Collaboration and Community: Similarities between Artists and Programmers

POSTED BY , ON September 24, 2015, 0 COMMENTS

Whistler Roussel Microsite

Whistler and Roussel: Linked Visions, an exhibition now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, features prints and drawings by James McNeill Whistler and Theodore Roussel. The exhibition shows that the work Whistler and Roussel produced during the late 19th century was not created in isolation, but was only possible in the context of their dynamic, thriving community. This community of artists, technicians, writers, publishers and models as well as their family and friends encouraged experimentation and created space for insiders and outsiders to explore a new world of artistic expression. 

In order to bring this idea to life, I was part of a team at the Art Institute that created the Linked Visions interactive, an application that allows the user to visually explore the social and personal connections between individuals in Whistler and Roussel’s circles. As we developed the application, I was struck by the parallels between Whistler and Roussel’s network of relationships and my own rootedness in open source software. New software today is often described as “built from scratch” or “from the ground up,” offering romanticized visions of teams of programmers huddled around laptops with blank text documents. In much the same way the idea of the artist alone in a studio ignores the communal and historical context of their work, these images of start-up culture ignore the decades of systems and developers who came before us, whose work are part of histories of incremental collaborations that have resulted in the frameworks we all base our work on today. One project allows developers to work out a common problem, which then allows space for others to push those ideas further, a process accelerated in recent years by services like GitHub that offer tools to open source communities. As developers, we would be remiss to ignore our participation in this collaborative building process and its history, whether or not we actively contribute to open source code.

The Linked Visions interactive wasn’t built from scratch. We started with a copy of code from the developers of Linked Jazz, a project that visualizes dynamic relationships between jazz musicians over its history. Linked Jazz wasn’t built from scratch, either. Both applications extensively use D3, a project that helps developers provide dynamic, interactive data visualizations in web browsers. D3 is built in JavaScript, a language meant to provide rich user interactivity in web browsers. JavaScript derives its syntax from C and adopts methodologies and ideas from a number of languages that came before it. And so on. I believe art in Whistler and Roussel’s community, and arguably art in general, developed and evolved in much the same way, through the intersection of iterative collaboration and time. 

As the exhibition shows, tools alone don’t create the circumstances for communities to grow–and for our ideas and ourselves to evolve. We need community and deep relationships to move forward, and these histories reflect that as they include the work of people from many different life experiences. None of these communities are homogeneous groups, and it’s only through their diversity that they thrive, grow, and are able to push boundaries further and further.

I invite you to visit the online interactive, but to get the full experience, the exhibition is open at the Art Institute through September 27.

—Nikhil Trivedi, Senior Systems Analyst, Department of Information Services


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Designing the Hidden Network between Two 19th-Century Artists

POSTED BY , ON September 22, 2015, 0 COMMENTS


A prolific and innovative painter, draughtsman, etcher, and lithographer, James McNeill Whistler had a strong influence on the art and exhibition design of his time. Whistler’s less-established contemporary, Theodore Roussel, was, on the other hand, a self-taught painter who later became known for his landscapes and mastery of color etching. But Whistler was impressed by the younger artist’s work and requested an introduction. Their subsequent meeting led to more than a decade of artistic collaboration and friendship.

More than a century later,  as we zoom out in time and space,a common network of collaborators and colleagues, families and friends comes into view. That invisible network, however, is not self-evident. For the Whistler & Roussel: Linked Visions exhibition, we needed to find a way to visualize that network. Traditional wall labels wouldn’t be able to tell the story we wanted to communicate.

Rather than building a platform from scratch, we started with a foundation of open-source code (built by Pratt and NYPL). Working with New York City-based interaction designer Michael Yap, we wanted to show the complex network while keeping the design interface intuitive and hyper-minimal. The following schematic shows an early approach to the interface design.

1-30 Design approach_Page_21

Visualizing the web of artists is interesting, but we wanted to go one level deeper and show how these artists were related to one another. Rather than go for a design feature that would clog up the network, we adopted an approach that used a filtering paradigm. Visitors filter down based on type of relationship. It’s a design solution that kept the interface clean and accessible.

While the artists may have emerged from the gilded age, we didn’t want the web graphics to explicitly cite Victorian England. We went with a minimalist design language inspired equally by Massimo Vignelli and Edward Tufte. One particular quote from Tufte provided inspiration — “Make all visual distinctions as subtle as possible, but still clear and effective.”

For a geometric motif, we borrowed a simple feature already built into the exhibit — slightly rounded corners from vintage Roussel frames. For the color scheme, we first explored a palette with five color options. It was four too many. We narrowed down the colors to a few critical selections — white, black, salmon. The salmon color was inspired by one of Roussel’s printed mounts and became a motif in both the digital catalog and the Linked Visions microsite.


Visit the Linked Visions microsite to see how all the design elements come together to share the story of Whistler and Roussel’s interwoven artistic network. In our next post, we’ll look closer at the technical infrastructure underpinning the design.

—Michael Neault, Director, Digital Experience & Access


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Whistler, Roussel, and Frame Design

POSTED BY , ON September 15, 2015, 0 COMMENTS


Museum visitors ask us lots of excellent questions, but one frequent topic is that of frames. How do we choose them? Are they original? Visitors to Whistler and Roussel: Linked Visions may have noticed that there are several different frames in use in the exhibition. Both James McNeill Whistler and Theodore Roussel cared enough about the public presentation of their prints that they designed special frames to exhibit them. So in keeping with their shared interest in frame design, we made a point to present their works on paper in frames consistent with the aesthetic that each of them preferred.

In the case of Whistler’s prints and drawings, we have used frames that were made based on his own designs. Many of these were seen previously at the Art Institute in the 1998 exhibition, Songs on Stone.


For Roussel, whose work has only rarely been shown before at the Art Institute, we were able to use some of the original frames that he himself created. Roussel designed two different types of frames for his prints. For his monochrome prints, he used a thin wooden frame with an ivory or bone-colored finish; this frame style had rounded corners, and Roussel then adhered prints with different patterns to them. One example is his Lily Pattern Frame of 1888/89 (top image). For some of his color prints, Roussel designed elaborate ensembles consisting of the color print or work of art, which was placed on a printed color mount, and then both were enclosed in a wider frame profile with square corners onto which patterned prints were also adhered. There are three of these complete ensembles in the exhibition, including Last Poppies, shown in the Stag and Flower Pattern Frame (image immediately above).


In situations where we didn’t have enough of Roussel’s original frames, we created new frames in order to carry out his vision. In this photograph, you see conservation specialist Christopher Brooks and frame conservator Kirk Vuillemot (left to right) discussing the vintage frames the Roussel produced. We selected the monochrome frame style as our prototype, and we decided to emulate the rounded corners and ivory colored varnish. Kirk developed the reproduction ‘Roussel-inspired’ model that we used in the exhibition. We wanted to be clear that these were not original period frames, so to help make that distinction we did not produce pattern prints to adhere to the frames.


In addition to the specific framing decisions made for the exhibition, special attention was also paid to the overall presentation of the works. For Roussel’s L’agonie des fleurs, we used the new Roussel-style frame and then mounted the work on white-gold leaf coated paper (above). This presentation emulates Roussel’s experimentation with metallic inks for printing and also for printed mounts. We also employed a green-brown mat for some of Whistler’s color prints, like Moonrise in the New Forest (below).


One of the great delights of preparing an exhibition that is based on the Art Institute’s permanent collection is the opportunity to work with conservation preparators like Christine Conniff-O’Shea (below) to make these kinds of decisions. When an exhibition features permanent collection works rather than those borrowed from other institutions, we can control how objects are matted and framed to create a viewing experience that not only enhances the pleasure of seeing our collection displayed but also supports the thesis of the exhibition itself.


—Victoria Sancho Lobis, Prince Trust Associate Curator, Department of Prints and Drawings

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Recreating Ancient Music with Modern Technology

POSTED BY , ON September 02, 2015, Comments Off on Recreating Ancient Music with Modern Technology


In the recently installed exhibition, Dionysos Unmasked: Ancient Sculpture and Early Prints, visitors will find themselves serenaded by the faint but ethereal sounds of antiquity. This background music is that of a panpipe, which is a series of pipes of different lengths that have been bound together (see image above, which illustrates a ceramic variant from the museum’s Pre-Columbian collection).

Panpipes were a principle attribute of Pan, a woodland deity of shepherds and rustic music, and feature prominently in sculptural works and prints in the exhibition. Pan himself also frequently appears in the exhibition, at times alongside Dionysos, the god of wine and theater. You can recognize Pan by his panpipes, but he also often appears as a man with the horns, legs, and tail of a goat, pointed ears, a thick beard, and a snub nose, as in the image above.

Because of Pan’s prominence in the exhibition and due to the importance of music in ancient Greek life, we decided to include panpipe music in the exhibition. Which raises a very important question. How do we know what music from 2,000 years ago sounded like?


Some fragments of notated music do survive from antiquity, but the markings are quite different than the sheet music of today. One of the rare examples of a musical piece found in its entirety is the Seikilos Epitaph (200 B.C./A.D. 100), a short but complete example of ancient Greek musical composition that was discovered engraved on a tombstone near Aydin, Turkey. It is the oldest known piece of complete western music in existence. The actual engraved object is preserved today in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. The musical notations appear as a series of small markings just above the letters. They begin with the sixth line of the inscription:


We started our process by gathering together a number of ancient Greek and Roman fragments of surviving music (like the Seikilos Epitaph, which have been published together in a useful book edited by Egert Pohlmann and Martin West, Documents of Ancient Greek Music: Extant Melodies and Fragments. Clarendon Press, 2001). Three melodies from the surviving music comprise the track heard in the exhibit.

Musician Brett Benge then brought these pieces to life using a music-editing and creation program called Logic Pro, which he connected to a digital piano. But without a performer schooled in the practices of ancient Greece, Brett had to find other means to create an authentic sound. He began by using a raw sample of eight notes recorded from a live panpipe. It was important to use a sample of high quality to capture the beauty and idiosyncrasies of a live acoustic instrument. Computers like precision, so such idiosyncrasies are difficult to produce artificially.


To add to the authenticity, Brett wanted to incorporate a tuning schematic that might well have been used in ancient Greece. Tuning practices have varied over the centuries and continue to vary culture to culture even today. These tuning schematics slightly alter each pitch, making them somewhat sharper or flatter than what we’re used to in 21st-century America. They can be loaded electronically to produce tuning consistent with practices of another culture, preference, or epoch. For this project, he located a (fitting, we think) Pythagorean schematic. To a modern ear, these pitches might sound slightly out of tune, but they are consistent with, in this case, the ratios of Pythagorean tuning. The pan pipes of ancient Greece were probably not tuned with this level of precision, but at worst, the tuning schematic helps the instrument sound more authentic by giving it a less-than-perfect, rougher sound. At best, the instrument sounds tuned in a fashion that may well have been what was used in ancient Greece.

Finally, great care was taken to produce musical phrasing that would be consistent with a performer of professional caliber. A skilled performer alters the speed and amount of breath blown to create changing dynamics. These subtle changes were created meticulously with electronic tools. One aspect of authentic panpipe sound, however, evaded all electronic manipulation—the sound of player’s breath either during notes or inhaling between phrases. Ultimately, Brett recorded the sound of his own breath to layer with the sound of the panpipe sample.

In process, a screen shot of the program in process looks like this:


Thus, this is merely one interpretation of several fragments of ancient music. If you research the Seikilos Epitaph, you will discover many different versions and interpretations of how it may have sounded. This shows us that the study of music from Greek and Roman times is complex and we may never really know what music sounded like, but we hope our interpretation helps transport you back in time while exploring the exhibition!

—Elizabeth Benge, Collection & Exhibition Manager, Ancient and Byzantine Art

Special thanks to my very talented husband Brett Benge for music production and writing assistance.

Image Credits:

Statue of Pan, 1st century A.D., with 18th century (or earlier) restorations. Anonymous loan.

Pan Pipe (detail), 180 B.C./A.D. 500, Nazca, south coast, Peru. Kate S. Buckingham Endowment.

Seikilos Epitaph, National Museum of Denmark.


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Hemingway and the Art Institute

POSTED BY , ON July 20, 2015, 1 COMMENTS


Have you ever thought about who, living or dead, you would invite to your dinner party? What about who would you take to the museum with you? What new insights and discoveries might these “friends” bring to you? I love to think about this and while my imaginary guests may change over time, a name that comes up frequently is Ernest Hemingway. I’ve always been interested in both his writings and his life and would jump at the chance to take a stroll through the galleries with this larger-than-life author.

And while this might be impossible, since Hemingway had a lot to say about everything (including art), we’re able to make some educated guesses at what he might have been drawn to at the museum. So in that spirit, tomorrow I’ll be leading a tour that will not just seek out works that Hemingway explicitly spoke of, but also connect with those that embody the spirit of his work. What can you expect to see? We’ll see some works he saw as a young boy from Oak Park. We’ll see modern masters that he personally knew while living in Paris. We’ll consider what the connection was between his eye and his pen, when he said things like “I can make a landscape like Cézanne.”

If you’re interested in hearing more about connections between Hemingway and the museum, the gallery talk starts at 12:00p.m. tomorrow in the museum’s Modern Wing. It, like all of our daily gallery talks, is free with museum admission.

—P.D. Young, Production Coordinator, Imaging Department

Paul Cézanne. The Bay of Marseilles, Seen from L’Estaque, c. 1885. Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection.


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