And The Reviews Are In: Evaluating Digital Dwelling

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It’s been a while since I’ve had time to sit down and properly write a reflexive blog post about anything to do with my PhD, and considering I’m currently finalising the last chapter of my thesis now seemed like as good a time as any! If you keep up with the blog you will know that one of the major case studies to have come out of my research was the Digital Dwelling at Skara Brae project, which saw collaboration between myself, Kieran Baxter, Aaron Watson and John Was. The experimental fieldwork and production methodology concluded in a collaborative mixed media short film which was shown up in Orkney at various venues – for three months from May to August 2013 onsite at Skara Brae and for two months from June to August 2013 at the Pier Arts centre in Stromness.

Feedback for the film and exhibition overall was hugely positive but of course, this isn’t the Time Out or Rotten Tomatoes film review and though positive feedback is fantastic to see for any project, it all boils down to research in the end. So from a research perspective hearing from people who really didn’t like the film was in most cases tremendously useful, even if they didn’t realise it when they wrote it! Negative feedback ranged anywhere from constructive criticism to being  unapologetically mean. And then there were the few that mistook the comments box on the feedback form for some kind of visitor book. Well, at least Denmark liked it.

Some of the most interesting comments furiously insisted that this simply was not what the past was like, that people in the Neolithic were just like us and that the film rather than simply not being to their taste was unquestionably wrong. Collectively, comments indicated that a large proportion of people approach an interpretive visualisation with some level of preconceived expectation over what an archaeological reconstruction or visualisation should do and how it should be represented. In most cases this general public preconception  seems to pertain to an archaeological reconstruction representing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And I can say with all certainty – in no archaeological re-constructive situation is this ever completely possible! The issue with an attitude which expects an explanation as opposed to an interpretation is that it places all interpretive responsibility on the visualisation itself, excusing an audience of any need for critical awareness when consuming these images.

Our intention with the Digital Dwelling film was to engage audiences more readily with the more intangible side of archaeological interpretation and to challenge passive consumption of the ‘archaeological reconstruction’ by using a palette of approaches and techniques to represent the site and current interpretations. The film and exhibition weren’t  intended to replace the existing visualisations in any way, but to compliment the interpretive content which was already available and equip the audience with a few key themes with which they could take forward to formulate their own questions about the site and engage with the subjective process of interpretation with more awareness. The feedback reflected that with this particular showing of the film and exhibition onsite the general audience was divided in this respect. Some immediately engaged with the material in the exhibition and film, understanding the intentions and consuming the media with critical awareness and what appeared to be a fairly cognitive engagement. Others seemed to have difficulty in overcoming the initial deviation from a format they were familiar with and the somewhat ‘fixed’ interpretation they already carried with them about the site. A few even took the film to be an outright ‘truth’ about the site, as opposed to an informed interpretation. 

It seems we need to re-think our intentions with the use of interpretive visualisations by way of reflexively questioning what should be asked  and expected of an image in these public contexts. In reference to the artists’ creative process Garner (2008, 17) believes that visualisation is undoubtedly a research process in itself because it supports a personal dialogue of enquiry and conjecture whilst offering the opportunity for others to engage with ideas through the resulting representation. For me, the value of visualisation in an interpretive archaeological context lies in its ability to convey ideas, theories and interpretive responses to the archaeological evidence, inspiring and developing discussion rather than presenting a definitive final conclusion on the site. Unfortunately it seems that in many cases it is this definitive conclusive answer that many visitors have come to expect. Granted, traditional terms such as “the artist’s impression” and preambles which suggest that the image presented is “what the site might have looked like in the past” all convey a feeling of subjective interpretation and uncertainty, and for that matter the boycotting by many academics of the term “reconstruction” in the past decade or so on the grounds that it implies an impossible level of certainty have not gone unnoticed. However in many cases it seems that a large proportion of the general public still expect to passively consume these images as a conclusive answer rather than a flexible tool to think with.  

Interestingly (though unsurprisingly) in contrast to the feedback from the exhibition onsite at Skara Brae, verbal feedback from showing the film at the Pier Arts Centre throughout the summer was strikingly different – visitors seemed eager to share their own impressions of the interpretive themes within the film and although the project and its motives were detailed in an accompanying coffee table book in the gallery, few felt compelled to rely on it, preferring to let the film inspire their own questions and interpretations. I expect in many ways it all comes down to a question asked back when I gave a seminar about the project at the University of York last year – “Is the film art or archaeology?” And I’ll stick to my answer, why can’t it be both? Some of the feedback forms from the general audience at Skara Brae came back with comments to the effect of “a bit too artsy” and “artistically indulgent”, some even suggesting outright that creative and artistic methods had no place in archaeological interpretation. Why not? Archaeological interpretation and visualisation is by its very nature a subjective and creative process, so why can’t this be reflected in the approach and the media used?

Anyway, that’s enough of that for today! I’ll leave you with this thought – next time you see an interpretive archaeological visualisation don’t just glance at it and move on, engage with it. Ask yourself, what to I want to learn from this image? How does it compare/contrast/compliment/contradict what I already know about the site? Are my expectations of this image realistic?

….Does it make me feel deeply uncomfortable and a bit sick? If so you may have just watched Digital Dwelling

In any case, don’t just look at an image, think with it!

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18 comments

  1. It’s really interesting how the context seems to have affected people’s perception of your film. I wonder how we can encourage people to go to archaeology exhibitions and sites with the open, engaged attitude with which they approach art exbitions. The difficulty for archaeologists is when they are frank about the past being open to different interpretations, they are accused ‘making it all up’. Can we be allowed to be authoritative in our knowledge of the past, while at the same time being creative and challenging in our exploration of it?

    1. It’s a tricky one isn’t it? And certainly not something that can be solved overnight, it’s going to take a bit of an upheaval of attitudes to to shift the majority of mindsets but I think it’s doable, and as John says below there’s growing momentum towards a collective awareness to challenge these images and engage with them more reflexively in a more public context…

  2. P.S. I love the film poster!

  3. Ouch! Very good of you to be so honest about the feedback and your response to it. It’s never easy, is it, putting stuff like this out there? But at least negative response is some kind of engagement – far worse if the interpretation is ignored or fades into the background, I think. That’s cold comfort, I know, but I feel very strongly that you are doing the right thing: pushing the boundaries of what is meant by visualisation and interpretation, and crossing over that boundary between subjective and objective in an attempt to create a more meaningful kind of critical engagement. As Dr. H suggests, the goal for those of us working in visualisation surely must be now to find ways of being authoritative, creative, and to challenge assumptions all at the same time. It’s a tall order, but I can’t help feel that the very fact we’re seeing things like Digital Dwellings out there suggests that we’re moving more consistently in that direction; your critical engagement with your own project moves us on one step more. Congratulations on what you’ve achieved so far – now: what’s your next project?

    ps – Teeshirts with “Don’t just look at it – think with it!” – should be standard archaeological illustrator kit!

    1. Haha, thanks John! Yes it can be a little heartbreaking at times to address the negative feedback head-on (particularly with this project which has been ongoing for the past 2 years!) as it’s difficult to separate the research process and outcomes from something you’ve personally slaved away over a hot computer at for months at a time! But at the end of the day, it’s research and although we had overwhelmingly positive feedback in the majority of cases – in reality it was the outrage, confusion, fear (and nausea!) that provided the most interesting feedback to analyse!

      In any case, the film has made audiences sit up, take notice and actually engage with the material being represented, which is fantastic and greatly rewarding! Next project (after submitting my thesis in the next month or so!) is Links of Noltland, which is a direct development from what we learned on the Skara Brae project so stay tuned…. 😀

  4. Camilla. R. · · Reply

    I think that traditionally we are taught history (at school and in museums etc) by being “told” what is fact based on written records which can lead to dry interpretations and subsequently a rigid template for visual representation. The written record is taken to be the “truth” and leaves little room for different forms of interpretation.
    The problem with this is that it transfers across into archaeological interpretations of sites which may not have a written record and where interpretation can be more fluid. Therefore people have certain expectations on what they are going to get from visual representations, they expect to be “told” what is the “truth” at archaeological sites as this is how they have always been taught before. They do not expect to have to think critically or analytically about the subjects.
    Obviously this is a generalisation and there are many who do think critically but I believe the issues you have encountered with people being so shocked and unreceptive are a result of how we are taught to encounter history and archaeology from a young age and how culturally we learn to experience our past.
    I enjoyed the film and the way it challenges traditional interpretations of the site, to quote the Danish, “Many pleasures”.

    1. Thanks Millie 🙂 I think you’re definitely on to something there for sure, and it all points towards the “unlearning” of an attitude towards the consumption of these interpretive images which is so well engrained in our society. No easy task!

  5. It’s very easy to hide behind scientific buzz words. It’s much harder to take responsibility for your interpretation and open yourself up to intense scrutiny and criticism and that in effect is what often ‘Art’ is, something very personal. You create the image, you decide the shot, you choose the medium and the approach and it is your skill and experience that delivers an output. An workflow like this transfers all responsibility onto you and removes the safety net that many ‘scientific methodologies’ provide.

    I think it is incredibly dangerous to be saying that art should not exist in archaeology, because all you then do is force people to adopt an approach where people look to wrap everything they do in a scientific wrapper just to keep hold of legitimacy. It is incredibly easy to make arguments for visualisation programs in this way and it would be much easier for you to just simply say ‘it is physically accurate, deal with it’ in order to completely remove artistic liability from you. It might be easier, it might save you the stress of being put under the spotlight, but in reality it isn’t an accurate reflection of what is involved. I think the real issue is that this area of archaeology is slowly pulling down the scientific wall that superficially applies to many areas of interpretation and people simply don’t like to be questioned once they reach a certain position of power/authority.

    1. Grant, you’re always so eloquent at expressing the woes of being an archaeological artist! I completely agree with you and I think you raise a key point that the responsibility for the consumption of these images is equally spread between the artist and the audience. As archaeological artists (illustrators, digital reconstructors or purveyors of interpretive visualisation…whatever we call ourselves!) we have a duty to sack-up and take responsibility for the images we produce, sure – but at the same time audiences, academic and general alike, need to develop an understanding of what it is they’re looking at. I don’t mean that just in terms of what the images depicts, but also with regard to the intention, process and context behind each image, visualisation, animation, film, drawing, etc, etc. There needs to be a re-think in the ways we produce and consume interpretive visualisations within archaeology and that begins with reflexivity and honesty.

    2. Nicely observed, Grant – and well put. I think you’ve hit on the most important lesson art has for archaeology: the taking of personal responsibility for the choices made during the “workflow” of interpretation.

  6. Amazing poster, smart post and very interesting comments. Many points of discussion…
    After seeing for the first time “Digital Dwelling” in June, I immediately thought: “Strabiliante!! Astonishing!” and I wrote an enthusiastic review in Italian on my blog .(http://archeovideo.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/fb-post-making-archaeology-as-a-movie-6/). I especially like the way of narrating the site, through spatial and temporal perspectives that are the final steps of an interpretation.
    For me narration and reflexivity in archaeology take the shape of the stories I wrote and recorded at the Roman site of Vignale (Italy), using the genre of docudrama (this one, “Morte a Vignale, has English subtitles http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7fa5uBQRGI). Seeing on the screen another kind of narration, it positively astounds me.
    Both kinds of narration have to fight the commonplace that our reconstructions are unique truths and not one of the multiple possible interpretations. From the point of view of the docudramas I produced, the fact that an interpretation is shown inside a story makes the footage more similar (in low quality of course) to some historical fiction and people who see it don’t feel a whole sensation of estrangement.
    In Italy the communication of archaeology in television is exclusively via documentary and I think people can appreciate a video as “Digital Dwelling” only with extreme difficulty. But in England you have tv programme as “Time Team” and you can find the way for “educating” people in being actively involved through a video as “Digital Dwelling”.
    Buona fortuna, good luck for your new project!!!

    1. Thanks Francesco! Yes, I suppose in many respects we’re quite lucky to have archaeology so widely televised in the UK, but even so I think the mixing of art and archaeology and creative methodologies for interpretation are still an alien concept to many who visit heritage sites with an expectation of a familiar format. I enjoyed your docudrama – the reenactors were a great approach!

  7. Hi Alice,

    We met briefly a couple of years ago in Southampton – you came to ask advice about neolithic Orkney, I think.

    Anyway, my comment comes from an academic perspective. This is real gold you’ve got here – you should think about incorporating this into your thesis alongside the visuals as this is a fantastic cross section of opinions on your artistic practice. I’ve examined many PhD theses on visual representation where researchers have gone to great lengths to canvas opinion, and you’ve got loads of it. You could do some neat analyses of reactions to your piece, and could analyse by background, age etc. if you have this additional data.

    The opinions you’ve highlighted drive me mad. I’m not sure where people get their ideas from, and I believe archaeologists continue to foster a sense of scientific objectivity (despite decades of debate about this). Partly I think the notion of archaeology as science gives the discipline a sense of security (particularly in these times of funding cuts etc.). In short I think archaeologists find it expedient to foster the notion of science and this then gets communicated to the public.What you are experiencing is a thin end of this wedge.
    Anyway, its an idea I find particularly problematic and have spent most of my career trying to question, sometimes with the help of the esteemed Dr. Watson!

    If its any consolation I’ve recently used your images in talks at Southampton on Skara Brae, and will use the film while lecturing my Neolithic class this semester. Lets hope this goes some small way to changing the minds of future archaeologists and members of the public!

    1. We did! Though I think it may have been regarding the painting of timber monuments as I was working on my MSc dissertation on the reconstruction of the palisaded enclosure at Forteviot at the time?

      I do have a big chunk of one of my thesis chapters which deals with these issues of audience consumption and analyses the feedback from a number of venues where the film and exhibition were shown last year. The feedback is very different across the varying contexts which ranged from academic to public and heritage to artistic, on the feedback forms there were a few questions which determined prior background, understanding and expertise, though unfortunately I didn’t think to collect data to do with age range – which in hindsight would have been really interesting! That said, a few of the comments from the Skara Brae showing claimed that young children were mesmerised by the film – one woman said she couldn’t get her 3 year old to leave! Aaron (or, should I say the esteemed Dr Watson!), Kieran Baxter and I are also working with the British Museum to put together a weekend workshop based around the themes in the film for young kids in March this year, so the younger generation do seem really receptive to the content.

      It’s great to hear you’re using images from the project and the film in your talks and lectures – it’s brilliant to see it being used in teaching, thank you! I’ve referenced some of your work in my thesis already in fact, particularly the “Animate Landscape” book. It’s really promising to see a text which utilises visual artists as active contributors throughout the fieldwork and writing up!

  8. I’m not going to get myself knotted up in a tangle of reason and rational introspection. I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It fires my curiosity and imagination. 10/10

    1. Thanks Spencer!

  9. […] Digital Dirt Virtual Pasts […]

  10. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Regardless, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

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