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Name: Harald Klinke
Country of residence: Germany
Short bio: Harald Klinke studied art history, media theory, painting, philosophy, and business informatics in Karlsruhe, Berlin, Göttingen, and Norwich (UK), and received his PhD at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe. From 2008 to 2009, he worked as a Lecturer of Visual Studies (Bildwissenschaft) at the University of Göttingen, Art History Department, where he developed the modules for the key qualification “Visual Literacy”. From 2009 to 2010, he conducted research, supported by a grant from the German Research Foundation, as a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, New York. In 2021, he completed his habilitation at the LMU Munich with the thesis “Interfaces, Interactions, and Infrastructures. Image-based application systems for art history and digital humanities”. He is currently teaching Digital Art History at the LMU Munich, Germany, and is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal for Digital Art History and a member of the Program Committee of the DFG Focus Program “The Digital Image”.
Your fields of study include business informatics, art history, media theory, painting, and philosophy. Do all these fields interact with each other in your everyday work?
In fact, I have been studying art history mostly at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe, which has a close interconnection of theory and practice. Whenever I come to an institution like this and sense the smell of paint, I very much feel somewhat at home. At the same time, computers have been my hobby horse since my youth. I felt they will have an important impact on my generation, so, eventually, I also studied business informatics, a field at the intersection of economics and information science. Luckily, both areas, art and computer science, came together: my academic background in visual studies and media theory made me realise that we are currently experiencing yet another revolution of visual media: the digital image. Images are part of our daily communication like never before; and art history, with its historical and visual expertise, can help us very much understand today’s visual communication. This led me to digital art history as a method with which we algorithmically try to make sense of this deluge of images. In other words, I am fortunate to be able to focus all my interests on that field at the moment.
Art, history, or technology: which digital art history component is more important in your work?
For me, this is like a triangle with interesting things happening in the middle. Steve Jobs said in 2011 that “technology alone is not enough; that it's technology married with liberal arts married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing”. This not only applies to a company but to our research. Here we find innovation, progress, avant-garde, so to speak.
I read your article in The Routledge Companion to Digital Humanities and Art History. Can you elaborate on the difference between "digitized art history" and "digital art history"?
This is actually a distinction that Johanna Drucker made in her 2013 article. I understand it this way: in a first phase, we have mimicked traditional practices in the new medium – for example, we use word processors mostly like a typewriter and an image database like a slide library. However, “digital” means that we use the possibilities of that new medium. And that means, above all, that the visual data we have today is digital, i.e., processable. That allows new methods to achieve art history’s goals. It augments art history with distant viewing methods of data visualization, it merges our qualitative methods with the quantitative one’s of data science, computer vision, machine learning etc.
But, I believe, we must add a third term: “digital transformation”. It describes the impact of the introduction of digital data and tools. My impression is that it will change the way we teach, the role of the teacher at the university, as well as that of the curator at a museum. It will change the role of a department of art history and art museums in their internal processes and position in society. It will eventually change our understanding of what art is and how we look at our collective cultural past.
You recently participated in the 2022 Princeton Art and Archaeology Graduate Conference. What were the key takeaways?
At this conference, I gave a talk and conducted a workshop. We started with the concept of digital transformation. As computer scientist Jim Gray wrote back in 2009, “everything about science is changing because of the impact of information technology". Well, that also applies to the humanities and, what we could call, "digital art history" or "digital culture studies". So, we talked about the term “data”, discussed examples of data infrastructures, and ways we might go from data to actual knowledge with not so complicated tools.
Wikidata is one such example that is fairly easily accessible. It contains 100 million items – and a considerable bias and huge gaps. What a wonderful dataset to explore in terms of data literacy!
What led you to founding the International Journal for Digital Art History? What were the key issues you wanted to discuss?
In 2015, we saw digital art history as an emerging field and wanted to create a platform for people, projects, and ideas worldwide. To bring that international discourse together, we founded the journal. Right from the start, we positioned it at the intersection of art, art history, and computer science. Now, more than five years later, we have published many issues, expanded our team and networks, thus, fulfilling the vision of our platform. In fact, the journal itself today is just one element of this platform, which also includes a virtual gallery, a news feed, new publication opportunities, and an online conference. For more to come, check our calls for papers, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our newsletter.
I know you organized the "Art History in Quarantine: Digital Transformations, Digital Futures" conference in 2020. Were digital art-related initiatives aided by the pandemic? Are there any negative effects we could not think about? Is there anything that you miss about the pre-Covid era?
The DAHJ team organized the first all online conference on digital art history already in April 2020, where we brought together 300 people from over 30 countries. Our goal was to create a live community feeling, something which we have all been so desperate for in times of quarantine. We did so, because we had the impression that many of the topics we heralded for so long could become reality in a very short time. We witnessed that teaching at universities suddenly became commonplace, museums quickly embraced online presentation concepts, in which VR technologies became a core component, and artists transitioned to an unprecedented global model of cooperation. At that moment, I was sure this represented a huge opportunity for our field, but also that being thrown in at the deep end will be an important step towards a necessary synthesis of the virtual and the physical space, of digital and non-digital approaches. I am really looking forward to seeing those solutions.
Based on your experience, what are the challenges and opportunities in bringing together technology and humanities, especially in the case of the arts? How can one sector benefit from the other?
Is the digital revolution still ahead of us, or are we right in the middle of it? I am much more interested in what “post-digital” actually is and what comes after this digital revolution, which has long since changed large parts of our lives and is also changing art. We had a mechanical revolution; we have an electronic revolution; we have a digital revolution; and, after that, comes another revolution in new media and with new artists.
The great thing about this transformation is that artists can but don’t have to go digital. I think “post-digital” means that digital media are used where it makes sense and other media where they make sense. For what is to come, we need visions, artistic innovations, avant-garde again. And that is why I firmly believe that the connections between technology and art can lead to exciting insights into our present digital culture.
What do you think are the challenges for museum in the future?
For me, it is crucial that museums not only exhibit works of conventional media such as painting, but also works of our present day that are increasingly no longer produced, for example, in oil on canvas but with the help of the computers. Code artist Mario Klingemann once said that he had always been artistically active, not with a brush but with a computer. Museums must face this kind of artwork – e.g.: NFT art – with all the challenges for presentation and conservation. However, the biggest challenge will not be the technical one, but the question of the future of the museum space, this special space for contemplation in the “here and now”, which it always was and fortunately still is today. What role will this space play, when digital art has no physical location and can be called up in virtual spaces at any time, when the original no longer exists in the classic sense but on countless end devices?
These are not just challenges, but above all new opportunities to involve the visitor and bring them into new contexts with the works. The museum must redefine itself as an institution in the light of the digital era. These are exciting times, indeed.
What are you currently working on and what are your plans for the future?
I am now very interested in how institutions, such as museums, create relevant data for their internal necessities and the external presentation of their collection. Because we need to put the objects in new contexts and in places where people are today – and that also includes the virtual space. Here, these objects can be brought in a fruitful conversation with digital born objects such as NFTs. But what kind of interfaces do we need to allow users to explore the entire collection in an intuitive way? And what role does machine learning play in this? These are the questions I would like to find answers to in close collaboration with computes scientists – technology and humanities again.
Images c/o Harald Klinke
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