Monday, September 21, 2009

as cited

Attended the Saturday afternoon sessions of NIU’s conference on Crafting a Maya Identity. (The link appears to have expired or else the server died, so apologies for the lack of reference.) The afternoon sessions were concerned with “Indigenous Kitsch” -- tourist art in the Yucatan that has no historical antecedent outside the tourist trade, although in recent years the handicrafts have drawn from Classic Maya bas-relief for much of its subject matter.

The conference was accompanied by a lovely exhibit of artists’ works, and many of the Mayan artists were in attendance.

The usual questions about “is it art” were asked, as were questions of cultural identity. Not mentioned (unless it was covered in the morning sessions) were textiles as art and/or kitsch. Witness: I have in my possession some lovely table runners and pillow cases from Mexico and Guatemala, and although they were created on traditional Mayan backstrap looms and borrow from traditional patterns, I’m pretty sure the Classic Maya didn’t have a lot of call for pillow cases like these.

Mary Katherine Scott, who curated the exhibition and in part organized the conference, presented her paper on “Representing the Maya: When is it Appropriate to Call ‘Appropriations’ Art”. She drew extensively on referential imagery to explicate her subject matter -- Andy Warhol’s works put in an appearance as did Roy Lichtenstein. An extensive scattering of classic Mayan and Olmec artifacts were also visually referenced.

When she didn’t reference her own photographs to M.K. Scott, she referenced the imagery, almost universally, to Google Images.

I had hoped to ask her about it during Q&A but there was none following her presentation, and the panel discussion led to more interesting topics, and I had no interest in derailing it with this small matter.

But is it a small matter? To cite a reference engine that has no agency of its own as a source for imagery? Google Images only points to images created by others, and the actual citations could easily have been obtained by clicking through to the destination page and culling the reference from the parent source. Something, certainly, that this scholar had to do, because she used large images, not the small thumbnails that are rendered for Google Image search.

In each case she would have found a human being or an institution responsible for the making of that image. In each case it is that person or organization that should have been cited.

Not only was it horribly ironic that in presenting her criticism of historical appropriations she would have inappropriately appropriated imagery without proper attribution (say *that* three times fast); but I found it especially troubling, as someone whose trade depends upon architecting websites so that they may be found via Google and other channels of discovery, that she would have referenced a transitory source. Google Image search results may well change from day to day, depending upon the availability of the site serving the image and its competition with other images. There is no promise or contract in place that will ensure an image found there yesterday can be found again today. Perhaps if M.K. Scott had cited the keyword used to trigger the query the citation would be more complete and have a better chance of being reproduced, but really? Has the Chicago Manual of Style approved citing a search engine as an appropriate citation?

Please tell me no.

p.s. The image above is a holga shot from the Epcot Center sometime back when I was in Orlando for a conference. It’s Disney’s version of a Mayan pyramid, and it’s all kinds of wrong. If you care to reference it elsewhere please go with “Photo by: Dayna Bateman who posts to Flickr as suttonhoo.” Even though the image may sometimes be found in Google Images.

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