Brazilian capoeiristas who make apprenticeship pilgrimages to Brazil, traveling to the source of the art to train with a local master, thereby increasing their legitimacy in an art from a culture other than their own.

    In Brazil, I enrolled in a local academy that was popular among foreign capoeiristas. Aside from the fact that I went home and wrote up my field notes for an hour or two each night, there were few differences between myself and the people I had come to study. Because many of us lacked access to a local phone, we made plans to visit other capoeira academies, go to the beach, etc. via Facebook. When I concluded my field study, I started using Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family completely unrelated to capoeira…and didn’t really give much thought to the online capoeira community until a few years later.

    After wrapping up the manuscript that would eventually become my first book, In Search of Legitimacy, I started thinking about the questions that were left unanswered in that work. In particular, I wondered what happened after each pilgrim went home. Did his or her commitment to the art increase, or did they view their trip as more of a ‘capstone experience’ after which they would move on to new things? I wasn’t quite sure how to answer these questions, but soon happened upon an idea.

    I created a Facebook page titled “Capoeira Research” as a virtual meeting place for people who might want to read about my work…and potentially participate in it. After tagging friends who are capoeiristas, martial artists, and/or scholars working on these topics, I invited people to share links to their research and shared some to my own. Periodically I post things relevant to capoeira, or pose questions about capoeira practice. For example, in January, I asked: “Did anyone out there participate in a roda in conjunction with the women's march (in any location, not just D.C.)? I'd like to gather stories of people using capoeira as part of their civic engagement. Please comment here or email me at lauren.griffith@ttu.edu.” I paid $5 to “boost” this post, which resulted in more than 1,700 people seeing the post. Unfortunately, it did not yield any results…but other posts have.

    Returning to what happens when pilgrims return home, I created an Internet-based survey asking about pilgrims’ reasons for visiting Brazil, their experiences while there, and their experiences upon returning home. By spending less than $20 on Facebook’s advertising services, I gathered 29 usable surveys. Considering the niche population I was seeking, I was pleased with this number. It generated enough data for me to write an article and a section in my newest book (Griffith & Marion, forthcoming). Other, more idiosyncratic, engagements with people on this page have led to several ethnographic interviews, which are the starting point for my newest project on capoeira and identity. 

    Anthropologists sometimes fetishize ‘the field,’ but I’ve realized that the field can be a digitally constructed space rather than a geographic place. From collecting data to disseminating results among the community that was generous enough to share their lives with me, Facebook is becoming an essential tool in my work.

  • Art as Question Generator

    Anna Friz's picture
    by Anna Friz — University of California, Santa Cruz view

    I am interested to add a feedback loop to the question at hand, and ask, how do the digital humanities and the arts transform and respond to one another? This question is important to both my work as a scholar and artist, as well as to my supervisory role working with doctoral students in a department which explicitly offers a practice-based Ph.D., in which students are positioned at the fulcrum between critical practice and critical studies. Therefore my thoughts here are methodological, or more precisely, I'm thinking about how the digital humanities can contribute to a process which is already underway among researcher-practitioners in rethinking the role of art epistemologically and methodologically.

    Over the last century, artists have often endeavored to release the process of art from the persistent notion of the art object, such that 'art' might also be defined by performative approaches to research as process, as likely to leave scores, impressions, traces or documentation behind as to result in definitive aesthetic objects. Creative work may function to gather and reveal knowledge through material practice, where the resulting artworks are not the end point of the process but constitute performative research. This allows art making to do something other/more than create an object, and for art to hold more possibilities than to be the deliverable or end point in a research process. The humanities in turn, by treating art as epistemologically generative, contribute to an expanded notion of what art might be and how it can function. Finally, the digital humanities often engage art as more than representation to be unpacked but as embodying processes through which transformations may take place.

    The strength of practice-based research is the potential for the processes of creation and presentation to generate knowledge in the form of questions. Practice may yield work which demonstrates a conclusion, but the arts need not be primarily employed as a proof-of-concept or a final outcome resulting from other research method(s). I find myself most interested in art-making as question generator, which is to say, entering into a process of creation and presentation in order to clarify questions and generate further avenues of exploration which also include writing among possible forms of dissemination. In other words, creation as research, not necessarily creation to demonstrate or present the results of research. The digital humanities may also take this methodological approach from the arts and consider how to extend qualitative inquiry through practices which are themselves generative of questions rather than designed to answer questions.

    As an example, in my own work with radio and transmission systems, I am constantly implicated in the construction, endurance, and collapse of unstable systems, which are prone to metamorphosis rather than functioning as representation. I engage in a hybrid, iterative research process. As a radio and transmission artist, I work with narrowcast and broadcast of multi-channel radio in studio, public space, and as installations; also working with live speculative radio theatre, and 'performed installations' to explore and think through operations of transception, embodiment, empathy, and resonance in wireless communications. In such works, often the creative action retains the status of experiment—in the sense of trying something out without knowing the outcome—rather than production.

    My work takes place in an interdisciplinary conversation arising from the activities of a growing community of artists and media theorists committed to rethinking transmission (communications over distance), wirelessness, theories of media technology, and relations of power in the electro-magnetic spectrum. Contemporary transmission art critically engages with the social and material circumstances of wireless transmission and seeks to subvert the standardized or institutional approaches to broadcasting and ownership (state or corporate) of the airwaves. Such works demonstrate that transmission and communication operate in complex transmission ecologies as always already many-to-many fields of relationship.

    The arts and digital humanities may methodologically influence one another, expanding the rubrics of questioning in the arts, while encouraging the digital humanities to exceed the logic of databases in favour of reflexive qualitative methods; mixing disciplines while remaining focused on actions rather than objects, outcomes, or genres of production. 

  • The Times Are Always Changing

    Edison Midgett's picture
    by Edison Midgett — Appalachian State University view

    The cry of “Painting is dead!” after the invention of the daguerreotype might well be said of photography – or at least film – today. I tell my students print is not dying, it's already dead.

    Not just the arts, but the entire field of communications is in a period of transition. In addition to the usual interactive and video based links, online periodicals like The New York Times are pioneering the use of virtual reality in journalism completely immersing the viewer in the story. These technologies are in their infancy and how they will transform the arts in the future is beyond the imagination.

    Of course, art has always been influenced and shaped by technology. Just as cuneiform writing on slabs of clay was the new media of its time, we now enter the digital realm where everyone and everything is connected 24/7/365. Visual communication these days consists of instantaneous and never ending updates of databases and social networks, frequently at the expense of human interaction and engagement with real life to my mind. All of it urgent, little of it necessary. Everyone is in the cloud.

    But these new technologies also bring benefits.

    I have lived through the evolution of analogue to digital in how I prepare and deliver content for my classes and in my art. Coming from the days of sorting through slide carousels, I much prefer having the world's slide library at my fingertips with a Google search. Better still are things like interactive websites that have digitized manuscripts with searchable indexes and images with the ability to zoom in to show detail. All in our pockets or on our wrists along with everything else that has ever been printed or recorded.

    I have ridden the tech wave beginning with the earliest rudimentary programs like Macromedia Director and Hypercard that were designed for the first greyscale Macs. It is breathtaking how far and how fast things have come since then for Motion Graphics, 3D Animation, Digital Video and Sound Production. Most film/video artists of my generation would spend a good deal of their time hustling money and cobbling together grants instead of making films or recording music because of the sheer cost of production.

    All of this technology is now at the desktop level for consumers and artists leading to a flood of work in new media liberated from budget constraints. In place of film reels, local theaters now show Digital Cinema Packages that can be created on laptops. Theaters themselves are giving way to large format 4k/8k/3D home entertainment systems.

    This is a heady and liberating time for media artists.

    However, this explosion of technology and content also tends to saturate the culture, subverting the word viral into something that is good. It challenges how we give, receive and retain information as educators move beyond the chalkboard. In addition to the inevitable and frequent upgrades for software with vertical and infinite learning curves, artists and educators are challenged with adapting to new standards and methods for learning and communication brought about by the lost generation's present addiction to screens.

    What comes after Virtual Reality?