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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

8 April 2013

Thinking about Fluorescent Bunnies

In a previous blog post anticipating the exciting symposium Shared Horizons: Data, Biomedicine and Digital Humanities, I looked backward to the discovery of DNA and suggested that Maurice Wilkins’s description of the nature of collaborative work held lessons for the digital humanities. But the aim of the symposium at Maryland is to look forward to new collaborations and to explore the potential that new types of data and analysis of data holds for humanities scholars. I have already suggested that a function of the digital humanities should be to form a bridgehead for collaboration between humanities scholars and scientists – in much the way that conservation science in libraries and archives has been one of the chief means by which humanities scholars become acquainted with scientific tools of relevance to their research. But in forging such connections, what kind of links between bioinformatics and digital humanities should we be looking for?

At one level, there are clear cross-overs of knowledge domain. A great deal of epidemiology depends on the use of historical sources, and historians can contribute completely new perspectives to the study of plagues and epidemics because of their understanding of these sources. I think inevitably of the work of my good friend Samuel K. Cohn at the University of Glasgow in his books The Black Death Transformed (2002) and Cultures of Plague (2009) which have challenged conventional wisdom about the nature of the plague in medieval and early modern Europe. Among the sources used by Cohn are health statistics from Italian cities, and in approaches to historical data of this kind there is the potential for a great deal of synergy between bioinformatics and a number of humanities disciplines. New forms of visualization and analysis offer wonderful tools for many different types of study, but also pose potential hazards, since there is a risk that, once historical evidence and texts are rendered into machine-readable form, we forget their context and become uncritical in our use of data.

Data offers rich new potential, but one of the surprising things we have found in our early development of the theme of ‘Digital Transformations', one of the strategic themes identified by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in Britain, is that there are other shared horizons and transformations which go beyond data. The importance of making is becoming daily more evident and imposing. It is clear that the technologies of 3D printing are likely to present another major wave of digital transformation. Amazon has secured a dominant commercial position by transforming the logistics of ordering; with 3D printing, the logistics of manufacture and delivery will be changed in an even more profound fashion, which will make Amazon seem as quaint as Victorian mail order catalogues. The potential of 3D printing is already beginning to transform the medical world. Hospitals in the UK are saving thousands of pounds by printing replacement hips and other bones. The possibility of 3D printing replacement organs such as ears or even internal organs using synthetic cells and bio-inks has already been successfully demonstrated, and will presumably shortly become routine.

In developing the ‘Digital Transformations’ theme, it is becoming increasingly clear that those engaged with the digital arts, because they are exploring new forms of making and experimenting with rapid systems development, will be key people in coming to terms with these new developments. I think for example of the work of Professor Ian Gwilt at Sheffield Hallam University on 3D printing representations of data visualisations, which give us new ways of engaging with data as a tactile object. I have also found very exciting the work of Dr Rob Toulson at Anglia Ruskin University on new approaches to audio engineering. For many years, there has been an aspiration to achieve a great synergy between the work of practicing artists and humanities scholars, and my sense is that finally there is the potential for a very rich and fruitful collaboration. Those working with the digital arts will, in my view, provide a means by which humanities scholars can help assimilate and deploy the new approaches which the maker revolution will produce.

In thinking about biomedicine, art probably seems a long way away. Yet medical research can become cultural heritage and art. When I was at the British Library, a model of Alexander Fleming’s penicillin culture and the careful drawing made by him formed one the most distinctive and attractive objects in the display of modern historical papers. Fleming himself was aware of the potential of biomedicine to create art. He was an amateur painter, but also used microbes themselves to create art. A recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine describes how ‘Fleming painted ballerinas, houses, soldiers, mothers feeding children, stick figures fighting and other scenes using bacteria. He produced these paintings by growing microbes with different natural pigments in the places where he wanted different colors. He would fill a petri dish with agar, a gelatin-like substance, and then use a wire lab tool called a loop to inoculate sections of the plate with different species’. The resulting artworks are little more than curiosities, but Fleming anticipated the development of bioart, which has developed recently into a distinctive field of artistic practice.

One of the most exciting experiences of my first few months as an AHRC fellow was, through the good offices of Bronac Ferran, to meet the distinguished artist Eduardo Kac. Eduardo has been very active in developing and discussing ideas of bioart. Among Eduardo’s most celebrated artworks is GFP Bunny which involved ‘the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit, the public dialogue generated by the project, and the social integration of the rabbit. GFP stands for green fluorescent protein’. Eduardo describes this a transgenic art, and describes transgenic art as follows: ‘a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism, to create unique living beings. This must be done with great care, with acknowledgment of the complex issues thus raised and, above all, with a commitment to respect, nurture, and love the life thus created’. Eduardo has also produced a fascinating edited volume on bioart, details of which are available here.

Among the artworks which form part of GFP Bunny are a series of artworks called Lagoglyph which reference the rabbit in a series of different media, such as a Google Earth image of a painting of a rabbit head. Last year, Eduardo exhibited a Lagoglyph Sound System which used conductive ink in order to enable the viewer to elicit sounds by touching parts of the painting. Conductive inks (the products used by Eduardo were produced by Bare Conductive Inks) seem to me to illustrate perfectly the transformative potential of making. Once ink can conduct electricity, the analogue becomes digital: manuscripts can become circuit boards and paintings computers. This shifts many of the relations around which the idea of digital humanities has been constructed. Electrically conductive inks of this type are made from enzymes or even whole living organisms, as is described in this patent, so these new materials are themselves a result of biomedicine.

Data has much to unite biomedicine but maybe and digital humanities, but maybe making, bioinks and bioart will prove to be another important shared horizon.


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