Blog Post

Interacting with abstract art using social tagging

This post was written collaboratively by the viz. project team at the University of Texas, Austin. viz. is a blog and research group that investigates visual rhetoric. Find out more about the project here. 



 Photos from Steve-in-Action Meeting in Austin, Texas October, 26, 2010 Image Credit: Demos by by cogdogblog on Flickr

Do you ever get the sense you're not speaking the same language as your partner researchers? Do you feel like there is a key concept you must be missing that would make sense of your collaboration? It might be that what you're experiencing is neither a problem with interpersonal communication, nor individual brain freeze. Those of us involved in cross-departmental or inter-institutional research (as in, many of us in the Digital Humanities), occasionally and/or continually feel that we are working along the edge of some great divide. This feeling might not go away. You might feel it from the beginning to the end of your project.

And we would propose that this sense of uncertainty--even occasional alienation--might be inherent to interdisciplinary work. At least, this is our experience. We don't pretend to speak for everyone; this isn't some kind of master narrative or grand theory. We're just saying what we think (and kind of hope) everyone else is thinking.

In the Digital Writing and Research Lab at UT at Austin, we have been working on a research project with the Blanton Museum of Art for the past two years. Our objective is to see how undergraduate students interact with abstract art by using social tagging. Is tagging a form of writing? How does communal tagging help students engage with museum art holdings? What aspects of the learning process are revealed by tags? As part of a larger intiative through the New Media Consortium, this research into social tagging has connected us, as well, to a larger community of folks interested in tagging--most of them museum professionals--all interested in how they can use tagging interfaces to move museum artifacts into the hands and minds of everyday people.

Tagging Works 

Image Credit: Tagging Works by cogdogblog on Flickr

We'll Have The Tools

Image Credit: Well Have the Tools by cogdogblog on Flickr

As participants in the Museum Computer Network conference (#mcn2010), we got to meet with a room full of museum professionals to discuss the present and future of Steve-in-Action, this broader social tagging project. In the course of the meeting, we saw what other institutions were doing with Steve and were exposed to conversations and concerns that, until now, had been outside our purview. This experience exposed us to new information and, as a result, reminded us of how much we still have to learn.


Image Credit: Thinking by cogdogblog on Flickr

Learning isnt always comfortable, and it certainly isnt regurgitating what one already knows. It is invention, experimentation. It is not following an argument weve heard before all the way to its logical conclusion. Learning is being confronted with something new and then figuring out what to do. It is going out on a limb and hoping to maintain balance along the way. Our research group is looking ahead to gather data this spring, and were excited for what well discover. Read more about the specific aims of our project on the blog for visual studies, viz., and follow us on Twitter for regular updates.


Image Credit: Jennifer by cogdogblog on Flickr


1 comment

I'm somewhat familiar with the Steve.Museum projects but had previously thought of them in conjunction with functional objects or figurative art where folksonomies are useful because they can pick out contemporary, general and common use words for things that are currently classified and described primarily by the specialized vocabularies of museum professionals, the Getty, et al.

I'd think that tagging abstract art might complicate things in new ways since abstract art could lend itself to more variant interpretations of meaning and significance. Is this so? Is there a reason why you chose abstract art? Looking at the interface that students are using, I can see that the culled objects seem to be canvases (2-d works). Is this part of why you chose them (because they transfer okay for viewing on a screen)?

I'd also be curious to know whether you are able to track/are tracking how many students click on the "T Show Text" button--wanting to read contextualizing information about the objects before tagging.

Finally, it is interesting that students can enlarge and drag the images in order to inspect them--are there other projects like this online that you have seen?