Emily Lankiewicz would like us to see old things in new ways. She recently graduated from Mount Holyoke college as an Art History major and a 5CollDH fellow. Her project, aptly titled “New Ways of Seeing,” focuses on ancient art objects and pieces. A lot of these “ancient works” were once everyday objects, used to facilitate the everyday interactions between ordinary people: Coins exchanged for goods, lamps used to see when the sun is nowhere to be found, and jugs, used to store different types of liquid. Some of these ancient artefacts did have special functions: limestone busts used as funerary symbols of reverence to the respected person now long gone; a statuette of Isis, etc. In this interview, I sat with Emily to find out why she thinks her way of seeing is new, and what her approach offers or withholds from what we perceive as the full expression of humanity in its most authentic and artistic nature
Sheila: So how’s your thesis going?
Emily: “Independent study” (laughs).
Sheila: Oh, independent study.
Emily: No longer a sore subject, so it’s fine.
Sheila: Oh, really?
Emily: Well, because when I had first discussed with my advisor about to choose an independent study, or from a thesis to an independent study, I was a little bitter about it because I felt like I was still doing all this work and not getting the credit. But now I’m glad I’m not doing a thesis because I don’t wanna…I’m not that great a writer (laughs), and writing a 50-page paper just didn’t sound that…
Emily: Yeah. And that’s what my advisor said. She said, “I can totally tell that you’re way more excited about the technology side of things than the, philosophy or just a lot of the research side, so it’s probably a good choice.”
Sheila: I guess now is a good time to confess that I was obsessively stuck on your website for a long while. I particularly (and surprisingly) enjoyed that you didn’t compromise on the text;
Emily: No, I didn’t (laughs)
Sheila: No but it was great! The text and the pictures were in conversation with each other. And, because we are all children, I was drawn to the pictures! From the moment I got to the home page, I was drawn to all the pictures. And then I would choose a picture to explore a little bit more, but then I would have a question about the picture I was exploring. And because I know there’s a wealth of text on there, I would think, “Oh, maybe the answer is in the text.” And then I’d go to the text and then again, something in the text makes me come back to confirm it in the picture, because there is a reference…some hyperlinking mechanism between text and image. So it was great having it (the website), such that, the pictures and texts really worked for each other.
Emily: I’m definitely more of a visual learner, so I was trying to include as much and as many pictures, videos, like that, just to complement the model, which was very visual. In summary, I like the new website way more.
Sheila: (laughs) I (obviously) really, really like it. So if you could describe your project to the waitress (for instance), what would you say it is?
Emily: Hmmm, I would say my project is recreating art objects so that anyone can handle them and learn about them and explore them, especially objects that are very delicate. In a way, it’s a tool that allows you touch the art when you’re not allowed to touch the art. It’s very similar to the old tradition of plaster casting
Sheila: What are plaster casts?
Emily: They (most especially ancient Romans) would basically take a one-to-one model of a sculpture or ancient art. They would take a mold of the original and then, (re)create a bunch of plaster casts from it. And that’s why I’d say this concept of remodeling , of using, 3D models or replicas, isn’t new at all. Just like plaster casting, it’s just another way of learning about art when you don’t necessarily have access to the “original” art.
Sheila: That’s really interesting that re-modeling is actually not that…revolutionary. And I don’t mean to say it’s not revolutionary to belittle it, it’s actually to say that from time, people have wanted to have something that they can experience, or have a relationship with, that is not too distant. Because even with your website, there were some models, I really wanted to see the insides of. For instance, there was this ceramic pot…or lamp?.
Emily: It could have been one of the lamps.
Sheila: Yeah, maybe it was one of the lamps. It felt really fulfilling to use my cursor to click inside the hollowed out space. Sure, it’s just a thing that I knew was hollow, but there’s something really nice about looking and being like, “Oh, there’s nothing in here. Moving on.” And having the opportunity to do that.
Emily: In terms of this new idea, I’ll say that it’s by no means trying to replace the original. In fact, I feel like it kind of encourages you to want to see the actual one after you’ve explored it (on the software) and you see it from all sides, and then you wanna see it in a museum. It could even let you know if the piece is at the museum. A lot of the objects I’m doing are in storage and not necessarily well-documented- older objects that aren’t on display or ever on display. The work of photogrammetry is not getting the images to be the object. It’s just creating a representation of the object for people who aren’t necessarily lucky enough to go to the museum, or are on the other side of the world. A big part of my project was accessibility— addressing how museums (as institutions), aren’t incredibly accessible for many reasons.
Sheila: For many reasons.
Emily: For one, they’re oftentimes in much wealthier parts of the neighborhood. Sometimes you can’t even get to the museums, and sometimes you can’t even get through the door because of the price. So this is just a way that a lot of museums can have their collections out there. It would be kind of the same as photographing, it’s just that with photogrammetry, you get a lot more from it.
Sheila: When you say “a lot more,” what do you mean?
Emily: If you see a little detail on the side (for instance), you are able to investigate it in a way that a 2D picture might not allow
Sheila: That’s very true.
Emily: Just explore for yourself, and make your own personal discovery where you can say “this is my discovery”
Sheila: One of the things I love about your website was that it gave me the to get to the other side of an object and say, “Oh look, there’s nothing on the other side.” There’s something really satisfactory about that…especially if you, for instance, would like to analyze an object that you haven’t touched. Sometimes, that distance (between you and the physical art) makes it easy for someone else to dismiss how capable you are of speaking about certain pieces, based on the claim that you haven’t seen all of it. But then if you sit at home and you can turn the thing around…
Emily: Sometimes, putting them on pedestals makes them appear unattainable…you know what I mean? Like, “This art is so great. Yet, I can’t get anywhere near it. I’m not allowed to explore it.” But this tool really kind of opens that door. To a refreshing extent, it takes away the Plexiglas. You’re able to actually see the object. So a lot of the objects that I focus on are ancient art, and so a lot of them probably weren’t considered “Art”, they were just used, like… the Lar would have been just set up in the house for personal use. They were not really put on this pedestal
Emily: Especially the lamps, and a lot of the coins. They were used every day. And so I feel like my project really helps to recontextualize them in that sense. I mean, obviously, I think they should be worshiped (laughs). They’re all beautiful. But this (re) modeling makes an attempt to reclaim them…in a way. You’re able to explore them instead of having them be those magical things behind the glass that you can’t touch.
Sheila: So I have a question/consideration that’s tangential but related: In museums, are we admiring the time that has passed or are we actually admiring the art itself? For instance, things like lamps or cups that were used in the house as everyday objects and were just taken to be useful parts of ordinary life, how do they come around to become “art” that’s either priceless or priced to be worth millions.
Emily: I feel like for a lot of pieces, it’s the time. I think a lot of people have a lot of different answers to that question. Personally, because I study ancient art and I’m really fascinated with that, I definitely personally appreciate them for the art. And most especially because of the context in which most of these things were manufactured. I can’t imagine how hard it would have been to create a lot of these things without modern technology, and that’s just amazing.
Sheila: Which was actually one reason I loved the organization of your new website because I could get to those videos of the manufacturing processes that you have on there.
Emily: I put one up of a lamp.
Sheila: There was another one that had people painted in black and some spots were…
Emily: Oh, the Lekythos
Sheila: Oh, my God! That seems like it was so much work. I can’t imagine how it was to make that without modern technology.
Emily: And that’s why I really want to show the manufacturing side of it. With visualizing it and contextualizing it, it’s important to think about the person— hundreds and hundreds of years ago — who made this thing this way. Though it may seem really roundabout now, it’s interesting to see how they went about things then
Sheila: What piqued your interest in the objects that you chose?
Emily: I guess I focused originally on objects that would have been used; objects that wouldn’t have necessarily, within their original context, made sense being in a museum, e.g the lamp. It’s obvious someone from that period had used those lamps….you can still see the char marks. And at that time, it might have seemed so bizarre to worship it behind a glass box…
Sheila: Almost like taking this disposable coffee cup right here and putting it in a glass box…
Emily: (laughs) Right
Sheila: So if we just wait for 200 years to pass, and somehow, it survives to be the last remaining coffee cup, it becomes…
Sheila: Yes, antique! I’m never going to age, I’m just going to become antique. And that’s all that’s going to happen!
Sheila: I want to talk about the Lar for a moment. I saw the 3D image you made before seeing the image of real thing, and there’s something about that difference between the scale of the actual object and the scale of the 3D image. I mean, I looked at the relatively large image on my screen, then saw a picture of the object in it’s actual scale and though “This is that tiny thing?” (laughs) Which doesn’t make it bad or less just that, with the 3D image, I had the opportunity to expand and there was something about that focus that allowed me, sort of, understand the detail. Again the fact that it’s small doesn’t mean that, it’s…
Emily: Not beautiful.
Sheila: Exactly. Or, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t difficult to create. Actually the fact that it’s small probably made some of it’s details more difficult to create- like those rings on the top of the head, or the things on its body. Yet, I cannot deny that looking at it on such a big scale actually helps me to appreciate what I looked at when I saw it on the smaller scale.
Emily: Yeah, and a lot of the objects I chose were on the smaller end of things just because, no matter how close you get up to the box, you’re not gonna be able to see a lot of those details without a closer-looking tool
Sheila: Also, if we even think about accessibility in a most basic way, we could talk about stuff like height. I say this as someone who is really tall with a really short mother. So, if we’re standing at a museum together-
Emily: You’re gonna see the top and she’s gonna see the middle.
Emily: Same with my mom.
Sheila: Right, and if something was placed where people would sit while using or looking at it, she would probably have a truer experience of it than I would. Surely, there is something also wonderful about having people at different perspectives. But there’s something about having a perspective that could eliminate those confounding variables so that everyone can possibly see the top and everyone can possibly see the bottom.
Emily: And further from that is that through creating these models and recreating it in a 3D form with a mesh and a shape, you’re able to then translate that into a 3D printer. You already have all of the blueprints for it. So in that sense, accessible for everyone to see it, even someone who’s visually impaired or more of a tactile learner , maybe children.
Sheila: That’s really true. And since we are on the topic of tactile learning, have you ever heard of the Crotchet Coral Reef Project?
Emily: That sounds familiar.
Sheila: So I was listening to this podcast called “On Being,” where the host (Krista Tippett) interviewed the physicist- Margaret Wertheim- who started the project.
[Here’s an excerpt from the interview between Tippett and Wertheim]
MS. WERTHEIM: …the Crochet Coral Reef project…is all based on the fact that corals and sponges — sea sponges and lots of other reef organisms — all those frilly crenellated structures that you see are actually biological manifestations of a kind of geometry called hyperbolic geometry. And although brainless corals can make hyperbolic forms literally in the bodies of their beings, it’s very difficult for humans to make models of this. And in fact, the best way to do it is with crochet.
MS. TIPPETT: And it was a scientist who discovered that, right?
MS. WERTHEIM: It was a mathematician.
MS. TIPPETT: A mathematician who discovered that crochet was the best way to demonstrate this geometric principle.
MS. WERTHEIM: Yes. Dr. Daina Taimina, a Latvian mathematician who had grown up knitting and crocheting. She heard about this issue that mathematicians understood, theoretically, hyperbolic surfaces, but they didn’t really have a way of making models of it. And it turns out that the swooping crenellated forms that corals make, they’re embodiments of negative curvature space, which has come to be called hyperbolic space — hyperbolic geometry. Now, mathematicians spent hundreds of years trying to prove that anything like this was possible. So what Dana did was she basically gave us a way of having a model of this mathematical construct. So it didn’t invent new mathematics, but she gave us a physical representation of it.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. WERTHEIM: And that’s a remarkable thing. Because when you can see it and feel it and hold it in your hands, you can get a sense of its visceral being. And you can actually stitch mathematical theorems onto the surface of these hyperbolic surfaces that are crocheted and demonstrate to students that the angles of a triangle don’t add up to 180 degrees. And I studied hyperbolic geometry in math class at university, and we just had to take it as this theoretical thing. And it’s so powerful….
Emily: That’s amazing
Sheila: Yeah. And she went on to explain how the initiative builds community, especially sine the coral reef itself is a community of things; a network. And the reason I found a parallel between this conversation and that one is that as Wertheim points out, tactile things could reveal knowledge about properties or ways of seeing that must have influenced (or even challenged) past technologies built. For instance, if you can feel a material that’s close to bronze, then you are closer to realizing that it is hard to melt bronze and make something from it.
Emily: I went to the Worcester Museum, actually a while ago. They had a really great display where they had different materials laid out so you could touch it and feel it. But then they also had the same material under glass on the other side so you could see just how much damage someone constantly touching a bronze sculpture (or something like that) can do. And I just thought that was so neat… that they do let you touch it but then also make you aware that sometimes touching the actual thing is kind of dangerous to the object.
Sheila: That’s really interesting. Did you read “The Factory of the Fakes,” the New Yorker article?
Emily: I think I might have read that.
Sheila: I thought it was funny that a New Yorker article was titled, to grab our attention using our own (often condescending) assumption that anything recreated/replicated may be called a “fake” where we think Which makes me think always about people who would make those famous replica paintings of paint the Mona Lisa. It would look like the exact same thing, but then it’s not.
Emily: There’s also this relatively new idea, that if you make a copy of something, it’s no longer art. But making a plaster cast of art is nothing new. The Romans had a lot of their sculptures made as casts or molds of Greek sculptures. So then it kind of gets in this weird in-between of between archaeologists who would say, “Oh, this is a replica of this, but it’s actually Roman.” Or art historians, which would just kind of date them under an umbrella term, you know? Still, it wasn’t considered a fake. They don’t consider Greek sculptures from ancient periods as fake even though, technically… if we’re gonna use the same definition, they are fake.
Sheila: Which is really hard to speak of, especially with digital. I can feel myself taking this into another dimension now but bear with me (laughs). But the idea of a digital world becomes serenaded with the accusation of a “fake” world because— I think—people easily assume that the digital world is trying to be a reproduction of the non-digital world. And I don’t know, especially with a project like yours or any project in the digital world, do you ever take notes of those perceptions that people have about how digital the work is?
Emily: I definitely do, but I think you kind of have to take it all with a grain of salt.
For a thrilling experience of Emily’s 5collDH project, please visit her website at new-ways-of-seeing.weebly.com.