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.