Finding a Place in Digital Spatial History

Henry Lefebvre’s seminal work “The Production of Space,” introduced a new way to conceptualize the idea of space that has influenced many scholars across disciplines. Rooted within Postmodern discourse, Lefebvre’s texts seeks to identify the essence of space through three subsections: spatial practice, representations of space, and representational space. Furthermore, Lefebvre argues that spatial relationships change and take new form over time– that space itself has a history.

And, in fact, this history of space has been documented throughout time. Jo Guldi argues that throughout the course of art history, the landscape genre has been intentionally employed to communicate man’s relationship to his surroundings. To prove this argument, Guldi discusses 19th century landscape paintings as an overt political move towards nationalist ideals. We can see this development taking form in the 18th century as well, specifically with the growing popularity of landscape paintings and drawings in England at this time (see A British Sentiment, an exhibition at the Trout Gallery Art Museum, Carlisle PA). It was through political ambitions that artists, patrons, and even spectators began to imagine new ways to see themselves in relationship to their environment. Artists at this time were, as Walter Benjamin states, politicizing the aesthetics of the landscape genre to emphasize power and control over the natural world.

Of course, the 18th and 19th centuries are not the only time when landscapes were used to communicate political and aesthetic ambitions, but I emphasize these periods to introduce what I find to be an important responsibility for Digital Art Historians. The interest in space goes beyond landscape paintings and has become a popular theoretical focus for many different art forms over the span of history (and across geographic boundaries). It seems that any Art Historian interested in ideas of space, spatial theory, and spatial history, should find motivation in the digital. With the growing capabilities of mapping software, the potential to reimagine spatial Art History is extradoniary. First, the types of projects are numerous and far-reaching; Space can (and does) play a crucial role in many facets of art production, exhibition, consumption, and reception. Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich’s mappings of 19th century London’s art market is but one of many examples. I also think of Oliver Marcel’s article on the representation of African artists in global art fairs (which I reference in my first blog). Not only are the types of mapping projects numerous, but the mapping capabilities are sophisticated, complex, and illuminating. Digital mapping allows for new ways to understand data, to conceptualize information, and ultimately to imagine our pasts. I am overwhelmed with excitement at all the possibilities digital mapping has to offer art historical scholarship.

But, and to be honest, I am also overwhelmed with confusion. As I have mentioned in many of my previous blogs, I am a novice to digital art history and unfamiliar with most of the software and applications at my disposal. Whereas I can envision captivating projects that map out new ways to engage with art and art history, I am at a lost with how to do most of it. Yikes! I realize that this type of knowledge comes with research and experience– not all hope is lost! But still, at this point I feel somewhat helpless with the disconnect between exciting digital mapping projects and the current state of my digital mapping abilities. These are skills I do hope to improve upon as I move forward in my academic career. I think it is also worth mentioning that this impasse reminds me of the benefit of collaboration in digital projects. More minds are definitely better than just one and I think its important to remember that digital projects can only be more successful through the partnership and collaboration with others.

As I embark in digital mapping, I just started a project through Google Maps in which I aim to pin the various sites of Modernist architecture in Africa inspired by the International Style. As part of colonial expansion, European metropoles imagined their “new” colonies as architectural and aesthetic playgrounds in which they could experiment with new forms and styles that became popular in Europe. Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, is landscaped with many Modernist buildings inspired directly by the Italian Futurist style. Quite interestingly, some countries continued constructing Modernist architecture post-colonialism, but with the purpose to communicate nationalism and skilled artisanship (such as the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa). My project seeks to map theses buildings to visualize the prevalence of Modernist architecture in the continent, about which has been scarcely written. As mentioned, I have just begun this project, but I will be sure to provide a link when finished.

My interest in theories of space and spatial history has shaped some of my scholarly inquiries and so digital mapping projects continually peak my curiosity. As my scholarship strengthens, I do hope that I can include digital projects to further my findings and arguments. I am fascinated with a new motivation to reimagine how we, as scholars, educators, and life-long learners, can engage with information. Digital mapping proves to be a unique and dynamic way to visualize the past, forming new connections over time and space.

6 Comments

  1. Annie Poslusny says:

    I really enjoyed your post this week Taylor, especially your point about landscapes being used to communicate political and aesthetic ambitions. I agree with your assertion that art historians interested in space, spatial theory, and spatial history would find much to love in the digital capabilities we’ve been learning about this week, in particular, mapping software. I appreciate your ability to envision the possible applications of this technology, and you go on to discuss art production, exhibition, consumption, and reception. When I think about the possibilities, I wonder if there will ever be a time that a scale model is no longer made of an exhibition space? Will exhibition designers only use three-dimensional software? I know that many designers do this already, but there are still scale models being made as well. I am overwhelmed with confusion about all these tools as well, and I thought I was the only one! I took this class to gain a familiarity with these digital tools and techniques, and the learning curve of some of them is humbling for me. It seems to me that it really is a choice, at least it is for now, to choose either an art history path or a digital path, educationally speaking. My mentor at the museum cautioned me that if focused on a digital art history degree, that would be what I would spend my time doing. She asked if I wanted to research, or work in the digital arena, because I couldn’t do both. At least, that seems to be the current perception. I realize that at UNC you can get a dual degree, but since so few art historians have had digital coursework, if you have that digital component, an employer will need you to work in that area. I do think it’s important for everyone to regularly update their technological skills, art historians included. However, the time and practice it takes to achieve mastery in this area is not something I currently see myself having time for. I think the best I can hope for is a basic understanding of the available tools, and their capabilities so that if I were to collaborate with someone who is more technologically savvy, I would be able to understand them, and the parameters of the project. I also think it’s true as you point out, that there may be certain digital technologies that become used more frequently in certain areas of art history, and if that becomes the case, there may be some coursework on them in the future. I could see that someone specializing in spatial art history would need to learn mapping software, and someone working on smaller paintings (possibly Vermeer) would benefit from using the StorymapJS software we learned about this week. At my undergraduate institution, all art majors (studio, art history, and graphic design) were required to take a technology course where we learned the Adobe Suite of Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. Perhaps there should be a second course on some of the technologies we’re learning about in graduate school. Then we could have worked with them over a course of years, and had more of an opportunity to become familiar with their capabilities.

    1. admin says:

      Hi Annie,
      Thanks for your comment. I find the advice of your museum mentor interesting. I do think that art history and digital art history respectively take a lot of time to master and thus understand why your mentor believes that its near impossible to do both. I do think, however, that there is a stronger effort to integrate digital methodologies into art history in such a way that I can envision a master’s program in Art History requiring DAH courses in addition to ‘traditional’ AH. I really appreciate JJ’s class because I think that new art historians need to be thinking across communication platforms. Of course, the amount of time we spend mastering our skills will depend on the program and the individual, but I think that any Art Historian should expose themselves to digital methods in some way. Though I find myself stumped with a lot of the software we experiment with in class, I am ultimately thankful for the chance to try them out! Who knows how it will help me (and you!) moving forward!

  2. Michelle says:

    Annie and Taylor, I want to begin by echoing the humbling nature of learning many of these tools. This week working with GoogleMaps was one of the first times this semester that I felt like I really had a grasp both on the tool we were using and how I could realistically use it in the future in my research without devoting too much time to learning new technology. I agree with Taylor, though, that there must be a way to combine the two disciplines effectively under one degree because at this stage I would agree with your mentor that you may limit your career abilities by being “too technical.” On a different note, I wanted to comment on how interesting your mapping project is for the week on Modernist buildings in Africa. While I knew colonial architectural programs often mirrored the metropole (thinking of Cape colonial architecture in South Africa and the Dutch influence), I hadn’t thought about colonies functioning as a “play ground” or experimental stage for colonial architects. It’d be interesting if you could connect architects and their projects in Africa to those they made in their country of origin so that a user could track changes as the architect moved geographically.

  3. Emily Hynes says:

    Taylor,

    Thanks for an awesome blog post! Your historical context gives great setup to your points about the relevancy of geospatial digital methods in art historical research. It might be useful to consider another approach to the idea of space that you tease out but don’t name: the theoretical distinction between space v place (where place is physically where something is but space is the context round that place). This conceptual notion works with your emphasis that geospatial work can do more than just show where things are – it can show us both the space and the place. I’m very excited to see how you will incorporate the mapping into your own work, and to see how it can bring you new questions as a research tool! I also feel the overwhelming confusion, too, sometimes – especially when in a situation like this where something has so much potential but takes so much work In a specialized area to execute. Thanks again for a great post filled with opportunities!

  4. Veronica says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reflection on this week’s topic. I especially appreciated your introduction to the blog with the discussion of Henri Lefebvre’s important contribution to art historical discussion with his discussion of spatial theory. I was immediately reminded of the seminar that we took last year, Dr. Carol Magee’s “The Art of the City” in which we read Lefebvre and many other theorists who incorporate ideas of mapping, space, and spatial relations in the study of the city. Similar to your reaction, I was really excited by the many ways that we can include these technologies to create new art historical research inquiries, yet stumped by the fact that we are quite novices to these technologies.
    Despite this (somewhat fearful) reaction, I also thought how grateful I am to be taking this Digital Art History course where one class is dedicated to scholarship and the other class is focused on exposing ourselves to the tools and actually learning how to use them. The fact that this class is called “Alt-Methods” demonstrates the importance of actually using these technologies in our research, just as we would use Marxist, queer, or social history in our art historical scholarship.
    Moving forward, I think it is essential that more and more art history programs incorporate classes like this in their program in order to assuage the fears of students like us who are excited by the possibility of these technologies but don’t know how to use them in their own scholarship. Moreover, cultivating an environment where collaboration between art historians, computer scientists, librarians, and others is viewed positively, instead of recommending that students focus on solo scholarship in order to maintain “gold standard” that is a singular author-published print monograph, the field will be able to evolve and diversify.

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