From Oral Histories to Cultural Analytics

Well, I fear this week’s blog post might be a bit all over the place, but that is because I am so excited about this week’s readings! We covered a lot, stretching from the do’s and don’t’s of Oral History to using big data and cultural analytics to analyze Rothko’s oeuvre. Whew! Here are the readings for reference for those interested as I will be talking about them throughout the post:

The overarching theme for the week was “Beyond the Static Image,” and our readings showed the various ways in which we can incorporate sources beyond images, not only in our scholarship but also our own research. I was very interested in reading about the Oral History projects, especially because of my background in my own undergraduate program. I had two different advisors in my undergraduate program who had incorporated oral history projects in their own scholarly work and was taught in these courses how to navigate sources beyond the written text. Some of the points that Shopes highlights in her article, namely how to navigate interviewing someone for an oral history project, how to conduct yourself, and many other tips. Additionally, it had very useful information regarding the ways in which you can interpret oral histories. Just as any other piece of information or source you use in your scholarship, it is not something that you can always take as pure fact; there are various levels of understanding oral histories and many factors which impact people’s statements. One passage that I found quite interesting was Shopes’ reference to President Kennedy and the way in which people remembered him:

Similarly, John F. Kennedy’s assassination not only reshaped Americans’ subsequent views of him but even changed how they remembered their earlier perceptions. Although Kennedy was elected with just 49.7% of the vote in the fall of 1960, almost two-thirds of all Americans remembered voting for him when they were asked about it in the aftermath of his assassination.”[4]

This pertinent quote goes to show that people’s memories alter as time passes and this affects the ways in which they remember and interpret their historical past. Similarly, Shopes discusses the ways in which an oral history might change based upon the interviewer and the situation in which the interview was taking place.

All of that being said, oral histories should not be discounted for their complications but rather embraced for their intricacies. Comparing two oral histories with the same person interviewed by two different people, as Shopes highlights in her article with the example of two interviews from Susan Hamlin (or Hamilton), a former slave in South Carolina, one interviewed by a white person and another by an African-American person. The interviewers produced two very different viewpoints of Hamlin’s histories, providing a clear example of the ways in which a situational difference, such as the identity of the interviewer, can affect the oral history, something that can be embraced in scholarly analysis.

For art historians, especially modern or contemporary art historians, embracing oral histories of artist interviews would be a fantastic way in which you can engage with a new source. For my own research, I work on an artist book project called A Humument: A Treated Artist’s Book by a British artist Tom Phillips. He has conducted many interviews in his lifetime, but there are no oral histories or recordings of these interviews which I would very much like to use in my scholarship as I believe the tone and other gestures that are not recorded in a simple transcription would affect my interpretation of the interview. After reading many of his interviews, he seems to have a very dry, sarcastic personality that sometimes does not fully come translate in a written transcription.

Beyond the oral history readings that we did for this week, we also looked at two articles that I want to briefly touch on in this week’s blog post as I was extremely interested by both of them, albeit for slightly different reasons. The first is John Resig’s article “Using Computer Vision to Increase the Research Potential of Photo Archives.” To give a rather poor summary (go read the article, it’s really interesting!), Resig worked with the Frick and the technology of TinEye (a reverse image search engine) to try to pair up unidentified photographs from one of their archives.

As I have stated before in my blog posts, I am a dual master’s student in art history and library science and, although this is an art history course, this reading really brought out my library science side. This technology, along with the technology shown in the “Cultural Analytics” article, seems really interesting from a library science side, but I am slightly apprehensive about it from a an art historian’s perspective. In a very basic sense, both of the programs involve teaching computers to analyze images. Resig used TinEye’s search engine to find potential matches for anonymous images whereas the technology from the Software Studies Initiative transforms an artist’s work into big data to be analyzed, seen clearly in this video about Mark Rothko’s oeuvre:

These technologies are interesting and very inventive, but it brought be back to my favorite Druckerism: is it digitized or digital? In my head, the most importance factor in this distinction factors on whether or not this new technology will impact a research question in my scholarship. What new scholarly inquiries will this technology open up? In the case of Resig’s article, many ideas regarding new research questions emerged for my work as a (hopeful) future art librarian. But as an art historian, I was stumped as to how this technology would actually alter my scholarly inquiries. In our class discussion of these technologies, my lovely classmate Taylor pointed out that for some areas of art history, particularly Africanists, connoisseurship is still an extremely important and foundational part of the field, and these technologies would be a great way in which they can revitalize their work, something I had not thought about myself. As we continue to learn and adapt these technologies throughout the semester, I look forward to engaging both sides of my academic interest.