King Hackathon’s mines

Photo: Yuri Goryanoy, CYFEST-12
Photo: Yuri Goryanoy, CYFEST-12

By Philipp Dvornik — graduate (Ph.D.) student at HSE Art and Design School; manager at the State Tretyakov gallery educational department.

In the frameworks of the CYLAND Intern Program


In place of an epigraph, please read the description of the Kukuanas’ internecine battle from Chapter 14 “The Last Stand of the Grays” in Sir H. Rider Haggard’s novel “King Solomon’s Mines” which depicts the battlefield as a triangle and provides tedious calculations of the proportions of opposing forces.


The purpose of this essay may not seem entirely relevant to the preservation of media art, as it discusses issues that relate more to museum curators facing the digitalization of museums more than to works of art themselves. However, the range of problems that scholars face in creating databases of museum collections may be common to both researchers of antiquities and researchers of new media art. The work of creating digital reproductions of artworks and digitizing knowledge about them has become an important part of the museum curator’s routine. I’d like to start the conversation about how the way of describing artworks can be changed by digital technologies.

Theoretical introduction

Art was contrasted with life when it was considered a way of representing life. Works of art capture life by means that have a material basis. With advances in technology, this material base has become increasingly complex and has lost obvious links with nature, yet it remains no less material. In the 20th century, cinema, radio and television, and then digital technology, gradually stripped artistic works of the obvious material foundation. This left us with just one medium attesting to the materiality of the artwork transmitted – the screen by which it is displayed.

Information is a concept that forms the culture of the digital age. The meaning of “information” is debated. Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that information is an intangible phenomenon. It is also clear that information is the product of human consciousness, which itself exists within the framework of the human mind. And the mind, in turn, has a material nature. Human consciousness is a phenomenon that synthesizes intangible information and its material source. For information to be transmitted, it must take some form of presentation, i.e. become data. The data is extracted from sources of information by analytical operations and discrete, although the information itself is a synthesis (interpretation, meaning) of the data. The data itself, because it has to be presented, takes the form of signs which are also “material entities”.

The art of the past is the most important source of information about the culture of humanity. Furthermore, it is a source in which the information is analogous (synthetic) in nature and requires certain analytical operations in order to be presented as data that is always discrete. We should remember that data does not contain information per se and must be interpreted (synthesized) to present it. Digital information-processing tools successfully simulate synthesis by manipulating numerical data streams and computational processes, bringing to interfaces something that we can directly perceive, which we consider to be information.

Historical works of art preserve the memory of artistic practices and processes of different eras in different parts of the world, and are also become items of interest for modern viewers, while some of them become sources of inspiration and ideas for contemporary artistic practices. Museum researchers are responsible for extracting information from historical works of art. Thanks to them, the quantity of reliable information is growing year by year, and becomes material for museum catalogs and academic monographs.   The publishing and educational departments of museums are responsible for promoting public interest in the works of the art of the past. The work of museum researchers (or curators) and museum educators has been greatly influenced by the ever-increasing availability of digital museum databases since the 1960s.

What distinguishes these databases from traditional inventory books, files, catalogs, and directories — the tools that art historians have used throughout modern history? How has the digitalization of data changed the work of art historians?

Industrializing memory

The extraction and interpretation of information from artifacts and the cultural context surrounding them is the humanitarian aspect of the historian’s profession, which is difficult to discard. Balancing the need for analytical operations with the desire for synthetic knowledge of culture and art, art historians use analytical tools to reach conclusions of varying degrees of generalization and credibility. So far, an important part of the profession has been a mastery of rhetoric, supported only where necessary by logic. Even the works of structuralists owe their credibility above all to the rhetorical skill of the authors, and only secondarily to their mastery of logic.

The analytical tools previously mentioned (inventory book, file book, catalog, or directory), which divide all the necessary information into user-friendly parts, are still the preferred tools for an art historian who directly studies artwork.  These tools are organic to the information environment in which an artwork exists in a museum exhibition or collection. They allow the historian to focus on the object of study, and set an appropriate pace for working with the information, similar to close reading. Reflections, writing explications, physical measurements and verification of the state of the storage facility, presentation of archival research results at conferences and much more — all this work creates a sense of harmony between works of art (with all their contexts) and research.

Information technology has in some respects facilitated our work. For example, instead of spending time searching for a record about the source in file cabinets or inventory books, and then getting permission to access it physically, we can find what we need in a database within minutes, and sometimes also the digital reproduction of the item. But as we know, for this luxury of instantaneous information (which is probably reliable) to be possible, someone must have access to the source of the information (items) and obtain it; present it in a certain language and check its veracity; place it in the context of the information already available (scientific, expert, sociocultural, historical); appreciate it (if we are always dealing with information- interpretation); then carry out analytical operations to present it as is acceptable for computer processing. We should not forget that the amount of this information is constantly increasing as it passes through the circles described above (and not all of them were mentioned) and be able to update it as often as possible. Information technologies have indeed accelerated these processes, which have increased the amount of total human labor devoted to the production of reliable information, but have also reduced its value.

As I wrote above, the properties of the information contained in the historical works of art are also its relation to (cultural) memory and its ability to interest modern audience. If the value of information itself decreases, the value of these properties may also decrease. In addition, we may assume that as the amount of art historians’ labor increases, so their labor organization changes, subdivided into smaller areas and tasks, algorithmized, planned and evaluated in quantitative terms, and ultimately alienated from working researchers according to the most commonplace laws of Marxism. There may be a situation where more staff will be required to build digital databases more effectively or to publish large quantities of digital data on museum Internet resources. Their task will be to fill in standard forms and to write impersonal interpretive texts in accordance with strict methodological requirements.

Small Electronic Computing Machine (MESM), laboratory of S.A. Lebedev, Kiev Institute of Electrotechnology. Early 1950s.
Small Electronic Computing Machine (MESM), laboratory of S.A. Lebedev, Kiev Institute of Electrotechnology. Early 1950s.

Art that did not exist

The tendency for the humanities to converge with the exact sciences increased throughout the second half of the 20th century. The need to apply scientific methods to the study of history and different theories of art has been persistently defended by semioticians, as semiotics takes a highly formalized approach. The demands for greater formalization of the humanities are only increasing as computer science offers increasingly complex and diverse ways of collecting, analyzing and evaluating data. But because all of these techniques are only suitable for computing, we can get more accurate results as we can extract simple and quantitative data from our sources. The loss of meaning in the translation of information into simple data and the automation of its processing is the main obstacle to the large-scale introduction of information technologies into the science of culture, a process which is increasingly unappreciated.

We know that science improves technology and production methods. The belief that computer science can infinitely improve its analytical tools has led many scientists to apply these tools to data that is ill-suited for this. The lack of confidence in the results of such studies calls for more “clean” data. This “clean” data does not always fully represent the objects of research. Methodological errors in conclusions related to the objects of research are most often caused by the identification of the objects themselves and their data. On the one hand, it’s common to confuse works of art with digital reproductions of them. On the other hand, works of art as objects of study are always systems of “very big” complexity, and the subject of research in the processing of big data is not the human but the computer. So the automation of art research on big data does not guarantee that 1) the results obtained will reflect the relationship between data sources correctly; 2) the conclusions drawn from them will in fact refer to the sources rather than to limited attributes that have been translated into digital data. Moreover, since research deals with objects of “very big” complexity that make sense not only by considering the formal relationships within themselves, but above all their relationships with an infinite variety of contexts, even works which are created in a digital environment require significant human involvement in the production of data to study them. Owing to all these circumstances, we cannot assume that we can increase the integrity of the research solely through the introduction of methods of exact sciences in analysis and evaluation of the data contained in art databases. And the relationship of the results of such research to the objects — sources of information (works of art) — requires very complex additional evidence.

There is heuristic potential in science: among other problems it solves, one that is romanticized more than others is the invention of things that never existed before. Dealing with research based on digital reproductions or art statistics, we can gain meanings that our sources do not contain, just as easily as we can make mistakes in generalizations based on empirical research of artworks. By applying big data in research, we get a history of art and culture where the cognitive value of individual artworks increases as their commonality increases with a large sample of similar works. The representativeness of an artwork under this approach, its ability to stand in line with as many other artworks as possible on a simple basis, is increasingly valued, and the unique features of individual things are lost in observational error.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned the widespread contrasting of art and life. This dichotomy allowed scholars of the past, in particular Yuri Lotman, to speculate on art as a model of reality. Now scientific and technological methods allow the digital environment to model the works of art themselves. So, the dichotomy has changed: a work of art, while remaining a model of reality and being part of it at the same time, can now be contrasted with the digital information model of itself.

The Kingdom of Engineering

Extracting data from historical works of art is like extracting minerals from the ground. Data, as a resource that makes up information, gains a definite cost in terms of how much human or technical effort it takes to get it. The applied value of humanities can be seen as the invention of new information based on processing obtained information. Research and the creation of works of art can also be seen in this context. Museums of fine arts can now be presented as deposits and enterprises providing reliable information about art and culture. I said earlier that perhaps the cost of such a resource is falling, but the cost of creating it is also increasing. Inevitably, in order to increase the benefits of information, museums seek to become information centers, effectively and increasingly developing their “unique” deposits. I cannot imagine the crisis to which the “overproduction” of this resource could lead, but I can point out what exactly effects the intensification of this process. These are information technologies and databases that have the capacity not only to provide data but also to be material for the production of new data.

The skills acquired by specialists in the humanities (art scholars working in museums) are increasingly being used to extract data literally by hand.

But the data itself can now be useful only if you can work with it in large quantities, which are incommensurate with the study of a single item. What kind of specialists can do this? Naturally, information technology engineers. It is possible that in the coming years, the most important task for art historians will be to acquire expertise in engineering. This is all the more important as digital humanities have become increasingly important. Many art studies are initiated by scientists specializing in computer science, and their results do not satisfy scholars relying on methods developed in the humanities. But more and more of these studies are being carried out, and the possibilities to carry them out are being expanded by art historians themselves.

Now is the time to quote the title of Vladimir Lenin’s article, “The Crisis Has Matured”. The essence of my revolutionary appeal is that it is high time for art historians to adopt the methods used by engineers. Firstly, it can be very useful for art history if important studies have turned towards working with databases. Secondly, it will help to take the process of creating databases into our competent hands: art historians know how to handle our material best. Thirdly, it will help to take into account the requirements of museum curators to organize their own work in filling museum databases.