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Ways of Machine Seeing workshop 2017 - Call for proposals

Ways of Machine Seeing 2017 is a two-day workshop organised by the Cambridge Digital Humanities Network, and CoDE (Cultures of the Digital Economy Research Institute) and Cambridge Big Data

1pm Monday 26 June –  2pm Wednesday 28 June

Call for proposals closes 17 April 2017


  • Monday 26 June - Ruskin Gallery,  Cambridge School of Art, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge
  • Tuesday 27 June - Alison Richard Building, University of Cambridge, Sidgwick site, West Road, Cambridge
  • Wednesday 28 June - Cambridge Computer Laboratory, William Gates Building, JJ Thompson Avenue, Cambridge

Organising committee:

Dr Anne Alexander (Cambridge Digital Humanities Network / Cambridge Big Data); Professor Alan Blackwell (Cambridge Computer Lab); Dr Geoff Cox (Aarhus University/Plymouth University); Luke Church (Cambridge Computer Lab); Leo Impett (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne); Dr Shreepali Patel (Director, CoDE -Cultures of the Digital Economy Research Institute)


Since its broadcast 45 years ago, the BBC documentary series Ways of Seeing has had a wide impact on both popular and academic views on the history of art and the production of images. It presented a radical socio-economic understanding of western art history which was closer to the image itself than previous Marxist critics - helping spread the thinking of Walter Benjamin in the English-speaking world. The analysis offered by presenter John Berger and his collaborators in the documentary is founded on technologies (oil paints, photography) and the ways in which they both reflect and create visual-ideological paradigms, or Ways of Seeing; we seek to explore, half a century later, how these concepts can be understood in the light of state-of-the-art technical developments in machine vision and algorithmic learning.

Can Berger's assertion that "every image embodies a way of seeing", be brought into fruitful dialogue with the concerns of researchers exploring contemporary technologies of vision, in a world where the theorisation of vision as a series of information-processing tasks profoundly affects the creation, reception and circulation of all kinds of images? Does this require a perspective going beyond robots which "see” in order to work in a factory, through self-driving cars, recognition and response to embodied human experience, to understanding the cultural meaning of images that have been selected algorithmically, and the question of how the reciprocal nature of vision is affected by the intercession of new kinds of filters between viewer and viewed? 

Call for participation:

The programme will follow four themes corresponding to the themes of the four episodes of Berger’s Ways of Seeing documentary series.

  • The impact of photography on our appreciation of art from the past

The image-machines of today - the phone camera, the GoPro, VR, 4K cameras, drones, the 3rd person video-game, Instagram, domestic and distributed image factories - inform our ways of looking at images of the past. How do these ways of seeing influence our historical view of images, and our search towards modern technologies? How does virtual photography (in video-games and CGI) influence our production and understanding of physical photography?

  • The portrayal of the female nude in the tradition of European art

Kenneth Clarke’s 1956 book The Nude starts with a praise of English for distinguishing, with elaborate generosity, the Naked from the Nude. Berger repurposes this distinction: exploring the contradictory relationships between gender, the economic structures of art-creation, and the power-structures inherent in its value-system. How might we further develop understanding the relation between computation, technologies of vision and politics of representation? Have practices of self-representation been changed by the advent of new technologies: the ubiquity of the camera-phone, the social network, and the ‘quantified self’?

  • Realism and the invention of oil paint

Oil paint is a technology; at its time, a revolution in photorealistic rendering. The oil painting is more than the application of this technology - it is an art form with a unique relationship to property, reflecting ideological interests in changing socioeconomic circumstances. How does a technology for image-production become a form, and how then does it become an instrument for visual hegemony?

  • How advertising and publicity relate to the tradition of painting

Berger argued that advertising and publicity were not just post-industrial appropriations of Renaissance visual language: their explicit economic structure (selling), their relationship to technology (photography) and their complex use of social memory (art-historical references) provide a crucial case study in the relationship between knowing, seeing and economic power. Can we make use of the same theoretical model to examine the relationship between publicity and art today? Can we understand the relationship between seeing and knowing as an expression of the relationship between image and text? What changes in our understanding of this relationship if we look at technologies which were unimaginable in Berger’s time, by analysing for example, the role of algorithmically-driven recommender systems in major digital platforms in shaping and reflecting both cultural ‘tastes’ and the economic logics of advertising?


Each theme will be explored in a half-day session, comprising a combination of presentations, round-table discussions and demonstrations of practical experiments in machine seeing conceived in the spirit of radical pedagogy which informed the work of Berger and his collaborators, who embraced the medium of television as a means to inspire a critical appreciation of art among a wider audience than traditional gallery-goers.

We invite proposals for the workshop from researchers for:

  • Paper presentations
  • Technical demonstrations
  • Static, dynamic or performative artworks (including films)
  • Poster presentations

Please use the Expression of Interest form when submitting a proposal [download here]. The deadline for proposals is 5pm 17 April 2017 and selected presenters will be informed by the end of April. General registration for delegates (at waged and unwaged/student rates) will open in early April. We regret that the conference organisers are only able to assist with accommodation bookings for presenters selected through the call for proposals and not for general delegates. We advise delegates to book accommodation early. More information is available here on local accommodation options:  

Limited funding is available for presenters selected through the call for participation; please indicate on the EoI form if you would like to be considered for a bursary to cover the cost of registration, and travel or accommodation.

Opportunities for graduate students and early career researchers:

Graduate students from Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Cambridge are invited to apply to join the conference organizing team during the event. If you are interested in assisting at the event, including documenting sessions on social media and a post-conference report please contact Dr Shreepali Patel (ARU students – ) or Dr Anne Alexander (Cambridge students – ). 


We are a network of researchers at the University of Cambridge who are interested in how the use of digital tools is transforming scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. This transformation spans both the content and practice of humanities research, as the diffusion of digital technologies opens up new fields of study and generates research questions which breach traditional disciplinary boundaries.

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