CulturePlex marries science and the arts

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By Heather Travis
Thursday, December 2, 2010
Juan Luis Suarez is turning cultural and literary studies into a literal science.
 
 
The CulturePlex research lab, recently opened in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, connects researchers such as Modern Languages and Literatures professor Juan Luis Suarez with researchers in other disciplines to develop new technologies and tools to study cultural dynamics.
 
 
“In arts and humanities, we deal with information, with patterns either in texts or in paintings or whatever form of cultural expression. We have to take advantage of technology to ask better questions about the past and get ready for the future,” says The University of Western Ontario modern languages and literatures professor.
 
Suarez is leading a group of researchers in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities into the world of the “digital humanities” – a revolution that marries the arts with the digital world to find solutions to more traditional problems.
 
He was granted $500,000 from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to support the establishment of The CulturePlex research lab in University College. The facility will be used as an incubator for research and development of technologies to open communication and facilitate collaboration, and to study several phases of cultural dynamics: creation, transmission and representation.
 
The CulturePlex officially opened on Nov. 18.
 
Suarez is the lead researcher of “The Hispanic Baroque: Complexity in the First Atlantic Culture” project, which examines the way characteristics of the Hispanic Baroque period were reproduced and transferred to other cultural settings, such as moving from Spain to South America.
 
Faced with the problem of tracking the origin and spread of Baroque culture, Suarez and his team quickly realized the tools currently available were too rudimentary and insufficient to create the complex data analysis and visualization tools he was looking for.
 
For example, researchers typically analyze a book or a poem to extract information about the intent of the author, the symbolic content, the influences on the work, etc., which provides insight on the human experience. However, Suarez wanted to see how these experiences related to people on the other side of the world and how things change over time. And to do this, different tools are needed.
 
Looking to push the boundaries of his research into the Hispanic Baroque period, Suarez decided to tap into the talents of colleagues across faculties, from computer science, mathematics and economics to art history, philology and philosophy.
 
“It’s putting the mathematical and computer science part together with the needs we have as humanists, taking advantage of all the new gadgets and tools,” he says. “We draw from knowledge in physics, mathematics and computer science to see how cultural objects change over time, when people experience them in local context.”
 
Rather than analyzing only books or poems in isolation, Suarez is interested in creating databases of paintings, texts and people to better understand the Hispanic Baroque period and the interactions between cultural phenomena as a whole.
 
“We try to make it a bigger scale and try also to do it with many different (cultural) objects at the same time. So, we have a more complete picture of a culture,” he says.
 
Similar to the way Facebook analyzes its network of users or how patterns of mobile calls within a country are tracked, Suarez is looking to doing the same to map culture and the structure of communication networks – how things change and move.
 
“This is a very interconnected world in which we are now, but that connectivity was also important in the past,” he says.
 
Research at CulturePlex has attracted attention from those outside the arts and humanities, such as computer science, who are interested in solving the complex problems that are otherwise considered to be on the fringe of their field of study.
 
Javier DeLaRosa, a research associate in The CulturePlex lab, joined the team because the solutions he was asked to address as a software developer challenged him in new way.
 
He is involved with developing the Transfer Cloud writing recognition software, which helps researchers identify words written in ancient text. After scanning an ancient document (both handwritten and printed text), the software converts it into a readable, digital copy. Transfer Cloud is one of several research projects at The Culture Plex.
 
“I think the humanities people are using methods that have not evolved for a long time,” says DeLaRosa, who recently joined Suarez’s team from Spain.
 
In order to get a new point of view on the materials, “the answers are in computer science. By joining both fields, you can reach important results,” says DeLeRosa.
 
To find out more about research projects at The CulturePlex, visit www.cultureplex.ca.
 

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