Prism, Images and Binaries

Several of us were recently asked to come up with sample texts to use for a simulated Prism experiment. As the token art historian of our group, I volunteered to find an example that included images as well as text. My initial efforts were spent imagining how I would use Prism as a teaching tool in an art history course. I thought that the clear cut nature of prism,  i.e. its requirement that the reader/viewer make a sharp distinction between ideas, would be a great method to teach students about their own preconceptions with regard to art. For example, I am very interested in what a crowd sourced application could tell us about what a group of students believe are the formal qualities that represent “Islamic” or “Christian” art or architecture. Another simple example might be for a group of students to mark up images that appear “Eastern” or “Western,” or more problematically, “Oriental” versus “Occidental.” How would the crowd mark up a series of deliberately multicultural images if a variety of the above terms were offered as markers?

There is of course a problem in asking students to apply a binary they may not agree exists. However, would allowing a “combination” marker defeat the purpose of the exercise? In a sense this is a problem that is inherent in any cultural binary, but I couldn’t help wondering how this potentially useful application for Prism might work.

In the process of searching for a published example that might be applicable for one of the binaries stated above, I came to the conclusion that Prism might be as useful in a design context as an art-historical one. I looked through Print magazine’s 2010 regional design annual and noticed that the editors’ reasons for selecting the works in each regional collection were rarely specific or clearly observable. In many cases, three or four adjectives were deemed sufficient to loosely hold the collection together. These adjectives, when separated into Prism “markers” seemed to be excellent vehicles to analyze “art speak,” editing, and curatorship.

I was then struck by the idea that we could also use Prism to ask a group of students which images in a group seem more “Midwestern” in style versus “Far West,” and “Eastern” by selecting images from across Print magazine’s regional categories. For our exercise, we only had time too work with a single page, and I did not want to black out the studio locations on the captions, so I selected the Midwest section and asked the group to mark the works that exemplify what the editors of Print magazine called “Narrative,” “Organization,” and “Viewer Interraction.” The exercise went well, and without a lot of time to discuss the results here, I will wait until we have scans of our marked up texts and images.

I was tempted to have a marker devoted to “Art Speak” but that might be a little too snarky for a marker.

Ed was a 2011-12 Scholars' Lab Fellow and Praxis Fellow, and is a PhD candidate in the McIntire Department of Art.

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