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CONVERGENT PRACTICES: New Approaches to Art and Visual Culture

Katja Kwastek, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany.

Visualising Art History

Keywords: knowledge, memory, information structure, visualisation, art history

The longer an academic discipline exists – and even the relatively young discipline of art history can look back on more than 200 years of academic activity – the more extensive and complex the revision of its subjects and methodologies becomes. Prior to developing new ideas or theories on a subject, one has to go through countless publications, distinguish between outdated and current theories, understand the different perspectives of dissenting voices and separate relevant from irrelevant material. Discussion of the accordingly complex subject matter is dependent on printed media and its extensive critical apparatus, and on specialist conferences, which bring together professionals in the field. It goes without saying that questions and methods are constantly subject to change and that the objects of research are not only continually looked at from new angles, but even their selection broadens. Art history now encompasses photography, video and media art, and also incorporates mass media and commercial pictures, establishing a new field of visual studies. Although the questions, methods and even the objects of interest are continually challenged by postmodern theories, the existing academic procedures are still mainly based on the achievements of the Gutenberg Era: the results of research are published in journals as essays, conference reports and reviews which are often brought out with a delay of several years. The new generation of academics are still trained to be isolated figures in the academic world owing to a still predominantly lecture- and paper-based style of classroom teaching.

Although we are already in the digital age, we still cling to the traditional procedures of the Gutenberg Era, which, without a doubt, is justifiable in many fields but a more contemporary outlook is required in others. However, not only have novel media always become the object of scientific research sooner or later, but eventually they have also been introduced as instruments of academic activity. A glimpse at the historical relationship between the history of media and academic activity shall elucidate this interdependence, leading to the question of what the digital era offers to the particular requirements of the history of art. Special attention will be paid in this paper to the strategies offered by visualisation, as its potential for the field of art history has not yet been fully realised.

In antiquity, the pursuit of knowledge was predominantly based on oral tradition, which is shown amongst other things by the great importance attached to rhetoric. A primary element of antique rhetoric was the art of memory, which shall be looked at more in detail here as it represents an early way of visualising knowledge. The fundamental rule of the ancient art of memory1 is that one should imagine real or fictional places (loci) or a group of places, which should not be too crowded, but clearly structured, sufficiently lit and of medium size. These loci do not necessarily have to be architectural, but the recurring allusions to buildings show that a similarity of the loci to architectonic spaces was judged to be the most practical method. After having mentally created the loci one was to think of images and objects for the things or words that were to be remembered. Those forms, signs or pictures were to be as uncommon and significant as possible, so-called imagines agentes. The chosen loci should then be furnished by the imagines agentes, in an order appropriate to the facts that were to be remembered. This procedure would ensure that the speaker could readily recall prepared speeches, background information and facts whenever he needed them. The brain was trusted to be a reliable storage space and organiser of knowledge. Recording knowledge in written form was subject to disputes. Plato condemned writing as the ‘delusion of true knowledge’ because it resulted in neglect of the brain, whereas Quintilian praised the possibilities of visually structuring facts by writing, which would in turn contribute to easy memorising. 2

To summarise, visualisation, be it by means of memory palaces or written down in structured texts, was held in great esteem in the ancient world, the aim always being to increase the individual memory capacity, resulting in more fluent and convincing speeches. Writing, on the other hand, was not so much an instrument of academic discourse (as it is in today’s custom of written essays and reviews), but served the purpose of permanently recording the results of oral discussions in the form of lasting theories.

The Renaissance marks a turning point in the history of academic practice. As the knowledge and understanding of the world became more complex, oral discourse, based uniquely on mentally archived facts, was no longer an adequate means of storing information. The increasing number of knowledge theories and models required dissemination facilitated by the printing press, which perpetrated and accelerated the accumulation of written knowledge. Information could be more easily recalled as the library became the new ‘palace of memory’. With regard to the structure, summoning and visualisation of stored information, mnemonic treatises of the Gutenberg Era abandon the presentation of individual storage strategies. In place of these, systems of arranging and visualising the by now immense knowledge of the world itself were developed. One example was the well-known Memory Theatre of Giulio Camillo. (Fig. 1)

memory theatre of Giulio Camillo

Fig. 1. Reconstruction of the memory theatre of Giulio Camillo.
Reproduced after: Aby Warburg: Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, Warnke, M. (ed.), Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2000, p. 85.

Based on the seven pillars of Solomon’s House of Wisdom, it was divided into seven levels representing the order of the world from the seven planets up to Arts and Sciences, Religion and Law. The accumulated knowledge was presented in images, symbols and texts, some of them immediately visible, others confined to drawers, boxes or coffers beneath the images. 3

In a sense, the great Baroque monastic libraries, which were arranged by subject, with the order emphasised by means of architectural elements, painted emblems and allegories, were a type of memory theatre in the tradition of Camillo.

Without going into more detail, one should emphasise that it is possible to distinguish two categories of memory palace. In the first category ancient mnemonics offered rules for the arrangement of rooms, by which content could be remembered and which may be compared to a contemporary content management system. The second form of memory palace emerges in the Gutenberg Era and offers both system and content. In both categories spatial visualisation plays an important role. The former requires high mental activity from the individual to construct his own memory palace, the latter is already furnished.

Before moving on to the question of how the recent shift in media history – from printed to digital storage – may in the future or may have already altered our knowledge or information management, one should ask to what extent the strategies of visualisation presented thus far meet the specific needs of art history. Could they help art history to structure knowledge in the way mnemonic theories suggest? Art history is a special case already insofar as its objects are defined by their visual nature. Art history does not deal with natural or abstract facts, which need to be illustrated by means of imagines agentes, but with pictures or visual objects which themselves serve as a medium to display various intentions.

As our imagines already exist, instead of inventing convincing imagines agentes, we could start by constructing loci that allow the contextualisation of the imagines, the establishment of connections within our mental picture collection. But, concerning the loci, we could also establish that they already exist in the form of museums. A museum will attempt to emphasise relations through the arrangement of its collection. It is common to refer to “the work next to the exit” or “opposite the Dürer”, which proves that our spatial memory is still functional.

Nevertheless, the comparison between the museum and the classical memory palace diverges at two points. First, a materialised memory palace has lost its individuality: the structure that is remembered has not been constructed by the individual, but by someone else. In this respect, the museum resembles Camillo’s model of the already furnished memory theatre, especially in the case of early forms of museums, like the cabinet of curiosities of a connoisseur pursuing his encyclopaedic interests. Second, the museum is, contrary to classical theories and also to Camillo’s treatise, bound to material objects. This, makes it difficult to illustrate abstract relations and categories. Normally the arrangement of a collection is restricted to one linear structure which does not provide an elaborate system of relations, as was suggested by Camillo, amongst others. Following mnemonic theories it would not suffice to arrange the works of art in a spatial context: above all, information worthy of storage, such as the interpretation and the context, should accompany the works in our quest for visualisation.

Thus, theoretically establishing a visually memorable structure of art historical knowledge seems possible, although the materialised form presented by the museum does not appear to be the ideal way to disclose relations and background information. But the publication of art historical knowledge written in a linear form, does not seem to be the ideal solution either, particularly if the manifold connections and interactions of the art world are to be represented. Long before the digital era, artists and scientists had already tried alternative systems of visualisation, for example: Flemish paintings of collections (constkammer) or William Hogarth’s illustrations in the Analysis of Beauty. A more recent example is Aby Warburg’s project: the Mnemosyne-Atlas. (Fig. 2)

Barr Cubism frontispiece

Fig. 2. Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne-Atlas

On the other hand, experimental graphic schemes, such as Alfred H. Barr’s famous chart dealing with the development of abstract art4 (Fig. 3) and the Fluxus diagrams of George Maciunas5 (Fig. 4) should be mentioned.

Fig. 3. Expanded Arts Diagram (detail) by George Maciunas, 1966.
Reproduced after: Williams, E., Ay-O and Noel, A., Mr. Fluxus : ein Gemeinschaftsporträt von George Maciunas, 1931 – 1978, Wiesbaden, 1996, p. 128.

Macunias abstract art diagram
Fig. 4. Frontispiece of the exhibition catalogue, Barr, A. H., Cubism and Abstract Art, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1936.
Reproduced after: Gordon Kantor, S., Alfred H. Barr Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art, Massachusetts, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002.

The demands of complex topics are often better met by a non-linear structure, and it is precisely this non-linear structure which is the central motif of the digital era. The most important feature distinguishing this media shift is not an abandonment of literacy, but a renunciation of linearity. Information is no longer integrated into one homogeneous knowledge system, published as a complete book or presented in terms of one irrefutable order. Instead, information is issued in open relational systems, hypertexts, databases, discussion forums and may be recalled according to individual needs and interests. I now hope to show how these forms of supplying information may be – or are already being applied – in an art-historical context.

An advantage of using digital media for visualisation is that they offer the possibility of showing the third dimension. As soon as digital media were discovered by cultural institutions, many three-dimensional simulations were created. These often took the real museum as reference point, demonstrating the famous thesis of McLuhan, that new media, in their initial phase, incorporate or imitate old media.6

The first examples are virtual tours through existing museums. Unlike the real collections they are not stationary, but they are nonetheless restricted to the holdings of the real museum and follow the exhibiting arrangements. (Fig. 5)

Louvre visite virtuelle
Fig. 5. La visite virtuelle on the website of the Louvre, Paris.

More abstract are virtual tours through virtual collections. These offer the advantage of combining exhibits that are not found in the same place in reality. Therefore, they can illustrate important connections, often not presentable in real museums because of the gaps within the collections. A good example is the CD-ROM Art of the Sixties: Learning with Pictures 7 (Fig. 6), a low-budget nineties project comprising a virtual collection in which pictures are spatially arranged, with accompanying detailed information and e-learning facilities.

Kunst der 60er CD-ROM
Fig. 6. Kunst der 60er CD-ROM, 1998.

An alternative version of a virtual museum is offered by the Australian new media artist Jeffrey Shaw. In his interactive installation Virtual Museum 8 (Fig. 7), rather than presenting highlights of art history, he attempts to illustrate the character of the main fields of the visual arts (painting, sculpture, film and digital media) within a digitally generated succession of rooms. By using metaphor he creates imagines agentes for artistic genres. The room typifying painting, for instance, has a row of equal-sized frames with the following, never ending sentence scrolling through: “Something that appears to be like nothing can take the place of something that appears to be like nothing can take the place of ...”, a subtle commentary on the question of mimesis.


Jeffrey Shaw, virtual museum

Fig. 7. Jeffrey Shaw, The Virtual Museum, interactive installation, 1991, Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe,

Shaw’s work exemplifies how a succession of rooms can serve as a structural metaphor, helping to illustrate categorical facts or theories, in this case quite abstract ones. The architecture of Shaw’s museum however is not an abstraction. On the contrary, it accelerates the simulation, integrating the visitor or viewer by means of immersion. Whereas in the projects mentioned earlier in this paper where the viewer may navigate through the museum only by means of the mouse, here he is dragged into the building. He sits on an office chair in a room which is exactly simulated on the screen in front of him, including the chair, which becomes the representative of the viewer in the virtual space. Moving the real chair also changes the perspective within the virtual room.

Fig. 8. Multimegabook by F. Fishnaller and Y. Maharaj Singh. VR installation for the CAVE, Ars Electronica Center, Linz, 1996/1997.


More technically advanced virtual rooms can be viewed with a head-mounted display or inside a CAVE.9 One example of an artwork programmed for a CAVE is the Multi Mega Book 10 (Fig. 8) shown in the Ars Electronica Center in Linz (Austria). When entering the work, the visitor is able to fly up to the Duomo of the Cathedral in Florence, then jump back down through a cloud, in the form of Botticelli’s Venus. When back on the ground, around the corner the visitor finds the Brancacci Chapel, in the church Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence and close by lie the Roman Capitol palaces and the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. In Santa Maria delle Grazie he may attend an exceptional spectacle: as he approaches Leonardo’s Last Supper, it transforms into a wire model, from which Judas gets up and leaves. Such works challenge the visual memory of the visitor, even if the mediated content is highly disputable, as it reduces our image of Italian Renaissance art to mere stereotype and leads to confusion about chronological and geographical relations.

All of the above mentioned projects and installations make various connections and relations between cultural history visible within virtual rooms and serve the function of equipped Memory Palaces; as external knowledge storage systems. Two central conclusions may be drawn: First, the highly illusionistic simulation of real space does not seem to be the ideal way of visualising broad historical contexts.11 Second, all the projects mentioned are static in that they allow no room for the individual construction of relationships. Even if a user is able to direct his own progress through the site, the possibilities for individual engagement are few.

The mental creative activity of the individual, called for in classical mnemonics, is precisely what is necessary in current educational theory in order to promote constructivist learning. The best way to learn and comprehend is by building relationships between new facts and consciously combining them with existing knowledge.

It is this demand which can be best fulfilled using digital media. The digital medium offers another crucial advantage: the possibility that individual knowledge construction may become a co-operative experience, allowing for the fact that no individual could come to terms with a constantly increasing body of knowledge without continuous communication and division of labour.

The solution offered by the digital era is machine-aided interactivity in a more comprehensive sense than the explorative interactivity offered in the examples above: At first, the interaction of human and machine may be extended in the sense that one can learn from the other – every input from the user leads to a further development of the system. Second, digital systems enable not only interaction between the user and the machine, but also the machine-aided interaction between humans themselves, the co-operative discussion and modification of the digitally visualised contents and structures. Also in that sense, one can cite already existing activities, for example so-called MUDs and MOOs12. Both terms refer to virtual environments with various rooms or spaces which can be individually designed and furnished by their visitors, who also communicate with each other. The systems offer spaces for public information exchange, private communication and the deposit of objects and documents which may be analysed, interpreted and discussed by the participants of the project. Thereby MUDs and MOOs not only fulfil the demands of classical mnemonic techniques, but exceed them by allowing the co-operative construction of knowledge systems. MUDs and MOOs have been used in a games context, but also for educational purposes since the middle of the 1990s. Older versions work with simple Telnet connections and are far from offering virtual reality in the sense of simulating real space as perfectly as possible. Some show a rudimentary floor plan to enable orientation, but they are essentially text based (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9. Historywired, The Museum of National History website, screenshot.
Reproduction source: http://historywired.si.edu/index.html.

Of course the specific needs of art history call for a more visual means of collaborative knowledge discovery13. However, following from the arguments above, it is important that visualisation should free itself from re-enacting real spaces, as this transfers the restrictions of the material world into the digital world. Neither digital media nor knowledge organisation is restricted to three dimensions. They allow for – or even demand – the inclusion of the fourth dimension, of time and time based changes. And even four dimensions don’t represent the limits of Cyberspace. Knowledge structures can be visualised in manifold layers and it is precisely the flexible, interactive and discursive character of Cyberspace that makes it an ideal medium for the theoretical and historical methods of the humanities.

It is not so much the simulation of real rooms14 that seems to point to the future, but the spatial organisation of knowledge models in a wider sense. Such strategies of visualisation are already in practice in the form of geographic maps or timelines offered on the websites of many large museums, for example the historywired pages of the National Museum of American History (Fig. 9), which illustrate the manifold relations in content and chronology of some of their objects.

What is lacking in these examples is the constructivist component, the possibility of scientific exchange and continuous updating of the visualised knowledge system. Recent projects developed in German-speaking countries propose different approaches to content, a combination of new forms of visualisation and co-operation.

The project Schule des Sehens – New Media in Art History 15 is a collaboration between Art History departments from the Universities of Berlin (FU), Dresden, Hamburg, Marburg and Munich (LMU) and the chair of pedagogic psychology of the LMU Munich. The project is financed by the Ministry of Culture and Science and aims to investigate how and in which fields e-learning might be successful in art history. Choosing exemplary themes from medieval relic culture to media research, different net-based teaching methods are created and evaluated. Methods range from basics such as the mediation of terminology to complex discursive scientific approaches, from primarily self-study oriented offerings to so-called virtual seminars, which attach great importance to net-based and asynchronous communication. I would like to focus on the latter, as they aim at co-operative and net-based work on research projects.

Based on the experiences of participating educationalists, virtual seminars were designed in which students had to build teams, each answering questions based on material offered via the Internet. The teamwork was net-based, using a discussion forum, which made the working process highly transparent. The documentation not only of results, but also of their creation, was facilitated as was the classification of different opinions and strategies. Obviously, such forums are not new and are technically easy to implement, but they require a level of media competence that cannot be taken for granted. The use of the system in the seminar demonstrated that concrete specifications about the exercises and procedures, including a time frame, had to be set to enable the intense exchange of ideas, and the students found this extremely helpful.

A transfer of this or a comparable system to the field of academic research seems possible, provided that academics are ready to participate in a form of public exchange that exceeds the publication of job offers or announcements of academic conferences. The system would have to be technically able to visualise the course of discussions, opinions and contradictory claims, which would have to be archived and classified according to important key words. This would result in a transparency of research, which would allow swift access to information in specialised fields for the layman and enable a deeper re-enactment of the decision making processes for the specialist. The opportunities offered by an asynchronous, worldwide communication network could promote a long overdue internationalisation and transparency within the field of art history.

The project netzspannung.org provides an example of how such co-operative information pools may be visually organised. The department of Media Arts Research Studies (MARS) at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology (St. Augustin, near Bonn) aims to investigate new media in the arts with regard to knowledge discovery and mediation. The Internet platform netzspannung.org (Fig. 10) is a media lab, collecting high-quality information about digital culture and presenting it in a highly informative, contextualised and flexible visual environment open to the public. Anyone can add input about projects, research, artworks and so on, as well as keywords.

semantic map of netzspannung.org

Fig. 10. Semantic map of netzspannung.org, screenshot.
Reproduction source: http://www.netzspannung.org/cast01/semantic-map/

Research and visualisation is conducted via different graphical interfaces, so-called knowledge discovery tools, which structure the flow of information on the basis of semantic classification. These tools include a timeline, as well as a semantic map visualising the information by means of content (Fig. 10). On the map each document is represented by a small blue square and thematically connected documents are combined in clusters. Keywords providing information about document content and clusters are immediately visible and allow access to further information.

Two aspects of this approach are central within the scope of this investigation: the challenge of presenting a shared collection of information, and the visual presentation of the material and its connections based on abstract structures and not on existing architectures.

What is still missing, with regard to the special needs of art history, is the emphasis on our imagines agentes, on the artworks themselves as visual objects. The following project focuses precisely on this area. It explores the possibility of integrating images – as the primary sources of art history – in non-linear knowledge environments. Integration includes giving detailed access to the visual information of the picture, addressing details and searching for keywords. The Department of Cultural Informatics at the University of Lüneburg has developed the program PETAL (PicturE Text Annotation Language) which is based on an XML standard for encoding scientific data in visual studies. It facilitates the storage, exchange and publication of discourse about picture corpora down to the finest detail. The metadata on which the system is based not only describes the picture as a whole, but also its different sectors and enables access to this information in a hypertext-like structure, which is based on databases. The details are described via coordinates which are relative to the picture size, thus enabling presentation in various media. Furthermore, it is possible to store commentaries on details right by the details themselves.16

The examples given above may be sufficient to prove that there are already many approaches toward adapting the practice of art history to the needs and possibilities provided by the digital age. There are plenty of international projects to add to those discussed here and it is especially challenging to expand the horizon by including artistic projects in the investigation.17 Searching for visualisation of knowledge structures, digital media offer many possibilities that, until now, have not been sufficiently explored or integrated into everyday practice.

Digital media can help to change the chronologically-determined idea of cultural history into a more flexible view of stylistic and cultural parallels and diversities. It can lead art history to new, more transparent and immediate forms of communication and co-operation, organising its visual material via spatial and structural metaphors to create and discuss a new and open ‘picture of knowledge’. Two central claims have to be met to this end, one technical and one mental: a ‘digitally renewed’ art history needs an expert infrastructure to facilitate the opening up, annotation and linkage of material and investigations, but it also depends on the disposition of academics to participate in new forms of intellectual discourse in a more transparent scholarly community.

November 2003


1. The first written source of mnemonics is the anonymous Ad Herennium 86-82 B.C. For the history of mnemonics see Yates, F. A., The Art of Memory, London: Routledge, 1966.

2. Yates, F. A., The Art of Memory, London: Routledge, 1966, pp. 24, 38.

3. Giulio Camillo Delminio: L'Idea del Theatro, [1550], Marchetti, U. G. (ed.), Cernusco sul Naviglio, 1985, p. 21f and passim.

4. Used for the frontispiece of the exhibition catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art, NewYork: Museum of Modern Art, 1936. See Gordon Kantor, S. , Alfred H. Barr Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art, Massachusetts, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002, pp. 22-26.

5. See Williams, E. and Noel, A., Mr Fluxus: Ein Gemeinschaftsporträt von George Maciunas 1931-1978, Wiesbaden: Harlekin Art, 1996, pp. 90, 91, 128, 129.

6. See for example McLuhan, M., Fiore, Q., The Medium is the Message, New York: Bantam, 1967.

7. A cooperation between Kai-Uwe Hemken, the Technical University Berlin, German Telecom and the German Association of Galleries Inc., 1998.

8. See ZKM Karlsruhe: Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum Graz (eds.): Jeffrey Shaw – eine Gebrauchsanweisung – Vom Expanded Cinema zur Virtuellen Realität, Osterfilden 1997, pp. 132f.

9. A CAVE is a cubic room with back projections onto the walls creating a virtual space. Equipped with special 3D glasses and a joystick, the visitor is able to move around the virtual space. A head-mounted display is a helmet with stereoscopic projection, creating 3D perception harmonised with the movements of the head.

10. Produced by Franz Fishnaller and Yesi Maharaj Singh, members of the Italian media agency FABRICATORS, in cooperation with the Electronic Visualisation Laboratory in Chicago and the Ars Electronica Future Lab, 1996/1997.

11. See Johnson, S., Interface Culture, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1999, p. 71.

12. MUD: Multi-User Dungeon, MOO: Mud Object Orientated.

13. Such offers exist also in the field of MUDs and MOOs, again simulating existing buildings or campus-environments. The example given, a virtual campus generated by Activeworlds, combining a 3D Learning environment, a text-oriented input area and the website of the University, proves that an integration of object reproductions is possible in this sort of interactive learning environment.

14. With the exception of 3D reconstructions of lost or modified architecture, which can of course be highly informative.

15. http://www.schule-des-sehens.de (03.11.2003).

16. A similar path was followed with the Lineamenta project of the Bibliotheca Hertziana. The project is an archive of reproductions of architectural drawings, enabling researchers to add comments to details and to mail those comments to colleagues with a link to the detail in question. Further visualisation projects are: movii: moving interfaces and images, for the 3D visualisation of e-learning modules, see http://www.movii.de (03.11.2003), a prototype of a museum information system presented by the group filesharing at EVA 2000 (Electronic Imaging and the Visual Arts), Berlin. See Prosek, S., "New Views", Konferenzband EVA 2000, Berlin, pp. 135-137.

17. See for example Opus: Creative Commons, an Indian project for collaborative artwork on the Internet, allowing the user to edit on-site images, http://www.opuscommons.net (03.11.2003). For further examples see: Fabo, S., “Das Museum lebt? Der Diskurs der Vernetzung im virtuellen Raum“, Zeitenblicke 2, 1, 2003. http://www.zeitenblicke.historicum.net/2003/01/fabo/index.html. (03.11.2003)

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