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Posts Tagged ‘digital humanities’

I suppose with only two topics/links, the last post was less of a “roundup.” But, basically, it was just getting too long, so I split it off from these. In the field of arts & culture, the last few weeks have brought a number of interesting news, posts, and articles:

An image from “Old and New Japan” (1907), one of a great many drawings, photos, and other images from books digitized and made available by the Internet Archive.

(1) The Internet Archive has now made available on Flickr millions of illustrations & other images from books scanned as part of the Archive’s book digitization efforts. As the BBC relates, the project had previously used algorithms to help the OCR software recognize images in order to delete them; now, they are going back to rescue those images and make them available online.

Some very cursory searches for terms like “japan” and “edo” yield tons of images from Western books about Japan – many of them quite beautiful, and quite potentially useful for a variety of purposes – but very few, if any, from actual Edo period books. Somehow I’m not surprised. While a number of places, museums, digital humanities centers at universities, and the like, have been doing some truly excellent work cataloging & digitizing Edo book & prints collections, these have yet to be integrated into the Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and the like – not to mention Google Image Search – and so, copyright free or Creative Commons licensed and well-catalogued images from Edo books remain, for now, not yet so widely/easily available.

This is still a huge step forward, though, as Kalev Leetaru, interviewed in the BBC article, notes:

Mr Leetaru said digitisation projects had so far focused on words and ignored pictures. “For all these years all the libraries have been digitising their books, but they have been putting them up as PDFs or text searchable works,” he told the BBC. “They have been focusing on the books as a collection of words. This inverts that.

(2) Meanwhile, the gorgeous online magazine Ignition has an article about woodblock print artist David Bull and the Ukiyo-e Heroes project, a Kickstarter project from a couple years ago with which you might be familiar. Working with artist/designer Jed Henry, Bull and his studio created a series of woodblocks – using traditional methods – depicting classic video game characters (such as Pokemon, Link from Zelda, and StarFox) in an ukiyo-e style. The article features some beautiful images of the process and the product, and discussion of the project, the process, and Bull’s own journey in deciding and learning how to do woodblocks.

(3) Speaking of woodblocks, Hyperallergic had a nice article just over a month ago on an exhibit of Edo period pattern books, at the Chicago Botanical Gardens. This is a genre of materials that really doesn’t get much attention, which is all the more unfortunate since the pictures in this Hyperallergic post are so beautiful, and since the exhibit closed already on August 10.

(4) On a somewhat separate topic, the contemporary performing arts festival “Kyoto Experiment,” or KEX, is trying something new this year. From what I can understand, the changes, aimed chiefly at combatting the commercialization of the art festival experience, are two-fold. One, ticket prices will be reduced, so as to place less of the burden on the visitors for the costs of commissioning & creating the art itself – something which funding from arts foundations and the like is meant to be aimed at. Thus, instead of visitors paying for the art, and in that sense being consumers of it, ticket prices will be more closely associated with simply making up for the costs of running each venue.

Second, there are certain standard systems at these sorts of performance and art festivals in Japan for managing entrance to each venue. To be honest, I don’t follow exactly how it works, but one can certainly imagine, lining up, waiting for your assigned time, filing into the space in an orderly manner. Whatever the precise details of the system are, Tokyo Stages explains that these logistics take away from the performance artist the power of controlling certain aspects of the visitor’s experience, placing it simply into the hands of logistics operators. I have certainly seen this myself at museums, and theatres, and discussed it in museum studies courses. As you approach the venue, looking at the facade, coming up or down steps or down a corridor, whether you have to wait or not, all of that is part of your experience of the museum exhibit or theatrical piece. And so, KEX is trying to place control of that back into the hands of the artists. What do visitors see, hear, experience, while they approach the venue, while they wait in line, while they enter the house, while they wait for the performance to begin? This is part of the experience too – part of the art – and shouldn’t be dictated by venue practicalities.

(5) Finally today, a link to an in-depth review of the book Divine Fury: A Brief History of Genius by Darrin McMahon.

Today, we use the word “genius” so regularly, applying it so liberally, that it has surely lost something of its (potential) earlier meaning – or, the oomph that came with that meaning. Genius is no longer as exclusive a category as perhaps it should be.

I don’t know how much McMahon addresses this in his book, but for me, the question of how we define genius seems closely interwoven with notions of the “artist” as tortured genius, as possessing individual creative insight – notions we think of as universal but which are in fact decidedly modern. This is something I have likely written about before, and remains a pet peeve of mine – we have a conception of the artist based upon the personality cult of Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and/or any of a handful of other mid-20th century artists you might care to name, and yet the vast majority of people on the street, if they think anything of art/artists at all, they completely uncritically apply that conception across all artists, in all parts of the world, in all times in history. To them, /this/ is what “art” means. This is what art is. By contrast, to me, modern art and all that grows out of it is a very narrow thing, belonging only to the early post-war decades, and bleeding into the decades after that, as art critics, curators, etc. refuse to let it go.

It is my understanding that art historians typically, standardly, draw a dividing line at Michelangelo, identifying him as marking the beginning of the emergence of the cult of the artist as individual creative genius. The vast majority of artists before him, as well as throughout most of the non-Western world for centuries after him, were /not/ seen as individual geniuses, creating uniquely creative personal expressions in a distinctively personal style, but rather were seen as master craftsmen, excellent at what they did, with painting seen as (perhaps) no more creatively inspired, no more stylistically personal, than construction or woodworking. You hired someone to build you a building, someone else to build the furniture, someone else to furnish the paintings. And you hired them because they were excellent at what they did and would produce precisely what you wanted in a high quality, masterfully executed manner. Sure, admittedly, in Japan at least there were schools and styles, and you did hire individual artists for their individual stylistic or creative differences; and, in the Edo period, ukiyo-e artists certainly gained popularity for their individual styles. But even then, it was never about the artist’s biography, or expression of his personal politics or emotional struggles; like illustrators, designers, or the like today, it was about the aesthetics of the design, and/or about the choice of subjects, things like that. We look back today at Hokusai and ask all sorts of things about his personal life and personality – and, no doubt, tons of books have been written on it – but I imagine that Edo residents, prints consumers, of 1830s Japan were no so interested in the person behind the Fuji images, and were more interested in simply knowing this was a name that produced images they liked.

I think I’m beginning to repeat myself, so I’ll just end here. I seriously believe that we need to reconsider, and interrogate, our conceptions of the artist as tortured genius, as genius at all, and conceptions of art as personal expression. A piece in Eye Magazine is one of, surely, many which do begin to address these questions, but it has yet to really penetrate into the mainstream consciousness, I think, or into the mainstream of how museums (especially modern art museums) approach art.

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Well, as I don’t think I’ve mentioned at all, I am in DC this summer, interning at the Freer/Sackler Galleries (aka the National Asian Art Museum, and part of the Smithsonian). As of today, I am in my fifth week at the Freer. (Wow, has it been that long already?)

I have been hesitant to post anything since I really don’t know what is and is not cool to share, and wanted to err on the side of caution. Museum work is of course not a matter of national security, but even so, museums’ reputations are fragile, and while the actual art objects themselves may be public domain on account of their age, museums, just like any other institution or organization, like to have control over their own publicity, public image, publications, etc.

But, I have checked with the curator, and there are various aspects that I can freely share.

The museum recently (a few years back) obtained a collection of over 2000 Edo period woodblock-printed books (along with some from Meiji and later). It’s an amazing collection, including some books that seem, as far as “we” know, to be the only extant copies, and ranging from popular literature to books of poetry to books related to kabuki.

We interns are here to take part in something a great many libraries and museums are focusing on these days – digitalization (digitization?) of the collection. So, basically, we’re photographing every page of every book, one by one, in order to make them more available to researchers and the general public, through a publicly-accessible online database which will eventually go up. We’ve got a great system and equipment, devised by Akama Ryô-sensei of Ritsumeikan, who is essentially leading the vanguard in Digital Humanities in Japan, and who gave a talk at our Kabuki Symposium at the University of Hawaii back in November. We received an intense two-day tutorial from Akama-sensei our first two days, and have Dr. Matsuba Ryoko, one of his leading proteges or disciples, as it were, working with us all summer overseeing the process and helping guide us through all our questions and difficulties. Matsuba-san specializes in kabuki and kabuki prints, so you know she’s my kind of person. She also presented at the Kabuki Symposium, and is easily one of my favorite up-and-coming scholars, in the sense that I am very interested in her research, impressed by her work, and eagerly looking forward to her future publications and presentations. I am very excited to be working with her and developing good personal & professional ties, networking, with her this summer.

Right: A complete set of seventy-five volumes of an 1830s-40s illustrated version of the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”

The project may sound quite tedious, doing nothing but turning pages and clicking the shutter over and over and over again all day. And, yes, it is kind of exhausting, if only because of the focus it takes, and the way the room is lit (mostly dark, the only lights being really bright ones pointing directly at the books). But, actually, the books themselves are really fun and interesting, and I’m beginning to notice and appreciate all kinds of things I might not have ever noticed or appreciated before. Ukiyo-e, and especially the monochrome illustrations in books, can start to look quite monotonous after you look at too many of them. But, looking at these books, there are so many wonderful little touches that you start to enjoy. Things that seem innovative and interesting, even if they’re not really. Elements of the picture extending beyond the frame (I saw today a picture of a decapitated head flying out of the frame, the body spurting a fountain of blood), lettering in gold ink, slight touches of color on just one element of a picture, the use of black to indicate night or shadow in just one section, a great variety of calligraphic or other writing styles, including characters in white described in black outline, or characters meant to look like they were carved in stone… A range of techniques as inventive as any you’ll see in American comicbooks, or sometimes even more intriguing and exciting – after all, any standard narrative of the history of comicbook art in Marvel/DC comics will tell you that it wasn’t until the 1980s that certain techniques began to be used, such as breaking out from square panels, the use of splash pages, etc. And while few if any Edo period books are really anything resembling panel-based sequential pictorial storytelling (i.e. “comicbooks”), they do display many of these techniques, including especially the beautiful and dramatic use of splash pages.

I’ve also started to learn a bit about how prints and books are made, techniques, what they’re called, and perhaps most importantly, how to recognize them. Close-looking has never really been one of my strong suits, but in deciding how to best photograph a volume (or, rather, a particular page), we have had to keep our eyes out for silver and gold foil, mica, and other shiny or sparkly treatments; karazuri and other embossing techniques; and the like. Telling the difference between an “original” print and a later reproduction, or between a print and painting, is an important skill of the curator, art historian, or connoisseur, and we’re starting to pick up those skills doing this.

Right: Various sizes of chitsu (帙), a cloth-covered stiff box for Japanese books, secured with small “teeth” of bone or ivory, or more commonly today, plastic.

There are a great many things in this collection to be excited about, one of which happens to be a complete set of the Sangokushi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 三国志) in 75 illustrated volumes, published in the 1830s-40s. While nearly all of the books in the collection are either in traditional Japanese-style boxes known as chitsu, or in more modern/Western wrappers of acid-free board, these 75 volumes are stored in their own wooden box, labeled in Japanese calligraphy 「三国志全部 七拾五冊入」 (“Complete Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 75 volumes”). I don’t know the age or provenance of the box, but whether original (i.e. 150 years old) or not, it certainly seems purely Japanese, and “authentic.” (Meaning, I don’t presume to know anything in real detail about how Japanese traditionally stored books in the Edo period, but certainly nothing about this arrangement screams Western or modern. Nothing stands out as incongruous.)

It will be a year at least, probably 2-3, before these books are available online, but the museum’s current plan is to create an online catalog, publicly available, in which every page of every one of the 2000 or so books is available. I hope in the coming weeks to post more about individual books I come across, and other thoughts related to the project, but I especially look forward to being able to share these images with you.

EDIT: A brief official description of the project from the Freer-Sackler website.

All images in this post, with the exception of the depiction of the chitsu, are my own photos, taken myself. I apologize for the poor quality of the images of the books & wooden box, taken with my iPhone.

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