During the “Building a Digital Portfolio” workshop today, we had a really interesting discussion about the various questions, challenges, and merits proffered by technologies in three-dimensional modeling used for art historical purposes. For the most part, our cohort seemed to appreciate the advantages of digital modeling and, while acknowledging that oftentimes decisions (i.e., inferences) have to be made in order to construct a complete model, came to a consensus that transparency in representing those ambiguities is important to the academic integrity of the reconstruction.
The differences in terminology used to describe the processes employed by documenters of contemporary art and documenters of “traditional” art, however, raised more questions for me than answers. It struck me that documenting contemporary art practices were referred to as “capturing”, while fleshing out the context for non-contemporary art was always discussed as “reconstructing”. The distinction reminded me of a recent article by Jas Elsner on architecture and ritual that hinted at the same problem in anthropological versus art historical/archaeological discourse: in studying ritual, anthropologists are able to actively witness and observe specific rituals taking place in their studied communities, yet archaeologists are compelled to infer how rituals were enacted. The difference is subtle, but I think it’s important, and I wonder if this points to fundamentally different methodologies and ways of approaching material that exist not only across disciplines, but across subfields within art history as well. I might argue that both methods rely on specific inferences and assumptions, but in different ways. The contemporary art historian is confronted with essentially the same problem as the contemporary historian (cf. Roy Rosenzweig’s 2003 article, “Scarcity or Abundance?”) in that they have the potential to document “everything”, and so must make assumptions and decisions about what content to include and essentially “curate” the evidence they have at hand. When I try to relate this to my own field (Classical Greek and Roman Art), however, I can’t help but be insanely jealous by that problem! Classical (or Egyptian, or Medieval/Byzantine, or Renaissance, etc., for that matter) art historians would give just about anything to have that kind of information at our disposal. So we are faced with a different set of problems that involve grafting our own imaginative interpretations on the material.
The solution, as we discussed in depth this morning, is to involve transparency at every step of the way when we digitally reconstruct an “original” contextual environment in which a work of art or architecture existed. Certainly the intellectual merits of this approach are clear enough (one only has to think of the ongoing controversy surrounding Arthur Evans’ modification of the frescoes at Knossos to understand the heated sensitivity of not clearly distinguishing between original and reconstruction). Yet I also can’t help but think that, somewhere along the way, we might do well to acknowledge that noting uncertainties and ambiguities in the evidence is also a kind of constructed hierarchy. Scholarship (and rightly so, given its general aims) privileges what the academic community decides is the “original context” and consistently tries to strip away contemporary bias from its interpretation. But the notion of an original context is an elusive one, and in pursuing that end we also tend to forget that these objects have valuable afterlives and that their functions in modern society are a significant part of their overall importance and value to humanity. The Archaic Greek statue of the Tyrannicides, for example, was intensely meaningful at various moments in Greek and Roman history, and to focus solely on the initial moment of construction glosses over the charge it carried and the import it accumulated throughout antiquity. As an art historian, I can definitely understand, appreciate, and support the goal of historicizing objects and substantiating evidence for the original context above all else, but I think that, in many ways, the way we decide what objects are worthy of digital reconstruction and what elements of that reconstruction we decide are important to preserve or infer, says as much about contemporary values we place on the artwork as it does about the intentions of the original creators.
We had the opportunity to play around with SketchUp this afternoon as well as witness the wonders of the 3-D printer, and I started thinking about how each would fit into my dissertation, which focuses on funerary architecture in Hellenistic Anatolia. I have started creating models of the major tombs in my dissertation using SketchUp, which seems to be the most logical way of presenting in a comprehensible format a series of monuments that are unusually designed and not really meant to be seen (could their interior design qualify as “ephemera”?); frankly, they’re pretty weird looking and difficult to describe with words and 2D plans. I do agree with my colleagues this afternoon who suggested that some restraint be placed on the sheer amount of plastic being generated from 3D printers – while it could be useful in some museum and classroom teaching contexts, I think that SketchUp more effectively demonstrates the architectural experience I want to convey through my research. With SketchUp, the virtual viewer can move through the space more realistically than if I tried to print a tiny model of my buildings using a 3D printer. I definitely think that there are advantages to using a program like SketchUp at least for studying architectural space, and the fact that it can be linked to GPS information in GoogleEarth – which would prompt further analysis of sightlines/viewshed, relationship to topographical features, etc. – is extremely valuable.
I’ll raise here a similar question that was posed in one of the chapters from Debates in the Digital Humanities (2013): do art historians who experiment with 3D printing technology need to explain themselves at this point and produce something truly innovative and useful? Or is there value solely in the process of experimentation?