Creativity & the City 1600-2000: An E-Humanities Perspective

28-29 October 2016

De Brakke Grond Amsterdam

On Friday 28 and Saturday 29 October 2016 an unusual amalgam of international humanities scholars gathered in the center of Amsterdam. On the site of the 17th-century chamber of rhetoricians ‘De Egelantier’, currently known as Flemish Arts Centre De Brakke Grond, they embarked on two days of history, culture, and digital humanities at the international conference Creativity & the City 1600-2000: An E-Humanities Perspective, organized by the University of Amsterdam (Amsterdam Centre for Cultural Heritage and Identity (ACHI) and research program CREATE: Creative Amsterdam: An E-Humanities Perspective).

The two central themes – the manifold relationships between creative activities and their urban contexts, and the ways in which these may be studied through digital scholarship – served as a kind of superglue connecting participants from diverse backgrounds such as art history, cinema history, literary studies, history, digital humanities, and digital heritage. Keynote speakers Ilja Van Damme (Antwerp University) and Scott Weingart (Carnegie Mellon University) took the two themes head on with critical reflections on the concept of creative cities and the history of computational historical scholarship.

After introductions of Karen Maex, rector magnificus of the University of Amsterdam, and CREATE and ACHI project leader Julia Noordegraaf, urban historian Ilja Van Damme kicked off with the first keynote lecture Cities of a Lesser God? Reassembling the history of creativity & the city from a long-term perspective. Before he got around to reassembling, Ilja first skillfully deconstructed the current ‘black-box’ of creative cities by exposing its relation to specific strands of political economic thinking and by tracing its roots back in time. The now common idea that cities have agency should seriously and systematically be questioned and examined, he argued. Perhaps, we should view urban creativity and innovation not as inevitable or essentially urban, but as emerging from specific assemblage processes. What is common and what is unique to certain creative cities can then be specified in more meaningful ways. After decades of dominant economic-geographic approaches, a more anthropological way of thinking, through for instance actor-network theory, may be of particular use for such endeavors, as it draws our attention to actual discursive and material practices in the complex relationships between cities and their cultural and creative achievements and properties. The methodological implications of Ilja’s exposé were clear: complex topics such as historical creative city formation can only be studied by interdisciplinary teams of researchers, with access to a expansive toolbox filled with new and established techniques and theories. And a digital humanities approach should seek to go beyond mere quantitative mapping of reductive indices.

On the second day of the conference, Scott Weingart also provided a much-needed historical perspective to current assumptions and practices in the field of ‘digital history’ in his lecture Punched-Card Humanities. Lessons from Digital History’s Antecedents. Scott surveyed historical approaches to quantitative history, how they relate to the nomothetic/idiographic divide, and discussed crucial lessons we may be learned from past successes and failures. Digital Humanities scholars, he argued, often forget that using computers and statistics, or even thinking in terms of data, is not new. Cliometrics, for instance, a quantitative approach to history that swept through the humanities in the 1960s, is perhaps to most established branch, but many examples can be found well before computers entered the field.

Surely history never repeats itself, but it rhymes, Scott emphasized. And if we are to foster a respectable and sound digital historical practice should learn from our predecessors. He summed up the lesson in his talk highlighted in one question, asked by Humpty Dumpty to Alice: which is to be master? After discussing five main ways in which historians have accidentally given over agency to their methods and machines over the years, Scott also showed ways to regain mastery in light of these obstacles: collaboration to avoid uncareful appropriation, statistical training to offset reliance on imports, awareness of humanities history to prevent naïve scientism, simulation/triangulation to reject false precision and certainty, and finally, to reject the notion of digital history altogether to cut quantitative blinders.

As the two keynote speakers critically examined the novelty and agency of both creative cities and digital history methods, a theoretical and methodological framework could take shape that both informed and drew on the more specialist contributions in the conference. The organizers had beforehand broken the two broad themes into ten subthemes: I. Uses of Digital Heritage; II. Cultural Transfer in the Dutch Golden Age; III. Digging into (Linked) Data; IV. Genre & Innovation; V. Conflict & Creativity; VI. New Tools for Cinema History; VII. Cultural Entrepreneurship in the Early Modern Low Countries; VIII. Early Modern Intellectual and Cultural Networks; IX. Catching the Intangible; X. Text & the City. While some talks focused more on the technical side than others, all presenters reflected on method and data, thereby inviting discussion and creating an open and informal atmosphere. As the topics sessions varied widely, ranging from excavating, preserving, and sharing digital heritage collections, through linked data and knowledge base structure, to the computational mapping of genre and innovation in historical cultural industries, this open atmosphere was crucial to a successful exchange of research practices and concerns that stretched beyond individual disciplines. Whether participants spoke about urban space in Riga, migrant-painters, Amsterdam film distributor Jean Desmet, the reception of cultural events such as concerts or plays, or Hong Kong martial arts archives, there was a clear common denominator in the blending of more familiar historiographic and cultural approaches, and digital or eHumanities methods.

The ins and outs of digital historical research were discussed in three plenary sessions. On Friday afternoon art historian and data specialist at the Getty Research Institute Matthew Lincoln tackled the issue of uncertainty in his column In the Face of the Unknown: Missingness in (Digital) History. Historians have different ways of dealing with missing or incomplete information, and although digital historians are more careful than ever in acknowledging their data limits, few dare to go as far as adopting speculative approaches to actually quantify the limitations and their implications. Simulation and triangulation may offer means to advance our thinking on data issues, but how do they relate to the humanistic research tradition? In the second Digital History session, on Saturday, Frederic Kaplan of the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne showed us the future, or as one participant put it, at history’s very own trip to the moon: a research grant proposal for building a multidimensional model of European history covering a period of more than two millennia. His TED-talk-like pitch Time Machine FET Flagship: The Past is the Next Frontier blew the audience away, and the examples from the Venice Time Machine project demonstrated that this is not merely wishful thinking, but actually within the realm of possibilities. In the final session of the conference, we took a small step towards such a programme, by discussing several projects on European culture and creativity, with Dorit Raines (Ca’Foscari University Venice), Koenraad Brosens (Leuven University), Sandra Toffolo (CESR Tours) Claartje Rasterhoff (University of Amsterdam), and Maarten Prak as discussant (Utrecht University).

To sum up, the conference was highly successful. Between the specialist sessions, plenary meetings, drinks and (Chinese) dinner, the participants built a bridge between digital humanities research and more traditional humanities researchers, strengthened local and international networks within and across disciplines; contextualized the CREATE research program here at the University of Amsterdam and more generally in the Netherlands; and most importantly, perhaps, we collectively developed both a grand perspective on as well as concrete building blocks for a future research program on European Culture and Creativity using digital historical scholarship.