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Photography at the Fringe: When Art and Science Collide

“We like to create work at the fringes of the recently possible.” These are the words of Mei-Ling Wong, head of production and co-founder at Specular Studio, an artist collective applying photography and computer science toward the creation of immersive experiences. Words that have been emblazoned on my mind since first hearing them at the most recent Innovation Salon, co-organized by the Innovation Studio at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University. At the time, I had just completed a workshop led by Specular called “The Exquisite Museum.”

Facilitated by Mei-Ling, along with co-founder James George and Ziv Schneider, the workshop guided 15 lucky participants through the process of creating a collaborative 3-D drawing of a reimagined museum. Over the course of three days, this drawing emerged as a videogame environment that digitally collided the collections of Carnegie Museum of Art and Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Dinosaur perched next to painting and botanical specimen shined alongside sculpture, each one a 3-D-scanned object derived from photographs collected during the workshop.

As the program manager of the Hillman Photography Initiative at Carnegie Museum of Art, an incubator for innovative thinking about the future of the photographic image, I felt like a kid in a candy store. Since its inception, the Initiative has attempted to push the boundaries of photography as the quintessential collision of art and technology. Confidentially, I have long had a crush on computational photography, a field that emerged in the early 2000s at the intersection of imaging, computer vision, computer science, and hardware design. As an art historian, I have also long been captivated by the processes followed by artists to explore, disrupt, and question our understanding of the world around us. So attending a workshop led by artists using computational photography techniques to reimagine the museum hit my conceptual sweet spot on every possible level.

I will never forget the workshop’s opening. Specular introduced the process that we would follow to collaboratively create this reimagined and immersive 3-D environment. While no technical expertise was required, several skill sets were undeniably helpful: technical knowledge of digital photography, a plasticity of mind for quickly learning unfamiliar computer programs, and even prior experience with videogame design. The participants collectively had broad interests and skill sets, so there was a shared sense of the high potential for fruitful collaboration.

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Photogrammetry in the galleries during the Exquisite Museum workshop. (Photo: Stefano Ceccarelli)

We began with photogrammetry: the process of taking multiple photographs of a static object from all angles in overlapping fashion to gather as much visual data and digital metadata about the object as possible. Grabbing our digital SLRs, we excitedly spilled out into the museums’ galleries. In the permanent collection of the art museum, we captured everything from suits of armor to Impressionist paintings and early modern sculptures. From there we wove our way through the museum complex to natural history, circling like photographic predators around our prey—dinosaur skeletons, taxidermied mammals, botanical specimens—with our fingers on the virtual trigger of the shutter release. We traversed the Halls of Architecture and Sculpture, gathering photographs of Ionic columns and classical busts like digital mementos. We ended in the decorative arts galleries, returning full circle to the arts, our camera cards full of data and our brains full of possibility.

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Photogrammetry in the galleries during the Exquisite Museum workshop. (Photo: Stefano Ceccarelli)

After a crash course in Agisoft PhotoScan, software that would turn our photographs into three-dimensional computer models, we got to work. For the university students with extensive experience in videogame design, this was a piece of cake. For the museum professionals, like me, with minimal (dare I say negligible) experience in playing videogames, let alone designing them, this process demanded an essentially vertical learning curve. The first time I virtually spun Michael Lucero’s Man with Violin (1991) on the screen, it felt like I had won a marathon.

I arrived to day two of the workshop feeling great. Until, of course, I realized the next step was learning Unity3D, the program that would allow us to turn our 3-D models into the virtual environment of the Exquisite Museum. If succeeding at PhotoScan was like winning a digital marathon, then conquering Unity (even on the most basic level) felt like completing an Ironman. Specular had given us templates of museum galleries to fill with our 3-D-scanned objects. We were asked to curate our own galleries and fill them with objects that we had collaboratively constructed and shared. When complete, Specular would stitch our rooms together to create the totality of the Exquisite Museum. My first attempt at the end of the day two, inflected as it was by my mental state as a survivor of both PhotoScan and Unity, was predictably post-apocalyptic.

In preparation for the third and final day of the workshop, I reconsidered the curatorial approach to my gallery. Overnight I cogitated on the singular opportunities for creative expression afforded by the chance to mash together art and natural history. I arrived on the morning of day three with fresh purpose. I had, after all, conquered a marathon and an Ironman, so what did I have to lose?

Four hours later, I had created “Disciplinary Threads,” complete with wall text that asked more questions than it answered: “How do we disrupt the boundaries of disciplines? Where do the threads of natural history and art history weave together and where does friction pull them apart? This room juxtaposes artifacts that have been culturally and institutionally divided from across geologic time. Methods of display and scale are altered to encourage questioning of ingrained assumptions. Walk among the bodies, bones, and buildings and suspend yourself at the intersection of art and science, two universal ways of knowing.”

As part of my work on the Initiative, I have been enmeshed in discussions about the unique role of the museum and the seemingly limitless possibilities for innovation when cross-disciplinary doors are opened and visitors are welcomed across the threshold. In reality, though, the very compartmentalization of the modern museum that I was questioning makes sense. Museum professionals spend years developing expertise in specialized disciplines to qualify themselves to be stewards of historic objects for future generations. Sometimes there can be nothing more awe-inspiring than seeing a masterwork by Edgar Degas surrounded by contemporary works from the Impressionist movement, or a painstakingly reconstructed skeleton of a Diplodocus sited in a reimagined Late Jurassic landscape filled with other species from the period. There is, of course, immense value in building this kind of knowledge.

But what if we put Degas next to the Diplodocus? What new knowledge can be gained from colliding art history with natural history? At the very least, it can make one think about how we classify, store, and contextualize knowledge. On the practical level, and as a museum professional myself, I can’t imagine the difficulties of putting the Degas and the Diplodocus in the same room. Gallery space, object requirements, professional and accredited methods of display, and more come into conflict.

This was all superseded by Specular’s Exquisite Museum workshop. If we’re talking about the fringes of the recently possible, the very fact that the workshop happened at all is significant. It was a masterwork of cross-institutional collaboration between Carnegie Museums and Carnegie Mellon University. Similarly, Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History graciously opened their galleries and collections so that workshop participants could gather source images. Perhaps most importantly, this workshop was yet another significant step toward achieving the vision of interdisciplinarity and inter-institutional collaboration set out by the President of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Jo Ellen Parker.

At the conclusion of the workshop, I found myself sitting at the Innovation Salon, listening to James, Mei-Ling, and Ziv prepare us for the digital debut of the collectively created Exquisite Museum. While the participants had been busy constructing their own galleries, Specular had photogrammetrically scanned and constructed a 3-D model of Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Sculpture. This majestic space was our entrée into the Exquisite Museum. From there, we wove through the beautiful and thought-provoking galleries created by my colleagues, each of which questioned our assumptions about museums, art, virtual environments, and technology in its own way. My jaw dropped to see the final product on the big screen. The whole was most definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Looking ahead, the Exquisite Museum is so much more than a collaborative 3-D drawing of a reimagined museum, as amazing as that is. It is an opportunity to see the potential—conceptually, physically, and collaboratively—when some of the most creative thinkers in art and technology carry us to the boundary of the recently possible and invite us to look over the chasm to imagine the other side.

This essay was cross-posted with the Innovation Studio at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.