THATCamp CAA Reflections – Day 2

After some fascinating discussion about theoretical subjects of digital scholarship and rights and reproductions on Day 1, Day 2 of THATCamp CAA was far more about specific application of digital tools, and actual use thereof.

After a breakfast at my new favorite New York breakfast spot, Natureworks, I arrived at THATCamp CAA toward the tail end of a project demo session held in one of the conference rooms. While I didn’t have the chance to really look at many of the projects on display, some of them, namely “Simple Non-Secret Cryptography for the Humanities,” had real promise as creative approaches to humanities content. Also, Micah Walter’s demonstration of the Cooper Hewitt API was something I didn’t view at the time, but learned a great deal about in a later session. At the very least, it was encouraging to see so many creators demoing projects still in the development phase, an aspect of the process which is valuable to view, so as to help improve similar projects, but from which we are so often denied access (or creators are too afraid of sharing the inside of their efforts).

My first session was on U/X (User Experience) design, and participants were largely people like me – interested in learning more about design, with little to no practical experience in the field. After viewing the slick interfaces presented by Lev Manovich in his keynote the previous day, and thinking about reader interaction with a project I’m currently working on with a former classmate, the discussion was beneficial, providing an introduction to concepts and foundational texts to inform my work.

When it came to action, the most interesting session of my day was a two hour session on creative coding. Chris Coleman from the University of Denver led a workshop on how to create basic interactive programming using the Processing programming language, itself designed to teach coding through the use of a visual medium. While I’ve spent some time around programmers, and actually had the opportunity a few days before the THATCamp to work with some programmers and view the coding process over their shoulders, I never really understood the fundamentals of the actual process of coding, how information was input into a computer program and then transformed into something else. Fitting that Processing then is about that process, and in an extremely user friendly way. Commands written in Processing are executed on a virtual whiteboard, creating interactive shapes and designs constantly updated as the code is changed. I was able to create circles bouncing across the screen, changing colors and flickering in and out of existence. The experience gave me far greater insight into the work of programming than I had held before, and is certainly something I’d recommend anyone else curious about how computer programs are created without wanting to undergo training in C++ or R or any other major language.

The day wrapped up with a related session (at least, to me) on APIs led by Micah Walter of the Cooper Hewitt. As Diane Zorich, who proposed the session, put it, there is growing awareness among scholars that APIs are crucial to sharing and interpreting museum data, but few people actually know what they are or how they work. That was true of me, and I’d spent the preceding weekend staring directly at the Walters Art Museum’s API while attending their annual Art Bytes hackathon. Having someone who knew his institution’s API inside and out, and was in fact responsible for its creation, was invaluable. I wish I’d had the chance to learn about APIs before the hackathon, because they contain so much more accessible information than I’d thought, which could have led to a great expansion of my (already award-winning) team’s project.

The productiveness of the afternoon, with its programming practice and demonstration, was a rewarding cap to a positive two-day experience. THATCamp’s end marked my the end of my time in NYC, and it was an intriguing juxtaposition to walk through the hotel lobby past a number of art historians, some of whom I recognized as stars in the field, just arriving for the proper conference beginning the following day. There were certainly rock stars at THATCamp CAA as well, no disrespect to them. Art history, like most humanities discipline, still needs to work on fully incorporating digital scholarship into its disciplinary mainstream. THATCamp CAA continues to be a great start. If anything, THATCamp CAA needs to more fully embrace the idea of an unconference. Too many scheduled speakers, product pitches, and conference papers thinly disguised as discussion session proposals managed to creep into THATCamp (although, it should be said, there were far fewer scheduled speakers than THATCamp CAA 2013). Nonetheless, THATCamp CAA remains an important part of the conversation about the future of art history, and it was a wonderful experience to once again be able to attend.

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