Technology and Collaboration in the Art History Classroom was an interesting – if slightly frustrating – session. It was good for me – a Brit – to hear about some of the tools art historians are using to teach art history in the US and the success rate they are having with them. I certainly made a note to look into VoiceThread as a way of getting my students to research and present their ideas in a different way. As I haven’t used it yet, I’m not clear what it brings to the table that is particularly new, but I could definitely see the benefit of getting students to collect information together and witness their own construction of critical data in this way.
What bothered me about this session, however, was the uncritical use of certain terms like ‘open source’ and ‘collaboration’. Open source is not quite a synonym for free. Rather, it is about giving people access to the working model in addition to materials and, importantly, what is implied is that they take these and rebuild/rework what’s there. Few if any of the platforms or tools cited as open source in this session actually were, and as an historian of New Media art this is an important sticking point for me.
One of the obstacles to the art historical representation of New Media art is that many of these terms have their own histories and cultures and what we’re often missing from art historians is their critical application (beyond the niche realm of New Media art history that is). We, as art historians, do need to understand these terms better. We need to know the difference between open and closed source just like we know the difference between oils and watercolour, not just so we can recognise New Media art, but because these concepts are a part of our everyday lives now.
Collaboration is another word liberally (mis-)used today. It can be found in the title of this session on teaching but not (for reasons I’m about to introduce) in the title of the session on Participation and Engagement: Curating Contemporary Art After New Media. The organisers of the latter session have written extensively about the subtle distinctions between ‘collaboration’ and ‘participation’ (and while we’re at it ‘interaction’) that are too often overlooked. (See their book Rethinking Curating: Art After New Media.)
I would argue that Technology and Collaboration in the Art History Classroom focused more on participation, because the tools discussed were predominantly about getting students to take part, to be more active in their learning. There was less about how these tools make students active co-producers of new material (VoiceThread, I believe, is an exception to this if used in the right way). And so it follows that Participation and Engagement emphasised curatorial projects where the audience was given a more active role but not entirely turned into a co-producer of the work.
The presenters in both these sessions raised a wealth of issues associated with the nature of teaching art history and curating art. They looked into the various possibilities of new technologies at our disposal as educators and curators. But, for me, what is often missing from sessions on art historical technologies is a New Media artist/curator/historian/theorist on the panel, who can provide valuable and, I’d say, necessary insight into how we can and should understand the type of knowledge construction fostered by proprietary software compared to something FOSS-based, for example. This is not the sole domain of the New Media artist/curator/historian/theorist but, right now at least, these are often the people best placed to help make these distinctions.