RECONSTRUCTING THE PAST, TEACHING THE PRESENT: VIRTUAL REALITY, CULTURAL HERITAGE, AND PRIMARY SOURCE EDUCATION
My project originally focused on a large-scale cycle in the Alte Pinokothek’s loggia by Peter Cornelius that, executed between 1827-1840 and destroyed in World War II, depicted the history of Western art from the late Middle Ages to the Baroque. My goal was, through a recovery of this lost heritage, to rethink crucial aspects of 19th-century culture—from the rise of the art-history survey to the foundation of the modern museum and innovative public pedagogy. However, working on the conceptual aspect of my project, my focus shifted toward a new and more general set of questions that promised a theoretical import beyond the specificity of my chosen example: 1) layering; 2) the Virtual/Material; 3) the “Embodied art historian.” More about this soon. In general, a key motivation for my project was a desire to break through the persistent borders between research and teaching, and create a platform that allows for a tiered use (I call it the onion-principle of digital-based scholarship):
MOTIVATING FACTORS FOR ART HISTORY THEORETICAL PRINCIPLES
1) LAYERING: In contrast to traditional forms of publishing, my interactive approach to immersive reconstruction allows to layer different levels of exploration, data acquisition, complexity and scholarly depth. However, as a review of existing fellowships makes all too clear, the scholarly landscape still caters to a traditional division between the categories of pedagogy and research, thus forfeiting (if not altogether discouraging) one of the great advantages of an inherently mobile form of knowledge acquisition. My goal is to develop the notion of “layering” as a category to process (and implement) digital reconstructions for a diverse range of audiences, while addressing the thorny question “open access,” institutional hierarchies, and the conditions needed to have less privileged groups participate in new kinds of cultural/educational experiences
2) THE VIRTUAL/MATERIAL: Once reaction to the pressure exerted on art history by the “digital turn” has been the push toward “technical art history.” However, this (again) seems on many levels a rather artificial divide, not least because it divorces a strangely autonomous “object in itself” from the obvious fact that we often rely on digital methods to provide in-depth data about an artifact’s madeness. The proposed project allows me to rethink the virtual/material in more dialectic terms—as confluence and interaction. On the one hand, the murals themselves were a web-like preamble designed to provide visual training for an autopsy of originals. From its inception, the museum thus conceived of education as a dialogue between theory and technical art history. On the other hand, collaborating with the Max Doerner Institut, Munich, the project will be able to integrate documentation of restorations, climate control in exhibitionary settings, etc. (both past and present), thus using the digital to give access to materiality in ways impossible in print.
3) THE "EMBODIED ART HISTORIAN": The murals of the Munich loggia configured knowledge formation as inherently visceral and “random.” For one, the movement in space doubled as a movement through time, as the story of art became alive in brilliant colors. For another, this movement was not by necessity linear or comprehensive but guided by a logic of pleasure,
focus, and fatigue resulting in a highly selective process of perception and memory formation. Only an immersive experience can recuperate this sensation and, with it, its didactic potential. As such, the digital allows us to rethink the physicality of our discipline beyond a simple virtual/material divide.
My conceptual work the generated the following prototype: an immersive learning environment that generates approachable content and self-directed, equally valuable and valued paths through a choice-driven interaction with content (via zoom and clicking), based upon 1) “layering”: an integral intersection of research/teaching on all levels of the project that processes (and implements) digital reconstruction for a diverse range of audiences; and 2) a situation site-specificity (what I call “the embodied art historian”): visualizing the temporal-spatial dimension of an aesthetic experience as a means to understand the ideological and cultural implications to move through a specific and specifically curated space. This prototype now provides the basis for a profound change in subject matter as I moved—motivated by recent events as well as my experience in teaching a new lecture class Art in the Third Reich and its Legacy--from 19th-century museum decoration to Nazi Cultures of Display: A Digital Reconstruction of the Great German Art Exhibition and the Degenerate Art Show.
Few regimes have transformed art into an essential component of politics and ideology as radically as the so-called Third Reich (1933-1945). To understand the mechanisms of the Reich’s visual propaganda and its use of art to manipulate audiences this project reconstructs the 1937 “Great German Art Exhibition” (the first in a series of mammoth events to showcase the artistic achievements of Nazi Germany). While the exhibition was amply documented in its own time (including installation photographs and film footage) and has been mapped out in recent years (regarding installation layout, participating artists, exhibited media, etc.), what is missing is an experiential reconstruction that would allow for a sustained study of the exhibition’s spatial rhetoric as well as an analysis of individual pieces. This lacuna is not least a reflection of the anxieties surrounding a “state-of-the-art display” of an artistic production with literally murderous implications. The result of this reluctance, however, has been that the presentation of this problematic material has remained mostly the domain of neo-Nazi and white-supremacist groups. This is particularly true for the digital realm (online, youtube, virtual, etc), where the Third Reich’s visual imaginary is often recycled not to provide historical analysis but to glorify, promote, and reinforce white supremacy, overtly or implicitly. This project aims to attack this monopoly by replacing propaganda with a carefully curated space that offers a critically framed assessment of the Great German Art Exhibition and its effect on the viewer. Annotating iconography, motifs, artistic strategies, use in reproduction and afterlife, the reconstruction of the 1937 event aims to provide its audience with the tools to recognize and interpret the manifestation of racist ideology in art, understand its social-cultural mechanisms and recognize its persistence in contemporary imagery. In the spirit of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s approach to confederate monuments, this project focuses on a painful, problematic yet highly relevant aspect of cultural heritage. As this heritage is lost (due to exhibition’s quintessentially ephemeral nature as well as the physical destruction of much of the exhibited artworks during World War II), this project must by necessity resort to the most up-to-date digital resources. The project is built on the firm believe in the necessity of visual literary to create a critically informed citizenry.
Institute for Digital Arts & Humanities A research center of the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, Indiana University Bloomington social media channels