Processing the Page: Computer Vision and Otto Piene’s Sketchbooks

, Lightbox Gallery, Harvard Art Museums
A collage of pages from the sketchbooks of artist Otto Piene

Collage of pages from the sketchbooks of artist Otto Piene.

Lightbox Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

The Busch-Reisinger Museum was recently gifted more than 70 sketchbooks kept by artist Otto Piene (1928–2014). Dating from 1935 to 2014, the largely unpublished sketchbooks reflect interdisciplinary, cross-media experiments from Piene’s long career in the Boston area and abroad, including both realized and unrealized projects. A pioneer in multimedia and technology-based art, Piene was long interested in optical perception and kinetic forces, resulting in a body of work that emphasizes collaboration and the intersections of art, science, and nature. The diverse themes and approaches in Piene’s sketchbooks open pathways into his individual artistic practice as well as into the multivalent nature of the sketchbook: an art object, a portable studio, a record of visual thinking, and a space for material experimentation. “[M]any ideas have sprung up in full flight during the physical act of making things,” Piene once remarked. “To a large extent, art comes out of the practice of art.”

While researching, cataloging, and digitizing the sketchbooks—over 9,000 pages—Jeff Steward, the museums’ director of digital infrastructure and emerging technology, and Lauren Hanson, the Stefan Engelhorn Curatorial Fellow in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, teamed up to show how curatorial practice coupled with computer science and data visualization can expose hidden stories, spawn new conversations, and transform our understanding of Piene’s artistic practice. This installation brings to light their experimentation with human and AI-generated data. Through large-scale monitors on the gallery wall, visitors can browse Piene’s digitized sketchbooks by using either an iPad stationed in the gallery or their own smartphone. The sketchbooks are presented as a large matrix of thumbnail images arranged in chronological order; each page is viewable in high resolution. The pages can also be explored by dominant color or by AI-generated descriptive tags.

In the spirit of Piene’s dedication to collaborative practice and learning through creating, we invite visitors to interact with this installation and explore the vibrant imagery and information within the sketchbooks, while also experimenting with emerging technologies and digital tools as a means for creating new information, new knowledge, and new ways of seeing.

Online Resource

“Animating the Page: Otto Piene and the Artist Sketchbook” provides online open access to the museums’ full collection of Otto Piene’s sketchbooks. Explore Piene’s drawings through the lens of several key themes or explore more freely by “turning” the pages of his sketchbooks.