New Neubauer Collegium projects to explore complex human questions

Susan Allen
News Officer for Arts and HumanitiesUniversity Communications

The Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society has selected 12 new collaborative research projects that unite leading scholars from the University of Chicago and beyond to explore novel approaches to complex human questions.

The 2016-17 faculty-led research projects include UChicago scholars from the Biological Sciences Division, Division of the Humanities, the Oriental Institute, the Harris School of Public Policy, the Pritzker School of Medicine, the School of Social Service Administration and the Division of the Social Sciences, as well as collaborators from academic institutions from around the world. Exploring topics ranging from environmental and social change in ancient Mesopotamia to the role of the arts in health care to “outsider writing,” the new projects push boundaries of inquiry and incorporate diverse forms of media, such as games, maps and visual art.

“The Neubauer Collegium encourages scholars to ask far-ranging questions and to follow the path of inquiry wherever it might lead,” said Jonathan Lear, the Roman Family Director of the Neubauer Collegium. “This year’s projects will explore new approaches to history, the nature of art, the global environment and the future of medical care—issues that affect us all.”

Expanding the horizon of artistic possibility

What happens when a computer program tries to generate a work of art?

That question lies at the heart of one of the Neubauer Collegium’s new projects, “Critical Computation: Machine Learning and Questions of Quality in Art and Design,” led by Assoc. Prof. Jason Salavon in collaboration with Sean Keller, Qixing Huang and William Catino. The project will be the basis of a future show in the Neubauer Collegium’s exhibition gallery, which presents both historical and contemporary art in the context of the Neubauer Collegium’s interdisciplinary research.

“Critical Computation” explores the intersection of visual art and machine learning. The project team, which includes computer scientists and programmers, plans to apply machine learning methods to the evaluation and the creation of visual art.

Visual recognition technology is already able to identify, for example, a human face, but can’t generate a perfect facsimile of one. For Salavon, it’s what the computer doesn’t get right—and the surprising, slightly alien quality of what it produces—that is most compelling. 

He hopes that teaching a computer to recognize contemporary abstract paintings will yield insight into both art and computer science. His collaborators will have the opportunity to undertake a rigorous investigation of an unexplored avenue of machine learning. As an artist, “I suspect new avenues of art-making might be assisted by machine learning,” said Salavon. “I think the horizon of possibilities is expanded by this investigation.”

Understanding the colonial economy

When France abolished slavery in its colonies in 1794, it left the roughly 500,000 formerly enslaved people of Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) suspended between two worlds. While many ex-slaves fled, some stayed on their plantations as coerced labor.

“The French Republic and the Plantation Economy,” led by historian Paul Cheney, offers a granular, quantitative perspective on what happened on Saint Domingue’s plantations in the uncertain years that followed abolition—what kinds of crops were grown, who left, who stayed and why so many former slaves returned to their old plantations.

By examining the detailed records in France’s colonial archives, Cheney and his collaborator Allan Potofsky of the University of Paris-Diderot hope to understand the contradictions at the heart of France’s revolutionary ideals and “the halting process of transition from one kind of economy to another, one kind of society to another,” explains Cheney, associate professor of History and in the College.  

As a 2016-17 visiting fellow, Potofsky will have an office at 5701 S. Woodlawn Ave., facilitating a localized, sustained collaboration with Cheney. The Neubauer Collegium’s global visiting fellows program brings leading international scholars, practitioners, artists and policymakers to campus to collaborate with faculty and students across disciplines, and to infuse inquiry at the University of Chicago with fresh ideas and new perspectives. Visiting fellows may come to work directly with Neubauer Collegium research projects or to engage more broadly with the University community and beyond.

Empowering youth through storytelling

Beginning in 2010, a group of researchers led by Prof. Melissa Gilliam held a workshop on digital storytelling for South Side youth. In short videos, participants shared powerful stories of first love, bullying and the death of a parent. That workshop grew into a larger project called South Side Stories, which formed the foundation for storytelling within the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3).

“Transmedia Story Lab: Impacting the Public Humanities and Public Health through Digital Narratives” builds on the success of South Side Stories and the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab. It aims to understand how digital storytelling can empower adolescents, impact public policy, advance research, and improve the health and well-being of youth.

Among other goals, the research team, which includes Gilliam, Patrick Jagoda and Alida Bouris, will use storytelling as an art form and a research methodology that can elicit meaningful qualitative data about youths’ lives and experiences. They also want to study how storytelling can provide youth with positive problem-solving and interpersonal skills.

“Many youth feel their experiences aren’t shared or just don’t matter,” explained Bouris, associate professor in SSA. “This is an active research method that privileges youths’ experiences and voices.”

Neubauer Collegium support will allow the project to reach more adolescents and partners throughout Chicago, Bouris added. “The project will allow us to form new relationships with community organizations—and offers a formal space to develop those partnerships.”

These newly announced projects mark 54 faculty research projects funded by the Neubauer Collegium since its founding in 2012. Projects are led by more than 125 UChicago faculty fellows and involve visiting fellows from 15 countries.