Georgetown University
Graduate School of Art and Sciences
Communication, Culture & Technology Program

CCTP 802: Art and Media Interfaced
Professor Martin Irvine
Spring 2021: Online

Course Objectives and Interdisciplinary Research Methods

We experience art and popular media genres today in many contexts and with multiple kinds of interfaces and mediations (physical, technical, conceptual, cultural, ideological, and institutional). This course will provide a multi- and inter-interdisciplinary approach to understanding visual art, photography, film, and other media in our contemporary context of genres, technologies, and institutions of mediation. We will build an interdisciplinary knowledge base that draws from semiotics, the design principles of computing technologies, art historical and social historical methods, and institutional theory for approaching way to understand how art is mediated and constructed as a cultural category or object. As unifying and discovery principles, we will expand four main conceptual metaphors: interface, medium, networks and nodes, and de-blackboxing.

Using the key concepts of interface and medium, we will recover deeper continuities in our key ideas about representation and transmission of cultural genres and artefacts. When we expand the cluster of concepts for our notions of "interface" and "medium," we find that museums and artworks themselves function as interfaces to the larger systems of meanings, values, and social relations that make them possible and interpretable. Any artwork interpreted as such is first an interface to the system of meaning and genres of representation within which it is developed and into which it is received and understood.

By the end of the course, students will have gained the ability to interpret, explain, and research artworks, artists, and art concepts in the interpretive contexts in which we receive them, and explain the functions of interpretive interfaces in their institutional, cultural, and technically mediated modes.

Case Studies in Washington Museums: COVID Safety and Online Considerations

Depending on the health and safety policies for visiting DC museums, we will build many course units on visiting and studying first-hand curated exhibitions in museums as case studies to apply the methods in the course. We will also study the online and virtual interfaces and designed contexts for presenting and interpreting artworks. In both "interface" modes (physical institutional contexts and online presentations) the museum case studies will open up the role of institutions, cultural interpretive contexts, and technologies for mediating and transmitting forms of cultural artefacts. With historical and conceptual background developed in the course, we will use artworks and artefacts in their museum contexts as cases for developing research questions and applying theory and methods for in-depth interpretation and analysis. Students will develop their own research projects based on artworks, photography, and other artefacts in Washington area museums, whether by visiting them personally and/or by presentation in "virtual museum" interfaces.

Course Outcomes

Students will learn the main interdisciplinary methods for interpreting art and media in the systems of genres, material forms, and technologies in which they are developed and received. With a deeper understanding of what an interface and medium are and can be (both conceptually and technically), students will not only be equipped to analyze current and past technologies of mediation and representation, but will understand how to apply this knowledge to the design of interpretive frameworks for any kind of cultural artefact or medium. This knowledge base and practice in designing an interface will also equip students to participate in ongoing research, critique, and implementation of technical and institutional interfaces for enabling cultural knowledge and the transmission of the cultural heritage.


Grades will be based on weekly writing assignments, class participation, and group projects (50%), and a final research project (50%).

This will be an online course for Spring 2021.

Full description of Georgetown Policies, Student Expectations, and Student Support Services: consult and download the GU syllabus document (pdf online).

Course Format

The course will be conducted as an online seminar and requires each student’s direct participation in the learning objectives in each week’s readings, museum visits (virtual and actual, if health conditions permit), and class discussions. The course has a dedicated website designed by the professor with a detailed syllabus and links to weekly readings and assignments. Each syllabus unit is designed as a building block in the interdisciplinary learning path of the seminar, and students will write weekly short essays in a Wordpress site that reflect on and apply the main concepts and approaches in each week’s unit. Students will also work in teams and groups on collaborative presentations.

Students will participate in the online course by using a suite of Web-based online learning platforms and e-text resources:

(1) A custom-designed Website created by the professor for the syllabus, links to readings, and weekly assignments: [this site].
(2) An e-text course library and access to shared Google Docs: most readings (and research resources) will be available in pdf format in a shared Google Drive folder prepared by the professor. Students will also create and contribute to shared, annotatable Google Docs for certain assignments and dialogue (both during synchronous online class-time, and working on group projects outside of class-times).
(3) A course discussion forum in WordPress for weekly writing assignments.
(4) Zoom video conferencing for synchronous class meetings, group discussion, and virtual office hours.


Grades will be based on:

(1) Weekly short writing assignments, individual and group, in the course Wordpress site, and participation in class discussions (30%). Weekly short essays must be posted by 10:00AM for each class day so that students will have time to read each other's work before class for a better informed discussion in class.

(2) Group collaborative weekly posts of comments for discussion (30%).

(3) A final essay written as a research essay or a creative application of concepts developed in the seminar (40%).

(Final essays will also will be posted on the course Wordpress site, which will become a publicly accessible web publication with a referenceable URL for student use in resumes, job applications, or further graduate research) .

Professor's Office Hours
To be announced. I will also be available most days after class meetings.

Georgetown Policies

Academic Integrity: Honor System & Honor Council
Georgetown University expects all members of the academic community, students and faculty, to strive for excellence in scholarship and in character. The University spells out the specific minimum standards for academic integrity in its Honor Code, as well as the procedures to be followed if academic dishonesty is suspected. Over and above the honor code, in this course we will seek to create an engaged and passionate learning environment, characterized by respect and courtesy in both our discourse and our ways of paying attention to one another.

Statement on the Honor System
All students are expected to maintain the highest standards of academic and personal integrity in pursuit of their education at Georgetown. Academic dishonesty, including plagiarism, in any form is a serious offense, and students found in violation are subject to academic penalties that include, but are not limited to, failure of the course, termination from the program, and revocation of degrees already conferred. All students are held to the Georgetown University Honor Code: see

Instructional Continuity
In the event of a disruption of class meetings on campus from inclement weather or other event, we will continue the work of the course with our Web and online resources, and will arrange for online discussions and meetings with the professor by using the Google Hangout interface in our GU Google apps suite. I am also always available via email, and respond to student messages within a few hours or less.

For Georgetown Policies, Student Expectations, and Student Support Services:
consult and download the GU syllabus document (pdf online).

Required Books:

  • Chilvers, Ian. Art That Changed the World: Transformative Art Movements and the Paintings That Inspired Them. London: DK, 2013.
  • Holzwarth, Hans Werner, ed. Modern Art: A History from Impressionism to Today. Köln: Taschen, 2019.
  • Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command: Extending the Language of New Media (London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).

Course eText Library for Required Readings (Google Drive)

Art History: Research Sources Online

Major Art Museums (with exemplary websites and digital resources)

Art Museums: Washington, DC

Libraries and Archives (with exemplary websites and digital resources)

Websites and Interfaces to the Commercial Artworld

Links to Course Online Resources

Learning Goals and Main Topics of Week 1:

  • Introduction to course: interdisciplinary methods, conceptual and theoretical framework
  • Learning how to extend the conceptual metaphor of interface:
    • what are the meanings of interface?
    • how is interface related to other concepts: mediation, representation, interpretation...
  • Kinds of "interpretive interfaces" we will "de-blackbox":
  • Artworks as interfaces to the systems of meaning in which they are received;
  • Museums and other institutions as interfaces;
  • Art theories, cultural values, and philosophies as interfaces;
  • "Reproduction" media, and computational media and data interfaces.

Course Introduction: Requirements, Expectations, Orientation

  • Format of course, requirements, participation, weekly assignments, projects, outcomes (see above).
  • Using our Web-based syllabus, discussion platform (WordPress), online etext library (shared Google Drive).
    • Why I use custom-designed websites for courses: teaching philosophy, instructional design, student access to materials.
  • Classroom rules: how to use PCs and mobile devices: no social media or attention sinks during class.

Using Research Tools for this Course (and beyond)

Course Readings and Reference Sources in Google Drive

  • Most course readings and major background sources will be from an eText Library:
  • Prof. Irvine's Google Drive eText Library for Art Studies (GU student login required).
  • Major art history reference texts in the eText Library (for study and reference):
    • Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Concise History of Western Art. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2013.
    • Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: Non-Western Perspectives. 13th ed. Boston: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2008.

Shared Google Doc for In-Class Comments during Zoom meeting sessions

  • Linked here.
  • We will use this shared doc in class instead of Zoom chat, so that we can can a live shared document that everyone can write notes and questions in. You can insert anything relevant -- from a web page, text, image, URL link, etc. You can also leave suggestions or questions that you'd like to take up in the following week.
  • Instructions: keep a web tab with this doc open on your desktop (small window is OK) so that you can go back and forth from the Zoom class session to this file as needed.
  • I will also post questions for you to consider "off line" when we pause the Zoom session for breaks or group discussion. This doc will also give us a record of weekly discussions, ideas, and questions for the whole semester.

In class:
Intro Lecture and Presentation (Prof. Irvine) (Google Presentation)

  • In-class discussion of basic concepts, examples, and case studies.
  • Example of image platform: Google Arts & Culture: what kind of "interface" is this?

Instructions for weekly writing discussions on the course Wordpress site

  • Use the Wordpress site for weekly discussion and your journal or ideas and questions.
Learning Goals and Main Topics:

Introducing Three Interfaces:

  • Museum-as-Interface, Art-as-Interface, and Digital-Computational Media Interfaces

Topics and Questions to Learn With:

  • How does our culture assume that meaning, value, and purpose is to be discovered and interpreted in artworks? How do artworks function as "interfaces" to the system of meanings and values from which they were created and which make them possible as art?
  • How can we understand the Museum as an Interface on several levels:
    to the cultural meanings and values attributed to artworks;
    to the "Museum Function" and the “Art Function” as developed in European and American cultures and now propagated internationally through a “Global Art Function” (internationalization of professions and professional practices, museum system adopted in non-Western countries, international and inter-institutional agreements, etc.).
  • How does the implementation of digital, computational, and network modalities extend but also create anxieties about the museum’s specific roles, internal functions, and professional roles: Preservation, Access, Re-mediation, Curation, Education, Publicity, Museum Identity Branding.
  • How do art/museum images circulate in the mediasphere of visual culture outside museum and artworld contexts? What is a museum artwork image in the environment of the Web and mobile device apps: Web-based press and media, and millions of personal photo app sites (Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, blogs, Pintrest, Youtube, Google Image searches and screen tiling, image and art-specific apps for iPhone/iPad / other tablets)?
  • Digitization, Software, and Cultural Memory. What are the challenges for the cultural memory function of museums in the use of digitizations of artefacts, digital memory, and information?

Museum Case Study (Virtual Visit, 1): The Phillips Collection


  • Introduction to four kinds of "interfaces": how do we know what "Art" is and means in our culture today?
    • Artworks themselves, as interfaces to the meaning systems in which they were developed (in their first context) and then in social-historical contexts in which they have been received and continually reinterpreted.
    • The museum: on two levels: (1) an actual physical institution in its location and historical/social context, and (2) the cultural function of the museum, which any individual museum serves and mediates (communicates the cultural function to the public).
    • Books and published documents that serve and mediate the Art and Museum functions (and all printed documentary materials),
    • Re-Mediation in Websites, digital images, and databases.
  • Use our art history guides for background on artists.

Video: Presentation of The Art Museum (book by Phaidon Press). Note the following:

  • Presenting a book in a YouTube video (two "interfaces"!).
  • Note how the publisher's message is about creating an "interface" (though they don't use this term specifically) to the cultural idea of the art museum, an imaginary "ideal" museum that our culture already "knows" before any art book is written, edited, and published. (We will find this assumption at work many times in the course.)
  • Note the categories and classifications used by the editors (a famous art book publisher):
    they assume the categories and cultural classifications are already given, just the way things are. Phaidon Press also has a cultural authority as a major, prestigious publisher, but all the ideas and categories are not theirs. The publisher is simply the mediator, the interface maker, in producing a big, beautiful book that reinstalls the cultural idea of the museum.
  • Where did these categories, art genres, cultural classifications, and periodization of history come from? This is part of the function of cultural institutions. (Yes, these are well-institutionalized categories, assumed as part of the "museum interface" to art history. We need to know these categories and concepts, but also learn how to critique their "givenness," and think about other ways of organizing and conceptualizing artworks and artefacts.)

Background and key concepts for your virtual visit

  • Prof. Irvine, "The Museum and Artworks as Interfaces: First Visit."
  • This is a "handout" to be taken with you on your first museum visit with the class, also for our virtual visit. If you can, print this out, read and re-read, and keep it handy when viewing and interpreting artworks, exhibition views, and museum architecture (exterior and interior) in the virtual visit. We will go over these key concepts in class.

The Phillips Collection: Background and examples for the virtual visit

Learning from our first Museum Case Study:

This week we will begin our studies with an virtual museum visit to the Phillips Collection in Washington. If possible, go out and view the museum building and location near Dupont Circle. The historical and present-day context of the museum's location in the city is also very significant for its role as a cultural mediator and interface.

  • Museum Website. See info on location and visiting. (Museum is near the Dupont Circle metro).
  • Phillips Collection: Museum History
    • The Phillips is the oldest private art museum in the US. It became a model for many others.
    • Note the art collecting philosophy of Duncan Phillips, and the transition from private collection to public museum.
  • Phillips 100: view the presentation that celebrates 100 years of the museum
  • About the Collection (learn about the collection history, with a GUI "interface" for searching.)
  • Presentation of Exhibitions: Past Exhibitions
  • The Phillips Collection in the Google Arts & Culture site: The Museum Re-Mediated
    • What kind of presentation is this? Contexts? Categories? Why all the tiles of images in same dimensions?
    • Notice the different kinds and levels of "interfaces" we will investigate:
    • The museum itself as a designed place for presenting a defined slice of art history.
    • The museum's website, digital photographic "reproductions," and other documents.
    • The museum's identity and sample artworks aggregated on the Google platform.
  • Some major artworks and artists in the Phillips collection (and as installed in gallery rooms):
    • For the website presentations, ask yourself: how are museum websites designed as an "interface" to provide information for making interpretations? what else could be part of the design?
    • Search the collection (link for search) for:
    • Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party (French, oil on canvas, 1880-81)
    • Henri Matisse, Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, (French, 1916, Oil on canvas)
    • Piet Mondrian, Composition No. III (oil on canvas, 1921/1925)
    • Piet Mondrian, Painting No. 9 (Dutch, oil on canvas, c.1939-42)
    • Mark Rothko, Paintings in the Rothko Room (dedicated gallery) (paintings from 1953-1957)
    • Paul Klee

Shared Google Doc for Comments during Zoom meeting sessions

Weekly writing and discussion (link to Wordpress site)

  • This first writing post can be informal. Write our your notes on what you noticed in the virtual visit, exploring the background of the museum, the history of its collection, example of an exhibition, and artworks on the website. Can you cite a few examples of the museum "interface" functions that we are beginning to open up?

Learning Goals and Main Topics:

Students will learn how and why the Art Museum (as cultural concept mediated through individual museums) and Art History (as a cultural concept mediated through professions, disciplines, and institutions) are inseparable in our culture, and now form a global, international network of knowledge, beliefs, and professional practices. The first art museums were rooted in concepts and social class identities associated with private and national collections. But since the beginning of the 20th century, Art Museums became organized by Art History, as this discipline became institutionalized in universities and museum professional roles. From the perspective of the sociology of institutions, we describe this kind of relationship as "co-mediation": through the socially installed "Art Museum Function," art museums implement the cultural idea of Art and Art History, presenting interpreted examples of the whole bundle of (often contentious) ideologies that make "Art" "Art".

  • Museums and "Art History"
    • Where does the idea of "Art History" come from, how do Art Museums install, communicate, and mediate this idea?
    • The philosophies, ideologies, and cultural categories for "Art History" and Art Genres have been developed in the academic and professional disciplines over the past 200 years, and now form one of the "interfaces" through which we know and experience Art.
  • What do we Mean by "Art History"
    • To talk about and learn Art History, of course, presupposes there are artefacts and objects pre-understood as classified under the category of "Art," for which we can write a history (and multiple kinds of histories). Here we mean "history" in the disciplinary sense of constructing narratives (stories) for certain kinds of artefacts in their time and place, in a framework of established categories (for medium, genres, styles, themes, etc.).
    • An Art History story is conceived as having origins ("where it all began"), connected sequences (explaining transitions and a "movement" or "direction" of the story), and often assumed destinations for the history (either bounded in time, or "leading to" our contemporary art today).
    • That means we also need to investigate the concepts for "Art," by means of which we interpret artefacts included in the category for which "art histories" can be constructed.
  • Learning from the Sources and Case Studies for "the idea of the Art Museum." Examples:
    • The Louvre (Paris)
    • The British Museum and National Gallery of Art (London)
    • The Metropolitan Museum (New York)
    • The Prado Museum (Madrid)

Readings and Video:
What is the cultural function of the Art Museum and Art History?

Introduction to the Main Historical Categories and Concepts of Art History

  • Although this isn't an art history course, students need to be informed about the basic concepts for historical periods, social contexts, and kinds of art genres understood in the discipline of Art History. You can review this background in the sources below for this week, and return these sources throughout the course as compendium of key concepts to inform your studies. When you finish a brief overview, begin looking for the main unifying concepts and assumptions used in the field.
  • Student Reader: Contents of Art History Textbooks (selected and edited by Prof. Irvine). Excerpts from:
    • E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (New York: Phaidon / Oxford University Press, 1950).
    • Laurie Schneider Adams, A History of Western Art, 5th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011).
    • Marilyn Stokstad and Michael Cothren, Art: A Brief History, 6th ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2015).
    • Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Concise Global History, 3rd. ed. (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2012).

Backgrounds on Art Museums: History and Cultural Functions

Museums for Case Studies

The "Big Picture" View of the Artworld: Networks and Institutions

In-Class Presentation and Discussion: Museum and Art Interfaces (Prof. Irvine)

Shared Google Docs for Discussion and Image & Video Examples

Weekly writing and discussion (link to Wordpress site)

  • This week's context for thinking about "interface" examples: The museum websites for this week's case studies provide many richly detailed mediated representations of examples of artworks, artists, exhibitions, art historical knowledge, and the cultural identity of the museum itself. (Museums zealously guard their "brand image" in the way they present themselves to the world -- which is why, in our examples, the Louvre and the Prado are not part of Google Arts & Culture). It's easy to get lost exploring the Web-accessible content and visualizations (which is a good thing -- make new discoveries!), and also easy to get frustrated by certain designs of presentations and levels of access to images and contexts. As you view presentations, contents, and features in the Web interfaces, discover for yourself how the ideas of the Art Museum and Art History co-inform and co-mediate our cultural idea of Art, and the function of the Art Museum. This larger "invisible" institution has been an interface -- the means for knowing and interpreting -- long before we developed the current technologies for mediating visual representations and the "data" contents of cultural knowledge.
  • For writing: From the Art History backgrounds and examples in the museum cases that you viewed, choose a presentation of some feature from the museums (e.g., artwork, artist, exhibition, art historical view, etc.) to discuss: describe/explain how the museum used the digital media and digital data technologies for designing an interface to one of its functions, how well you think it was used, and how the presentation relies on basic concepts from Art History shared by all art professionals (and assumed to be what should be communicated to the viewing public).
  • You can use our shared Google Slides doc for better visual presentation of images, videos, and links, and your own annotations. Use WordPress for your written paragraphs.

Learning Goals and Main Topics:

Museum and Artist Case Study:
Samuel Morse: Art, Photography, and Technology / Interfaces, Design, Code

We will organize the "Case Study" of Samuel Morse's works and ideas in two units. This week will be a "virtual tour" of the paintings and some historical background in Washington, DC museums and archives.

Next week we will study the implications of Morse's combined work in painting, art theory, his development of the telegraph and code for the first system of electronic signs, and interest in the first methods for photography, which included knowledge of the camera obscura and understanding the principles of optics (lens projection) and the chemistry for "fixing" images projected from lenses on metal and glass plates.

Samuel Morse is best known for inventing the American electromagnetic telegraph and Morse Code, both of which were adopted internationally (the international telegraph system as of 1900 has been called the "Victorian Internet"). But he began his career as an artist (a painter specializing in history and portrait paintings), and while visiting France in 1839, hoping to secure a patent for his design of the telegraph in France, he met Louis Daguerre (who was also a painter) in Paris. Morse learned Daguerre's photographic technique (a chemical processes for fixing a lens-projected image on a glass plate inside a box "camera obscura"), and Morse brought the daguerreotype photography technology back to the US. Morse set up the first US daguerreotype photography studio in New York, where Matthew Brady, the most famous American documentary and portrait photographer of the era, learned the Daguerreotype technique.

Samuel Morse as "Interface Designer"
Working at a time before the sciences and disciplines were divided, Morse shows us how art (representational painting genres), media (photography and telecommunications), and electronic communication technologies (Morse Code design principles) are actually unified when understood as systems of representation for cultural meaning mediated by material means and technology.

Introducing Samuel Morse: Life and Times, Paintings and Museum Background

(1) Virtual Museum Visits: Morse's Works and History in Washington, DC

We Begin Our Tour at the National Gallery of Art

  • Samuel Finley Breese Morse, The House of Representatives. Oil on canvas, 1822-1823. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, U.S.A.
    • This painting is an assemblage of miniature portraits of people -- a composite portrait. Compare this with all the miniature paintings in the Gallery of the Louvre, which Morse worked on ten years after this painting. He uses this form of representation as an interface to history.
  • Study for The House of Representatives. c.1821. Smithsonian American Art Museum.
    • Morse used a camera obscura (a box with a lens for projecting an image) to sketch the optical point of view for the painting. Note the perspective lines as guides for the composition. Morse was well-familiar with optics when he met Louis Daguerre in Paris in 1839, and brought the Daguerreotype photographic process to the US.
  • Gallery of the Louvre, Oil on canvas, 1831-1833. Terra Foundation for American Art.
  • Terra Foundation Collection: Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention. Traveling Exhibition sponsored by the current owner of the painting. See multiple venues and installation views. Museums as interfaces to Morse's museum metapainting.
  • The Gallery of the Louvre, at the National Gallery of Art. Background document for viewers on the painting, which was exhibited at the National Gallery on loan from the Terra Foundation in 2011.

We Now Go To The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

(2) Background for Morse's Gallery of the Louvre

Shared Google Docs for Discussion and Image & Video Examples

Weekly writing and discussion (link to Wordpress site)

  • For this week, keep notes about your experience of the "virtual tour," the museum contexts, and especially what you learned about Morse's famous painting, The Gallery of the Louvre. For your post, write from your own notes, make references to the sources above, and ask questions that we can work on in class. Focus on the artworks above and their backgrounds, and no further "outside" references (just like a "museum visit").

Learning Goals and Main Topics:

"If I have stepped aside from art to tread what seems another path, there is a good precedent for it in the lives of artists. Science and Art are not opposed." --Samuel Morse, 1868

The quotation above is a statement that is as true for today as it was in Morse's time. (There wasn't a term for "technology" as we use the term today in the 1860s; "science" included the knowledge that we we call "technology.")

This week we will go deeper into the long-term implications of Morse's ideas in his "Gallery of the Louvre" and how he saw his work in two other "media": the telegraph (with electrical code for written signs) and photography ("fixing" lens-projected images with photo-sensitive chemicals on a substrate).

  • We will continue to investigate the concepts for Interfaces (whether or not this term was explicitly used), and open up the connections to other communication and media technologies -- telegraph, code, and photography.
  • Interfaces to a Cultural Encyclopedia: These ideas prepare us for learning about a major function of art museums since the 20th century: the art museum (as an idea and cultural institution) functioning as a cultural encyclopedia for all members of a society. The "encyclopedia" ideal (which is related to the educational function) can be seen in how all art museums became organized for interpreting their artefacts through shared leading concepts, categories for genres and time periods, and ideologies for "unifying" the "story of art." The "encyclopedia" idea provided a beginning "database" system with cross-references and hierarchies of concepts for interpreting specific works and artists as virtual entries in this wider encyclopedia. We can observe how the "encyclopedia" function became institutionalized, in parallel with the academic professional field of "art history," and provided a macro, "big picture" story (known as a "meta-narrative" -- the narrative framework for all the stories included inside it).
  • We saw an ambitious contemporary representation of the idea of the art museum as "interface and database" in The Art Museum book and video by Phaidon Press.

Readings: Contexts for Understanding the Significance of Morse's Works

  • Martin Irvine, "Samuel Morse, the Museum as Cultural Encyclopedia, and Interfaces."
  • Deeper into Art Historical backgrounds:
  • Roach, Catherine. “Images as Evidence? Morse and the Genre of Gallery Painting.” In Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, ed. Peter John Brownlee (New Haven: Yale University Press and Terra Foundation, 2014), 46–59.
    [Read for art historical background on the genre known as "the gallery painting," which goes back to the 17th century and the time of Vermeer and Velázquez. Consider how Morse was reinterpreting this genre for communicating art works from the European tradition to Americans with the beginning of an "encyclopedia" idea.]
  • Sarah Kate Gillespie, “Morse and ‘Mechanical Imitation.’” In Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, ed. Brownlee, 100–109.
    [Read for background on Morse's work in daguerreotype photography and how it connects to his paintings and development of the telegraph.]
  • Read, Richard. “Painting and Technology: Morse and the Visual Transmission of Intelligence.” In Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, ed. Brownlee, 131-47.
    [Note the connections in the history of ideas for communication technology and paintings as communication media.]

Background on Art History and Daguerreotype Photography

Presentation (for in-class discussion, and/or study on your own):

Shared Google Docs for Discussion and Image & Video Examples

Writing and Discussion (link to Wordpress site)

  • Imagine that you are giving a presentation to other students on how ideas about "interfaces" and media technologies have deeper cultural-technical historical roots, and how Samuel Morse's works and career in developing media technologies can provide a new view of assumptions about art, media, and interfaces today. Develop your own presentational "interface" in Google Slides (2-3 slides) for understanding these ideas and deeper history. Use the background readings and examples of works, artefacts, and technical devices, and choose examples that you can connect together:
    • Consider connecting some of these topics: his work as an artist, founder of a school of design, using a camera obscura for drawing and painting, experimenting with Daguerreotype photography and establishing the first photography studio in the US, and designer of the electromagnetic telegraph, electronic code, and the relay switch.
    • Among all the fascinating ways that Morse worked in multiple media, how does his famous Gallery of the Louvre also function as an early interface to the idea of encyclopedic museum?
  • Use your WordPress post to provide a written conceptual framework for your slides.
Learning Goals and Main Topics:
  • Learning methods from semiotics and models of interpretation for discovering and understanding the dialogic contexts of artworks, artists, and art institutions.
  • Synthesizing concepts and approaches:
    • the functions of the material interfaces (museums as situated practices of the museum in its institutional function) and artworks as interfaces to systems of meaning and social contexts that made them possible,
    • the material mediums and semiotic structures (ideas, genres as clusters of types, involved in the cultural meaning of artworks: the physical features and material of artworks that enable interpretable responses to a work as a node in a network of relations that gives it meaning and value.
    • Dialogic positions and relations: configurations of possible positions in art genres, art practices, and art community receptions. What larger "conversations" is a work, body of work, movement, and an artist engaged in (whether consciously or not)?
    • Using cases and examples from both representational ("pictorial", or "objective" art) and non-representational (abstract, non-illusional, or "non-objective").

Introduction to Visual Semiotics, Semiotic Methods, and First Case Studies

Semiotic theory background:

  • Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 3rd ed. Routledge, 2007. Excerpts.
    [This is a widely-used introduction to the major schools of thought, terms, and concepts in semiotic theory from a humanities perspective. I clarify the main concepts in the following introduction.]
  • Martin Irvine, Introduction to Visual Semiotics (with a case study)
    [This is introduction to visual semiotics by extending C. S. Peirce's theory, which includes a method for discovering meanings and a method for research. You will learn how to apply the models and methods in this introduction throughout the following weeks of the course. Go as far as you can for this week, and we will continue with the concepts and how to apply them next week.]

Art historical backgrounds: Over the next few weeks, we will focus on "Modern Art," as this period and concept have be defined and understood.

  • Art history educational videos:
  • Survey the "classic" treatments and main exemplars in our art source books:
    • Chilvers, Art that Changed the World: from "Impressionism" to the Modern and Contemporary period (pp. 276-373).
    • Holzwarth, Modern Art.
    • Use the reproductions and descriptions in these books for forming your own "mental encyclopedia" of artists, kinds of work, styles, mediums, and the basic timeline. We will go on to analyze and critique this traditional presentation, but you need to know the basics before we can (re)interpret it.

Cases we will focus on for an in-class workshop:

  • The transition to non-representational art genres (also termed non-objective and abstract art).
  • From late Cezanne to Picasso's cubism.
  • Geometric abstraction and "high modernism" (Mondrian and the Bauhaus movement)

In-class: workshop on applying semiotic concepts and methods

Presentation (for in-class discussion and to study on your own):
Foundations for Visual Semiotics (focusing on modern art)

Shared Google Docs for Discussion and Image & Video Examples

Weekly writing and discussion (link to Wordpress site)
Beginning practice in using the concepts, models, and methods in our readings:

  • Think about how you could apply some of the concepts and methods for visual semiotics for interpreting an artwork in the "modern" period, and make a list of research and interpretation questions that you would need to pursue to discover useful ways of understanding the meanings of an artwork.
  • For practice in applying our concepts and methods, think about these two kinds of questions:
    • Questions about the formal principles for visual art as a symbolic system; that is, discovering how the underlying "grammar," structures, and genre codes, which hold for any visual symbolic form, are instanced in the type of work you are considering. These questions serve the macro-question "how does it mean?".
    • Questions about the social-historical contexts in which dialogism, the dialogic principle, is performed and enacted in actual, situations of expression and response. These questions serve the macro-question "what does it mean, what conversations is it participating in?".
  • You do not need to answer the questions that you pose (that would take more research), but the point of this assignment is to think with the concepts in the readings to discover the kinds of questions that you would need to pose to do productive interpretive work. Remember: everything about visual semiotics and the dialogic principle is about discovery: it is a discovery method, not a doctrine or ideology. Discovering the questions that lead to good interpretive research is always the first step!

Learning Goals and Main Topics:
Developing Interpretive Interfaces for "Modernism" and "Modern Art"

Although we can't study the whole scope of Art History as it is usually taught, we will begin a study of "Modern Art" and the ideas surrounding Modernism as a way to understand how art and cultural time-periods are constructed, and, beginning with examples from this period, learn how to interpret works, artists, and art movements in ongoing dialogic contexts.

Over the following weeks, students will learn the major developments in modern and contemporary art history, not only in Europe and the Americas, but in Asia and globally around the world. This week provides background and conceptual frameworks for understanding artworks through the dialogic contexts in which they were developed and received.

We will explore how recovering the dialogic contexts of art-making and art-interpreting can become an important part of designing interpretive interfaces (conceptual, technical, institutional, and ideological) for artworks, artists, art concepts, and ideologies. Students will also begin designing their own "interfaces" in presentations that provide access to interpretive resources for viewers of works and concepts in a digital visual media format.

Historical Framework

This week, we will focus on artist and works during the early formation of "Modernism" from the 1880s - 1930s (before World War II). This history can be usefully described as a network of "polyphonic" ("many voiced," Bakhtin) dialogic debates, reinterpretations, and responses to social situations and the role and meaning of art in the "Modern" world. The conversations and debates that started in Europe soon spread throughout the world.

We will continue our discussion from last week, and develop case studies and examples to think with in your weekly assignment and in class.


Video Lessons and Online Sources

Additional Sources for Research and Reference

Shared Google Docs for Discussion and Image & Video Examples

Weekly writing and discussion (link to Wordpress site)

  • Choose an example of an artwork considered to be important in the development of art concepts and genres in the early Modern era (up to the 1930s), develop a presentation in our Google Slides in which you position the work in its dialogic context. Use up to five slides with images, source credits, and your own annotations. Use established research sources for your annotations and image sources, like the textbooks above, and from not random web searches. Wikipedia is a often a good source for background and reusable images, but not a research source (you can go to Wikipedia's cited sources). [See individual topic assignments on the WordPress site.]
  • Putting content into your presentation: Consider: how does the work represent interpretations and responses in a wider conversation, what is assumed by the artist and an immediate community, what other kinds of interpreted sources (writings, technical media, other artefacts) became part of the dialog? Insert images and add lines or arrows for relations and connections, and explain how the work developed in a dialogic context, including (or especially) what an artist was rejecting, excluding, or trying to cancel in the new work.

Learning Goals and Main Topics:

This week we will continue our study of Modern Art and dialogic contexts for interpreting artworks in the 1950s-1960s. Students will learn:

  • The major approaches for studying Modern and Postmodern Art as these terms and categories are used in art history, cultural history, and the contemporary artworld. We will be developing and applying the concepts for "Modern," "Postmodern," and "Contemporary" as the framework for the rest of the seminar.
  • How to apply the concepts from semiotic theory -- the dialogic principle, networks in a meaning system, and relations in a cultural encyclopedia -- for understanding how meanings and interpretations of modern art have been developed in their reception contexts, and how meanings and values continue in our reception context today (debates, re-interpretations, and many forms of hybrid and mixed genres).

Readings and Video Backgrounds:

Practice Doing Museum Research on Artists, Movements, and Artworks

Shared Google Docs for Discussion and Image & Video Examples

Weekly writing: (link to Wordpress site)

  • After reading the texts and learning from the online sources, choose one of the artists in the video introductions above and select three exemplary ("prototype") works to discuss how the artist is part of a dialogic context. Create a presentation in 4-5 slides in our shared Google Slides doc for presenting in class. Research some historical and contextual background (including a museum reference), but you need little biographical information: let the works and dialogic network that you describe show how a work means in its relationships. Ask, how does the artist show in the works themselves how a new work represents a reinterpretation of art genres, materials and mediums, possible subject matter (including abstraction), and even the function and meaning of Art itself. How can we interpret artworks as dialogic responses in the active cultural conversations of the artist's community?
  • Apply and try out as many of the concepts and methods that we have studied so far: the dialogic contexts of art-making and art-interpreting, the elements and features of an artwork composed in a system of meanings, especially genre concepts). Draw from backgrounds in the readings to make your own discoveries and interpretations of relationships and connections. We will continue these methods throughout future weeks of the course, and this week will give you practice making it work for you.

Learning Goals and Main Topics:

This week, you will learn the background history of photography and photographic image technologies. We are so thoroughly socialized into the "normality" of photographic images in all kinds of media that we all take the photographic image for granted. Over the next few weeks, we will work to recover the "mediatedness" of photographic images, and learn how photography is encoded for different social-cultural functions, including mediating, and providing interfaces for, Art and the Art Museum function.

Readings: Backgrounds on Photography and the Optical Image

  • Martin Irvine, "Introduction to Photography and the Optical Image" (read first).
  • Alan Buckingham, Photography. New York: DK, 2004. Excerpts.
    [A very accessible illustrated overview of photographic image technology from camera obscura to digital images.]
  • Video Lessons: George Eastman Museum
    • History of Photography: From earliest processes to digital photography.
    • These are great 4-6 min. lessons. You can easily view them all, but make sure you focus on videos 1-3, 5-6, 8, and 10-12.

Digital Photography and the Photo Image as Software-Based Media

  • Ron White and Timothy Downs. How Digital Photography Works. 2nd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Que Publishing, 2007. Excerpts. [Download for easier reading.]
    • Read for background on how digital cameras, lenses, light, sensors, and photo software work. Note how all lens-based image technology involves projections and light capture on a light-sensitive substrate (film or digital sensors), and viewing the captured image inverts the process to a projection on a human-visible physical substrate (printed, or software-projected pixel-mapped on screens).
  • Video Lesson: Images, Pixels and RGB (From and co-founder of Instagram)

Prof. Irvine: Presentation (Study on your own)
Introduction to Photography: From Optics and Camera Obscura to Post-Photography

Resources for the History of Photography:
for reference and doing your own case studies

  • Gordon Baldwin and Martin Jurgens. Looking at Photographs: A Guide to Technical Terms, Revised Edition. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009. For reference.
    [Use for reference, but also become familiar with the technical terms so you you will understand the distinctions between different kinds of techniques and technical processes. It is essential to know the kinds of technologies and ways of "outputting" (printing) a photographic image before digital photography and photo software like Photoshop because everything digital is a simulation or emulation of photographic principles (lens-projected images on a substrate) regardless of medium or final processing.]
  • Magnum Photos: the oldest member-photographer managed organization, founded by Cartier-Bresson. Archive of major professional photographers, including those who are also members of the Artworld.
  • Kodak Archives: Heritage and History of Company | Milestones in camera and photo technologies
    [Kodak developed small, portable film cameras and enabled amateur photography as middle class consumer hobby. The established socialization of consumer camera users in domestic and personal photography enabled the rapid adoption of digital cameras and smart phone cameras. Ignore the corporate PR and focus on the history.]

Shared Google Docs for Discussion and Image & Video Examples

Weekly writing and discussion (link to Wordpress site)
Choose one topic for applying what you've learned this week:

  • (1) Drawing on the background readings and video lessons, choose two of your own photos -- or make new ones -- (not selfies) as examples of photo genres, and for explaining how the history of optical image-making is behind the design of a miniature digital camera and digital image. Describe what photo genre (or genres) your photos belong to (there is a list on p.12 of the Introduction essay). Then, describe how the lens projection on a substrate or surface medium works, and a technique for "fixing" a focused lens-projected image with a sensor and translation to a "file" in digital memory. Post your photo images in our shared Google Slides doc, and add some captions and descriptions. Then explain the process of making a digital photo in a couple of paragraphs in a Wordpress post.
    • Hints from readings and lessons:
      • (1) we never experience "photography in general" but as instances of culturally encoded genres (instances of types).
      • the light information focused and projected onto the digital sensor chip behind the lens in your camera is captured in a mathematical grid (matrix of x/y coordinates) of color values (the sensor substrate now acting like film or a flat surface in a camera obscura); this mathematical array is converted in software into a digital map of color values that "saved" or recorded as a digital file. The digital image file is again interpreted in software and projected into pixels on a screen -- the pixels becoming a visual "map" of the mathematical values assigned to each coordinate in the binary representation.
  • (2) Using the resources for the history of photography above, compare and interpret three photographic genres from different historical contexts, and interpret their genres and social-use contexts:
    (1) a photograph made before 1940 (in black and white),
    (2) a news, documentary, or photo-journalist photo since 1962 (in color); and
    (3) a recent personal snapshot photo (you can use one of your own if you wish, not a selfie).
    • Using background and research information (sources above), describe the kind of photographic medium (for pre-digital photos, kind of photographic print, type of shot, kind of camera if you can find out, before digital, digital source for digital), and the context for how the photo was known or received (in print in a book, newspaper, or magazine? in a print or TV program or advertisement? Circulated personally among friends or family?) Consider how we use genre frames (prior knowledge of types of photo images) and social use codes for what a photo genre/type can mean in shared contexts. Can you apply the terms and concepts we have developed so far: indexical, iconic, and symbolic functions of symbolic forms, tokens (specific time+place+material instances) and types (genres, conceptual forms that can be re-instantiated or re-tokened in other media).
    • Post your images with captions and brief information in our shared Google Slides doc, then explain how the photos can be interpreted in their form of medium, genres, and social-historical contexts in a Wordpress post.

Learning Goals and Main Topics:

In this unit, students will learn how photography has shaped the modern (and postmodern) understanding of art: first, the role of photography and use of "photographic reproductions" in art history (as an institution, discipline, and ideological "teacher" for the concept of Art in the artworld); and second, the role of photography in shaping the modern idea of an image, of representation, and "realism". The discipline of Art History as we known it today would be impossible without photography, without the institutional use of photographs to document and represent unique objects that could never be viewed in one time or place.

In the modern world, photographic "reproductions" of artworks and artefacts have provided the main representational "interfaces" for knowledge of artworks and the very idea of "Art" itself. Art schools and art history departments formerly depended on photographic images in books and in slides (transparent positive color photo frames mounted in a cardboard or plastic frame to be projected on a screen). Since the late 1990s, digital photos (and digitization of earlier photos) are now commonly used for study, and most photographic images of artworks and artefacts are now in online databases of images.

Of course, artworks and cultural artefacts cannot be "reproduced" in another medium -- their uniqueness and historical specificity are understood to be inseparable from the whole idea of "art" in our culture. This fact has made photography a troubled "companion" to the understanding of art and artefacts in the modern world: we accept a photograph of an artwork with the "indexical" code (an existing object outside the camera is "really" represented by the lens and substrate technologies), but then the "reproduction" image enters the world of all photographic images, and the uniqueness of the object fades away, together with the loss of any sense of context, scale (size and dimensions), and most physical-material properties. This makes photographic representations of artworks -- whether in a printed book or document, in a film or video, or in digital images rendered in/on pixel-based screens -- a problem for interpretation and understanding cultural meanings and values. The issues surrounding both the necessity and the internal-institutional contradictions entailed by photographic reproductions were first addressed by Walter Benjamin (in the 1930s) and Andre Malraux (1950s). Their insights and critiques are equally alive and relevant for us today in the era of digital "reproduction".

From the early 20th century to today, we have inherited many traditions of schools of thought, philosophies, discourse communities, and ideologies surrounding the question of art/culture and "technical mediation". It is essential to become familiar with the major concepts and approaches for building up your own vocabulary and working terminology for thinking about art and its interfaces (in all of the senses of the term).

Readings and Video:

Film Documentary: David Hockney, Secret Knowledge (BBC):
on artists' use of lenses and camera obscura

  • Hockney explored the history of artists' use of optical tools (lenses, mirrors) for creating images with an "optical look." Though there is some debate about when lens and mirror technologies were widely known (after 1500?), the main point is that the "optical look" in painting and drawing, and the techniques for painting and drawing "optical" images, began much earlier than photography. What we call "photographic realism" is the single lens-projected image on any 2D substrate -- which now continues in all digital photography and video (from lens projection to a digital sensor and to a pixel screens).
  • View in browser (or download) the BBC TV version: Part 1; Part 2 [GU students only]
    • See Part 2 (at 1:02 -) for Hockney's "Wall" of photos of paintings as an "interface" for interpreting the historical transitions in styles of image representation. (Compare with Malraux's "floor" of photos for his book, below).
  • Low-res version of the documentary available on YouTube: Part 1 | Part 2

Photographic "Reproductions" and Mediation of Art and the Art Museum as Cultural Categories

  • Bohrer, Frederick. “Photographic Perspectives: Photography and the Institutional Formation of Art History.” In Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline, edited by Elizabeth Mansfield. London; New York: Routledge, 2002.
    [This short essay is a good introduction to the role and status of photography in art history: what are the social consequences of photographic reproductions used as the medium of representation ("reproduction") for art works. Rather than considering photographs as neutral or transparent, we need to be aware of the functions of medium, mediation, and interface, and the problem of mediating (or re-mediating) cultural institutions and normative concepts, not just photo image representations.]
  • Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility" (1936; rev. 1939). (From the new edition of Benjamin's writings, Harvard Univ. Press, 2003, with the revised title.)
    Focus on these sections: Pref., I-VI, X-XII, XV.
    • This essay has become one of the most famous texts in media theory, film theory, and communication studies. We can follow sections of Benjamin's argument closely and update certain terms for our context of digital mediation and remediation for art and cultural artefacts. Where Benjamin uses the term "technical," for example, we could insert the term "computational" or "digital" -- and many of the questions come alive again (making a "Benjamin 2.0").
    • This translation of the text is from the recent edition with the more accurate translation of the title of the work known in the English-speaking world with the incorrect title, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin's title in German is "Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit" = "The Work of Art in the Era of its Technical (or Technological) Reproducibility." Benjamin's point was about technical designs for "reproducibility" as a feature of modern media, not "reproduction" as a simple fact of automated machine methods like printing, photography and film, or cinema.
    • Benjamin was part of the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxist writers who were engaged in a serious struggle with Fascism and state control over cultural production. He was writing at time when German Fascist capitalism and state-controlled cultural economies threatened to convert all media and cultural forms into tools of ideology, which included the loss of deeper cultural memory and identity. Benjamin proposed his own more nuanced analyses of history and media technologies than those by other Frankfurt school theorists (Adorno and Horkheimer), who were far more deterministic.
    • Optional for Research: For further background on Benjamin's writings and philosophy, see:
  • André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea)
    • Martin Irvine, "André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art". [Introduction to main concepts with excerpts from Malraux's text.]
    • "The Imaginary Museum," Part 1 of The Voices of Silence (French, 1951; English, 1953) (primary text in pdf).
      • Note the use of photographic reproductions of artworks from many time periods and cultural sources organized for comparison and juxtaposition, with Malraux's accompanying text.
    • The English translation of Malraux's book entitled La musée imaginaire was unfortunately "The Museum Without Walls." (The Imaginary/Ideal Museum book was also the first part his The Voices of Silence, 1953), Malraux was addressing the concept of the museum as a normative or regulating idea for the way art is conceived in the modern era, and how photographic reproductions, standardized in scale, are used to mediate the institutional function of the museum and the very idea of Art. He was not talking about eliminating the physical walls or boundaries of actual museums, or going "outside" the walls.
    • We can now translate and update his idea for our contemporary concept of "virtual." Our concept is a computationally mediated presentation and framework for art and artefact representations, which are organized by categories and types in the whole artworld institutional "database." And now, "virtual museums" continue the representation of institutions that archive and present artworks to the public as belonging to the larger "museum idea." We find that the "museum idea" -- Malraux's "imaginary museum idea" -- is stronger and more cultural durable than any technology used to mediate it.

Shared Google Docs for Discussion and Image & Video Examples

Discussion and Weekly writing (link to Wordpress site):
Choose one topic to focus on, and use examples to illustrate the main concepts in the readings on your topic

  • (1) What did you find surprising and revealing in the Hockney documentary? Are the popular "Romantic" ideas about art and art history disrupted by learning that artists used lenses and mirrors for developing the "optical image" in paintings and drawings since around 1580? And what we think of as "photographic realism" is really a very old idea about the way an optical image projection looks, and that it is no more "real" than any other style of representation (a mediated image). Use a couple of examples of artworks to illustrate.
  • (2) How and why has photography (for "reproductions") become so important for representing art history and the cultural category of art maintained by museums? What are the consequences for the cultural meaning of art and art institutions that we usually don't think about (as discussed by Benjamin and Malraux)? For example:
    • are there contradictions in using photographic "reproductions" (mass media images), whether print or digital, for representing "unique" artefacts valued because they are unique?
    • what happens to our need to understand historical contexts, and the material and physical properties of artefacts (including size and scale), when photographic images necessarily dissociate the artefacts from all material contexts and cultural histories?
    • what could be done to include more interpretive resources in our contemporary photo-based art and museum interfaces?

Learning Goals and Main Topics:
Context for "Virtual "Visit" of Two Hirshhorn Museum Exhibitions

Main learning goal: learning how curated exhibitions in specific museum environments function as an "interface" for understanding how contemporary artworks are defined, interpreted, and presented in different levels of contexts for public reception and "use" of the interface. As you have learned, there are many kinds of interfaces -- physical, institutional, and conceptual frameworks for aiding interpretation and providing access to networks of ideas, purposes, and values. We will focus on the genres and mediums of the artworks themselves as currently understood, as well as the museum-institutional and curatorial framing of two exhibitions.

Background on The Curated Museum Exhibition

Art museum exhibitions presented to the public today are organized, researched, interpreted, and physically maintained by curators, usually those with a professional specialization in art historical periods, an artist, or specific genres and mediums. (Note: the word "curator" comes from the Latin, "cura," meaning to care for. In the museum and archive context, "curate" means to "take care of, be responsible for," including making artworks accessible to the public through museum methods like exhibitions and catalogs.) The curatorial role or function is well-recognized in the artworld. Curators preserve, do research on a museum's permanent collection, and organize installations in a museum's gallery spaces. For "special exhibitions" (works not in a museum's collection), teams of curators organize, physically manage, and interpret artworks organized by artist or theme. Special exhibitions are funded by art patrons (foundations, corporations, and individuals) and made possible by loans from other museums and private collections. The special exhibitions are usually thematic or devoted to a specific artist, group of artists, or historical period. Special exhibitions are good examples of curatorial practice at work: every special exhibition will come with a set of "interfaces" for providing an interpretative and informational framework for viewing and understanding the artworks and artists.

Art Historical and Art Institutional Backgrounds

"Contemporary" Art is about globalization and hybridization. "Contemporary Art" is a troubled, troubling, and contested term, but like all art history time-period categories, we can work with it by filling in conceptual details, including the global and international perspective. "Contemporary" and "Postmodern" are often used in parallel or as near synonyms. The point is understanding how thought and practice continued to be more self-reflexive, and shifting away from the beliefs and practices of "Modernism" -- which included art, design, architecture, and photography -- to more open critiques and questions of beliefs that modernism took for granted. Globalization from the 1980s-early 2000s -- which developed through a network of global cities -- also facilitated a larger, more internationally connected artworld. In the 1980s-2000s, we saw museums, galleries, and art schools that included artists and works from many countries and regions rarely (if ever) seen in European (including the UK) or American art institutions in the Modernist era. Artists from Africa, all Asian and South Asian countries, and South America were entering the global artworld, and now, because of wider international communication, travel, and access to knowledge (especially through the Internet), the artworld is full of global hybrids and artist nomads -- styles, genres, materials, and hybrid artefacts from many artists who claim no single identity, whether nationality, gender, or ethnicity.

Our contemporary art and artworld era is also often termed an era of "pluralism" (many movements, global locations, philosophies, schools of thought, genres and mediums, and international cultures) with no real dominant movement, center, or art philosophy (compared with the phases of Expressionism or Modernism, for example). Contemporary and post-postmodern art has multiple currents, directions, and arguments happening in a global-international dialogue. Artists making art statements today need to make their case in the context of a very large set of ongoing conversations, critiques, inversions, subversions, and cultural and genre hybridizations. The scope of dialogism has expanded globally, and continues to expand.

The Contemporary Artworld Network: Nodes, Networks, Cultural Capital

Contemporary art and the artworld follows the law of nodes and networks -- there are concentrated nodal centers (cities and regions) and centers with highly concentrated artworld actions, transactions, and activities. The artworld works in this globally distributed network. Any museum, gallery, artist, or art school has a position in the network; the most highly connected nodes (dense nodes) are those that channel and accrue the most prestige, authority, and power. These laws of social, cultural, and capital networks have been an underlying structure of the world for hundreds of years, but they have become highly visible and regulative in our contemporary era.

Finding your way for understanding the "pluralism" of contemporary art since the 1960s is a daunting task. You can dive in almost anywhere and work through the way genres, mediums, and art arguments are positioned in multiple conversations, large and small, recent and historical. Here is where our two main semiotic orientations become so important in discovering and uncovering what is going on:

  • always ask "what conversations is a work, artist, or movement of artists (and a receiving community) participating in?"
  • always ask "how is this work / genre / artist's ideas / art movement an interface to the meaning system that made/makes it possible, and how can we construct an understanding of what these are interfaces to?"

The exhibitions that we will study in "virtual visits" position us in the midst of the art conversions from the early 2000s to today. Using the dialogic method of interpretation will be essential for discovering the kinds of conversations, debates, assumptions, and arguments going on in these curated exhibitions for a specific museum environment (physical and conceptual). Method recap:

  • The museum as medium and interface to the artworld and principles of organization.
  • The curated museum exhibition as a focused interpretive interface following the concepts used and criteria for selection by the curator(s) of the exhibition.
  • The dialogic context (the context of reception) of the historical moment represented, both inside and outside the artworld.
  • The dialogic relationships among artists and the statements and philosophies expressed in different voices, genres, and kinds of media used.
  • Artworks themselves as interfaces to the systems of meaning that made them possible and in which they are received.

Museum Case Studies for Contemporary Art: Background Reading

  • This a good time to review the first "handout" for our first virtual museum visit:
  • Study the contemporary art examples in our "post-Malraux" art photo-album book:
    Holzwarth, ed. Modern Art: A History from Impressionism to Today. Köln: Taschen, 2019.
    • The chapters on Conceptual Art and Post-Modernism have examples that form the dialogic contexts of the artists that we will focus on this week. Ai Weiwei is on pp. 648-49.
    • Mark Bradford (and our reception context today) positions his work in a long line of conversations about painting, the meaning and sources of materials used in art, and the social-political role of the artist. His work captures conversations with AbEx (e.g., Jackson Pollock) and Appropriation Art (e.g., Robert Rauschenberg) as well as Conceptual Art ideas (in his installations and site-specific work). Ai Weiwei makes hybrid art forms that are part of a global dialog. He draws from his knowledge of contemporary Western and global art and his experiences in the New York artworld when he was younger, and from the cultural history of China and contemporary political conditions and constraints on artists.
    • Both of these artists see their roles in larger social, cultural, political, and historical contexts. Museums now become interfaces for the artists' messages and ideas, not simply passive display containers for aesthetic objects.

Postmodern and Contemporary Art Backgrounds: Artbook Interfaces

  • Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents. New York, NY: Prentice Hall, 2011. Excerpts.
    [A very good overview of contemporary art from an international perspective. Read the first two chapters, and then follow your own interests in cultures and movements.]

The Hirshhorn Museum (Smithsonian), Washington, DC

Hirshhorn Exhibition Case Study: Mark Bradford, Pickett's Charge (2017-18) (wall installation)

  • A major genre category of Contemporary Art is the "site-specific" work (also known as "installation" art). This genre is an artwork designed for and created in (or at) a specific place or space -- usually created in an institutional art space (museum, gallery, or wall mural in dialogue with its context) or for an international art event (biennial exhibitions, fine art fairs). Many "site-specific" works are also ephemeral (don't last, are not permanent), and thus must be viewed and experienced in a limited time-frame at or in its place. (Wikipedia background on "site-specific art.")
  • The "site-specific" work relies on the Art concepts of material and physical uniqueness in time and place, in which meanings are understood to emerge from necessary dialogic interactions on two levels: the interpretive dialogue with viewers who can only experience the work in the same physical space and time, and the dialogic interplay with the meanings and values already encoded in the place, space, and physical location, especially museum and gallery spaces.
  • [Of course, making artworks specifically for a "site" has a long history before the contemporary genre concept (for example, commissioned artworks, outdoor sculptures, murals in churches, works for royal households, etc.), but the contemporary idea is very self-reflexive. The contemporary concept of site-specific-art makes the uniqueness of an art place or space, and the position of a viewer in that space, a primary aspect of its meaning and value as art. Many contemporary street artists consider their mural artworks in public spaces to be site-specific (not random), and in dialogue with a particular place and with the people and history of a location.]
  • Questions: How can a museum provide an "interface" to a site-specific artwork?
    What if we can't be at the location to view the work? What happens to the artwork when is removed?
  • Interfaces for Mark Bradford's wall installation, designed specifically for the Hirshhorn's circular round walls and viewing the work in that space:

Hirshhorn Exhibition Case Study: Ai Weiwei, According to What? (2012)

  • The Hirshhorn Museum recently presented two large (and curatorially challenging) exhibitions of work by the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei: According to What? (Oct. 2012-Feb. 2013) and Trace (June 2017-Jan. 2018). We will focus on According to What?, which included site-specific works and a full floor of the museum filled with installations of works designed to be presented in the museum's space. Ai Weiwei was restricted from traveling to the US for the exhibition, and he had to give instructions for how the works should be installed in the museum space. (Unfortunately, the Hirshhorn did not document According to What? with full video of the exhibition as installed.)
  • The Hirshhorn Presents Ai Weiwei, According to What? [background and press info]
  • Slide Show of Major Works in According to What? as Installed (Prof. Irvine)
  • According to What? (PBS NewsHour coverage with video of the Hirshhorn installations)
  • Interview with Hirshhorn Curator, Kerry Brougher, about Ai Weiwei's work and the context of the exhibition, with some shots of the work and conversations with the artist (PBS NewsHour).
  • Useful background sources:

Weekly writing (link to Wordpress site)

  • Study both examples of exhibitions at the Hirshhorn (and artists' background sources), and choose one to focus on for your writing (comparisons are good too, but focus on one). Try connecting ideas from the essays by Benjamin and Malraux on "photographic reproductions" and the "Museum Idea" for accessing museums and artworks in our digital context. Consider 2 or 3 of the main concepts in the background above on contemporary art, museums as interfaces, and how installations and site-specific artworks work in specific museum spaces. How much of the specific "place and time" meanings of the artworks in their museum exhibition installation context is lost, and how much can we still recover?
  • In considering interfaces, we also see the value of photographic and video records of ephemeral and site-specific installations after (even long after) the works are removed from the museum space. Is this one of the "long-term" curatorial responsibilities now, and a way of using digital media to provide "virtual" experiences when the actual "time and place" experience for the artworks is gone?

Learning Goals and Main Topics:

This week we will begin to synthesize (connect main continuities and parallels) the concepts and historical-technical implementations for "interpretive interfaces" to art as a cultural category, including the function of "institutional mediation" (museums, art history, and other social/cultural institutions). We will merge together theory and practice in both art and culture and technology and media for a concluding case study: analyzing the platform and interface design in Google Arts and Culture and other major museum and cultural archive sites and interfaces. We will extend and apply theory and concepts from Benjamin, Malraux, Bolter and Grusin, and HCI interface design for understand the assumptions and consequences of current digital interfaces for art, culture, museums, and archives.

Students will learn to apply our knowledge base and approaches for asking good questions about current assumptions behind Internet-based projects for digital platforms, interfaces, and databases for accessing, representing, and interpreting art and cultural artefacts.

Concluding Case Study:

The Google Cultural Institute (Google Arts & Culture) as an "Interface" and "Re-mediation" Project:

Google presents the Google Art Project platform as technology implementations. But what about all that's being mediated as the precondition for using the technology this way? Can Google (the company, the technologies) re-mediate the "museum" or "cultural transmission" function? What are the parallels and differences with the Google Books project?

We will also consider the longer history of meta-media interfaces to art, art history, and the system of art genres and art concepts which form the background of contemporary digital media re-mediations

Kinds of Interfaces and the Design Principles for Digital Platforms:
What Makes an Interface as Developed for Computing?

  • Prof. Irvine, Using Design Theory: Introduction to the Concepts of Interfaces and Affordances
    • I wrote this intro essay for my "Leading by Design" (CCT 820) course, but you should also know this background for understanding where the technical concepts come from.
    • What are the affordances and constraints in our current technologies for digital interface designs for art, art history, art institutions (museums, schools, etc.)?
  • Janet Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. Excerpts from Introduction and Chapter 2. For reference: Glossary of Terms.
    • This book is an excellent explanation of the design principles developed in the cognitive design tradition, which assumes that interactive computer interfaces are dialogic structures for our semiotic systems (now, combinations of digitized symbol types). A digital GUI ("graphical user interface") is designed not only for display but for facilitating kinds of user interpretation and directed agency to a computer system in an ongoing process.
    • Murray explains four key affordances of digital interactive interfaces. Follow her explanations for how the design concepts for computational and media interactions are operationalized (i.e., made routine for use) in actual implemented interface designs. Complete her view with the fuller description of interfaces as metamedia that project connecting points (nodes) for the meaning systems used in representations.
    • Connecting with the Bolter and Grusin Remediation reading (below), how do you understand what can be designed with the affordances and limitations of GUI technologies for providing meaningful views of art and artefacts without perpetuating the mistaken illusions of "immediacy." How can GUI and interactive interfaces be designed for interpretation, not just presentation of information?
  • Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000. Excerpts from the Introduction and Chapter 1.
    • This is a widely recognized major analysis of the features, social assumptions, and consequences of digital media (disregard the examples that seem outdated -- even after only 19 years!). Key points are what happens in digitization and re-presentation, the design principles and unexpressed ideology of "transparency" (making material mediation invisible with the illusion of presence), and the double sense of "remediation" (as "mediating over again" and as "making better, improving the state of something"). Consider the contemporary paradox of living in highly technical (physical) mediating environments that we use to create the illusion of things immediately (not-mediated) present or real.
    • In our study of art interfaces and artworks as interfaces, how do we describe and analyze the function and designs of digital media interfaces for art, cultural history and memory, transmission over time, and interpretation of artefacts as material objects in situated places and times? We can only digitize what is digitizable (features captured with sensors and software), that is, generalizable, extractable from specific instances, so how can we use digital interactive media (presented on screens) for access to what is material and time-specific in artworks and historical contexts of making and reception?
    • Notice what happens when we re-mediate photo images in digital reproductions (tokens standing in as indices for a source image). Merging with Malraux, the image we consider on a computer screen (any size) will be at different scale (size dimensions) and have different visible features and loss of features. If digitized from a print photograph, information and details will be further lost in the conversion process (lossy image format). Rendered with our device-dependent pixels, the perceptible features of the photo image are totally dependent on the properties and quality of the screen we are viewing. What happens to our sense of an artefact (made thing or object) when its representation is so variable and "device dependent"?
    • If we update the problems and questions posed earlier by Benjamin and Malraux, will knowledge of "Art" become that which can be "remediated" in digital images, representations, and simulations?
  • Jay David Bolter, Maria Engberg, and Blair MacIntyre. “Media Studies, Mobile Augmented Reality, and Interaction Design.” Interactions 20, no. 1 (January 2013): 36–45.
    • Consider this essay for ways to think about the design of digital media "interfaces," and how or whether the designs and affordances in Augmented Reality (AR) interfaces could be used for understanding art, cultural artefacts, and history. What would we need to design into the system for making them fully interpretive interfaces?
    • When we combine Bolter's research and theory from both readings, can we say that we're now in an era of simulation rather that representation? (Though simulations are forms of representations, or they would be uninterpretable as anything.) Could you write an essay titled "The work of art in the era of its technical simulation"?

Digital "Interface" and "Platform" Case Study: Google Arts & Culture

  • See About the Project [They keep changing this page for evolving PR. Review for the how the platform is presented.]
  • The Google platform, like any data source designed for the Web and digital screens, must use the affordances and constraints of the existing technologies, and the specific designs for their own propriety implementations.
  • Experiment with views in the platform, and note the interface organization principles (and lack of them). Analyze the assumptions in the way representations are structured. Choose some of the major museums for the gallery "walk throughs" (the "Zoom View") and experiment with viewing the high-resolution images and making selections for your own collection.
  • Notice the easy and lazy configuration of a view of Artworks by Date
    • Notice the "infinite scroll" technique (violates many GUI HCI design principles -- a user never knows where they are in the all the data, how much there is, what any image frame means in relation to any of the others, etc.) Click on various dates to fill your screen with more tiles ("thumbnail" image icons).
    • What kind of an "interface" is this? The design for the interactive Web "window" is the "interface" in computing terms. What is an interface to / for?
    • Similarly, the view of Art Movements
  • Google Experiments (computational, data, and machine learning projects)
  • Backgrounds on The Google Art Project and Technologies:
  • Contemporary Art (discuss in class: what kind of "interface" to "contemporary art" is this?)

Background Readings on the Google platform:

  • Google Arts & Culture Project, Wikipedia
    [Useful background on the technology, but reads like PR for Google. How are institutional contexts and the material history of artefacts treated?]
    • See especially the section on "Reception" and "Criticism" of the project.
    • What is left out? The article is mainly about the technology, Google, and initial criticism of cultural objects included.

Shared Google Docs for Discussion and Image & Video Examples

Weekly writing and discussion (link to Wordpress site)
Questioning the Google Arts & Culture platform as an "interface":
Choose 1 or 2 of these questions for focusing your discussion

  • Using the concepts for explaining digital media design principles in Murray's Inventing the Medium, critique how the Google platform does or does not not utilize and implement the main affordances of digital media (for linked networked digital data, and presentation in hypermedia GUIs [Graphical User Interfaces]? When is a data projection of "digital objects" (text, images, video) into a GUI window template NOT an interface in the interpretive sense?
  • We've learned that Interpretation and meaning-making (like learning) means going beyond what is familiar (to yourself) to the whole interconnected world of knowledge, information, contexts, and unfamiliar (new to oneself) expressions, representations, cultural forms, and cultures. Does the Google platform facilitate that? Why not? What could the world's larges "data" company do to provide information, "dialogic maps," or other interpretive representations for users to discover what artworks and cultural artefacts mean, not just digital "reproductions" as "data items"?
  • Is the Google platform an "interface" to the "museum as interface"? Can the museum function (cf. Malraux, museum-idea, and the museum as cultural institution) be re-mediated in this kind of platform and presentation? Can the cultural function of Art (Art as a cultural category for certain kinds of artefacts, cf. Benjamin) be re-mediated in this kind of platform and presentation?

Learning Goals and Main Topics:

Final Project: Designing an Interface

Combining and synthesizing our methods, concepts, and approaches to the idea of "interface" in all its meanings, how could you design an interpretive interface for any specific case:

  • an artwork in its full context of origin, networks, conversations, physical mediums, and reception history so that someone unfamiliar with the work or artist could make discoveries about how to interpret it
  • an artist exemplified in a 3-4 artworks
  • an art movement, school of thought, or time period for different kinds of art
  • a museum exhibition

Learning how to apply and extend the concepts and methods of the seminar to combinations of "interface media": knowledge from institutions and disciplines, and mediating with computational and digital media interfaces.


  • Based on what we've learned from our study of historically situated interfaces (artworks, institutions, reception communities, media representations [metapaintings, print-based reproductions and representations, digital and computational), how could we be better informed about what can, and cannot, be (re)mediated in/with/on a digital platform?
  • If we start with an understanding of how interpretations are made and discovered with symbolic forms and knowledge of their contexts, rather than with the properties of a technology, how could be think through the components of an interface design for art and cultural artefacts?
  • What sources and kinds of information (structured data) would we need to provide an interpreter (viewer) using computational and software "objects" for discovering meanings, values, and ideas accessible in artworks and cultural artefacts?

Interface Design Principles for Art and Culture:
Background for Final Projects

  • Prof. Irvine, Making an Interface (summary of concepts, examples, and background for final project ideas)
    • For our all-virtual context, how can we make good interpretive interfaces (providing ways for other to discover meanings, values, cultural contexts)?
    • How would you design an interface to enable interpretation and understanding?

Key Concepts:

  • (1) Interfaces (every kind: institutional, cultural/conceptual, media and technologies for representation)
    • How do artworks (and all cultural artefacts) function as interfaces to their systems of meaning (connections to cultural contexts and ideas)?
    • How do institutions (museums, publishing, academic disciplines, professions) functions as interfaces to how we know Art and what Art is?
  • (2) Dialogic contexts and situations for meaning-making: how do we access and enter the conversations in which artworks continue to develop meanings and values?
  • (3) Media, Mediation, Photography, Kinds of "Reproductions"
  • (4) Encyclopedic levels of meaning: what levels of meaning and correspondences (links) to other works, genres, and cultural ideas are assumed for interpretation; how do we access the ideas and network nodes?
  • (5) How can we provide access to what we need to know to make meanings (interpretations) with artworks in their Artworld contexts? Doing research and make inquiries beyond what is presented.

Student Final Projects from earlier courses (many may not be useful examples in our totally virtual context):

Getting started on notes and references (link to Wordpress site)

  • Choosing a project topic and thinking about the resources for interfaces for interpretations: For your final interface project, you will become a curator-interpreter for others by taking account of the Key Concepts above.
  • Possible kinds of topics:
    • a group of artworks understood as conceptually unified (by art movement, time period, style), even, and especially, a group of works that don't "look" similar but are part of the same dialog?
    • a curated exhibition in a museum (the physical building, installation spaces, and context of the institution, the virtual exhibition presentation, catalogs and other media, or combinations of two of these)
    • an art movement or styles
    • presentation of an Art category or artist in a virtual museum site.
  • You can use Google Slides, linked from your Wordpress essay, for better presentation of visual content.
  • Post some notes and beginning bibliography (all types of reference resources) for your project idea.

Final Project Instructions and In-Class Presentation

  • General Instructions for your Final Project (Wordpress site).
    • Note: We have revised and defined more precisely the format and purpose of your final project (not simply a generic research essay, as in the general instructions).
    • For all your references, be sure to use Zotero for managing and formatting your Bibliography or Works Cited list. (Clean up or revise the data in the fields that Zotero uses, if your metadata capture for books, journals, or other media did not populate the fields properly.) Choose your citation style, and be consistent in the formatting of your references, notes, and Bibliography/Works cited.
    • Your final project will take the form of either (1) developing your own "curatorial interpretive interface" (on a topic as explained in Week 13), or (2) an analysis and explanation of how current museum and art interfaces are designed (in any medium), and how interfaces could be designed better as contexts and frameworks for interpretation and understanding by viewers and visitors.
  • In-class Presentation: This week, students will present the main points of their projects and research sources in our online class meeting, and will have an opportunity for final discussion and feedback before completing the project and posting it. Limit your presentation to 9 minutes; this will allow each student to present their work and have a few minutes for feedback and discussion.
  • Deadline: Tues. May 3. Extensions are possible if you write to the professor to explain.
  • Use of your online project after the course: Remember that the URL that WordPress creates for your "Final Project" post is a permanent URL for you. You can post the URL as part of your "digital profile" wherever it can be useful to you (in a resume, LinkedIn, social media, internship applications, job applications, and applications for further graduate studies). You can also revise and update the post, at least through the official end of the semester when you can log in as an enrolled student, if you want to revise, enhance, or improve it for your online profile and resume.