talking digital at the bgc...

posted on 30 Jan 2013 13:40 by Elena Pinto Simon
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Dr. Kimon Keramidas is the Asst. Director of the Digital Media Lab . I recently chatted with him about his work, and what is upcoming in the digital arena at the BGC.

EPS: Hello, Kimon, and welcome to the Learning From Things Blog. This blog itself is an example of one of the many ways things have changed at the BGC since your arrival. Can you talk a little about the work you do for the entire institution in the Digital Media Lab?

KK: My role at the BGC is to help people think creatively and innovatively about how to rethink their practice through digital media. We are in the middle of an era where information technologies are not only becoming increasingly accessible to academics, but have also become a valuable tool in critical humanistic inquiry. At the BGC, we are working to more readily experiment with these new tools in student work, faculty research projects, exhibitions, and publications, and explore just how digital media can influence the study of material culture. I work with people throughout the institution to find ways to use digital tools in creative ways to enhance pedagogic practice, as facilitators in collaborative projects, in the visualization and presentation of materials, in the organization and searching of large corpuses of data, and in presenting scholarly findings in non-linear and dynamic fashion that allows for multiple paths of experience and interpretation.
As we look to find out the best way to integrate these new possibilities into academic programs, our publishing endeavors, our web presence, and our exhibitions, the Digital Media Lab provides the BGC community with a space to experiment with new hardware, software, and platforms to make these investigations possible. By providing these resources, the Digital Media Lab has really had a recognizable impact on changing the BGC’s approach to scholarship and in my three plus years here there has really been a fundamental shift in our community’s consideration and application of digital technologies. The students have been particularly keep to experiment, and we have seen a proliferation of digital work in courses using collaborative software, visualization tools, and multimedia composition; we even had our first digital-born qualifying paper last year. Faculty are also starting to use digital media more in their research and this past year Professor Aaron Glass received a Digital Startup Grant from the NEH Office of Digital Humanities for his work on an early monograph by renowned cultural anthropologist Franz Boas. In exhibitions, students and faculty are working together to design, prototype and implement digital interactives in our gallery spaces, and our book series and journal have strong and growing online presences. It all keeps me (and everyone) very busy, but it is worth it as it is amazing to watch our community work hard to come to a deep understanding of these new technologies, think critically about how they best suit the work they are doing, and create digital materials that are well-designed, smartly conceived, and very successful in achieving their goals.


EPS: Tell us a little bit about your own background, and training, and how that led you to material culture studies.
KK: I have a pretty eclectic background, and in some ways I think that eclecticness both led me to and has helped me adapt to working in material culture studies, which in all honesty was a field I had little experience with before arriving at the BGC. I did my undergrad work studying to be a scenic designer and then after a few years working in regional and experimental theatre I moved on to get my PhD in theatre history at CUNY. At the same time, I had always been a lover of technology and as digital media have become more and more prominent I found myself finding ways to deploy them in my design work, my research, and even in administrative responsibilities. All of these interests came to a head when I started CUNY’s Graduate Certificate Program in Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, while completing my PhD. This program allowed me to contextualize my love for technology with my academic pursuits and to really think about how to best integrate digital media into scholarly practice. It also reaffirmed for me how much I loved to teach and how important these new technologies were proving to be in the classroom. The training from that certificate has provided an invaluable basis for the work I do here at the BGC, where we really think critically about the best ways to integrate these new technologies into student work, faculty research, and in our exhibitions.
Now that I can reflect on my three plus years at the BGC, I find that working in material culture studies has given me a new and highly valuable perspective on my theatrical and digital backgrounds, both of which are often incorrectly described as being essentially immaterial. Material culture studies has provided a useful frame for my consideration of the role of design in theatre history as well as the challenge in reconstructing an ephemeral event from material artifacts. In the digital realm, it has helped me to focus my own study onto the material nature of the digital era and the materials, designs, and even ecological impacts of the objects and infrastructure that digital communication demands.

EPS: You will be leading a student team in an upcoming Focus Gallery project. What will that be about?

KK: This relates to the end of my last answer. When I first started thinking about digital technology as a field of research, I noticed how so much cultural analysis focused on the immaterial cultural texts or software or the digital age. Digital scholars tend to focus on digital art, popular culture in digital formats (games, movies, etc.), or on software or platform experiences (interactive fiction or social networks). Very little critical analysis has focused on the millions of objects that we buy every year and carry around with us or install in our homes or workplaces. For me, these material objects and their design, physical characteristics, and affordances are defining this era as much as the immaterial works most scholarship focuses on, and I wanted to shape a project around the impact of these mass consumed devices. In particular, I wanted to discuss how the physical shape of the interfaces we use to interact with these devices defines our understanding of digital culture. How does a keyboard influence our experience of a computer? How did the mouse change creative possibilities in digital media? How did the transition to touchscreens bring us closer to the data we work with? In total I am hoping the students and myself can unpack some of these questions, find some devices that sold particularly well (the ubiquitousness and widespread impact of these objects is an important point I want to focus on), and then think of creative interactive ways to relay to a Focus Gallery visitor what transitions we have experienced and just why they are important to our experience of everyday life. Not sure exactly how we are going to do all of that yet, but that is the fun of it after all.

EPS: I know you’ve been excited about the 3D printer and scanner, both still new in the DML. How do you hope to use it?

KK: 3D printing and scanning are technologies that have been around for a while, but until recently were essentially inaccessible because of their costs. That has changed dramatically over the last two years as prices have dropped, and the more I saw them advertised and discussed online the more it got me thinking how essential these technologies could be to the study of material culture in the twenty-first century. The digital age has been predominantly driven by a two-dimensional view of the world, which has been due in no small part to the screen’s role as the predominant visual interface of the era. These conditions have worked well for many academic disciplines that work predominantly with non-digital two-dimensional materials. This includes fields such as English and history, which deal predominantly with text on paper, and art history which focuses mostly on two-dimensional works of art. In the same manner, traditional two-dimensional flatbed scanners have been sufficient for the digitization of materials.

But, material culture studies focuses on three-dimensional objects and in the world of digital images, screens, flatbed scanners, and paper printers, there are important aspects of those objects that are lost in the process of digitization. 3D printers and scanners give us an opportunity to remedy some of that loss. With the 3D scanner, we can capture textures, shapes, folds, and proportions that are lost in two-dimensional
representations. With the 3D printer, we can duplicate fragile objects so that they can be held or print 3D models form scans of objects in distant archives. So, in this sense 3D scanning and printing is closer to the epistemological core of material culture studies, and they allow us to use digital technologies to scrutinize objects in a manner that more closely parallels the approach to the material world we take here at the BGC.
The 3D printer and scanner also provide us another outlet for analysis and experimentation, and that is in the study of new forms of design practice. 3D printing and scanning are becoming increasingly important in the design, prototyping, and fabrication of material objects, whether they be crafts goods, fine works of art, mass-produced trinkets, or industrially manufactured tools and machines. As design history is an important part of the course of study at the BGC, having these tools in house to experiment with provides our students and faculty with a valuable platform to not only talk about, but also practice with the types of technologies that are shaping the construction of the material world.

All that being said, the 3D printer and scanner we have are still relatively imperfect and low-resolution technologies, and aren’t ready to provide us with the amount of detail and precision that two-dimensional technologies can at this point. Such is the world of low-cost, entry-level technology. They are still very useful tools to begin asking the question of how do we best apply digital technologies to the study of material culture, and what value do the 3D printer and scanner bring to our methodological toolset.

EPS: What has been the most exciting and fulfilling aspect of the work you’ve done here so far?

KK: I would have to say the most exciting aspect of the work I’ve done so far has been the increasing eagerness of the entire BGC community to experiment with digital media in their work. These are still transitional times, and for a group of people who are often working hard on a number of projects at any given time, the idea of plunging into new technologies and experimenting in realms of practice they have long felt comfortable in can be quite daunting. I’ve worked hard to make those experiments as non-threatening as possible, but it is up to the faculty, students, and staff to take the plunge and do the work and I have been excited by the growing eagerness to do so. The new digital interactives we are designing for the focus galleries, creative student work crafting digital exhibitions and visualizations, and large-scale projects like Professor Glass’s Boas monograph NEH-funded work, show an eagerness and exploration that forces me to be on my toes providing support and connecting people to new tools and resources. That constant challenge to stay ahead of the institution’s desire to work more and more with digital media is really exciting and is a testament to the high-level of intellectual endeavor that exists at the BGC.
The most fulfilling aspect of what we done in the DML is that we are better preparing students for their chosen careers. We’ve already had a number of students with varying levels of proficiency before attending the BGC, grow their skillset markedly through work in the DML and either earn jobs specifically because of that work or made themselves far more attractive as applicants in a difficult job market. While I am a true believer in education as first and foremost an endeavor of self-enrichment and believe in the “life of the mind”, we all must prepare ourselves to work in the world and I think the DML really provides students with an opportunity to acquire a parallel set of skills to their education in material culture. I partially believe in this because a certificate I completed in interactive technology and pedagogy alongside my PhD in theatre history is what got me my job at the BGC. In many ways, I am a case study. So, when one of the students whom I have seen toiling away in the lab on some highly-creative, innovative, and intellectually complex project is able to find a job that they are really excited about because of their experience in the lab, I have a great sense of pride and fulfillment and it reminds me why it can be such a joy to be an educator.