Research Projects Sept 1, 2018 – August 31, 2020

The Humanities Collaboratory is pleased to announce the recipients of its 2018 project grants. These grants will support intergenerational teams of faculty, staff, and students over a two-year period as they conduct innovative research that will produce new knowledge as well as model new collaborative methods for humanities scholarship.

“Making African Art”: From African Independence and the Peace Corps to Civil Rights and the Cold War

Artists have been making art in Africa since before the beginning of recorded time, yet the study of African art originated as an independent, academic discipline only in the 1960s, and in the United States. This project asks the fundamental question: why? Why did this field emerge at this particularly fertile and tumultuous moment in modern history? “Making African Art” explores the social and political milieu out of which the field of African art evolved, including the election of John F. Kennedy, the Cold War, the founding of the Peace Corps, African Independence and the Civil Rights Movement. It focuses on three strands of scholarly production about African art that have not been recognized in conventional histories of the field: the influence of the then newly-founded Peace Corps on numerous scholars, curators and collectors of African art in the US; the under recognized contributions of scholars working at Historically Black Colleges and Universities; and the cultural agendas of newly independent nations on the African continent. By exploring the importance of these three sites of knowledge production, this project seeks to complicate and enrich understandings about the rise of a canonical art history, representing the first substantive critical study of the social and political dynamics that established how African art is collected, exhibited and studied. This project, a deep partnership with the University of Michigan Museum of Art, will produce both a scholarly monograph and a traveling exhibition.

Sensing Algorithms: A Collaboratory  

As human experience is increasingly digitally mediated, encounters with texts, media, space, form, and even reality itself is now produced by algorithms: step-by-step procedures, authored by a select few and then executed by computers. For the user, the reader, the citizen, and the audience, sense is computed—hidden calculations determine what rises to awareness. As a scholarly response to this seismic shift in our culture, this project contends that algorithms are profoundly cultural and calls into being a new multidisciplinary group that will develop new forms of collaboration, combining traditional humanistic scholarship with other creative practices to better understand these new cultural forms. This project asks: What can be done to reveal algorithms at work and unearth elements of their operation that are otherwise inaccessible? The computer algorithm will be topic and tool: In Suchman’s phrasing, algorithms can be “both a method through which things are made and a resource for their analysis and un/remaking.” “Sensing Algorithms” will write new algorithms to reveal what is hidden within existing ones, a matryoshka of the digital. This group will take the organizational form of an art collective to join together art, design, music, architecture, cultural studies, computer programming, the digital humanities, and humanistic scholarly critique. It will combine the talents of undergraduates, graduate students, and both junior and senior faculty. The collective will produce a series of pieces in different forms and modes, including material objects, essays, and computer programs. Their outputs will mix traditional and other forms: publication, exhibition, workshops, and creative practice. These will be documented via the Web, conversations with audiences and peers, and a new podcasting effort.