Chesapeake DH Consortium

When it comes to my digital humanities work, I’ve learned that I’m most likely to follow through with my aspirations when I assign myself deadlines and hold myself accountable to others. During my first semester, for example, I took a class on DH that required completing a substantial project, an undertaking that became my Scalar book. During the winter break, I took a week-long workshop in order to learn the basics of Python. One of my reading lists for comprehensive exams includes several seminal theoretical texts on the digital humanities. And most recently, on February 21st I participated in the first annual Symposium for the Chesapeake Digital Humanities Consortium, or CHDC.

The CDHC’s offical logo on Twitter.

The CDHC is a new organization intended to bring together digital humanists from around the Chesapeake region. All too often, we academics tend to feel isolated working at our respective institutions, and forget that there are numerous other professionals out there with similar ideas or ambitions. The CDHC and other groups like it offer an opportunity for DH scholars from various colleges and universities to come together, share their work, and discover new opportunities for collaboration. As an emerging digital humanist myself, I appreciate being able to join organizations that provide the chance to meet new people and expand my professional network.

Conveniently for me, the CDHC decided to hold its first symposium right at William and Mary, so unlike other conferences I’ve attended, I didn’t have to travel very far. Throughout the afternoon, I had the opportunity to learn about a wonderful array of digital projects, from Paul Martin’s study of the use of historiography in video games, to Liz Losh’s analysis of the use of emojis in Donald Trump’s tweets. While their work is very different from what I study, I appreciated being able to learn how they used DH to produce meaningful scholarly inquiries.

The highlight of the afternoon was the keynote speech from Dr. Catherine Knight Steele, a scholar who focuses on Black Digital Feminism (for a more detailed analysis of Dr. Steele’s talk, visit my colleague Ravynn Stringfield’s blog, Black Girl Does Grad School). Over the course of her talk, she shared key principles from her practice that could be applied to digital humanities as a field, including an emphasis on praxis over product, focusing on people rather than tools, and the importance of adhering to principles that emphasize an ethical digital scholarly practice. Of particular significance to her talk was the significance of slow, meaningful work, and the willingness to take the time to reflect on your practice and ways to improve it. Acknowledging the labor of all participants, and empowering them to take credit in a way that suits them best, was another key part of her address. Her emphasis on praxis especially resonated with me. When you always feel pressured to show results for your work, it’s important to remember that the means are at least as significant as the ends, and that sometimes it’s better to diminish output in order to concentrate on mindful scholarly practices.

Dr. Steele giving her keynote address. Her research focuses on how black feminists use blogging and other forms of technology, and more broadly, how black digital feminism can shape and enrich digital humanities as a field through an emphasis on praxis, people, and ethical principles.

Another highlight of the conference was being able to learn more about the work of my fellow cohorts at William and Mary, with one standout session focusing on the use of digital scholarship outside of the academy. Erin Bartram highlighted her work on Contingent, a magazine dedicated to publishing and paying underrepresented scholars such as graduate students or adjuncts. Ravynn Stringfield talked about her blog, Black Girl Does Grad School, and the importance of blogging for black women scholars as both a retreat from, and resistance to, barriers within the academy. Laura Beltran-Rubio highlighted her work as a fashion scholar on Instagram, which developed out of her teaching experiences in Colombia and her desire to make Spanish-language resources on fashion history available to wider audiences. Christopher Slaby focused on his experiences as a historian on Twitter and its potential for engaging in scholarly debates with both other academics and other audiences.

What I appreciated about this panel is the emphasis all the speakers placed on media projects outside the academy as work. Far from a distraction from scholarly endeavors, social media and other platforms can be a powerful way to reach audiences outside the academy. As such, it demands significant labor with regard to both the production of quality content and the cultivation of an online persona. I’ve never been especially proficient at using social media to advance my own scholarly work, but as a curator, I do believe in the importance of engaging audiences outside of the academy. It was inspiring, then, to see how these scholars use these platforms to extend their academic practices. Moving forward, I’ll remember the work my colleagues do as I think about using my own accounts more effectively.

Left to right: Christopher Slaby, Ravynn Stringfield, Laura Beltran-Rubio, and Erin Bartram discussing their digital work outside the academy. Erin works in museums, while Laura, Ravynn, and Christopher are all fellow graduate colleagues at William and Mary.

I also had the opportunity to introduce my own work, or rather my aspirations for a future project. During a five-minute lightning talk, I shared my desire to map out the Federal Community Art Center Project with the intention of highlighting the networks established through the sharing of exhibitions. Using an image of a map in my study as a springboard, I speculated about the advantages of setting the art center project to an animation that would enable viewers to follow the project chronologically, allowing them to see when exactly art centers opened or closed. I also discussed how I’d like to have visitors be able to click on individual sites and learn information such as when they opened, closed, which exhibitions they hosted, and who worked there. Finally, I talked about how I thought a digital platform would be an effective means to map out the actual travel routes of exhibitions, and to see how those routes contributed to different communication networks among the art centers. Through all these methods, I emphasized that a digital project could effectively evoke the dynamism of the Community Art Center Project.

This was a good experience for me. I’m not used to sharing speculative research when I present at conferences, but it was a great way to test out my ideas, and better yet, get good feedback for moving forward. One attendee, Marie Pellissier, was especially helpful in that she recommended Omeka as a potential platform. While I was aware of its effectiveness as a site for object-based online exhibitions, I didn’t know that it also has powerful mapping capabilities. Since I already have access to Omeka through Reclaim Hosting, I can start experimenting with it as soon as I’ve taken care of exams.

Overall, this was a great experience. I got to meet a lot of interesting people, learn about some great projects, get suggestions for my own work, and overall think about the significance of developing a mindful, ethical scholarly practice. I’m glad I attended, and I look forward to staying involved with this group.

Guided Creativity: A (Sort of) History

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been making an effort to be more consistent with my artistic practice. After seeing that I could make something every day with last year’s abstraction challenge, I’ve tried to draw or paint something new several times a week. I often work on these projects in the evening, as a way of unwinding before going to bed, or on the weekends as a way of taking a break from work.

A key part of what I find enjoyable in making art is knowing that there will be an end result. Whereas academic work can take months, often years, for tangible projects to manifest, creating a new drawing or painting enables me to watch my results unfold more quickly. Making hatch marks or brush strokes is calming, yes, but there’s also satisfaction from seeing an artwork come to fruition. In other words, downtime feels worthwhile because it’s productive in a very literal sense. Even if the work isn’t for sale, just knowing you’ve made something, whatever its purpose, offers a sense of accomplishment.

A series I completed last month: Feathered Four Seasons, 2020. Cyanotypes with tempera, gesso, and ink on paper.

Since I’ve been making art more consistently, it’s gotten me thinking about the role of creative productivity in American culture. From adult coloring books to knitting circles, guided creativity is as popular as ever today. Whatever you choose to make, you’ll have something to show for all your downtime. In a productivity-focused culture where doing nothing is discouraged, despite its benefits, craft projects legitimize leisure by enabling us to show the tangible results of our relaxation.

Not coincidentally, crafting and its related activities are entwined with wellness. After all, what better way to affirm the necessity of the arts than through connecting them to physical and mental health: a quick search online will display numerous articles touting the benefits of arts and crafts on mental wellness. At William and Mary and numerous other institutions, craft circles have become an important part of the wellness curriculum.

A page from a coloring book I made in 2015. You can still find it on Amazon. What, did you think I wasn’t going to peddle my wares on here?

Not that this is anything new. Take a look at American visual culture and you’ll find a rich history of crafting and what I call guided creativity. When I was in Roswell, everybody was into ceramics (including myself). When my mother was a college student in the 1970s, macrame was popular. And let’s not forget about Bob Ross, whose positive messages of happy little trees and joyful mark-making have been experiencing a resurgence thanks to the Internet.

Image courtesy of https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bob-Ross .

Nor is guided creativity a recent phenomenon. Art historian Jennifer Jane Marshall has traced the popularization of soap-carving during the Great Depression. During the 19th century, theorem painting was a popular craft, especially among young women. These art forms may utilize different media, and indeed their very status as art has been questioned by both their contemporaries and subsequent historians, particularly when largely practiced by women. What they all share, however, is an emphasis on results. Whether you’re following a paint-by-numbers set or knitting a scarf, these techniques promise practitioners both the thrill of creativity and the security of guaranteed results. In short, their creative experiment is all but promised to succeed, rendering their time useful.

Image courtesy of https://www.richmond.com/entertainment/art/colonial-williamsburg-presents-theorem-art-at-abby-aldrich-rockefeller-folk/article_f5023f77-1dc6-5686-9c11-305b654a0c03.html

What drives this need for productive creativity? Some would argue that it reflects the capitalist nature of American culture, which places an emphasis on results and profit. That scarf or theorem may not be for sale, but it is the tangible result of work, so you have something to show for all the time you put into it. Indeed, entire industries have developed around guided creativity, with art supply stores offering coloring books, yarns, and other materials to stimulate one’s crafting prowess. Others would argue that guided creativity further enables the capitalist machine by distracting practitioners from the systemic economic and cultural dissatisfaction that permeates their lives. Who has time to rage against the machine when they’re preoccupied with knitting a hat? Still others would posit that guided creativity serves as a means of controlling creativity energy by funneling it into predetermined forms. You may be free to choose your own colors or patterns, but the basic structure and form of the activity you’ll do has been predetermined for you. In short, you can be creative so long as it doesn’t challenge the status quo when it comes to cultural forms. Color within the lines.

Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking about guided creativity through the lens of the Community Art Center Project. In addition to hosting regular exhibitions, these centers also offered free art classes, with the intention of teaching adults and children alike how to paint, draw, or sculpt. As Victoria Grieve argues in her book The Federal Art Project and the Creation of Middlebrow Culture, there was a commercial element to this effort. The Federal Art Project didn’t expect all of its students to become professional artists, but it did aspire to encourage sales by instilling art appreciation into visitors through education. Making art, in other words, would not only enable people to express themselves creatively, but would also help them to appreciate art as a commodity they could purchase for their own homes, having learned how to enjoy looking at it through their classes.

Student with artwork, 1939. In addition to exhibitions, the Roswell Museum hosted free art classes that taught painting, drawing, sculpture, and interior design.

While I don’t disagree that there’s a commercial aspect to the Community Art Center Project, I also think there’s something else going on here, something more basic. Making art, in my opinion, is often a distillation of what we experience in everyday life. Not so much in subject matter per se, though that often happens, but rather in the process of experiencing the world through sensory means. We experience and change the world through our bodies. Whether we’re touching a blade of grass or chewing food, our bodies are our means of both experiencing our and changing our surroundings. What better way to assert your presence in the world than by making something, whether it’s with your hands, your feet, or your mouth?

Not coincidentally in my opinion, the significance of craft and the handmade surges alongside massive technological change. During the turn of the twentieth century, for example, the Arts and Crafts Movement developed in Britain and the United States in response to a perceived decline in manufacturing quality due to industrialization. By reviving the craft-driven, handmade traditions of medieval guilds and workshops, designers like Gustav Stickley and William Morris argued that they could produce superior designs that emphasized the human presence.

From left to right: Vivian Bevans, Fall Tree, watercolor on paper; Zulma Steele-Parker, Drop-Front Desk with Three Iris Panels, 1904, oil paint and green stain on cherry wood; Ralph and Jane Whitehead, selection of White Pines Pottery with textile created at Byrdcliffe Colony, c. 1915-1926, Ceramic; Zulma Steele-Parker, Byrdcliffe, No. 4, c. 1914, oil on board.

Nowadays, in a world where smartphones and other screens connect you to virtual worlds, you can still find people typing poetry on vintage typewriters or baking bread as a means of achieving what they consider a more authentic experience. That desire to exercise positive change through our bodies, to a leave a literal mark on the world, persists. It’s frustratingly ironic that the arts are the first to go when it comes to funding because they’re considered nonessentials, but history has shown repeatedly that they are in fact important to a sense of self and well-being.

So is guided creativity nothing more than a commercial scam designed to keep us complacent while the capitalist machine rages on? Perhaps, but I think there’s something else going on too. In making art, hope to leave a trace of ourselves in the world.

Regardless, I’m going to keep making stuff.

Reading List Thoughts: Art and Classification

The last time I visited New York, I spent an afternoon at the American Museum of Natural History. While probably most famous for its naturalistic, taxidermied dioramas, the museum also has an extensive section on the classification system used to organize biological organisms: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. This system is rendered visually through elegant displays of preserved animals, with lines of crabs or lobsters illustrating shared relations and differences. I took a picture of the display because I liked it so much.

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I’ve been looking at this picture more often recently. When I’m looking at the arrangements in this image and the affinities they share with natural history illustrations, I think about the work they were doing as installations. Yes, they’re teaching you about different biological taxonomies, but they’re also making that taxonomy appear normal, as the default means of understanding the world. Using preserved specimens as their primary medium, they elegantly naturalize what is, in actuality, a framework that humans devised in an attempt to better understand the world around them. Yet for every placement the museum made to establish a relationship between specimens, another connection was omitted.

What insights would an alternative means of organization tell us, and what would be left out through that conversation?

These are the kinds of questions I’ve been thinking about recently, thanks to my first reading list for comprehensive exams. This list is all about infrastructure and other systems that don’t get a lot of attention but play a critical role in our daily lives. The first book I read, Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, tackles questions like the ones above by asking why phone books, medical forms, and other technical, arguably boring texts present information the way they do.

What particularly intrigues scholars focused on classification and infrastructure are the examples that don’t fit into so-called standard systems. To take one relatively benign example, consider the medical form you’re asked to fill out when you visit a new doctor. They usually ask for your home address, your phone number, and your relationship status, among other things. Questions like these treat having a permanent home, and by extension sedentarism, as the norm, but what if you don’t have a permanent phone number or address? In a society such as ours, not having a home is considered aberrant. Such a distinction may seem harmless enough on a medical form, but imagine how such an attitude plays out in public policy, with cities criminalizing homelessness, for instance. Regardless of how you personally feel about homelessness or other issues, my point here is that classification shapes how we perceive the world. If you don’t fit into the established taxonomic framework, life can be more complicated.

But what does classification have to do with art? Everything, because not all objects receive the art label, and when they do, their status changes in the public sphere. Some works, like paintings and sculpture, have been regarded as art for at least a few centuries, but what especially interests me are objects that have only recently been reclassified as art objects. Some books on my reading list, like Jennifer Marshall’s Machine Art, 1934 or Christopher Steiner’s African Art in Transit, examine how objects get redesignated as art, whether it’s through a literal and economic relocation to an art market, as Steiner argues in his book, or as Marshall explores, through an exhibition installation that separates industrial objects from their original function and re-presents them as aesthetic ideals. In both instances, the objects undergo a transformative reclassification that manifests through exhibition practices, markets, and consumerism revolving around aesthetics and a sense of rootedness to a specific cultural tradition.

So what does this have to do with my research? It connects to my interest in the Community Art Center Project’s exhibition program. One of the underpinning questions for my dissertation is what kinds of objects were included in the exhibition program, and what kinds of works were left out. Since this initiative’s goal was to educate audiences in art appreciation, determining what they classified as art is an important step in illuminating this program’s significance on the American cultural landscape.

Looking into the main gallery at the Roswell Museum, 1938. The exhibition on view here included a selection of plates from the Index of American Design.

The answer to that question will likely be complicated. As the archive at the Roswell Museum indicates, the traveling exhibits included a lot of what would conventionally be considered art, such as paintings or prints, but it also included examples of what we would call vernacular or folk art, such as the objects rendered in the Index of American Design. But as scholars have rightly pointed out, the Index had a primarily Eurocentric focus in its selection of vernacular traditions. While the Index staff argued that indigenous traditions were already being documented in ethnography-based projects, that distinction in label is a crucial one whose repercussions continue to be experienced today. Where, for example, should indigenous objects be housed? Do they belong in natural history museums (that name alone deserves its own post) or art museums? Should they even be in museums at all, given their colonialist affiliations and histories?

These are the kinds of questions that reading about classification can raise, and why I thought it was important to consider them for my reading lists. When you take your infrastructure for granted, it’s easy to perceive the world order as we know it as the norm. But as Sorting Things Out and other books argue, it doesn’t have to be.

Edward Hopper and the American Hotel

I may not be actively curating shows at the moment, but I still visit art exhibitions, both for the often enjoyable content and to keep up with current installation and scholarly trends. One particularly fine exhibition I recently attended was Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through February 23rd. Today, I’d like to talk about the show and my impressions of it.

First, a little bit about Edward Hopper (1882-1967). He’s probably most famous for the painting Nighthawks, which was featured in the 1986 movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but his oeuvre encompasses far more than that work. Born and raised in New York, he was a realist artist proficient in a variety of media, including oil painting, watercolors, and intaglio printmaking. His work often explores the loneliness of modernity, with his compositions usually highlighting isolated figures in movie theaters, automats, and other places that really only developed in the 20th century. His paintings, in particular, are often rendered in a tightly-painted, almost clinical style, and there’s definitely the discomfiting presence of the voyeur emanating from them. His work has endured with American audiences not only because of the relevance of his themes, but also because his works explore the tenets of abstraction while remaining grounded in representational painting. When you’re looking at one of his paintings, you’re never in doubt that you’re looking at a person or a house, but he arranges his objects in such a way that you can appreciate his use of line, shape, and color.

Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, as the title suggests, focuses on the role of hotels, and more broadly the travel and hospitality industry, in Hopper’s career. Curated by the VMFA’s chief curator in American art, Leo Mazow (who, incidentally, wrote one of the essays for the Magical and Real catalogue), the exhibition’s main thesis is that hospitality and tourism constitute a significant but overlooked part of Hopper’s oeuvre. To illustrate this argument, the exhibition then not only features works that include depictions of hotels, but documents the significance of travel, and by extension frequenting hotels, to Hopper’s oeuvre. The show then contextualizes Hopper’s travels within ongoing changes in tourism throughout the twentieth century, arguing that Hopper’s preference for the relative comfort and anonymity of hotels reflected broader trends in American travel and vacationing, with the automobile becoming an increasingly significant part of the overall cultural landscape.

The show includes an impressive array of materials dating from the late nineteenth century through the early twenty-first. While most of the materials focus on Hopper, the exhibition also includes work from both his contemporaries and more contemporary artists to situate his work within a broader cultural and aesthetic framework. In going through the exhibition, viewers get the sense that, contrary to his compositions, Hopper is not working in isolation, but rather is responding to ongoing changes in both technology and social norms. Stylistically, his work may not necessarily change all that much over time, but his subject matter does.

In addition to highlighting some fine examples of Hopper’s work, the show also cleverly uses multimedia features to both engage audiences and effectively illustrate how travel fueled his practice. The gallery spaces includes several covers that Hopper created for travel and hotel magazines, for instance, as he was initially trained as a commercial illustrator. The exhibition also includes several flat screens that allow visitors to retrace various road trips Hopper took with his wife, Jo. As they learn about each stop, the screen displays quotes the pair wrote about a place in their respective letters and journals, as well as works that developed out of those road trips. For those who are more analogically inclined, there are also several cases of postcards the Hoppers sent to friends, a feature that helps humanize these artists by showing that they were, in effect, tourists.

While work from other artists is sprinkled throughout the exhibition, a lot of it is concentrated in a gallery dedicated to contemporary work, demonstrating to viewers not only the persistence of travel in American culture, but the influence of Hopper himself on later generations of artists.

Throughout the show, there’s definitely an interactive element. Some of it was quite subtle, as is the case with this vinyl cutout based on one of Hopper’s sketches. The original drawing is only about 18″ x 24″, so seeing it rendered on a human scale gives the work a different kind of presence while also reminding viewers that Hopper’s art was very much based in humanity and modeled on real people (his wife Jo modeled for a lot of his paintings).

By far the most novel interactive aspects though, are the two built hotel environments within the exhibition. The two installations, a lobby and an actual hotel room, respectively, are meticulously based on Hopper’s paintings. Indeed, it was somewhat uncanny to look away from the painting to see its built counterpart nearby, giving you the opportunity to experience the composition in both two and three dimensions. You can even pay to stay overnight in the hotel room, further enabling you to vicariously relive Hopper’s travel experiences (though I’m pretty sure it’s booked solid at this point).

The interactive element of Edward Hopper and the American Hotel is not an isolated phenomenon. Immersive, participatory exhibitions have become increasingly prominent in museums over the last few years, reflecting the influence of theme parks, as well as social media and the ever-present quest for Instagram-worthy images. The most overtly participatory art experience I’ve been to is Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe (though critics debate its actual art status), but more traditional museums like the Dallas Museum of Art have also embraced immersive experiences like Yayoi Kusama’s All the Eternal Love Have for the Pumpkins, on view in 2017 and 2018.

What I appreciate about Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, however, is that its participatory elements don’t feel like a gimmick, but instead provide insight into Hopper’s artistic practice. When you look into that empty hotel room, or presumably stay there, you get a sense of the isolation that he was trying to render in paint. When you look into the hotel lobby and see other visitors interacting with it, you can imagine Hopper doing the same thing, and perhaps envisioning how to best arrange the seemingly random influx of visitors into a meaningful and coherent composition. When you interact with the flat screen, you not only retrace his journeys, but can apply what you’ve learned to the paintings in the show, giving you greater context. The entire exhibition itself constitutes a kind of journey that takes you through Hopper’s career, with the interactive elements complementing and enhancing rather than detracting from the art’s travel-themed focus.

If you can’t tell, this exhibition resonated pretty deeply with me. Part of it was just me reminiscing on the curating experience (and envying the VMFA’s budget. Full-scale replicas of rooms aren’t cheap to make), but like a lot of the people in Hopper’s paintings, traveling and hotels have been an important part of my life. As a curator in New Mexico, I spent a lot of time in hotels due to overnight research trips or conferences, and am familiar with their weirdly generic quality. Hopper also painted a lot of places that I’ve personally visited, like the two scenes of Ogunquit beach above. In a lot of ways, Hopper’s paintings, though done many decades earlier, offer insight into my life, which is the overarching point of the exhibition.

But not everyone’s lives. The traveling America that Hopper paints is a decidedly white one, and the exhibition does address this. The labels for the magazine covers, for instance, discuss the role of black labor in enabling the travel experiences of white America. Some of the catalogue essayists also talk about the racial and class tensions underpinning Hopper’s work, specifically David Brody and Carmenita Higginbotham. A few of the more contemporary works on view also mention the Green Book and other themes specific to the black tourism experience. Yet I would have appreciated it if the exhibition itself had confronted the whiteness of Hopper’s oeuvre more directly, as that’s really the only way to challenge its status as the norm.

Overall though, I really enjoyed the exhibition. Mazow and the VMFA staff have put together a beautiful installation, so much so that I found myself getting a little nostalgic for my days in Roswell. It only seems appropriate then, that the exhibition ends with this painting: an old man looking out at a defunct railroad. As Hopper makes evident throughout his oeuvre, the past is in the past, and we can either grow old longing for it, or we can move forward. After a final look at this painting, I exited the exhibition ready to face whatever comes next.