DETECt: the contribution of Digital Humanities to Cultural Studies research

By: Frederik Truyen, KU Leuven CS Digital, Roberta Pireddu, KU Leuven CS Digital, Ilaria Bartolini, Dept. of Computer Science and Engineering (DISI), University of Bologna, Anne Marit Waade, Aarhus University, Cathrin Helen Bengesser, Aarhus University

As it is mentioned on the project’s website: “DETECt is a large collaborative initiative that involves scholars, teachers, students, professionals of the creative industries, and the general public in investigating how practices of transnational production, distribution, and consumption in the field of popular culture have facilitated the appearance of engaging representations of Europe’s cultural identity.”

The project researches the popular genre of crime novels and TV series, and in particular, tries to find out what explains the successful circulation of e.g. the European Noir.

Not only does the project bring together top experts in Europe on this very genre, but it also, from its inception, stated some very specific ambitions towards the role of digital approaches, methodologies and tools for the research as well as the dissemination activities.

There is little need to convince even the most hardcore humanities scholar of the necessity of going digital in these COVID times, unfortunately. But it is important to stress that it also offers key advantages from a research and teaching point of view, regardless of this direct urgency. In this short blog, we want to discuss how the DETECt project involved Digital Humanities in its data management and source gathering, methodology and analysis, teaching, public interaction and dissemination.

The developed portal contains access to the research data, the repository, an atlas, a web app, and access to the Moodle and MOOC learning environments (see details below). 

Data management and source gathering

To share documents for collaboration, UNIBO decided to develop a specific document repository for the project, instead of using the usual tools offered by big brand ICT platforms. This approach allowed for a better integration in the web portal and the possibility of specific indexing. As a bonus, this allowed us to comply with EU GDPR regulations without having to make contracts with outside parties about data storage. To structure the research data and repository an ontology was developed to map the different relevant aspects and their interconnections.

DETECt Repository

But probably the most innovative part of it all is that the University of Bologna (UNIBO)  developed an underlying repository and indexing system to assist in the gathering of sources. This was an important part of the evidence-based approach of this research: we wanted to do research into crime novel and TV series creation, distribution and reception based on a large repository of data. These activities in the “Infrastructures” part of the project support the research done in the specific work packages on creative industries, creative audiences, and transcultural representations.

Data was gathered according to legal use conditions from a diversity of open sources and merged into consolidated tables by means of tools such as OpenRefine. A workshop was organized for the project partners to share expertise on these digital humanities tools.

Methodology and analysis

The availability of a portal based on a proper internal database in a web environment allowed us to easily integrate data from a variety of sources, and describe them with relevant research metadata. It allows for the implementation of algorithmic Human-machine analysis as a tool to study creative industries, creative audiences and European transcultural identity. The DETECt researchers involved have a longstanding pedigree in data-informed approaches. 

On top of this database, data visualizations were developed, first off-line with tools such as Gephi and Tableau, and then specifically programmed onto our core database infrastructure for live online consultation. This means researchers can now find on our portal integrated visualizations build directly on the database, in mashups with maps. This allows for a refined analysis e.g. of trends in distribution and circulation.

As a result, a collaborative analytical atlas of European transcultural identity is available on the portal. 

Teaching and Learning

From the earliest conception of the project, it was decided to include a MOOC. KU Leuven is a member of the world-leading edX consortium, and has a wide range of MOOCs on offer. The Cultural Studies KU Leuven DETECt team also had ample experience with MOOCs, having been instrumental in the development of an institutional MOOC strategy. Our latest MOOC, “Creating a Digital Cultural Heritage Community”, attracted over 2000 learners. KU Leuven has several recording studios and a large support team including ICt support, pedagogical expertise, scenario writers and video artists. The university support service LIMEL also offers training of staff members into MOOC development. The MOOC will target a mixed audience of both professionals and a wider audience, as there is a very strong general public interest in crime novels and TV series.

To prepare for the MOOC, a workflow was designed by UNIBO and KU Leuven, for which a Moodle instance, integrated with the DETECt platform, would be used as a temporary online tryout and content development platform. It also allowed for test student interactions. The materials gathered according to project standards for the Moodle constitute the pool of resources from which the MOOC is built, on the internal Edge server of KU Leuven, before it is published on the KULeuvenX edX platform. This way, we have a managed production process to which all involved partners could contribute. Of course, the MOOC will not only provide recorded lectures and study materials but will tap on the potential of the portal and database for interactive student activities.

Public interaction and dissemination: Web App

A Web App has been developed by the University of Aarhus, VisitAarhus and the start-up Motes, giving a guided tour to the “crime scenery” of Aarhus. The DETECtAarhus web-app (www.detectaarhus.eu) is a locative screen tourism experience, which consists of three walking tours through the city. Through GPS navigation It leads people to sites where contemporary films and TV series such as Dicte or Undtagelsen/The Exception were filmed, places which have inspired literary authors and it lets them discover the city’s silent film history. The app navigates the users to a total of 22 different spots where they can unlock audio, video, text and images or get recommendations for cafés and restaurants in Denmark’s second biggest city. 

This app demonstrates how this research can lead to innovative reuses in the tourism and entertainment sector. But the development of the screen tourism web-app for Aarhus was also a perfect opportunity for intertwining research and teaching. The app is suitable for teaching film students about silent film and film tourism as well as for presenting a new perspective on the city to international students. As one of the international students testing the app remarked: “I think it made me see the city in a different way, because I guess the mainstream tourist doesn’t go through film spots, so yeah, you get to see a different side of the city that to be honest, I didn’t know before.” (Spanish exchange student, Nov 2019)

But beyond this literal use as an educational tool, the app is also suited for demonstrating to students practical processes and challenges of product development. This experience prepares them for work environments in the creative industries. By becoming an active part of the research process around the app, students can also be trained methods of qualitative user research, which not only helps their development as academic researchers but also prepares them for research & development scenarios in the workplace. BA-students in media studies, for example, performed user-research around the app as part of their training in media reception analyses. They developed independent research projects, conducting and analysing 18 single or group interviews. Their findings contributed to the evaluation and further development of the app. Together with the web portal, the app is one of the vectors of our wider dissemination strategy. Following the pilot experience of DETECt Aarhus App, UNIBO is now working on DETECt Bologna that will feature multimedia material from six crime transmedia series set in the city. 

But of course this infrastructure and these tools are mainly conceived to support the research in the project, and the educational activities around it. You can find the main research outputs on the website, including journal articles and book publications.  

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Commission.

The research reported in this blogpost has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Grant Agreement No 770151, DETECt – Detecting Transcultural Identity in European Popular Crime Narratives

Metal Music Studies: why studying the world’s most controversial music is worth our time

Written by Didier Goossens, Cultural Studies alumnus

During my bachelor years at KU Leuven, I was told that if I wanted to pursue my true passion, I should be ready to defend it tooth and nail. Certainly, that came true when I discovered metal music studies. What are those? And why are they worthwhile? This is a question that I, following my graduation from the Master of Cultural Studies in 2018/9, have strived to answer and defend.

First, what are metal music studies? Utilizing a metaphor from Deena Weinstein (an American sociologist and one of the first scholars of metal music and culture), the term ‘metal music studies’ blankets an archipelago of disciplines that seek to understand and contextualize metal music and culture.This has brought together cultural theorists, literary and discourse analysts, musicologists, sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists, leading to the constitution of a formal research organization, the International Society for Metal Music Studies (ISMMS), and its associated academic journal, Metal Music Studies. That being answered, why do we practice these studies?

Metal music has a long and at times controversial history that proves fertile soil for social reflection and scholarly research. Issues that made past news, were either conservative accusations that metal causes Satanism, addiction and suicide; or its more extreme exploits, such as church burnings, murder and tendencies towards fundamentalist ideologies. More subliminally present in metal music and culture, and therefore known to a lesser degree, are on the one hand its negative treatment and underrepresentation of women and BIPOC, and on the other its consistent potential for cultural resistance. As such, metal music studies investigate such contradictions from various angles: cultural theorists and sociologists ask what brings fans of metal music together in so-called scenes and how the music and performances in those reflect cultural identities. One outstanding example of this is the reconciliation with traumas of dictatorial regimes in metal bands from Argentine, Peru and Chile. More musicology-oriented studies dissect structures within metal music and performances and analyse these through affect studies, among others. For example, a recent publication discusses the religious associations within drone metal, a brooding subgenre that stretches and distorts single notes.

It is within this cultural theory-oriented part of metal music studies that in 2019, I wrote my master thesis in cultural studies at KU Leuven. In it, I studied how the New Zealand metal band Alien Weaponry builds on their Māori identity in their music and performances, and how this identity is then distributed and received, particularly in western nations. According to theories of cultural globalization, this is where the majority of the metal-consuming masses are, and where thus the most cultural capital in metal still resides. Following my graduation, however, I did not want the thesis to lie around idly, as it reminded me of the fundame(n)tal value of metal music studies: its music and culture thoroughly reflect social dynamics. The inquiries of metal music studies unnerve, as they confront us with substantial elements of sexism and racism within metal music and culture; they also lay bare the explicit and implicit choices in life: how people come together in groups, exhibit taste, deal with different cultural identities in increasingly global and glocal contexts… These questions need to be asked, which has caused misunderstandings and tensions to arise between scholars of metal on the one hand and artists and fans on the other. Metal music studies are either unknown to people outside of academia’s ivory tower, or are accused of “demystifying” and/or “destroying” metal altogether – while the opposite is true. But how can metal music studies convince the world of this?

My proposition is through visibility and co-operation. With these ideas in mind, I submitted my thesis for the Vlaamse Scriptieprijs 2019. And while it did not win any prizes, it was picked up for an article in their newspaper, proving that the subject of metal music and culture, which is often discussed through simplistic and reductive stereotypes, intrigues and fascinates people, especially when dealing with different cultural identities. Following up on this visibility, I also made an appearance on Calling From The Underground, a podcast on (Belgian) metal hosted by popular stand-up comedian Alex Agnew and producer Andries Beckers. In it, I explained that while metal music and its studies are still largely absent from public debate and popular discussion in both Belgium (where I followed my higher education at KU Leuven) and the Netherlands (where I am currently employed at the Erasmus University Rotterdam), this is not necessarily cause for concern. With bands like Amenra and Brutus stepping into the limelight, discussions of metal music become increasingly nuanced, slowly opening the door for those themes of cultural studies that we find in it, and that are of great interest to metal music studies: culture, identity, affect, memory and performance. In order to bring this out in full, I therefore call for co-operation. In order to make the most of metal music studies, scholars need to co-operate with the field of metal production, dissemination and reception. We need to come together with artists, label agents, venue bookers, festival organizers, reviewers, journalists and fans alike to better understand what makes metal tick worldwide and across the world. This is a crucial element of my research that continue to stress in every publication and appearance. I am very positive about this, too: various documentaries on Latin American metal have been produced by scholars and in co-operation with local scene members. And while such efforts are taking place on a smaller scale in Belgium and the Netherlands, they are there, growing in the underground. That is why metal music studies are worthwhile.

Some links to these articles and appearances

Every experience is unique, including those of children with autism

Written by Andries Haesevoets, Cultural Studies Alumnus and winner of the Passwerk Prijs

Bij de keuze van het onderwerp van mijn masterproef wilde ik absoluut iets rond of over theater maken. Daarnaast ben ik heel blij dat ik Disability Studies heb leren kennen, omdat dit paradigma heel ruimdenkend is en zich niet beperkt tot één essentialistische of reductionistische visie. Al van kleins af aan moet ik regelmatig op doktersbezoek en dat voelt nooit echt prettig aan. Ik voel me daar dan niet helemaal op mijn gemak. Je wordt er enkel bekeken als een medisch subject met abnormale kenmerken waardoor je het gevoel krijgt dat je raar bent. Al die consultaties hebben een diepe indruk bij mezelf nagelaten en het heeft me ook gevormd als persoon.

De vrijheid om jezelf te zijn binnen de podiumkunsten

Een plek waar ik me altijd weer goed voel en geen last heb van mijn disabilities, is op een podium. Daar voel ik me steeds kiplekker. Al heel jong sloot ik me aan bij een lokaal dansgezelschap. Omwille van mijn motorische beperkingen kon ik niet alle dansjes even goed meedoen, maar mijn dansjuf maakte daar geen probleem van. Ze zocht naar oplossingen waardoor ik ook volledig werd opgenomen in de groep. Dat gaf mijn zelfvertrouwen een serieuze boost. Later sloot ik me aan bij een lokale toneelgroep, jeugdtoneel Kaboekie, en daar zit ik nog steeds bij. Ook zij beschouwen me allemaal als een volwaardig persoon die net zoals iedereen sterktes en zwaktes heeft. Ik kan er gewoon telkens opnieuw volledig mezelf zijn. Vandaar dat ik ook zo verknocht ben geraakt aan de podiumkunsten.

Een aantal jaar geleden werkte ik samen met theaterdocent Ingrid Dullens aan de voorstelling ‘Olla Podrida III’. Twee jaar geleden ontdekte ik dat Ingrid theaterlessen zou geven aan kinderen met autisme. Ik was meteen verkocht om hierover mijn masterproef te schrijven. De lessenreeks bestond uit tien lessen waarin de kinderen heel wat improvisatieoefeningen deden en toneelstukjes in kleine groepen maakten. Ze kregen veel vrijheid om te spelen en te onderzoeken. Elke les focuste zich op één element, zoals: locaties (waar), personages (wie), actie-reactie (wat) en emoties. Ik heb twee kinderen in de groep geobserveerd en geïnterviewd gedurende de volledige lessenreeks. De meest dominante modellen van het kennisdomein Disability Studies heb ik op een dynamische manier toegepast op deze data. Op die manier heb ik geprobeerd om dichter bij hun ervaringen van de theaterlessen te komen.

Iedereen is anders

Het doel van deze thesis is om een beter inzicht te krijgen in deze ervaringen. Hoewel beide participanten de diagnose autisme hebben gekregen, werd het duidelijk dat ze de theaterlessen niet op dezelfde manier ervaren. Het zijn twee verschillende kinderen met elk hun eigen karakter en hun unieke persoonlijkheid, ondanks hun autisme. Deze studie wil daarom ook onderzoekers, professionals en andere betrokkenen inspireren en hun blik verruimen. Mensen met autisme zijn meer dan hun diagnose en iedereen is anders. Door naar hen via meerdere brillen te kijken, zullen we hen niet meer als minderwaardig bestempelen en zullen we hen als een volwaardig persoon met unieke en bijzondere talenten opnemen in de samenleving.