The J. Paul Getty Trust 2014 Report

The Scale of the Human Record
Jeffrey T. Schnapp
Faculty Director
metaLAB (at) Harvard

I recently had the pleasure of attending a special showing of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the 2010 documentary in which, under devilishly difficult spatial and environmental conditions, Werner Herzog set out to explore the remarkable complex of Aurignacian paintings discovered in the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave in 1994. Dating from between 32,000 and 30,000 B.C., the Chauvet cave paintings number in the hundreds. They comprise the most exhaustive inventory of animal types to be found anywhere in Paleolithic art: the usual mammoths, bison, and horses, but also exotic creatures like rhinos, panthers, cave hyenas, bears, and lions. There are human traces as well: handprints, clouds of daubs, incisions into the limestone. In the company of the geological and archeological evidence that accompanies them, they tell a multifaceted tale about interactions between ice age humans and their environment that stretch all the way from the practicalities of hunting to beliefs about the supernatural. And into this story the German director weaves his own compelling web of tales through pictures: about the work of spelunkers and archeologists, the technical and physical constraints of the production, the continuities between Ice Age and Digital Age humanity, and dreams, prehistoric and modern.

In the wake of this vicarious journey to the beginnings of human culture, I was left reflecting on a question of scale that informs much of my current speculative thinking and experimental practice in the domain of digital art and humanities. The stories that the Chauvet parietal paintings tell, like the story that unfolds in frame after frame of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is closely tied to the scale of the human body and its perceptual apparatus. Both traffic in objects and events that fall within the framework of ordinary, possible, or plausible human experience; objects and events that humans can somehow see, hear, smell, taste, or touch; animals that can eat others or be eaten; tools by means of which such creatures can be subdued from a safe distance; corridors available to the ancient hunter or modern spelunker; image arrays that, no matter how big or small, remain readily graspable by human eyes. Whether as individuals or collectivities, we typically find meaning in what is available to us as experience and, accordingly, it is on this very scale that human experience and the cultural record of human experience have been shaped. One might say that, in this one regard, little has changed from the Aurignacian era to our own, despite the many ways in which our perceptual faculties have been extended by instruments such as telescopes, microscopes, microphones, and sensors.

But to what degree is this still the case as immense reserves of cultural materials migrate out of deep storage facilities and off museum walls into locations on the World Wide Web? Once hidden away in caverns nearly as sheltered from the elements and human eyes as the complex of Chauvet, these materials may now increasingly be viewed, studied, analyzed, and worked with digitally by scholars as well as members of the general public. It is, of course, possible to swim in this sea of surrogates—as digital replicas of analog artworks are known among database builders—in familiar ways, repeating the habits of an average museum visitor. The online visitor can thus amble from page (room) to page (room), browsing about until the gaze settles on single objects, lingered over with greater attention. He or she can then go about making copies of these special objects of interest as a memory aid or for purposes of sharing, note-taking, or comparison. The operation is feasible—perhaps even pleasurable—on a modest scale: navigating tens, hundreds, maybe even as many as a thousand digital surrogates; and it's fundamentally different than the more sensorial and rich face-to-face experience of actual works, since, even if accurate (which is hardly a given), digital surrogates can be freely resized, duplicated, cropped, and reworked.

Such operations break down, however, as the numbers of items grow to tens or hundreds of thousands, even millions of artworks, not to mention works that may now be accompanied by information far more exhaustive than that found on a museum wall label. There's simply no way to perceptually process or "see" such vast numbers of data-rich objects—a screen full of one million images would reduce each individual object to the size of a pixel—without the aid of computational tools that translate such large aggregates into viewable units and navigational systems that leverage the flexibility of digital images to undergo constant resizing or to be viewed from the perspective of specific data fields.

Digital surrogates are data objects in and of themselves. They don't travel in isolation; they arrive surrounded by the dense mesh of data fields that are present in collections databases (most online collections resources were born as collection management systems that were once locked down on local intranets, but are now "published" to museums' websites). The data in question places each and every work, as it were, under a virtual microscope. They expose a dizzyingly rich array of potential stories: information regarding creator, the time and place of creation, the materials employed, the work's size, its date and circumstances of accession, its provenance, state of conservation, reports on efforts at restoration, exhibition history, current location, scholarly bibliography, and its connections to other objects within and outside the collection. And each of these data points can be cross-linked within and beyond the database to the databases of other institutions, global indices, full-text libraries, or bibliographical repositories.

Such is the world of open content and Linked Open Data that digital humanists are engaged in exploring together with leaders in the field such as the Getty, which, along with other cultural organizations such as the Tate or the Rijksmuseum, to name just two, is now making its collection images as well as its "big data" freely available. It is a world characterized by an increasing ability to zoom back and forth between micro and macro modes of viewing: between up-close analysis and dissection of details of individual works to interactions with vast arrays of works that can be sorted and sifted from a multitude of perspectives (time, place, theme, color, contrast, and so on) or translated into visualizations that tell stories of every imaginable kind. It is a world where, in a very real sense, every object has become a network of relations and every network of relations has become an object of study. It is also a world in which advanced work in the cultural field has the potential to reach audiences unlikely to ever pick up a copy of a learned journal, a university press monograph, or a catalogue raisonné because data visualizations can be elegant, beautiful, and powerfully expressive in their own right.

Two complementary challenges arise as a result. The first involves the development of tools, techniques, practices, and resources that fulfill the transformative promise of open content and collections data: namely, to enable present and future generations of scholars, curators, and students of art to explore the cultural record in new ways. The spectrum of such ways is broad and would include, among many other things, exposing forgotten histories through the in-depth excavation of single objects; providing moment-by-moment "picture-perfect" portraits of the evolution of collections and collecting institutions over the course of hundreds of years; tracking the careers of entire generations of artists; tracing the migration of artworks through the art market as a function of their critical reception; visualizing networks of power and influence; mapping the dissemination of genres and themes over time and space; and exploring entanglements between economic, social, and cultural trends over timescales from hours and days to centuries and millennia.

The second challenge involves the task of designing and communicating the resulting representations, be they visualizations, interactive timelines, diagrams, or media-rich descriptions, in fresh new ways that add value and meaning to the world. These representations tell stories, and, whether freestanding or nested within that middle stratum of narrative where culture and the study of culture have traditionally found their home, the stories in question need to be just as well-crafted as the brilliant paintings of our ice age predecessors.

As any skilled storyteller knows, one cannot tell every story at once. A few key threads must be pulled from every tangled skein of stories, granted primacy, and developed at the expense of others. The same principle applies to the expanded field of scholarship enabled by open content and collections data. Here the challenges are all the greater because representations of data aren't self-evident objects of human experience, not to mention sources of emotion. On the contrary, they are technical constructs, abstractions that have to be worked, massaged, and crafted in a multitude of ways and by means of a multitude of tools and techniques in order to generate artifacts that enhance knowledge, persuade, make sense, or add value to a given experience. This is not just a technical task: it's a cultural task that involves technology, design, a sure-footed sense of how we reconnect this brave new world of cultural data, big and small, back to that middle stratum where culture resides and where human experience finds its home.

Digital humanists are involved in this undertaking in a variety of settings. These include efforts to forge new genres of scholarly discourse and models and channels of publication that productively merge natively digital forms of knowledge with print and other media. They extend to the classroom where collections-based teaching is gaining increasing importance in ways that are reinvigorating fields like numismatics, material culture studies, and the study of museum history. They also encompass exhibition spaces themselves, where there are bold experiments underway that seek to integrate interactive experiences of entire collections into on-site visits.

Let us return to the caves of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc one last time. Even to the expert explorers who first discovered the site in 1994, it initially seemed rather simple, consisting of little more than a network of fissures in the earth leading to a cavernous chamber within which many dozens of representational images had been painted by prehistoric men. But further exploration revealed new riches and unanticipated complexities. Other corridors led to additional chambers containing paintings, some non-representational, others representational but with significant variants, some incised into the walls. The number of images now numbered in the hundreds; the site could no longer be viewed or understood from a single vantage point. Many image placements appeared to be strategic or expressive instead of random. Archeological evidence began to suggest that variations in placement and image type were significant. The team found itself obliged to meticulously survey the entire site and develop a three-dimensional virtual map that allows researchers to study the complex as a dynamic and interconnected whole and expose features that would otherwise remain imperceptible.

In the immersive data caves of the twenty-first century, the same sorts of complexities and opportunities abound that made this ice age database the worthy subject of Herzog's probing eye. They arise at the level of understanding large systems in all of their sometimes overwhelming intricacy; and they arise alike at the level of grappling with the beauty and significance of individual objects as well as the particulars that make them up. This is not an either/or proposition with respect to traditional practices of art-historical inquiry, but rather an expansion of their scope, reach, and even audience. As open content initiatives like those undertaken by the Getty expose ever vaster portions of the cultural record to public view, the tools and tasks of storytelling must themselves expand to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of the Digital Age.