Vorsprung durch Technik: multi-display learning spaces and art-historical method
The trajectory and heuristic success of Art History as a discipline has always been inseparably linked to the technical means of visualizing the material that is at its core. When in the late 19th century first analogous, then double-slide projection was introduced, associated methodological opportunities were identified and formalised through debate within the discipline. This led to a profound change in the discipline’s analytical rhetoric, installing vis-à-vis or comparative viewing as the primary mode of art-historical inquiry throughout the 20th century. In contrast, the more recent move to PowerPoint or equivalent linear digital presentation has not received the same form of attention within Art History. Whilst the impact on disciplinary rhetoric is undeniable, the affordances these technologies offer to the analytical frameworks of Art History are not well understood, nor have they been used to develop the discipline’s methodology further.
In this paper we examine the intricate relationship between analytical method and mode of visualisation. We begin by examining two types of inquiry prevalent in contemporary art-historical scholarship — semiotics-based visual culture studies and critical iconology — and focus on their specific affordances with regard to subject matter and mode of inquiry. Next, drawing upon our experiences of using Multi-Display Learning Spaces (MD-LS) within postgraduate visual arts education, we consider two types of current digital presentation tools: PowerPoint, which is commonly associated with the linear presentation of sequences of single slides, and Multi-Slides, a multi-display system designed to allow the shared viewing of multiple visual materials simultaneously. We propose that MD-LS, which encourage critical reflection upon displayed material by generating spatial configurations which afford orchestrated interaction between audience and materials, are better suited to facilitate contemporary modes of art-historical inquiry than linear presentation systems, which foster excluding forms of analytical rhetoric.
We conclude by proposing the informed use of digital presentation tools to engage actively in the deliberated authoring of perception. We wish to stitch what we term ‘multiple perspective inquiry’, in which the presentation of multiple pieces of visual evidence creates the conditions for complex argumentation within learning and research, into the discipline’s use of visual presentation technology. Finally we explore the implications of this technological shift for thinking about and practicing some of Art History’s most fundamental methods.
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