Mechanisms of Art History

The slide is the exemplary piece of art historical technology: an object which facilitated the examination of artworks and objects of all kinds in the classroom and the study for decades. With applications for both pedagogical instruction and the work of the individual researcher, it was part of the central machinery of the discipline until the advent of readily accessible digital forms of photography. While the historiography of art history is ripe with investigations into the complexly unfolding theoretical development of the discipline, a deeper exploration of the practical and material mechanisms through which this intellectual culture operated are often absent or cast as secondary concerns.   

This session seeks to link these two approaches, inviting papers that provide a critical examination of the various institutional homes (e.g. the university, the gallery, the institute), diverse print cultures (e.g. the postcard, the journal, the monograph, the edited collection, the printed reproduction, the scrapbook), and technologies of viewing and handling (e.g. the slide, the screen, the online collection, the website, the glove, the hand) that are at the heart of art historical enquiry. It will accordingly explore the mechanisms – conceptual and literal – of art history, in order to ask how it does its disciplinary work. In so doing, it will chart how the practical and the material informs the intellectual, and vice versa.   We welcome submissions that examine the mechanisms, technologies, apparatuses, materialities, networks, and spaces of art history, demonstrating their significance to the development of the discipline as a distinct framework for understanding images and objects throughout history.   

Freya Gowrley, University of Bristol

Elizabeth Robles, University of Bristol


Samuel Bibby, Association for Art History

‘To discern in residual form the living movement of history’: The Photocopier, the Anthology, the Wrench

‘Anybody can now become both author and publisher’, declared Marshall McLuhan in 1967. ‘Take any books on any subject and custom-make your own book simply by xeroxing a chapter from this one, a chapter from that one’. As collections of texts – extracted and then reassembled – anthologies have long been a mainstay within the realm of art-historical publishing. And yet, in the majority of examples all that is remediated of their original context is merely the verbal content, homogenously retypeset, whilst visual and material data is all but eradicated from the new page, seen as though of no matter. Meaning, however, always resides not just in the linguistic, but crucially also in the various visual and material aspects of any given text – all the more important in the instance of a discipline inherently concerned with the physical nature of its objects, not to mention attentive to the politics of representation. Focusing on two case studies, Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock’s Framing Feminism (1987), and Adam Pendleton’s Black Dada Reader (2017), both of which reproduce their historical material in facsimile, this paper considers the ways in which the photocopier has been used as a strategic mechanism for engendering communities of art-historical practice and resistance. Often understood as a technology holding an affinity amongst those on the (geographic and symbolic) margins, I argue for the photocopier to be recognised as an apparatus which, through the form of the anthology, renders tangible the necessary radical work of wrenching art’s histories on to the page.

Sophie Mak-Schram, Zeppelin University

Archival ellipses: close-reading as a practice of desire in the case of Black Mountain College

One of art history’s central troves is the archive. Particularly in relation to lost or unpreserved objects and images, archival material not only contextualises but often also enables the composition of art historical narratives. The archive has long also been a site of artistic interest. Hal Foster diagnoses an “archival impulse” in a 2004 October article, and ne can think here of Renée Green’s Import/Export Funk Office (1992) that uses the archival form to critique the geopolitics of knowledge production and preservation and Zoe Leonard’s Fae Richards Photo Archive (1993-1996) that invents an archive for a missing history. Marginalised groups and histories continue to contest archival ellipses, whilst environmental challenges and growing collections challenge the preservation of archival collections too. This paper explores the archival ellipses, or lack, in relation to the practice and subsequent politics of the art historical practice of close-reading archival material. Specifically, this paper will trace the fragmented history of Alma Stone Williams, Black Mountain College’s first African-American student in 1944, of whom no photographic material of her time at the College remains. As a musician, her art practice is not archived, so the primary means of reconstructing her narrative(s) within the history of the College’s influence on art in the 20th century, is through personal letters and faculty minutes. Using queer, decolonial and artistic research approaches, this paper will reflect on how desire and speculation inflect and structure methods of close-reading archival material, and how these methods can be re-appropriated for missing objects or images.

Ellen Charlesworth, Durham University

Algorithmic Underpinnings

Whether it is through Google, library catalogues, or collections searches, art historians interact with search and recommendations algorithms on a daily basis. As digitised collections grow larger, it is becoming less feasible to exhaustively trawl through every related item, and the results of our digital searches – and the order in which they are shown – shape the resources we use. Yet despite their ubiquity, the mechanisms that underpin these results are not transparent to researchers. Large companies actively obscure their role as intermediaries and closely guard the mechanics of these algorithms. Close scrutiny of the platform Google Arts and Culture has revealed that the prioritisation of ‘engagement’ in search results reinforces – likely inadvertently – the Western canon. With search becoming more important to navigating online resources and algorithmically curated content increasingly embedded in online collections, this talk will examine how these tools may be biasing our research. How aware are we of the algorithmic underpinnings that shape our online experiences? By looking to other fields including library science and computer human interaction, it explores the impact of algorithms and asks how the transparency of search results and recommendations can be improved through the latest innovations in user design.

Charlotte Ashby, Birkbeck, University of London

Print Media as a Mechanism for Understanding Asian Art in Britain.

From the 18th century onwards Asian objects, particularly from India and China, became a ubiquitous feature of the elite home. Understanding of these objects as ‘art’ arrived much later. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, books and then articles in the specialist art press began to emerge to inform the home-owner and would-be-collector as to the nature of the objects they owned or might purchase.

A survey of the art press in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century reveals the interlocking mechanisms of new art professions (critics, dealers and curators) new art titles (Burlington, Art Magazine, Studio, etc) and new places to see and interact with art objects (museums, galleries, showrooms, auctions and department stores). This period is marked by the rapid reappraisal of Asian art and attempts to define boundaries between art and bibelot, antiques and fancy goods.

This paper will explore the role of the art journal apparatus within the rapid evolution of the ‘oriental art’ category. Articles, reviews and, crucially, photomechanical reproduction, put emerging fields of art historical scholarship before a wider audience, who would go on to become the audience for exhibitions and sales. Sitting alongside other art topics within the pages of these journals was crucial to the transformation of this category and similarly allowed Asian objects to transform British art.

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