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New IQ Center at W&L Spawns Creative Ideas for Use of Technology in Arts and Humanities

When Washington and Lee University chemistry professor Erich Uffelman gave Andrea Lepage, assistant professor of art history, a tour of the University’s new Integrative Quantitative (IQ) Center, she was immediately intrigued by the potential that the 3D High-Performance Visualization Lab might have for using reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) to enhance teaching in the arts and humanities.

“I thought that the IQ Center would provide excellent ground for further collaboration,” said Uffelman, who has successfully collaborated with Lepage in the past, “especially in the area of visualization of cultural heritage. Andrea was immediately appreciative of the new options we had available to us and took the lead on an internal proposal.”

Lepage instigated the formation of a cohort of faculty from art, art history, theater, chemistry, biology, archaeology, anthropology and computer science to explore ideas and secured funding from the Office of the Dean of the College for an ongoing project. As an initial step, the group will bring in two specialists in RTI to demonstrate the equipment and explain its classroom implementation.

“We’re always thinking of ways to make learning less static and we think this will make the classroom more dynamic and add a whole new dimension to learning,” said Lepage.

Helen I’Anson, professor of biology and neuroscience at W&L, is a member of the cohort. She is also program director of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Grant (HHMI) program which provided funds to create the IQ Center. She hopes that the project will encourage arts and humanities to take advantage of the space and equipment in the IQ Center.

“Any project that involves the IQ Center is exciting to me,” she said. “And in particular I’m anxious to encourage cross-campus collaborations between STEM and non-STEM areas.  This is a good way for our non-science students to understand the importance of science and technology in their lives.”

According to Lepage, the new technology will make it possible to examine more closely topics in art history such as spatial relationships, paint density, texture and scale, which are currently limited by standard two-dimensional projection technology. RTI records on many different planes to give a more comprehensive and detailed image, enabling a viewer to isolate a brushstroke, for instance, and to see the exact trajectory of how the artist painted a canvas or created a sculpture.

Museums are currently making the raw data for artworks available to anyone with an internet connection, enabling students to examine and analyze details of the most famous paintings in the world. For example, a 3-D scan of the entire dimensions of Michelangelo’s “David” allows the viewer to examine minute details and circulate around the artwork.

“You can see what the toe of David looks like and the connection between the sculpture and the marble support,” said Lepage. “You can zero in on precise details on David’s back—it’s a participatory interaction that students couldn’t have otherwise. It’s even possible for us to take the raw data and make a 3-D print model of the sculpture.”

Lepage also noted that the technology permits students to reinsert artworks into their original locations. “The sculpture of David was originally intended to be displayed very high up on a tower, not in a museum, which accounts for why the hands are large and the head even larger. This technology allows you to place the sculpture on the tower where it belongs and view it from the ground to see if it changes your perception of it.”

Clover Archer Lyle, artist and director of the Staniar Gallery in Wilson Hall at W&L, said that the technology allows art students to create in new ways and dimensions. “This technology is analogous to how the internet changed the art field when it was first introduced. It’s going to become more prevalent in all areas of art-making as well as intellectual and conceptual conversations about art,” she said. “I think it’s important for students to be knowledgeable and aware of how it is changing the field and for faculty to be able to answer their questions and lead the discussions.”

According to Lepage and Archer Lyle, RTI is also contributing to a dramatic shift with regard to issues of originality, reproducibility, intellectual property and conservation. “These issues have been central to the works of many artists, with Andy Warhol’s screen printings being the most obvious example,” said Lepage. “Now they’re being discussed in a new way with 3-D technology.”

Lepage hopes that as faculty at W&L become more aware of the potential of the new technology and how they can apply it to their curricula, it will generate even more interest and curiosity among students.