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

CCTP 802: Art and Media Interfaced
Professor Martin Irvine
Spring 2019

The Interdisciplinary Research Context

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 the implications of 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.

Two Parallel Tracks for the Course
We will develop the learning path in the course along two parallel paths: (1) week unit “building blocks” of key concepts, methods, and backgrounds, and (2) case studies of exhibitions and artists’ work in area museums.

Case Studies in Washington Museums
Washington area museums provide an especially rich set of resources for research, not only in the depth of the collections of art and artefacts, but also in providing living case studies of the role of institutions, politics, and technologies for mediating and transmitting forms of cultural representation. 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.

Course Objectives and 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.

Classroom location: Carbarn 318

Course Format

The course will be conducted as a seminar and requires each student’s direct participation in the learning objectives in each week’s readings, museum visits, 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.


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) A group collaborative "Interface Design" project, concluding in a "Curatorial Presentation" in the 13th week of the course (30%).
(3) A final essay assignment written as a rich media 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
Wed. and Thurs. 12:00-2:00, and by appointment. I will also be available most days after class meetings.

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.

Required Books:

  • Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command: Extending the Language of New Media (London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).
  • Carol Strickland, The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to the Present, 3rd ed. (Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2017).

Course eText Library for Required Readings (Google Drive)

Art History: Research Sources Online

Museums (with exemplary websites and digital resources)

Museums: Washington, DC

Libraries and Archives (with exemplary websites and digital resources)

Websites and Interfaces to the Commercial Artworld

Links to Online Resources

Learning Goals and Main Topics:

  • Introduction to course: interdisciplinary methods, conceptual and theoretical framework
  • Extending the conceptual metaphor of interface: artworks as interfaces, museums and other institutions as interfaces, physical/material and conceptual/semiotic interfaces.

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

  • In-class discussion of basic concepts, examples, and case studies

Using Research Tools for this Course (and beyond)

  • Required: Learn how to use Zotero for managing bibliography and data for references and footnotes.
    Directions and link to app, Georgetown Library (click open the "Zotero" tab).
    You can export and cut and paste your references into writing assignments for this course.
  • Georgetown Library Online Journal Search (click on "Journal" tab)
    With Off-Campus Login for enrolled students.
    Access to journals in our fields of study for the relevant research literature.

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).
    • Top Folder Directory of eText Library for Students (all topics)
    • Major art history references in the eText Library:
    • 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.

Instructions for weekly discussions on the course Wordpress site

  • Use the Wordpress site for weekly discussion and your journal or ideas and questions.

See next week's unit for instructions on our first on-site museum visit.

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 (1): The National Gallery of Art
[Note: In case government shutdown continues, we will visit The Phillips Collection first.]

Handout to take with you: The Museum and Artworks as Interfaces: First Visit.

Video: Presentation of The Art Museum (book by Phaidon Press)

  • Note the categories and classifications used by the editors (a famous art book publisher):
    they assume the categories and cultural classifications are already given, the way things are.
  • Where did these categories, art genres, cultural classifications, and periodization of history come from?
  • (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.)

The Phillips Collection: Background to review before the museum visit

  • Phillips Collection: Museum History
    [Note the art collecting philosophy of Duncan Phillips, and the transition from private collection to public museum. The Phillips is the oldest private art collection now open to the public in the US.]
  • About the Collection
  • The Phillips Collection in the Google Arts & Culture site
    • Notice the different kinds and levels of "interfaces" we will investigate:
    • The museum itself as a designed structure 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.
  • Artworks we will discuss as case studies:

Learning from and with our Museum Case Study:

This week we will begin our studies with an on-site museum visit. We will view and discuss three different museum gallery rooms and contexts for an introduction to our main concepts and methods that we will develop over the whole course:

  • The Museum in its three function as Institution, Interface, Cultural Memory System
    • as a present-day interpretive-reception context in a historical continuum of reception communities; this context includes access to nodal relations in the larger networks of the art and culture system, including economic conditions, social networks, and other institutions;
    • as an interface to a cultural meaning system, a communication medium for understanding artworks under the category of "Art" in our culture (often expressed as the "education" function of museums). We can understand how individual museums work to fulfill or implement the museum function;
    • as an institutional means of transmission for artefacts over time and history for cultural memory (enacted in the museum professions for archiving, preservation and conservation, cataloging, interpretation and research, and curating).
  • For individual gallery rooms and presentation of artworks, we want to investigate:
    • How the museum context of the exhibition functions as an interface to the symbolic and interpretive concepts used and constructed.
    • How do the curators use the meanings of the physical space and arrangements of the works installed? How/why do we know that for a collection of artworks to be installed in prime historic gallery spaces means that this is a "serious," culturally symbolic event?
    • What do we learn about the dialogic context of artists and specific works being interpreted in the selection and organization in the individual gallery installations? What do we learn by taking in multiple paintings in one view?
    • How do all the communication "modalities" (kinds of media and symbolic systems used) work to create an interface to accessible, interpretable meaning by individual viewers (selection and organization of the artworks themselves, wall text, maps, brochures, exhibition catalogue, comparison of features of paintings in the digital image presentation in the last room of the exhibition, and other media you may have noticed)?

[Save for later week:]

Readings and Background Sources:

  • Class Handout for First Museum Visit: The Museum and Artworks as Interfaces: First Visit.
  • Background on The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (NGA) (museum homepage)
    [Review the key features of the museum as presented through the Website interface.]
  • Consider the history and background of the National Gallery of Art (NGA):
    • How does the National Gallery perform the historical cultural function of museum as mediator or interface? Of "national" culture and identity in world culture? The National Gallery began with the donation of Andrew Mellon's collection. How does private patronage function in the museum and artworld system in the US?
    • Consider the NGA in the larger built environment context of the Washington Mall, the symbolic values of surrounding architecture (neo-classical), location among Smithsonian museums, position on Mall between the Capitol and Washington Monument (and on to the Lincoln Memorial).
  • Compare the NGA website with The Louvre website (English homepage; you can switch to other languages). What patterns and differences do you detect in interface design, access to information, signs of symbolic value?

Weekly writing and reflection: After Museum Visit
(Write for next week's discussion.)

Learning Goals and Main Topics:

  • Continuing case study for understanding the social history of museums and the functions of museums and galleries in the modern and contemporary worlds.
  • Combining views from different disciplines and schools of thought:
    • Institutional views of art, art history, and museums
    • Theories of medium, mediation, and interface
    • Key concepts from the sociology and philosophy of art
  • Museums and "Art History," as constructed in the academic and professional disciplines, are now dual interfaces to our social-cultural-economic-political category of "Art". Where did this configuration come from?
    • "Art History" of course presupposes there are objects under the category of "Art" for which we can write a history , or multiple kinds of histories.
    • So we also need to investigate the concept of "Art" and the interpretation of objects included in the category for which we can construct histories.
  • Introducing a question for looking ahead in the seminar:
    In today's context, can a social-cultural function like the "art museum" be re-mediated with computer platforms and interfaces, including Internet/Web access to digital reproductions, networked media, database technologies for knowledge and history? How/why is this not simply a technological question?
  • We will continue to follow up with the Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting exhibition and the The National Gallery of Art as a case and context for this week.

Readings: What is the cultural function of the art museum? What is "Art History"?

  • Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, Second Edition (Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007). Selection from Chapter 1 and 2.
    [Review for the background history and focus on Chap. 2, on origins of art museums.]
  • Andrew McClellan, The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008. Review Introduction and Chap. 1 for this week.
  • Martin Irvine, "Introduction to the Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld."
    [We will refer to the institutional theory of art in our discussions about kinds of interfaces for art and artworld institutions like the Museum, Art History (discipline), and Art Galleries.]
  • Daniel Buren, “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.
    [Buren was a prominent French avant-garde modern artist and writer. This is a famous short essay.]
  • Brian O'Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery SpaceBerkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1986. Selections: focus on Chapter 1, pp. 13-34.
    [In this famous essay, notice that O'Doherty uses Morse's Gallery of the Louvre painting (which we will discuss) as an example of pre-modern art-space viewing. Follow his argument about the "ideology" of the gallery space (i.e., the design of modernist, constructed gallery spaces are not "neutral") and its connection to modernism. We will study this context and art historical period in coming weeks.]

Optional (for further research: in Google Drive folder)

  • Cuno, James. Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2012.
    [This short book is a collection of lectures by the former Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a major leader in the museum world. A good introduction to issues in museum studies with some good "encyclopedic" case studies.]
  • McClellan, Andrew. “A Brief History of the Art Museum Public.” In Art and Its Publics: Museum Studies at the Millennium, edited by Andrew McClellan, 1–50. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003.

Phillips Collection: Video Presentations

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


Shared Google Doc for Class Notes and Questions

Weekly writing and reflection (link to Wordpress site)
Choose at least one topic to focus your thoughts and questions about the readings for this week:

  • Write some notes on your experience at the museum visit considered with 2-3 of the concepts in this week's background readings. We will follow up with class discussion.
    • Note: General instructions for weekly writing and posting. (This week can be informal.)
  • Hints: Begin thinking about the multiple kinds and levels of "interface" and "medium":
    • the artworks themselves (taken from their historical and material contexts);
    • selected and organized works in a museum curated exhibition in a museum space with museum apparatus (interpretive frameworks, wall text, dialogic installations of works to be viewed and compared for relationships, video presentation at end);
    • digital and web-based media interfaces (which become interfaces to interfaces), combining "virtual" representations and information sources;
    • the exhibition catalogue and brochure.
    • Describe as many of the interpretive resources as you can in your experience of discovering and making meaning with the artworks in the context of the museum exhibition.
  • Referring to at least two of the readings for this week, discuss how we learn from the mediating function of museums and the different kinds of interfaces to the ideas, concepts, and values of the Art System.
  • First approach in questioning current computer interfaces: can the Museum and Art History cultural institution functions be mediated with the Google "Cultural Institute" platform? What is the purpose of the Arts & Culture platform -- the design of the user interface, layout of screen "pages," lack of contexts? Can someone learn art history, the function of museums, or what the cultural category of Art is from this interface? If we want to call it an interface, what is it an interface to/for?

Learning Goals and Main Topics:

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

[When the museums re-open, we will visit the National Gallery and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum for the case study on the work and career of Samuel Morse.]

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.

We will study the three aspects of Morse's career in the context of his time, and also pose questions about the further implications of his work for the way we think about art, media, and technology today:

  • beginning career as a history and portrait painter and co-founder of the National Academy of Design (New York) with an understanding of design and conceptual models;
  • as artist and composer of a metapainting, as an interface to art history for American's in the 1830s, The Gallery of the Louvre (1831-33), at the same time he was developing the telegraph.
  • as art theorist and early experimenter with the camera obscura and photography (Daguerreotype),
  • as inventor/designer of the electromagnetic telegraph and standard code for electrical signals.

These activities would have seemed more connected in 1840 than they do for us today. We will investigate the context for Morse's artistic work, his creative ideas (he saw everything as a matter of design), and the conceptual foundations of what we now describe as communication and representation technologies or media, and the assumptions behind all this work that expose earlier concepts of interfaces, design, and code.

We will focus on two of his paintings and their dialogic contexts:

  • The House of Representatives (on view at the National Gallery of Art [NGA]) (1822-23)
  • The Gallery of the Louvre (1831-33) (his famous "metapainting,: exhibited twice at the NGA).

And from his influence in photography and the telegraph:

  • Daguerreotype photographs, historical paintings, and Morse's telegraph (at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery)

What can we learn about how art (representational painting genres), media (photography and telecommunications), and electronic code technologies (Morse Code design principles) are closely related from the viewpoint of communications, sign systems, and cultural meaning?

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

Works and Backgrounds to Study in Preparartion for the Museum Visits:

Artworks at the National Gallery of Art

Morse-Related Works at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

  • Special Exhibition: Lincoln's Contemporaries: Daguerreotype portraits by Matthew Brady (includes photo portrait of Samuel Morse and Joseph Henry, whose work on electromagnetism Morse used). Brady learned this photographic technique in Morse's studio in New York. Good introduction to Daguerreotype photography as used for personal portraits.
  • Samuel Morse, Self-Portrait (1812).
  • Christian Schussele, Men of Progress (1862). Includes central portrait of Samuel Morse with his printing telegraph.
    • See also the artist's watercolor drawing made in preparation for the painting (c. 1859).
    • The installation space for this work also includes a portrait of Thomas Edison, and Samuel Morse's recording telegraph of 1844.
  • Index: All portraits and artworks related to Samuel Morse in the museum.

Background on Art History and Daguerreotype Photography

No writing assignment this week. Museum visits:
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery of Art.


Learning Goals and Main Topics:

This week we will combine two topics:

  • your responses and discussion of the works by Samuel Morse in the museum context and the larger significance of Morse's Gallery of the Louvre painting,
  • The major concepts and categories used in the study of artworks and art history: periodization, genres, cultures, national identities.


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

  • Sarah Kate Gillespie, “Morse and ‘Mechanical Imitation.’” In Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, edited by Peter John Brownlee, 100–109. New Haven: Yale University Press and Terra Foundation, 2014. [Read for background on Morse's work in daguerreotype photography and how it connects to his paintings and development of the telegraph.
  • 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, edited by Peter John Brownlee, 46–59. New Haven: Yale University Press and Terra Foundation, 2014.
    [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. Why did Morse use this genre for communicating art works from the European tradition to Americans?]
  • Cash, Sarah, ed. Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Washington, DC: Corcoran Gallery of Art; Hudson Hills Press, 2011. Excerpts.
    • The excerpts from the excellent catalogue provide background on the history and context of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (America's first private art museum). The paintings are now part of the National Gallery of Art collection. (Note the "salon" style installation of paintings and viewers from historical photographs of the gallery rooms in the 19th c.)
    • Read for the scholarly research background on Morse's House of Representatives, and other American paintings that I have included for synchronic context.
    • I have included the background on paintings by Thomas Cole (Morse's colleague and co-founder of the National Academy of Design, New York), and paintings by two other prominent painters, Church's Niagara and Bierstadt's Mount Corcoran, both of which were exhibited at the National Academy of Design.
  • Martin Irvine, "From Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project: Metamedia, and Art Interfaces."

Historical Background

In class projects and case studies

  • We will use the second half of the class meeting as a lab to work through examples and test hypotheses about ways to de-blackbox and decode meaning structures in artworks and other visual media.

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

Shared Google Doc for Class Notes and Questions


Group Report (link to Wordpress site)

  • Group discussion: meet with your group and chose one student who will record your group's ideas and discussion of Morse's works in the contexts that we are developing, and post to Wordpress.
  • Think through how we can use Morse's life and work as a case study for the main questions that we are studying: in the context of his time, how are his identities, practices, and ideas connected -- his work as an artist, as a founder of a school of design (still in existence today in New York), user of a camera obscura for drawing and painting and experimenter with Daguerreotype photography (which he was the first to bring to the US), and inventor of an electromagnetic telegraph and relay switch design, which became the standard telegraphy technology. How does his metapainting -- a painting of and about painting -- The Gallery of the Louvre connect to all these media and ideas? (Though we didn't view it person, we will also discuss The Gallery of the Louvre further in class.)
  • Individual work before meeting in your groups: Samuel Morse's works in the museum contexts. Before meeting in your groups, begin with describing your major "take aways" from viewing the paintings and other works. What did you learn about Morse's House of Representatives and other works from their exhibition context among other works and reception in the museum context? Then consider how the background history, concepts and approaches in this week's readings provide ways to deepen and expand your understanding and interpretations. Does the approach of "museum as interface" or "artwork as interface" open up ways to develop your own understanding?
  • Artwork in context question: How/why is the reception history of Morse's House of Representatives (from lack of financial success in his time to acquisition for Corcoran's private collection and then acquisition by the NGA) important for understanding its cultural-historical significance?
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").


Readings: Introduction to Visual Semiotics and Interpreting in Dialogic Contexts

Introduction to Visual Semiotics and Semiotic Methods

  • For basic background:
    Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007. Excerpts.
    [This is a widely-used student-friendly introduction to the major schools of thought, terms, and concepts in semiotic theory from a humanities perspective. We will go on to clarify our own set of terms and extensible concepts for visual art and media as artefacts with complex symbolic combinations.]
  • Martin Irvine, Introduction to Visual Semiotics (with a case study).
    [Read this as an introduction to the method we will be building out through the course. I've included a semi-detailed case study of a Van Gogh painting.]
  • Martin Irvine, "Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture: A Model for Generative Combinatoriality."
    In The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies, ed. Eduardo Navas, et al. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 15-42.
    [In this chapter, I introduce a model of dialogism in an interdisciplinary semiotic framework (and the parallel concepts of intertextuality/intermediality and remix). I have changed my mind about some of the details in the theoretical models, but this will give you an overview of the main concepts and terms that are applicable to all kinds of artworks and visual media. You can skip over the sections on music for now, if you wish, and focus on the general introduction and the application to art works in the later section. The interdisciplinary knowledge base I draw from provides a more substantial foundation for our approach in asking "what conversation(s) is an artwork or artist participating in, how is an artwork an interface to the dialogic meaning contexts of its time and ours?"]

Supplementary Reading:

  • Irvine, "Student's Guide to Mikhail Bakhtin: Dialogue, Dialogism, and Intertextuality."
    [Bakhtin's ideas have contributed to the contemporary cultural semiotics, media theory, and methods in art history. We have been developing the dialogic approach for building contexts of interpretation, and this introduction will provide a clearer conceptual foundation and rationale for this method. Read the introduction and selections from Bakhtin's writings to gain familiarity with key terms and concepts and how to apply them in your own thinking and analyses.]

Presentation (In-class discussion):
Foundations for Visual Semiotics (focusing on modern art)

Weekly writing and reflection (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 and for uncovering the dialogic principle, 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!

Main Topics: Framing an Interface for "Modernism" and "Modern Art"

We will visit two museums for an overview of works representing the Modern Art era. "Modern" art and "modernism" are highly ideological terms, even though we commonly use the words for "neutral" labels of historical periods. The main historical boundaries for Modernism and Modern Art are usually considered to be from around the 1870s through the 1950s. Our category, "Modern Art," is actually formed by many, often competing, movements and philosophies of art during this era, but they all had one, major unifying element: each movement -- from Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism -- was developed and communicated from the major cultural cities -- Berlin, Paris, London, and New York -- the centers of cultural prestige, artist and intellectual communities, and wealth that aligned itself with culture and "cultural capital" (in Pierre Bourdieu's term). To be "modern" in this era meant to be a city person, where everything, high and low, good and bad, connected, a nexus of social, intellectual, financial, industrial, and political forces that seemed to propel everything and everyone to some further "modern" future. (We are still very "modern" in this general sense. Globalism and globalization is a network of urban centers, an accelerated "Postmodernism.")

(For a presentation of the major differing views in Modernism and Postmodernism, see my Web page on "Approaches to Postmodernity [Po-Mo].")

For further background, see "Framing an Interface for Modern Art and Modernism" (Introduction).

  • National Gallery of Art, East Wing, visit (modern art galleries)
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum (top floor)

Readings (background):

  • Strickland, The Annotated Mona Lisa. Read the sections on Photography (92-95); Impressionism and Post-Impressionism (96-123); Twentieth Century Modern Art (128-145, 148-167).
    • This will provide a view of standard, received views of the period and exemplary artworks from the movements, styles, and traditions.
  • Prof. Irvine, "Framing an Interface for Modern Art and Modernism" (Introduction).
  • Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective, Volume II. 14th ed. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2016.
    • A well-illustrated overview of the "modern" era.
  • Laurie Schneider Adams, A History of Western Art. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. [Excerpts]
    • On Modern art from the 19th century through mid-20th century abstraction in America. Good general background introduction.
  • H. H. Arnason and Elizabeth C. Mansfield. History of Modern Art. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. [Excerpts]
    • Selections from a famous textbook "big picture" view of modern art. We will continue with this book through next week.

Background on major works at the museums that we will view as cases
(NGA=National Gallery; SAAM=Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Discussion will be at the museum.


Learning Goals and Main Topics:

This week we will use our museum visit to the National Gallery to open up the larger frameworks for understanding Modern, Postmodern, and Contemporary Art. Students will learn:

  • The major approaches for studying Modern and Contemporary Art (as these terms and categories are used in academic art history and in cultural and social history) as the framework for the rest of the seminar.
  • How the modern Artworld developed and emerged in parallel with Modernism, and how and why the social-economic base for art among European and American middle classes from the 1880s-1930s provided the "social capital" and "cultural capital" foundations for defining and valuing Art as a Cultural Category.
  • 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 counter-interpretations).

Readings and Video Backgrounds:

  • Art History Backgrounds: Read and review, for reference and context.
  • Art History Education Videos
  • Primary Text Backgrounds on the philosophy and theory of Modernism:
  • Readings from: Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, eds. Modern Art and Modernism. London; Cambridge; Milton Keynes: Harpercollins, 1983 (selections):
    • Charles Baudelaire, "The Salon of 1859: The Modern Public and Photography" and " The Painter of Modern Life" (pp.19-27).
    • Clement Greenberg, "Modernist Painting," (pp.5-10)
    • Greenberg was one of the most influential art critics and theorists of Modern art in the US, and his his ideas (and ideology) were also received in the UK and Europe. His views were very influential among art historians, museum curators, and artists (especially in New York). He developing a whole philosophical and political argument for justifying modern art as a movement and a notion of a goal for art practices. You can't understand "Modern Art" in America -- and then what emerged as "Postmodern" -- without understanding Greenberg's main assumptions.
  • Pierre Bourdieu and the Sociology of the Artworld (we will discuss in class)

Modernism and the Modern Artworld

In-class: "Art Value and The Artworld: Thinking with Bourdieu" (Presentation) (Irvine)


Websites and Interfaces to the Commercial Artworld

  • We will discuss these sites as interfaces to knowledge about cultural capital and symbolic value in the contemporary Artworld:

Weekly writing and reflection (link to Wordpress site)

  • This week's writing will help you develop your understanding of the artists, kinds of art, and ideas about art in the Modern period that we considered in our museum visit. From the main artists that we considered, choose two artists and two of their artworks to discuss in the context of what we call the Modern period (c.1860s-c.1950s). (You can also consult art history and museum backgrounds for other artworks by the artists you choose for further examples, but the NGA should provide a rich context to work with.)
  • You can choose two artists from around the same time-frame and place (1-2 decades and city), or consider approaches to art in a longer dialogic framework within the Modern period (how artists re-interpret art genres, mediums, and the function of art itself, and how artworks become dialogic responses to received traditions and ideas over longer time-frames). Think with and apply some of the approaches we have studied so far (the contexts of the Artworld, 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), and draw from backgrounds in the readings to make your own discoveries and interpretations of relationships and connections.

Learning Goals and Main Topics:

This week, you will learn the background history of optics and photography, scientific techniques that are now to be part of all "modern" visual media. But how "modern" is photography as a technique of representation?

Our modern notions of images and representations on two-dimensional surfaces have a long history of dependence on the optical image: the look of lens-projected images and photographic images from a monocular (single-eye) point of view.

The principles of optics have endured from the time of earliest discoveries to the design of software for digital images and simulation of 3D virtual camera points of view in CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) software used in film making. The earliest discoveries extrapolated from understanding how the eye sees (with an embedded organic lens), from studying and using the properties of lenses (shaped glass or crystal), convex and concave mirrors, and prisms (a glass "pyramid" that "bends" white light into a rainbow spectrum of colors).

As far back as the late Renaissance era in Europe, artists have always known about, and often referenced or used, lens and concave image projections for an "optical look" (which we call, non-historically, photographic "realism). The cultural view of representation thus forms a continuum from 17th century painting and drawing practices to contemporary digital software for photography and film/video. When we view things on screens (displays or projections), the whole technical system is designed to simulate and reproduce the optical (lens-based) projected image. Contemporary digital media interface design is also based on the same principles for image projection on the two-dimensional pixel grid.

Modern, middle-class society across the world has been shaped by the development of small, portable cameras. We are now so accustomed to photographic images and the black-boxed simplicity of digital photos from mobile devices that we rarely think about how they are created and why we depend on them. We therefore also need to do a historical and cultural de-blackboxing to uncover the role and function of lens-produced images and the social ideologies about "realism/reality" that they represent.

Focus of topics in the readings and for in-class discussion:

  • Beginnings of optics, perspective, and camera obscura in Renaissance to early modern art.
  • Substrates for optical projections: the use of surfaces for imposing lens-based images; implications for painting, drawing, print making, and architecture.
  • Is the lens-projected image already deeply embedded in art history and cultural assumptions about representation on a 2D surface before the development of modern camera technology?
  • Learning the history and development of photography and photographic image from the 19th century to digital photography.
    • How does digital photography re-mediate the cultural expectations of the lens-projected image regardless of the technical or material means of imposing images on a substrate?
  • Digital photographic images: from artefact to simulation, from lenses to pixel-grid screen projections.

Readings: Backgrounds on Photography and the Optical Image

  • Alan Buckingham, Photography. New York: DK, 2004. Excerpts.
    [A very accessible illustrated overview of photographic image technology from camera obscura to digital images.]
  • Martin Irvine, "Introduction to Photography and the Optical Image" (intro essay).
  • 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.]
  • Michael R. Peres and Mark Osterman, eds., The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th edition (Oxford, UK and Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2007). Selections.
    [This is a magnificent historical and technical reference encyclopedia. Selections here are from the 19th-century development of photography, archival examples of 19th century photographs, the development of 20th-century photography and social uses of photography, and the technical background on digital photography. Of course, not for continuous reading (survey to become familiar with the background), but a great resource to study.]

Optional (for further research)

  • Liz Wells, ed. Photography: A Critical Introduction. 5th ed. London; New York: Routledge, 2015. Excerpts.
    [Read the introduction, and survey selection from Chapter 6 on Photography as Art. Also included is a glossary of contemporary terms used in photography theory and an excellent bibliography for further research.]

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.
    [Read for background on how digital cameras, lenses, light, sensors, and photo software work. Notice 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, software-projected pixel-mapped on screens).]

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

Demonstration In Class: Camera Obscura and Camera Lucida

In-Class: Film Documentary: David Hockney, Secret Knowledge (BBC)

  • Hockney explored the history of artists' use of optical tools (lenses, mirrors).
  • Low-res versions available on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2.

In-Class: Presentation: Introduction to Photography: From Optics and Camera Obscura to Post-Photography (Irvine)

Weekly writing and reflection (link to Wordpress site)
Choose at one topic to focus your thoughts and questions about the readings for this week:

  • Compare a painting or drawing that shows that optical and single-eye perspective were used with a photograph that demonstrates the same principles of lens-projection onto a substrate for fixing an image. Describe how the principles of 3D to 2D representation work and are used in the making of the representations.
  • Using the resources in the History of Photography section above, compare and interpret three photographic genres from different contexts, and identify 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). Using background and research information (sources above), describe the 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), contexts 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 contexts (the social-cultural functions of photo images). How would you use the terms and concepts we have developed so far: representations as interfaces, 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). When considering the genres of personal snapshots, consider how most of our personal everyday photos (especially smartphone photos) are repetitions of clichés and stereotyped performances (like what's posted in social media): what does it mean to use photos as tokens of social rituals?

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".

In the modern world, photographic "reproductions" of artworks and artefacts have provided the main representational "interfaces". Varying quality. The discipline of Art History as we known it 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.

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 sense of the term).

Main topics:

  • Modern and postmodern theories of images, representation, and reproduction as a context for describing and analyzing the relationships between art and mediation, or art and technologies of reproduction.
  • Modernism, and the question of representation, reproduction, and technical mediation.
  • How photography and photographic genres were integral to everything Modern and Postmodern, including mass media and reproduction technologies, and emerging awareness of the role of art in encoding and transmitting cultural memory in an era multiple representational and reproduction "interfaces" to art (photography and print interfaces).



  • 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.]
  • Art historical museums only recently included the medium and genres of photography as part of art history and a medium within the artworld. This is part of the conflicted role of photography as a technology and a medium in the artworld. Background:
  • 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 sections: Pref., I-VI, X-XII, XV.
    • This text is from the recent edition with the more accurate translation of the title of the work known in the English-speaking world as 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 other Frankfurt school theorists, but his argument is still in the grip of assumptions about "mass culture" as passive responses (as is Adorno and Horkheimer).
    • This is one of the most famous essays in media and art theory, and we can follow the argument closely for our context of digital mediation and remediation. Where Benjamin uses the term "technical," we can insert the term "digital" and many of the questions come alive again -- Benjamin 2.0.
    • For further background on Benjamin's philosophy, see Philosophical Background (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy): see especially sections 6-8.

  • 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 English translation of the first chapter of Malraux's The Voices of Silence (1953) was unfortunately "The Museum Without Walls." Malraux was addressing the question of the governing concepts of the museum and the photographic technology used to mediate the institutional function. There is a long tradition of developing and questioning mediations, representations, and interfaces to art and cultural artefacts, and will explore some of them as background for our contemporary projects.
    • Note also how photographic reproductions of artefacts works as icons and indices (in Peirce's terms) for the concepts that they stand for (icons) and references to actual, physical artefacts (indices). The whole is symbolic (in Peirce's term) in providing a representation, the meaning of which occurs only in further signs and symbols (descriptions, interpretations, relations and patterns with other works, etc.).
  • 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). The image we consider on a computer screen (any size) will be at different scale (size dimensions) and have different visible features. If digitized from a print photograph, information and details will be 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 you are viewing. What happens to our sense of an artefact (made thing or object) when its representation is so variable?

In-class discussion: what do we mean by:
copy, original, reproduction, image, type/token, mediation, simulation?

Presentation: Art and Museum Interface


Weekly writing and reflection (link to Wordpress site)
Choose at least one topic to focus your thoughts and questions about the readings for this week:

  • Using at least two of the readings for combining concepts, discuss how developing a theory of media and mediation is essential for understanding how art and all forms of cultural expression can be presented in an interpretive framework or interface.

Learning Goals and Main Topics: Context for Hirshhorn Museum Visit

Our visit to the Hirshhorn Museum will enable students to view contemporary ("postmodern") curated exhibitions in a museum dedicated to contemporary art (roughly, the art of our own era, which includes many living artists). The Hirshhorn Museum (a Smithsonian Institution museum) is our region's main "interface" to international contemporary art, and to the trajectory of art movements since late modernism (c.1960s to the present).

Our main learning goal is to use the current curated exhibitions as an "interface" for understanding how "contemporary" artworks (in any genre or medium, including mixed and multiple mediums) are defined, interpreted, presented, and given a museum context for the public reception works. 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.

The Curated Museum Exhibition

The exhibitions presented to the public in art museums around the world are organized, researched, interpreted, and physically maintained by curators, usually those with a professional specialization in the art historical period, an artist, or specific genres and mediums. The curatorial role or function is well-recognized in the artworld. Curators with different areas of expertise organize the selections of works from a museum's permanent collection that we view in the various galleries, rooms, and spaces in a museum. Other teams of curators organize, physically manage, and interpret installations of artworks for "special exhibitions." These are usually thematic or devoted to a specific artist, group of artists, or historical period. The 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. We will study examples of this practice at the Hirshhorn Museum.

Art Historical and Art Institutional Backgrounds

Our art and artworld era is 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 or art philosophy (compared with phases of modernism, for example). Contemporary and post-postmodern art has multiple currents, directions, and arguments happening in a global-international dialogue. Any art statement today needs to make its case in a very large set of ongoing conversations, critiques, inversions, subversions, and cultural and genre hybridizations.

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 global 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 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 it is an interface to?"

The exhibitions that we will view positions us in the midst of the art conversion in the 2000s and today. The dialogic method of interpretation will be an essential method for discovering the kinds of conversations, debates, assumptions, and arguments going on in this curated exhibitions. 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.


Museum Case Study: The Hirshhorn Museum

Postmodern and Contemporary Art Backgrounds:

  • 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.]
  • Julie H. Reiss, From Margin to Center: The Spaces of Installation Art (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000). Selections.
    [Lozano-Hemmer and Bradford work in art projects, and both exhibitions are examples of what is termed "installation art" (artworks presented and designed for specific art spaces, usually museums and galleries). This introduction will give you a sense of the ideas and background for this genre.]

Discussion: at the museum

  • No writing assignment this week: museum visit with background reading preparation.
  • Meet with your group to discuss the visit to the museum and exhibition, and prepare your group post for next week.

Learning Goals and Main Topics:

(1) Discussion of the curated exhibitions, and artworks and artists in our museum visit.

(2) 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 (the Google Art Project) 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.

Developing grounds for a useful critique, and going beyond: students will learn the key institutional and technical issues and challenges so that they can meaningfully participate the direction of digital remediation, and propose alternative designs and conceptualization of interface functions (social and technical).


On Mark Bradford:

  • Evelyn Hankins and Stephane Aquin, Mark Bradford, Pickett's Charge (Washington, DC and New Haven: Hirshhorn Museum and Yale University Press, 2018)
    [The curators' catalogue for the exhibition.]
(1) History and Theory for the Idea of an Interdisciplinary Interface
  • Foster, Hal. “Archives of Modern Art.” October 99 (2002): 81–95.
    • This is a famous statement in contemporary art theory. Consider how the "art situation" -- the historical-cultural context or "situatedness" of art in networks of relationships -- must be part of any kind of interface (interpretive structure or mediation) we would design today.

(2) Understanding the Affordances and Constraints in GUI Web-Based Media Design:
What are the affordances and constraints in the design of our current technologies for designing technical interfaces to art, art history, and dialogic contexts?

  • Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command: Extending the Language of New Media (London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012), excerpts.
    [Read sections for background on the nature of digital media, modern computers as metamedia, the photographic image as part of a software-based media system. What are the implications for understanding digital images as software artefacts? Do the underlying materials of photo technologies change social uses of photo genres?]
  • 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 recent statement of the contemporary design principles developed in the cognitive design tradition, which assumes that computer interfaces are designs for semiotic systems.
    • 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, 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, 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 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 interpretive interfaces?

Website and Interface Examples and Cases

How to design an interpretive interface for accessing the meaning of art (in-class discussion)

  • "Making an Interface": Considering how an interpretive interface should work, and how Web-based digital media interfaces can support conceptual design

Weekly writing and reflection (link to Wordpress site)

Topic for this week's writing assignment (Group post)

  • With the art history readings from last week as context, discuss the artworks in our Hirshhorn Museum visit. Focus on how the works are interpreted in the curated exhibition interface (conceptually) and in the museum space itself (the physical space: the internal gallery rooms and walls, the space of the "art container" which we understand as "symbolic space" for where art appears to us as Art). What about Hirshhorn's circular space and curved, partial-circle walls and floor plan? Does the circular space support and enhance the ideas and themes of the exhibitions?
  • Did the concept of "museum as medium" or "museum as interface" become clearer and more understandable in the experience of the artworks by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Mark Bradford in the physical-spatial context of this museum? How was your understanding shaped by experiencing the artworks in this specific place and time (considering what the Hirshhorn and Washington mean as a context and situation)?

Learning Goals and Main Topics:

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?

Concluding Case Study:

The Google Cultural Institute and Google Art Project as a "Meta" Mediation and Representational Project:

Consider all the ways to talk about the "Google Arts & Culture" platform as a project for mediating a complex semiotic system. How many layers of interfaces are involved? How can the platform function as an interface to the meaning system(s) that it is described as mediating? Where is the agency and connection to collective symbolic cognition for complex cultural categories?

Google seems to present the Google Art Project and related cultural projects 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.


In-Class Discussion:
Interface Design Principles for Art and Culture, and Background for Final Projects

Websites with Digital Interface Models:

Backgrounds on The Google Art Project and Technologies:

Google Art Project: A Meta-Museum for the Post-Digital World?

Experiment with 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.


Presentation (In-Class Discussion):

Weekly writing and reflection (link to Wordpress site)
Choose at least one topic to focus your thoughts and questions about the readings for this week:

  • As you think about the kinds and levels of interfaces that we have studied -- artworks themselves, institutions (museums, academic disciplines, the artworld), and forms of media (from print and photo reproductions to contemporary computational and digital media) -- what have you discovered about the way that communities and cultures make meanings (interpretations) with artworks? What kind of interfaces enable interpreters to discover meanings, as opposed to having meanings and values imposed or taken for granted, or accepting inaccessibility as the normal condition of things?

Instructions and Roundtable Discussion of Final Projects

  • General Instructions for your Final Project (Wordpress site).
  • In-class discussion of projects: we will have a roundtable discussion of your current state thinking and research, and a chance to get feedback and suggestions from the class.
  • Final projects are due to be posted as a Wordpress essay 10 days after the last day of class.
  • Student Final Projects from earlier courses (click on Final Projects):