Advances in Digital Humanities with new PhD course at the Faculty of Arts

During the fall term 2016 Humlab provides a new PhD course, Digital Humanities II: Applications. The course offers a specialization in theoretical and critical perspectives in digital humanities through seminars and individual digital projects.

Stefan Gelfgren introducing the course
Stefan Gelfgren, Director of Humlab, opened the course with a discussion on the topic of Digital humanities or humanities in a digital age?

The course is a deepening and continuation of the course Digital Humanities I: Introduction which was given during the Spring term 2015. Humlab has received funding from the Wallenberg Foundations for the course in the context of a commitment to research and younger scholars in the digital humanities.

Gísli Pálsson, a doctoral student in archeology, will work during the course with the project The farm-as-network: tracing the tendrils of agency across Iceland‘s medieval landscape.
Gísli Pálsson, a doctoral student in archeology, will work during the course with the project The farm-as-network: tracing the tendrils of agency across Iceland‘s medieval landscape.

The course will conclude with presentations of the individual projects on January 10, 2017.

For more information, contact:
Coppélie Cocq
Responsible for pedagogy and education, Humlab

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Digitizing Ancient Dance

On April 20 and 21 2016, members of the Oxford-Umeå research project Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers (ADMD), in association with Lausanne-based dance academy
Le Marchepied made use of Sliperiet’s motion-capture facility as part of our investigation of dance reconstruction. ADMD was established in 2013 to conduct practice-led research into the ancient Graeco-Roman performance genre known variously as orch?sis, tragoedia saltata (“danced tragedy”) or tragic pantomime. This was a form of solo storytelling through movement popular between the first and fifth centuries CE. Using evidence from textual and iconographic sources, we have been working with live dancers to re-imagine the art-form. In this phase of the project, we are examining the implications, both practical and theoretical, of digitizing orch?sis. What does it mean to translate dance in a post-human world? What does the re-embodiment or re-enactment of orch?sis signify in a context where the electronic interface has become a mundane means of mediation between dispersed human bodies? Can the digital be incorporated into the terpsichoreal?


Helen Slaney getting acquainted with motion-sensing gaffer tape in the company of Jim Robertsson and a Marchepied dancer.

On day 1, once the system was calibrated, each of the five participating dancers was captured performing a 4-minute piece which they had previously rehearsed. The pieces consisted of episodes from the Roman poet Ovid’s mythological compendium Metamorphoses, accompanied by recorded music (composed by Antoine Fachard) and a libretto in Latin. Using the OptiTrack hardware in conjunction with the Motive: Body interface – which was visible to the dancers as a projection throughout – introduced several new factors into their performances. The system has difficulty, for instance, differentiating levels of energy or tension in parts of the body, representing all movement as uniformly smooth and effortless. As there were no markers on the fingers, the hand gestures which are so important a part of the orch?sis vocabulary could not be distinguished. Weight and resistance are likewise hard to convey. Because the markers are attached to joints, subtle movements such as trembling cannot be read; such movements need to be rendered in a more explicit fashion if the system is to interpret them. We need to find ways to convert the electrical firing of muscular innervation into the electrical signals of the motion-capture system. Of course, much of this could be deferred to post-production, but another option is to develop effective translation techniques for meeting the medium halfway and adapting this dance form to make it comprehensible not just to human viewers but also to the alternative sensory faculties of a machine.

IMG_2584Anna Foka calibrating all 12 cameras in the motion capture system

Day 2 involved more recording, this time of some exercises pertaining to the expression of emotional states, and some experimentation with capturing the movement of cloth. The costumes worn in orch?sis, long, flowing robes which cover the dancer and enhance his/her plasticity, are essential to this form of dance, but cannot be captured by OptiTrack using conventional methods. We found that the cloth could not be designated as a “rigid body” with extra markers because they weighed it down and distorted it, meaning that only the swinging ends were tracked rather than a floating surface. The dancer could, however, wear a translucent veil over the capture suit without obscuring too many of the markers. It was important that the costume be worn as its presence or absence affected the dancers’ movements profoundly.

The next challenge for ADMD will be animation. We now have a gallery of raw capture videos consisting of green stick “skeleton” figures which we propose to convert into avatars of dancers performing in Roman theatre spaces. (If any animators – commercial or amateur – are reading this, especially if you have ideas regarding the digitization of cloth, please get in touch!) This workshop has been a fascinating exercise in what might be termed distributed reception; that is, relocating the cognitive act of processing movement from the locus of a human being to a (distributed) technological recipient. As such, it has provided a stimulus for rethinking the purpose, substance, and destination of classical texts pertaining to dance.


Sophie Bocksberger acquiring hands-on experience of the motion-capture software programme


ADMD Oxford: Helen Slaney & Sophie Bocksberger

ADMD HUMlab: Anna Foka

Technician: Jim Robertsson

Le Marchepied: Ilario Santoro, Judith Desse, Marie Lévenez, Ivan Larson, Léa Roméo

ADMD acknowledges the support of the Fell Fund, TORCH, St Hilda’s College, The Balticgruppen Foundation & Riksbankens Jubileumsfond


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On Monday, March 7, during the Sami festival Ubmejen Biejvieh, Humlab hosted , a conference about how digital technology can preserve and develop the Sami languages.
The conference was arranged by the Sami Parliament’s Language Center, Humlab, Umeå Municipality (International Affairs and Centre for Multilingualism) and the Swedish Sami Association (SSR).
Sami language workers, teachers, coordinators in municipalities, representatives of the Sami Parliament’s Language Board, Sáminuorra (Sami Youth Organization of Sweden) etc (about 40 participants) gathered in Humlab X for lectures and discussions.

– “It is obvious that the technology and the opportunities are there, but there is a need for venues to discuss and coordinate how these can be applied in the best way to strengthen and develop the Sami languages, their use and visibility,” says co-organizer Coppélie Cocq, Humlab.

#digigiella16 | Photo by Peter Steggo
#digigiella16 | Photo by Peter Steggo

The presentations and the panel discussion are available in our seminar archive:

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After Global Game Jam 2016

The last weekend in January we had, as mentioned in the post before, the Global Game Jam 2016. This year we had around 30 participants working with around 10-11 ideas for 48 hours, from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, making Umeå one of the more than 600 locations globally partaking in the event. This years theme was Ritual and all the games from Umeå and the rest of the world is completely free to download. This years contribution from Umeå is among others; voodoo goat doctors, human sacrifices and demons in a china shop. See below for link.


You can also listen to me (Carl-Erik Engqvist) and my Global Game Jam 2016 (and 2015) co-organizer Justyna Fryczak talking about “emotional games”. The talk was broadcasted as part of the 2016 Global Game Jam Radio.

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Global Game Jam 2016


During last weekend of January (29-31/1 in HUMlab-X) HUMlab hosts for the second year in a row The Global Game Jam.

The Global Game Jam is the world’s largest game jam event (game creation) taking place around the world at physical locations. Think of it as a hackathon focused on game development. The structure of a jam is usually that everyone gathers on Friday late afternoon, watches a short video keynote with advice from leading game developers, and then a secret theme is announced. All sites worldwide are then challenged to make games based on that same theme, with games to be completed by Sunday afternoon.

People are invited to explore new technology tools, trying on new roles in development and testing their skills to do something that requires them to design, develop create, test and make a new game in the time span of 48 hours.

If interested learn more about The Global Game Jam here:

Local registration:

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Participant reflections on the Gender and Status Competition Workshop @ HUMlab-X – Part I

On November 26 and 27 2015, the Umeå Group for Premodern Studies (UGPS) held an international workshop at HUMlab-X on Gender and Status Competition in Premodern Societies (GSC 2015), with the financial support of the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, the Umeå University Faculty of Arts, and the Umeå Centre for Gender Studies (UCGS). The workshop organisers were Professor Jonas Liliequist (History), Dr. Anna Foka (HUMlab), Stina Karlgren (History), and Lewis Webb (History).

The goal of the GSC 2015 workshop was to focus on how gendered behaviours and appearances have been used as a means for status competition, and how such status competition shaped both intra and inter-gender hierarchies. We were particularly interested in the physicality and materiality of status competition, namely the ways in which gender and status were negotiated and performed through speech, emotions, gestures, facial expressions, body language, comportment and clothing as well as material objects and visualized symbols. One of the central aims of the workshop was to integrate theoretical perspectives on emotions and senses with gender analysis on a micro-sociological and inter-personal level.

Image1ConferenceThe workshop was an immensely fruitful dialogue across disciplinary boundaries, with contributions spanning from Classical Antiquity through Medieval Europe, through the Early Modern Ottoman Empire, to Premodern China. The participants came from a diverse range of backgrounds, which led to many provocative interdisciplinary and intersectional discussions. More information about the workshop and the contributions is available at #gscumu2015 and

Image2InterdisciplinarydiscussionsInterdisciplinary discussions

The workshop organisers want to acknowledge the wonderful staff at HUMlab, particularly Karin Jangert, Johan von Boer, Jim Robertsson, Anna Misharina, and Elin Andersson. The workshop ran so smoothly due to their wonderful work and support.

Several of our participants provided us with their reflections on the workshop and HUMlab-X. We include some of their voices below.

Martha Bayless, Professor of English, University of Oregon:
I went to the HUMlab to talk about medieval board games, but I came away with thoughts on half a dozen other subjects — family snapshots from the Roman Empire, the gender of medieval hats, fan fiction, place, cognition, and beavers.  I understand that this is because this is what the HUMlab does: it brings together people and ideas from adjacent disciplines and facilitates an interchange that enlarges everyone’s views.

Image3MarthaBaylessMartha Bayless

This process reminds me of the scholarly research on networks and the “strength of weak ties”; if you want new connections or new ideas, you don’t look among your closest friends (or scholarly colleagues), because you already know their friends or colleagues and their ideas.  You look among your more distant associates or friends of friends, your “weak ties,” because they have knowledge and connections you don’t yet have.  So bringing together scholars in adjacent disciplines, as HUMlab did for November’s Workshop on Gender and Status Competition in Premodern Societies, is to use those “weak ties” to cross-fertilize and enrich the knowledge of scholars from the Classical era to the Early Modern period.

Image4UmbertoGrassiUmberto Grassi

The wonders of technology were on display in the HUMlab, with scholars Skyping in to do one session from places as disparate as Sweden, Lebanon and the U.S. As futuristic as this was, I personally was also impressed by the down-to-earth reminders of place at the HUMlab — the here-ness that distinguishes it from other places.  Coming as I do from a university (the University of Oregon, in the U.S.) built mostly in the interchangeable-box era of construction, I was struck by what a distinctive place the HUMlab is.  Completely glass on one side, the view out the side of the lab goes straight to the Ume river, which travels alongside the building.  Over the course of our workshop the sun rose, hovered just above the horizon, made its way down the river, and then set again a few hours later, never having ascended into the upper sky.  Thus even the placement of the HUMlab’s glass wall lets its residents know: We are here, in northern Sweden.  To confirm this, when we went out to the river during a break, we spotted a beaver swimming close to shore.

Image5SkypediscussionsSkype discussions with Martin Huang, Lovisa Brännstedt, and Nadia Cheikh

In my role as a historian of medieval culture, I have become increasingly aware of the sense of place in traditional culture.  Storytelling traditionally bore a strong relation to place and landscape: stories would be created to explain natural landscape features, and the landscape would then serve as an engine for further storytelling as people naturally asked “What is the story behind this rock/hill/standing stone?”  But when stories are collected by outsiders for larger audiences — from early anthropologists to the Grimm Brothers — the stories are typically denatured and stripped of their place-names and sense of the particular.  Thus stories, like places, become anonymous and arbitrary, no longer moored to their environment.

Image6EvaAnderssonEva Andersson

But we are now starting to recover the role of place in cultural memory, and to see that place is not inconsequential, but can have a cognitive function.  Edwin Hutchins’ book Cognition in the Wild (1995) demonstrated the ways in which cognition can be outsourced or “distributed” — in his example, how ship navigation is outsourced into the design of the ship — the ship, in effect, does part of the thinking.  In traditional societies this is also true of landscape and cultural memory.  In How Forests Think, for instance, Eduardo Kohn has discusses societies in which whole ecosystems become part of the human cognitive system.  Modern developed culture, by contrast, is much more mobile and transient, and places have far fewer associations for us.  Places become emptied of particularity and nearly interchangeable: in the famous saying of Gertrude Stein, “When you get there, there isn’t any there there.”

Image7StinaKarlgrenStina Karlgren

It is distinctive about the HUMlab, then, that when you get there, there is a there there. With its complexities, innovations, and thoughtful design, the HUMlab is almost a cognitive system in itself.  The approach along the riverbank reveals a series of glass-sided university rooms: a gym, a library, a commissary, and finally the Bildmuseet (art museum) and HUMlab.  It’s as if the buildings are saying This is where we do the exercising, this is where we do the research, this is where we do the eating, and once the basics are taken care of, This is where we do the thinking.  The thinking happens all over HUMlab: even the floor contains a vast electronic screen like a huge magic carpet.  The chairs are, almost uniquely among conference chairs, extremely comfortable.  Much of the furniture is on wheels — tables, chairs, sofas — for flexible arrangement.  Those afflicted by jet lag can take refuge in the large canopied blue sofas that almost serve as comfortable cupboards.

Image8JonasLiliequistJonas Liliequist

The versatility of HUMlab was demonstrated by Anna Foka’s talk on the modern popularization of gladiators.  She projected images on the wall — or rather on the sort of monumental objet d’art that serves as a screen — while a map of Classical gladiatorial arenas glowed on the floor.  The group then moved into the inner room where she screened clips from gladiator films.  In an adjacent room images of gladiators were projected onto wall screens, and a fourth small glass room held state-of-the-art equipment for playing gladiatorial video games.  The multiple locations, media, and representation of gladiatorial games made the presentation not just a talk but an experience — the audience had the HUMlab to think with.

Image9AnnaFokaAnna Foka

Anna Foka’s exploration of gladiatorial games jibed well with my own presentation on a more miniature display of martial prowess: the board games of early medieval northern Europe. Three of these were popular for more than a thousand years: tables (a race-game much like modern backgammon), hnefatafl (a chase- or battle-game with a central king-piece), and “wood-sense” (a battle game), played in Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Norse settlements.  These were far from the trivial, even marginal pursuits they are in modern culture; expertise at the board game was a mark of kings, a way of demonstrating power in war even while peace reigned.  They were assigned mythological status — in the Old Norse Voluspà, the gods play their board game at the creation of the world, and at the end of time, after the world is destroyed, the golden playing pieces will be found in the grass, ready for a new world and a new game.  A king was supposed to wield his playing pieces like a god.  In medieval Wales, high officials were even granted a symbolic board game when they assumed office; in Anglo-Saxon England, kings were buried with their sets.  Innumerable stories show the martial and supernatural power of the game.  But what does this mean when women try to play a game associated with supreme masculine prowess?  My paper looked at several instances when women intruded into the masculine preserve of board games — an early presentiment of the gender scandal that became the recent “gamer-gate.”  To sum it up: women who played board games were thought to be alarmingly dangerous.

Image10MehmetKalpakliMehmet Kalpakli

The other papers at the Workshop were multi-media, lively, and stimulating.  I was particularly fascinated by Eva Andersson’s talk on the similarity of medieval men’s and women’s clothing (it turns out hats were the key to sexual dimorphism); by Ursula Rothe’s account of the “family snapshots” on the sculptural tombs of the far-flung reaches of the Roman Empire, complete with lapdogs; and by Godelinde Perk’s fan-fiction theory of the life of notorious medieval complainer Margery Kempe.  I am of necessity leaving out a great number of equally engaging talks.  The workshop was very ably organized by Jonas Liliequist (who gave a wonderful talk on romping and raillery), Anna Foka, Stina Karlgren and the redoubtable Lewis Webb.  It was the cross-fertilization of scholarship at its most dynamic, a result of both the people and the place.

Image11LewisWebbLewis Webb

Ursula Rothe, Baron Thyssen Lecturer of Classical Studies, The Open University:
We arrived in the Arctic landscape of Umeå in winter to the warmest possible reception for the Gender and Status Competition in Premodern Societies conference. It was exciting to meet all the delegates from around the world at the get-together the night before proceedings began, and the conference itself showed what a huge variety of research fields could usefully be brought together to discuss the topic of gender and status in an interdisciplinary way: ancient Rome, imperial China, early Islam, medieval Scandinavia and Italy, French and English Renaissance writing and the poetry of the Ottoman Empire.

Image12UrsulaRotheUrsula Rothe

It was fascinating to find links between these diverse areas and to put one’s own individual research into a wider historical context. The themes for the sessions were well-chosen, and aided the cross-disciplinary dialogue: ‘Games, brawls, and jokes’; ‘Conspicuous consumption’; ‘Elite ceremonies’; ‘Inscribing identities’; ‘Patronage networks’; ‘Embodied performances’. We were put up in the University of Umeå’s very smart HUMlab-X with its high-tech audio-visual system and extremely capable staff, who were on hand throughout the conference to make sure everything went smoothly. It was a thoroughly successful event, and our thanks go to the organisers of the conference for all their hard work getting us all to Umeå and making it such an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

Image13FabianPerssonFabian Persson

Yiqun Zhou, Associate Professor of Chinese Literature, Stanford University:
It was a memorable conference. Discussions with knowledgeable and intelligent colleagues from a wide range of fields, in a setting that was cordial, relaxing, yet stimulating—what more could one ask for? The diversity of the participants’ backgrounds not only made it easy to acknowledge your own ignorance and to learn from others, but also constantly gave you new insights into your own research. As befitted academic activities of the best kind, this conference disseminated ideas, inspired curiosity, and promoted collaboration among scholars who normally would not have been engaged in a dialog.

Image14YiqunZhouYiqun Zhou

Thanks to the amazing organizers and fellow participants, my first encounter with Scandinavia was a most rewarding and pleasurable one. For some time to come, I will be thinking about the sun setting before 3 o’clock outside the conference hall, as the splendid screen of HUMlab lit up with Anna Foka’s gladiatorial fights; and about Jonas Liliequist’s romping Swedish soldiers and Federico Barbierato’s well-connected Venetian nuns.

Image15FedericoBarbieratoFederico Barbierato

To be continued in Part II.

God jul och gott nytt år!

Jonas Liliequist, Anna Foka, Stina Karlgren, and Lewis Webb

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Guest blogger Professor Pelle Snickars: “Streaming Heritage: ‘Following Files’ in Digital Music Distribution”

The research project “Streaming Heritage: ‘Following Files’ in Digital Music Distribution”, funded by the Swedish Research Council, is now in its second year. The project team consists of Pelle Snickars (project leader), Rasmus Fleischer, Anna Johansson, Patrick Vonderau and Maria Eriksson. The project is located at HUMlab where developers Roger Mähler and Fredrik Palm do the actual coding.

In short, the project studies emerging streaming media cultures in general, and the music service Spotify in particular (with a bearing on the digital challenges posed by direct access to musical heritage.) Building on the tradition of ‘breaching experiments’ in ethnomethodology, the research group seeks to break into the hidden infrastructures of digital music distribution in order to study its underlying norms and structures. The key idea is to ‘follow files’ (rather than the people making or using them) on their distributive journey through the streaming ecosystem.

Kpc wintergatan222 130507 EBE_MS-Office

Photo: Elin Berge

So far research has focused basically four broader areas: the history and evolvement of streaming music in general and Spotify in particular (Fleischer), streaming aggregation’s politics and effects on value and cultural production (Vonderau), the tracing of historical development of music metadata management and its ties to knowledge production and management that falls under the headline of ‘big data’ (Eriksson), and various forms of bot culture in relation to automated music aggregation (Snickars).

One article has been published, and more preliminary results are to be presented in a number of upcoming articles and conferences during 2016. Eriksson, for example recently submitted an article around digital music distribution increasingly powered by automated mechanisms that capture, sort and analyze large amounts of web-based data. The article traces the historical development of music metadata management and its ties to the field of ‘big data’ knowledge production. In particular, it explores the data catching mechanisms enabled by the Spotify-owned company The Echo Nest, and provides a close reading of parts of the company’s collection and analysis of data regarding musicians. In a similar manner, Johansson and Eriksson are exploring how music recommendations are entangled with fantasies of for example age, gender, and geography. By capturing and analyzing the music recommendations Spotify delivers to a selected number of pre-designed Spotify users, the experiment sets out to explore how the Spotify client, and it’s algorithms, are performative of user identities and taste constellations. Results will be presented at various conferences during next year. In addition, Snickars has continued working with the HUMlab programers on various forms of “bot experiments”. One forthcoming article focuses the streaming notion of “more music”, and an abstract for the upcoming DH-conference in Kraków (during the summer of 2016) is entitled: “SpotiBot—Turing testing Spotify”. It reads as follows, and gives an indication of the ways in which the project is being conducted:

Under the computational hood of streaming services all streams are equal, and every stream thus means (potentially) increased revenue from advertisers. Spotify is hence likely to include—rather than reject—various forms of (semi-)automated music, sounds and (audio) bots. At HUMlab we therefore set up an experiment—SpotiBot—with the purpose to determine if it was possible to provoke, or even to some extent undermine, the Spotify business model (based on the 30 second royalty rule). Royalties from Spotify are only disbursed once a song is registered as a play, which happens after 30 seconds. The SpotiBot engine was be used to play a single track repeatedly (both self-produced music and Abba’s ”Dancing Queen”), during less and more than 30 seconds, and with a fixed repetition scheme running from 10 to n times, simultaneously with different Spotify account. Based on a set of tools provided by Selenium the SpotiBot engine automated the Spotify web client by simulating user interaction within the web interface. From a computational perspective the Spotify web client appeared as black box; the logics that the Spotify application was governed by was, for example, not known in advance, and the web page structure (in HTML) and client side scripting quite complex. It was not doable within the experiment to gain a fuller understanding of the dialogue between the client and the server. As a consequence, the development of the SpotiBot-experiment was (to some extent) based on ‘trial and error’ how the client behaved, and what kind of data was sent from the server for different user actions. Using a single virtual machine—hidden behind only one proxy IP—the results nevertheless indicate that it is possible to automatically play tracks for thousands of repetitions that exceeds the royalty rule. Even if we encountered a number of problems and deviations that interrupted the client execution, the Spotify business model can in short be tampered with. In other words, one might ask what happens when—not if—streaming bots approximate human listener behavior in such a way that it becomes impossible to distinguish between a human and a machine? Streaming fraud, as it has been labeled, then runs the risk of undermining the economic revenue models of streaming services as Spotify.

Finally, during the following weeks the project group will do presentations in the U.S. The first one is called, “Spotify Teardown”, and consists of a project presentation and roundtable at the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara. On the one hand the presentation will have a focus on methodology, background research and preliminary findings, and on the other hand try to initiate a discussion with three focused areas: (1.) ”Ethical and Legal Limitations”: What are the ethical/legal issues that arise in relation to activist projects, and how to tackle them? (2.) ”Metaphors for Research”: What metaphors are useful, or more useful than conventional metaphors such as “platform” or “platform responsibility”? and (3.) ”New Qualitative Methods and Old Disciplinary Frameworks”: What are the key challenges of working with qualitative, inter- and pelle175transdisciplinary methods in institutional environments? In addition, Pelle Snickars will also do another project presentation in New York at Cuny (The City University of New York) at the conference, ”Digging Deep: Ecosystems, Institutions and Processes for Critical Making”.

Pelle Snickars is Professor of Media and Communication Studies, specialising in digital humanities at Umeå university, with an affiliation to HUMlab.

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