In our contemporary visual culture, 3D visualisations popularly embody an idea of objectivity; since the 'birth' of Virtual Reality in the 1990s a pursuit for accuracy has persisted and visualisations are, in the man, textured as photo-real (Reilly 1991; Forte 1996; Gillings 2002; Goodrick and Earl 2004). For many community participants in ACCORD who had not engaged with digital 3D visualisation technologies previously, achieving 'convincing realism' and 'accurate' results was repeatedly voiced as a necessary requirement, while expressing their uncanny resemblance to the 'real' world. The ACCORD community participants therefore approached 3D visualisation technologies not as artists, but as operators.
Not in keeping with art-historical tradition, in the field of digital visualisation the artists and traces of making are hidden from view - it is almost as if acknowledgment of human hands would break the illusion of 'reality'. As Benjamin said in his 1936 seminal paper Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, this stems from the idea that 'the painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web…free of all equipment [i.e. free of artistic gesture and medium, represented through the eye of the camera lens – the machine]' (XI). I started this section with a deliberately facetious quote from Andy Warhol. But, paradoxically, when we look, despite his attempts to hide behind the machine, we are always aware of the personality who created the work. Indeed, we now recognise that creative decisions are ever-present in all attempts to visualise the world around us. Nevertheless, in the pursuit of objectivity and accuracy we hide behind the machine as Benjamin (1936) describes (or in Warhol's case try to actually be machine), and similarly in heritage practice it remains that the labour, decisions and in most cases the authors of digital visualisations are anonymised or disguised (Jeffrey 2015; Huggett 2004). Benjamin (1936) argued that the pretence to objective realism has mass appeal as it supposedly overcomes issues of translation and abstraction. Furthermore, he heralded that reproducibility made possible by machines unleashed new opportunities and directions for art. For Benjamin this was not a negative situation as it marked the way for the mass production, unlimited access and thus democratisation of art. This could explain the mass appeal of digital visualisations for public heritage interpretation, the popularity of conferences such as Digital Heritage and Computer Applications in Archaeology (the latter with over 1,000 likes on Facebook at the time of writing).
While in the context of early 20th-century thought there was perhaps some comfort in finding solace in the scary and still emergent omnipresence of machines, arguably in our 21st-century world saturated with machines it is precisely this pursuit for objectivity that is the barrier to meaningful mass engagement with digitally produced realistic visualisations. In the 20th century, according to Benjamin, painters faced increasing unpopularity and feared the death of their art-form due to the rising popularity of realism portrayed in film and cinema increasingly consumed in theatres, cinemas and mass media (Benjamin 1936, XII). Yet, since the very invention of photography a century before, creativity beckoned. In the 1840s, there was a duo working in Edinburgh, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, who are now widely acclaimed to be the first artists using the newly invented calotype process, consciously experimenting with composition, colour and depth. Fast forward 100 years, at the peak of the machine age and immediately after World War Two, painting persisted despite Benjamin's proclamation and abstract expressionism was born, epitomised by artists such as Arshille Gorky and later Jackson Pollock. This is because in the end we value human creativity above machines and we seek the cult of the individual, that private encounter. Even Andy Warhol himself, in moving away from his earlier mass-produced screen-prints, in his later years inevitably adopted a more abstracted, less-machinistic, approach to his work. Therefore, in our contemporary experience of the world our relationship with digital technology is not quite the situation as predicted by Benjamin. Rather we seek to re-introduce the value of human creativity in everything we do (Sennet 2008) – and even in our use of the latest computerised technology there is a movement to re-introduce subjectivity and skill (e.g. Laurel 2014; Huggett 2015). The exception, it would seem, is our approach to digital 3D visualisation, which has yet to follow; here the idea of objectivity and mechanised prowess clings. Still we fetishise the automation of computers, while realism is the be-all and end-all in the realm of digital 3D recording of heritage (Huggett 2004). Software such as Agisoft is programmed with this in mind, with limited options for allowing creative input. We often do not know the individuals involved in the data-capture and processing – rather it is the software itself that gets this accolade 'processed using Agisoft Photoscan'. It follows that obviously creative digital visualisations are extremely rare, while museums find it difficult to curate interpretative displays using such material, though I would draw your attention to the imaginative display in the National Museum of Cardiff Prehistory Gallery by archaeologist and artist Aaron Watson with composer John Was, and the work of Alice Watterson (Watterson et al. 2014) and Matthew Ritchie's collaboration with Firecracker records which produced a musical response to laser-scan data (Ritchie et al. 2015).
Despite the ability to easily and cheaply produce 3D visualisations of heritage, they are still largely produced by specialists and are not being meaningfully engaged with and reproduced by a wider public. As Jeffrey (2015) argues, this is because society at large feels distanced from them, since they are in essence de-humanised. Hiding behind an objective lens sits uncomfortably with the desire to emotionally connect to the past, and indeed this was vocalised by many of the ACCORD groups. Furthermore, there are some clear examples in the ACCORD project where this uneasiness came to the fore, as will be described below. It follows that the current situation of the anonymity and mechanisation of 'objective' 3D visualisation in the context of heritage has the opposite effect to what Benjamin argued (his idea that this was positive, democratic and engaging); instead it is in fact a barrier to their production and engagement.
Huggett states that 'comparing the experience of an excavated surface recorded purely by scanning or photogrammetry with the traditional methodology of a pencil, measuring tape, permatrace etc. suggest a different, less intimate relationship with the object of record. Furthermore, automated recording technologies such as scanners contain implicit knowledge in the sense that what they can record is designed into them and hence the data they generate are mediated in fixed, new and different ways' (2015, 90, my emphasis). The discussion below will challenge this statement to argue that in fact scanning and photogrammetry is an intimate performance, while the process has the potential to be interrupted and creatively mediatedto create unpredictable results.
Indeed, it would also be helpful if we recognise 3D visualisations as what they are: artworks. In considering Alfred Gell's seminal text 'Art and Agency', which convincingly makes the argument that art must be performed in social life in order to be meaningful, we can only understand artworks and their value within their contexts of use (Gell 1998). Therefore, we should pay attention to who made the digital visualisations and for what purpose. Furthermore, if we refocus on the making itself, Tim Ingold's work (2007; 2011) recognises that it is 'the process of becoming' in a complex web of relationships between the materials, people and environment that is important. Artworks are never 'finished' per se, they are unfolding and open to reinterpretation. In developing Gell's argument, Ingold (2007; 2011) in fact frees all things from the idea of agency. Agency to Ingold is 'a magical mind-dust that, sprinkled among its constituents, is supposed to set them physically in motion' (2011, 28). Rather, Ingold demonstrates how things (or artworks for that matter) are the outcomes of 'flows', understood through their history of human and material relationships experienced within endless varying alignments of ingredients. An example Ingold uses is the creation of a shelf from a plank of wood which involves, other than the wood, the hand and body, a saw, a set square, a pencil and a ledge to lean on (Ingold 2011, 51-62). The hand and body initiates movement and knows how to from previous practical experience, while at the same time the activity of sawing requires the engagement of all the other tools. From then on gestures of the body and hand attune to the inter-related movements of the saw and the plank, stabilised by the ledge. The grain of the wood alters the pace of sawing and then suddenly the plank of wood is detached and the saw is no longer useful (Ingold 2011). Then the plank, once attached to a wall, becomes a shelf upon which things sit. Gell's focus on performance and Ingold's messy materiality is a hugely helpful way to think about the process of creativity and our place in it.
3D visualisation in heritage is here to stay! But it is timely, necessary even, to step out from behind the automation of the computer and embrace creativity in the digital.
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