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aesthetics

Last week, I have attended a fascinating workshop organised by Mathias Blanc at the Louvre-Lens and Meshs in Lille. The workshop forms part of a project Mathias runs in cooperation with the Louvre-Lens and their current exhibition “The Le Main Mystery“. As part of the project “Ikonikat” Mathias and the team developed an app run on tablet computers that encourage visitors to the exhibition at the Louvre-Lens to mark-up areas of painting they have seen. The traces that people leave on the iPad are an interesting novel form of data to understand what people consider to be relevant when looking at paintings.

lenain

The workshop included participants from Austria, France, Germany and Great Britain who in teams worked on data gathered with Ikonikat and with video-cameras in the exhibition. In their subsequent presentations the participants drew on their respective expertise in art history, eye-tracking, image analysis, and video-analysis. The presentations led to fascinating discussions about the relationship between looking at and seeing art and the scientific, social-scientific, and sociological analysis of exploring museums and looking at works of art. I used my slot for a short discussion of relationships and differences between visitor research, investigations using eye-tracking and studies of social interaction in art museums.

Visitor Research has long been defined by studies using quantitative measures to assess the effectiveness of exhibits in attracting and holding people’s attention; the best-known measures are attracting and holding power – for a discussion of the relevance of ‘time’ as a measurement for visitor research see the Special Issue in Curator: The Museum Journal Vol.40(4) [1997]. In 1976, Harris Shettel, now a classic in visitor research, published a study in which he explored the attracting and holding power of exhibit elements. For the purpose of the study Shettel placed a camera behind exhibits to capture visitors’ eye movement. In a way, Shettel’s innovative research can be seen as a precursor to recent studies using more complex eye-tracking equipment.

Eye-Tracking is used by visitor researchers as well as by art historians to identify the elements of paintings (or other exhibits) that people’s eyes fixate for a measured time and where they ‘jump’ (‘saccade’) from there. The result are images transposed onto paintings that show the movement of a spectator’s eyes across a canvas. The analysis of these images allows researchers like Raphael Rosenberg who participated in the workshop to compare spectators’ visual behaviour with art historical theories about the form and content of paintings. Over recent years, eye tracking studies have moved out of the research laboratory into museums and are increasingly interested in how other actions, such as speaking, influence looking at works of art.

As the response by Gregor Wedekind revealed art historians are not in agreement about the use and usefulness of eye-track within the discipline. Not only is the technical effort of eye-tracking studies large but also the outcome at times seems to reflect knowledge about works of art and their form and content that art historians have held for a long period of time.

Sociological Interpretation of Pictures – Save for the scientific analysis of looking at art  conducted by art historians and cognitive psychologists, in sociology there are strands of research that has emerged in light of Alfred Schütz’s phenomenological analyses. For example, Jürgen Raab presented the phenomenological analysis of pictures and Roswitha Breckner presented objective hermeneutics as two methods designed to reveal contemporary people’s interpretation of images.

Social Interaction in Museums has been investigated for more than two decades. Whilst earlier research in Visitor Studies considered the presence and actions of people in museums as ‘social factors’ since the mid-1990s research originating either in socio-cultural theory (Crowley, Knutsen, Leinhardt and others) explores how what is being looked at and how experiences and learning arises at exhibits are the result of social interaction, talk and discussion. These studies often have a particular interest in people’s ‘learning’ from exhibits and therefore, for example, compare the content of people’s talk with the content of exhibitions.

 

Change of Perspective: Visitors’ Point of View

The approaches exploring people’s experience of exhibits and exhibitions can be described as ‘scientific’ or “formal-analytic” (Garfinkel & Sacks 1974). Researchers taking the perspective of the scientific observer categorise and measures the behaviour. They often consider behaviour as a response to the physical, visual and social environment.

For long, interactionist research has  challenged the scientific view of ‘behaviour’ and developed theories and methods to investigate ‘actions’ and their social organisation from the perspective of the ‘actor’; how do people produce their actions at particular moments in a situation? In developing ethnomethodology Harold Garfinkel proposed to eliminate the distinction between the scientific and the actor’s perspective. Thus, he radicalised interactionist and related approaches who argued for a theoretical change in perspectives and asked for a practical change of perspectives. As researchers we are not using typologies to describe people’s actions but we are interested in the practical organisation of people’s action. In other words: we are interested in how an action orients to a prior action, and how the action provides the context for a next action (Heritage 1984).

Audio-/video-recordings  provide access to this recursive interrelationship of actions as they are produced in front of exhibits. Rather than using a formal-analytic scheme to categorise action video-based studies of interaction (Heath, Hindmarsh & Luff 2010) examine in detail the moment-by-moment emergence of action. They examine the (social) organisation of people’s talk, gestures, bodily and visual action and their orientation to the material and visual environment. In museums, this means that they are concerned with revealing how people who, for example, stand at a painting look at the piece in concert with each other, use talk and gesture to jointly examine a particular exhibit element together and provide each other with ways of making sense of the object. Rather than considering action to be stimulated by exhibit elements, as visitor research has often argued, video-based research that draws on Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology inspects how people orient to each other and how they systematically embed aspects of the environment in their action and interaction.

 

Implication of Video-based Research in Museums

Visitor research is a largely applied field of research. From its origins it was concerned with assessing the effectiveness and to inform the design and development of exhibits. and exhibitions. However, by considering the material and visual material to be external to people’s action and interaction and conceiving it as a stimulus of action visitor research ignores the social organisation of action.

By focusing on the ways in which people organise their action and how they contingently intertwine their action with material and visual aspects of the environment, video-based studies that draws on ethnomethodology can inform, for example, the design of information resources deployed in museums and galleries. This requires systematic studies of how people orient to labels and paintings in art museums, how they use information provided in labels in their examination of works of art and in their talk and interaction with others. They can show that labels as well as novel interactive systems and devices are not only information sources for individual users but that the technology as well as the information displayed on them often become a resource that people embed within their interaction with others and that they use to influence and shape each other’s experience of art.

References

Bachta, R. J., Filippini-Fantoni, S., & Leason, T. (2012). Evaluating the Practical Applications of Eye Tracking in Museums | museumsandtheweb.com. In Museums and the Web. San Diego, CA.

Bitgood, S. (1993). Social influences on the visitor museum experience. Visitor Behavior.

Bitgood, S., & Shettel, H. H. (1996). An overview of visitor studies. The Journal of Museum Education, 21(3), 6–10. http://doi.org/10.1080/10598650.1996.11510329

Breckner, R. (2010). Sozialtheorie des Bildes : Zur interpretativen Analyse von Bildern und Fotografien. Bielefeld: Transcript.

Heath, C., Hindmarsh, J., & Luff, P. (2010). Video in Qualitative Research. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Heath, C., & vom Lehn, D. (2004). Configuring Reception: (Dis-)Regarding the “Spectator” in Museums and Galleries. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(6), 43–65. http://doi.org/10.1177/0263276404047415

Heath, C., & vom Lehn, D. (2008). Configuring “Interactivity”: Enhancing Engagement in Science Centres and Museums. Social Studies of Science, 38(1), 63–91. http://doi.org/10.1177/0306312707084152

Heritage, J. (1984). Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Klein, C., Betz, J., Hirschbuehl, M., Fuchs, C., Schmiedtová, B., Engelbrecht, M., … Rosenberg, R. (2014). Describing Art – An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Effects of Speaking on Gaze Movements during the Beholding of Paintings. PLoS ONE, 9(12), e102439. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0102439

Knoblauch, H., Schnettler, B., Raab, J., & Soeffner, H.-G. (Eds.). (2006). Video-Analysis: Qualitative Audiovisual Data Analysis in Sociology Methodologies of Video Analysis. New York: Peter-Lang.

Massaro, D., Savazzi, F., Di Dio, C., Freedberg, D., Gallese, V., Gilli, G., & Marchetti, A. (2012). When Art Moves the Eyes: A Behavioral and Eye-Tracking Study. PLoS ONE, 7(5), e37285. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0037285

Raab, J. (2008). Visuelle Wissenssoziologie. Theoretische Konzeption und materiale Analysen (Erfahrung – Wissen – Imagination): Theoretische Konzeption und materiale Analysen (1. Aufl.). UVK Verlagsgesellschaft mbH.

Shettel, Harris H. 1976. An Evaluation of Visitor Response to ‘Man and His Environment’. Report no. AIR-43200-7/76-FR. Washington, D.C.” American Instituts of Research.

vom Lehn, D. (2010). Examining “Response”: Video-based Studies in Museums and Galleries. International Journal of Culture, Tourism and Hospitality Research, 4(1), 33–43.

vom Lehn, D. (2012). Configuring standpoints: Aligning perspectives in art exhibitions. Bulletin Suisse de Linguistique Appliquée, 96, 69–90.

vom Lehn, D. (2014). Harold Garfinkel: The Creation and Development of Ethnomethodology. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

vom Lehn, D. (2017). Harold Garfinkel und die Kultursoziologie. In S. Moebius, F. Nungesser, & K. Scherke (Eds.), Handbuch Kultursoziologie: Band 1: Begriffe — Kontexte — Perspektiven — Autor{_}innen (pp. 1–10). Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden. http://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-08000-6_66-1

vom Lehn, D., & Heath, C. (2016). Action at the exhibit face: video and the analysis of social interaction in museums and galleries. Journal of Marketing Management, 32(15–16), 1441–1457.

 

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A couple years ago, I came across Elena Rossini’s Kickstarter campaign for a film titled “The Illusionists”. The film received sufficient backing and has been created over the past two or three years. Last week, Elena Rossini made the film available to backers and soon it will distributed more widely.

kickstarter

The film is comprised of historic juxtaposition images and film-clips that demonstrate not only the sexualisation of the female body in advertising and film but also the emergence of a standardised, global body image. This is most clearly and dramatically shown in the examination of the Japanese pop-group AKB 48.

Rossini uses AKB 48 as prototype for what we can expect if the recent development of the global media, celebrity and advertising continues in the same strides it has over the past few decades. Some bodies will disappear as Susie Orbach, who is interviewed in the film, says, and the Western image of the body that pervades media representation all over the world, will displace other representations of the body. And as the film powerfully shows by referring to the beauty products and their sales figures media representations increasingly have in impact on people’s actual body image and the work they conduct in order to shape their body to simulate the body of the media.

The content of the film also links nicely to current academic discussions about beauty and aesthetic judgement. Whilst in the past aesthetics was often considered as a category dealt with mainly in the arts more recently there has been considerable discussion about “practical aesthetics“, musical aesthetics, and everyday talk about beauty, aesthetics and fashion. The film neatly complements these discussions and the ways in which images of beauty and the sense of beauty change over time. Following Elena Rossini it seems that these changes are often driven by the ways in which bodies are represented in popular culture, including advertising, magazines and film. Further research on the relationship between body images, popular culture and celebrity culture might be interesting to pursue.

In sociology and in particular interactionist approaches there has recently been lot of interest in ‘everyday aesthetics’ and ‘practical aesthetics’. At the Participations 2015 conference in Basel in June a panel was organised by Saul Albert and Yaël Kreplak that explored how aesthetics and aesthetic judgement feature in dance (Saul Albert @saul; Leelo Keevallik), in the camera-work in TV productions (Mathias Broth), in the installation of art works (Yaël Kreplak) and in the performing arts (Darren Reed). Save for the panel at the Participations conference, there have been various publications that play into these debates: about a decade ago Christian Heath and I published “Configuring Reception”, a paper that introduced “practical aesthetics” as a practice through which people in everyday situations like museum visits produce situations in which they see and make sense of works of art and constitute them as aesthetic objects. Most recently, Lucia Ruggerone and Neil Jenkings published a paper in Symbolic Interaction “Talking about Beauty” in Symbolic Interaction where they examine participants self-reported aesthetic appreciations in relationship to their life-style.