Posts Tagged google

Mechanical Resolution: Benjamin, Google Art Project, and the Digital Humanities

One of the first things that I saw this morning was a tweet from Andrew Hazlett pointing to a Washington Post article by Philip Kennicott about the new Google Art Project. Art Project takes a “street view” approach to 17 art museums, allowing you to walk through some of their galleries and see the works as they are hung on the galleries’ walls. For those who are interested in how art is presented to and consumed by the public, this proves to be an invaluable resource (and shows how far we’ve come since the 2001, when Shelley Staples’s digital version of the 1913 Armory Show came online).

As I tweeted (part one and two), the line that I find most interesting in the coverage from the Post is this assertion from Julian Raby, the director of the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington: “Far from eliminating the necessity of seeing artworks in person, Art Project deepens our desire to go in search of the real thing.” This passage naturally reminded me of the claims that Walter Benjamin makes in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In the essay, Benjamin considers the effect that photography, phonography, lithography, and more have on the “aura” or authenticity of an art work. In essence, a reproduction frees us from the need to go somewhere to see a particular piece of art, engaged in a pilgrimage of sorts; we no longer have to go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa: “…technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway, be it in the form of a photograph or a phonograph record. The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room.” (As an aside, my public library in Nebraska, where I lived from ages 8-11, allowed you to check out framed reproductions. My brother’s and my favorite was the Mona Lisa. Ironically, we had seen the original when we lived in Europe. But I don’t think we had quite understood at the ages of 5 and 6 that it was something that mattered. Accordingly, we enjoyed our reproduction much more than the original.)

But Benjamin writes, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” So while we no longer need to go to art, the reproduction’s lack of place reinscribes the aura of the original. The result?

By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind.

So while it’s true that I no longer need to go to the MoMA to see Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, seeing it in Google Art Project may very well strengthen my desire to see the original, which is what Raby and the other museum directors must be counting on. And of course, all that Art Project appears to show at the moment are works that are no longer in copyright. So if you want to see a Warhol or a LeWitt, you’ve still got to go to the MoMA itself.

While acknowledging the complicated co-dependent relationships of original and reproduction, Benjamin is clear that reproductions are better than originals in at least one concrete way:

…process reproduction is more independent of the original than manual reproduction. For example, in photography, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will. And photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision.

Mechanical reproductions, then, surpass the original by showing you more than your own eye could see, even if you were with the original. And it was precisely this issue of how much one can see in Art Project that our art history librarian, Kim Collins, asked me this morning when I showed her Art Project. After all, we pay a hefty subscription to ARTstor every year to get high quality images. So in the interest of seeing how much I could see, I pulled up The Starry Night (a work that I’ve never seen in person) in both ARTstor and Art Project. Using each platform, I zoomed in as far as I could on the church in the lower middle of the painting. And here is what I saw.

ARTstor (clicking on picture links to a larger version)


Google Art Project (clicking on picture links to a larger version)

The Starry Night  Vincent van Gogh  MoMA The Museum of Modern Art  Art Project powered by Google

That’s quite a difference in resolution and depth. Art Project is using what the Washington Post article calls a “‘gigapixel’ process, which stitches together multiple high-resolution images.” To get a sense of exactly how much more you see in Art Project, here, is the ARTstor image highlighted with the area that I’ve zoomed in on with Art Project:

Starry night artstor

Of course, the museums are the ones that provide the images to both ARTstor and Art Project, so there’s every chance in the world that the former’s images will be updated sometime in the future.

As I finish writing this, Art Project is a trending topic on Twitter. Although Google tends to have this effect on things, it’s apparent that people are interested in this project–or at least in talking about it. Towards the end of his essay, Benjamin writes, “The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form. Quantity has been transmuted into quality. The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation.” By throwing a tremendous quantity of pixels at Art Project, Google has produced something of quality that will shift how the masses see art.

And perhaps a key lesson to take from Art Project (if we can extract a lesson on launch day), is that it’s a clear demonstration of the opportunities that the digital humanities have to reach a larger audience, provided we can show them something new or something more in a (visual) language they understand.

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Assignment: The “American Century” Geospatial Timeline

For the last several years, I have been interested in representing time and space visually in the context of literature courses. During my final year as a graduate student, I was a fellow in Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching. There, I had the freedom to spend many hours exploring several web widgets for doing just this that were developed by MIT’s Simile Project and since spun off as independent Simile Widgets. I found the tools fairly powerful, but not especially well documented–particular for someone who was a coding dilletante at best. The result was that along with building several timelines, I also wrote a tutorial for building your own custom timelines.

Since I didn’t have a class to experiment on, I got in touch with Jason B. Jones, whose blog had first alerted me to the Simile Project. Jason was teaching a course on the Victorian period, and he quickly crafted an assignment using a timeline that I coded for his class. Jason wrote about our collaboration on his blog.

When I got my own survey class last year, I adapted lifted Jason’s assignment pretty much whole-cloth and had my students create a timeline to accompany our exploration of American literature following the Civil War. When I was given the chance to teach a similar course this semester, I wanted to represent not only time but also space. For last summer’s THATCamp, I had spent some time experimenting with Google Maps integration with the timeline, and I’ve now made some real additions to Jason’s assignment to incorporate the geospatial elements.

Why do I like using this assignment? I give my students three reasons.

  1. In a survey of American literature, one of the key goals is to get a sense of how the literature lies in context with everything else that is happening. These events shape the literature in question, and creating a timeline lets the students go beyond what I bring up in class to explore developments in art, technology, politics, and more.
  2. It lets me give them one less paper. (This is what really sells them, since I will have frequently thrown several other weird assignments at them that they aren’t sure about.)
  3. I believe that every student–even English majors–that graduates from college should be able to read and write HTML, to work in a spreadsheet, and to have a little experience with databases. Such literacy is frequently overlooked but will be vitally important in a world in which it is increasingly difficult to find employment with a liberal arts degree.

The timeline and map that we’re working with are now live with a few examples that I have provided. (You’ll need to scroll the timeline to the right or left to find a date. Or you can use the search box at right.) Students will be adding data in the coming month. I’m hoping that in this version of the assignment we not only get a sense of temporal context but also spatial context. Will we see that the events that we have chosen as important move Westward in connection with Westward expansion? Do particular decades have more important events in one portion of the country? We’ll see.

As part of my project to promote open-source pedagogy, I wanted to post the new assignment. And if you feel like tackling your own timeline, I’d be more than happy to answer questions.

Timeline Assignment


  1. Be sure that you’ve given me an email address that you actually check. By 1/30, you will receive an e-mail inviting you to collaborate with me on a Google Docs spreadsheet.
  2. Choose two years between 1865-2010. One year must be in the range 1865-1935 and one year must fall in the range 1936-2010. You can see the list of available years below. When you have chosen your years, edit our wiki page to strikethrough your chosen years (strikethrough is the option to the right of italics) and then email me your two chosen years. Do this by 2/5.
  3. Identify EIGHT historically significant events from each of your two years.  (Births, deaths, legislation, wars, inventions, publications, . . . ).  For each event,
    • find a related image online and get the URL for the image. Do NOT get the URL for the page on which the image appears.
    • find a link where one can learn more about the event (no more than half the links can be to Wikipedia)
    • find a location (city, state) for the event
    • find the latitude and longitude for this location using these instructions and Google Maps
    • write a ONE- or TWO-SENTENCE description of the event. Descriptions may not be longer than two sentences.
  4. In the Google spreadsheet, enter the FOUR most significant events for each year, filling out the various fields with the appropriate information.  (See below for details.)
  5. For each of your two years, send me an email with the full list and a two-paragraph document. The first paragraph should explain how you chose the full list of 8 events, and the second paragraph will explain how you cut it down to 4.
  6. The information from the first year must be posted to the timeline and the document emailed to me by 5pm on March 4. The information for the second year must be posted to the timeline and the document submitted to me by 5pm on March 25. Of course, completing the assignment early is always fine.

The Spreadsheet’s Fields

Using the spreadsheet is easy, but it also requires the data to be input in a very particular way.  For best results, follow these instructions exactly:

  1. Always add your information to the BOTTOM of the spreadsheet.
  2. The first field, “{label}” is the text that will be visible directly on the timeline.  It should be short: 3-6 words (where a title of a novel or poem can count as one word).  To make a title appear italicized, type it exactly like this (without the quotation marks): “AuthorName, <em>Book Title</em>”  Don’t worry about the fact that it doesn’t look italicized in the spreadsheet, and DON’T USE THE SPREADSHEET’S ITALICS FUNCTION!
  3. The second field, “{start-date}” is mandatory: when did the event happen?  Fill this in: yyyy-mm-dd.  You must use 2-digit months (01, 02, 03) and 2-digit days.
    • For example, April 8, 1999 would be entered 1999-04-08.
  4. The third field, “{end-date}” is optional: If the event happened over a span of time, when did it end?  Again, use yyyy-mm-dd format.
  5. The fourth field, “{description:single}”  is where you put your one- to two-sentence description.  Also, wrap the sentence–or some portion of it–in your “more information” link.  Here’s how to do it (the quotation marks in the pointy-brackets are REQUIRED!!): <a href=”LINKGOESHERE”>SENTENCE GOES HERE</a>
    • For example, General Ulysses S. Grant meets with General Robert E. Lee at the <a href=””>Appomattox courthouse</a> where Lee signs the terms of surrender that effectivley ends the civil war.
  6. The fifth field, “{image:url}” is where you cut-and-paste the url for the related image.
  7. The sixth field, “{EventType}” is where you identify what kind event this is: Politics, Military, Science/Technology, Economics, Literature, Arts, Biography.  Only use one Event Type. If you think that your event doesn’t fit into any of these categories, please email me before you start using a ne one.
  8. The seventh field, “{event_LatLng} is where you put the latitude and longitude that you strip from Google Maps using these instructions.
  9. The eighth field, “{event_place}” is where you put the city and state where the event takes place.
  10. In the ninth field, “{decade}”, please type the decade in which your event takes place. Please format these as 1860s, 1870s, etc.
  11. The tenth field, “{initials}” is where you put your initials, which will help me with the bookkeeping.
  12. After you have entered your information in the spreadsheet, make sure that it is displaying properly on the timeline and the map.

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