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Visual Poetics & Blake’s Afterlife: Florine Stettheimer

New York saloniste Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944) was born nearly fifty years after William Blake’s death. Yet this wealthy American woman produced a body of artworks that bear remarkable resemblances to Blake’s illustrations. The two share many qualities: both were equal parts poet and visual artist, both produced works with highly idiosyncratic pictorial styles, and both had reputations as unconventional individuals.

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The Artist, the Poet, and the Proofreader

The relationship between vivid, poetic language and visual art has always intrigued me. As an undergrad, I majored in studio art and English, and naturally see the two creative disciplines as more alike than they are different. Coming from this interdisciplinary perspective, I’m fascinated with Blake’s unique body of work but was surprised to find that, until the late 20th century, research on Blake was generally divided between art history and literary studies (“Plan of the Archive”).

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“Streams of Gore” and the Textual Tracking of Visual Motifs

As a follow-up to my earlier post, I will continue to explore the potential functions of the textual tag system in the William Blake Archive. In my previous post, I note that the tag “streams of gore” returns 18 hits in 11 different copies of works currently available on the WBA. Although not always the case, this particular collection of images spans almost the entirety of Blake’s career, from 1791 when he began engraving images for John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative, of a Five Years’ Expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam to his completion between 1824-1827 of illustrations for a version of Dante’s Divine Comedy. These images also form a representative cross-section of the variety in Blake’s production in terms of the types of works he made, including commercial engraving, literary illustration, and illuminated books, as well as preparatory materials related to these. Although one arrives at this suite of images by focusing on a single textual tag, the visual variety within this category not only underscores my earlier point about the greater mutability of visual motifs when compared to text but also the way in which Blake continues to engage and grapple with a single conception—here, perhaps the unlikely, “streams of gore”—throughout his oeuvre.

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Is That a Rock or a Severed Head? Creating Textual Tags for Blake’s Pen and Ink Drawings

The William Blake Archive recently published seventeen pen and ink drawings by Blake that span the majority of his artistic career. As one of the art historians on staff at the WBA, I was tasked with the responsibility of creating XML documents to accompany each of the works—files that we call Blake Archive Documents or BADs. These BADs are incredibly important as they include not only textual descriptions of the drawings but also tagged search terms, which enable the new drawings to be plugged into the existing search function of the WBA.

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Exhibit: “Changing Landscapes: The Industrial Revolution and the British Banknote”

From the Romantic Circles Blog : A fascinating exhibit at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham focuses on how the changing technologies of the Industrial Revolution altered societal values and created a new spirit of pride and nationalism in England. From their website:

The face of Britain changed beyond recognition in the nineteenth century following intense industrialization and urbanization, advances in agriculture and developments in international trade and finance. New private banks employed celebrated engravers to create intricate and beautiful banknote illustrations, portraying aspects of the changing Britain and illustrating a sense of national pride and civic identity.

This extraordinary exhibition of banknotes, tokens, medals, paintings, prints, silverware, pottery, and models of locomotives and ships, reflects those monumental changes and provides an invaluable insight into the economy and society of the time. A collaboration with the British Museum, it also features items lent by the Science Museum, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and the Cadbury Collections of nineteenth-century Britain.

The exhibit offers a glimpse into a changing society that saw the effects of technological evolution more rapidly than ever before. Blake himself was invested in the technologies of his time, particularly given his belief that he invented a new printing method. The exhibit runs from March 7, 2008, until March 6, 2009.

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Blake beats

A discussion on the listserv for the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR) has turned up some fascinating musical adaptations of Blake’s work, ranging from indie rock to garage to singing Beat poets. Contributors to the discussion and the links they provided are below.

James Rovira: The discussion began with his announcement of a CD put together by William Blake and the Human Abstractions, which includes some of their work for an Blake exhibit at the Martin Art Gallery at Muhlenberg College last June. Information about ordering the CD is available on their MySpace page. You can hear two songs from the CD, “Spring” and “The Sick Rose,” on the page. Rovira notes that the CD, according to the exhibit’s curator, will include “Spring,” “The Sick Rose,” “Night,” “The Human Abstraction,” “Chimney Sweeper,” “The Ecchoing Green,” “Ah! Sunflower,” “Little Boy Lost/Found,” “Infant Joy/Sorrow,” “Hear the Voice of the Bard!”, and an improvisational piece, “Wings of Fire” (also the title of the exhibit). Although the MySpace page gives the release date as Fall 2008, I was unable to locate any further information about whether or not it’s actually out. You can e-mail brkirchner_AT_hotmail.com for more information. Songs are also available for purchase on iTunes, although I’m having some trouble searching for it. An iTunes search for “William Blake” did, however, pull up some Patti Smith songs, including “My Blakean Year,” which is well worth a listen.

Dennis Low pointed the list to this interview with Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous from the BBC Culture Show, who has been heavily influenced by Blake’s poetry in his life and music. The interview includes a performance of “London,” as well as Linkous reading an excerpt from “A Poison Tree.”

Avery Gaskins noted that The Fugs, a folksy band with a good dose of garage rock/psychedelic sound, set “Ah! Sun-flower” and “How Sweet I Roamed” to music. I was able to find a recording of “How Sweet I Roamed” on Last.fm.

Peter Melville provided a link to Kevin Hutchings’ essay on the musicality of the Songs of Innocence and experience from Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net (RaVoN). Hutchings has also released a CD, “Songs of William Blake,” available for purchase here.

Misty Beck brought up Greg Brown’s versions of some of the Songs, as well as Allen Ginsberg’s renditions, recorded in New York December 15, 1969, and available for your listening pleasure at PennSound. Beck also reminded me of Iron Maiden’s cheesy, and oddly catchy, adaptation of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Steve Jones points us to poet Anne Waldman singing “The Garden of Love,” for the Romantic Circles Poets on Poets series. Download the MP3 here.

Dorothy Wang and David Latane both suggest classical composer William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, available at Amazon.

Nelson Hilton mentioned the Songs hypertext site, hosted by UGA. Choosing a song pulls up the page along with a piper icon in the corner. By clicking on this icon, you can access musical adaptations of that song by musicians like Finn Coren, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ginsberg, and Gregory Forbes.

Timothy Morton brought up Jah Wobble’s album, The Inspiration of William Blake, available on Last.fm here. Tangerine Dream’s version of “The Tyger” is also available on last.fm via this YouTube video that is sure to liven up any party.

Last but not least is Joseph Viscomi’s stage adaptation of An Island in the Moon, with songs by Margaret LaFrance set to flute, piano, and voice in traditional 18th century ballad formats. The play, performed at Cornell in 1983, is available here.

Update: Melissa J. Sites and Dave Rettenmaier, the Site Manager for Romantic Circles, has consolidated all the recommendations from the NASSR post within the Scholarly Resources section of Romantic Circles, including some of the adaptations I didn’t get to for folks like Byron and Percy Shelley. The list, Pop Culture Interpretations of Romantic Literature, also includes suggestions from an earlier discussion (about 10 years ago) on the same subject.

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Google Goes to the Prado

Via {feuilleton}: Google has teamed with the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain, to bring ultra high resolution photographs of some of the most famous works held by the museum to users of Google Earth. Users will be able to examine the works up close and personal, and at a degree that wouldn’t even have been available to the artist. A press release from the Prado notes that

The Prado Museum has become the first art gallery in the world to provide access to and navigation of its collection in Google Earth.  Using the advanced features of Google Earth art historians, students and tourists everywhere can zoom in on and explore the finer details of the artist’s brushwork that can be easily missed at first glance. The paintings have been photographed and contain as many as 14,000 million pixels (14 gigapixels).

So far, only 14 works have been added to Google Earth, but more are on the way. Among them are some of the most famous and ground-breaking works of art of all time, such as Velasquez’s Las Meninas, Goya’s The Third of May, and Bosch’s hallucinatory Garden of Earthly Delights.

To view the works, download Google Earth, “Fly to” the Museo del Prado, and click on the museum. The paintings will pop up. Selecting one and viewing it in ultra high resolution allows you to zoom in to your heart’s content. This becomes an endless source of entertainment with a painting like Bosch’s, which is so full of detail that some things are easy to miss. Garden of Earthly Delights

I never noticed, for example, that this bird was watching me so intently:

Bird in the Garden

This is an amazing resource. Maybe one day we’ll do something similar with Blake’s art.

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Katherine Hayles’ talk in Buffalo

Hayles presenting at the University of Buffalo.

Hayles presenting at the University of Buffalo.

Rachel and I had the opportunity to attend the inaugural session of the Digital Humanities Initiative at the University of Buffalo. The day started out with a lively discussion between Gregory Crane and Stephen Ramsay (blog post coming soon!). In the afternoon, the keynote speaker, N. Katherine Hayles, gave her presentation. Hayles has always been one of my favorite scholars. Her work on electronic literature, posthumanism, and the intersections of literature and science is a main reason I became so interested in these same issues.

Her talk, entitled “Spatialization of Time in Textual, Technical and Embodied Media,” was an examination of the relationship between space and time, and how that relationship has shifted in the digital age. Her presentation, followed by a roundtable discussion, was provocative and inspirational, and I’m still trying to wrap my brain around much of what she talked about.

Hayles argued that digital technology is not only changing the way humanities (and other) scholars, artists, and students work, but also the way they think. From the inception of computing, our understanding of the computer itself has evolved. We have gone from seeing the computer as a lens through which information is displayed, to an “object of inquiry in its own right” (with the beginnings of computer science), to its current state — a “transformative technology” that has changed and influenced the way scholars and artists conceptualize their work.

Hayles’ main point was built upon previous arguments by people like German scholar Sybille Kramer, who argues that media, and digital media in particular, works as a spatialization of material that, in turn, enables that material to be manipulated in time. Unlike printed text, which is permanently fixed in both space and time on a page, allowing for very limited reader-text interaction, digital media enables the reader or audience to become the participant, to make his or her own unique intervention in or around a text or piece. This interaction depends on the fluidity of time within a fixed space.

Hayles illustrated this admittedly difficult concept with examples from literature and art. One of the most interesting of these was slippingglimpse, a joint art project by Stephanie Strickland and Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo. In this project, a user selects one of ten videos which capture moving water in various settings. The water “reads” a poem (the same poem for every video) and uses “motion capture coding that assigns the text to locations of movement in the water.”

The poem also “reads”

image/capture technologies…by sampling and recombining words of visual artists who describe their use of digital techniques – it then explores older capture technologies, such as harvesting plants for food and flax for paper;

the image-capture video reads the water, reading for and enhancing water flow patterns…to which dynamical systems return even as they continuously change.

The work succeeds in locating patterns within constant change and “turbulent motion,” as Hayles put it. This creates a recursive relationship between the piece and its audience, who are continuously exploring the ways in which the text is manipulated through their interactions with it, and its own interactions with the images. Temporality within the piece thus becomes something altogether non-linear. The poem can be read and reread in ways that abandon our perceived notions of linear time, allowing us to explore the movement and recombination of the words in a fixed space that we have selected. Space, then, becomes the independent variable in the space/time equation. The temporality of the text can be altered based on the space the reader chooses for the text.

I had a lot of fun playing with this project after the symposium had ended, and exploring the myriad ways in which the original text is recombined and can be reread in each unique spatial setting. Hayles also gave other examples from the art world — “Listening Post”, created by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, and David Rokeby’s “n-cha(n)t”. These installations work in ways similar to slippingglimpse, but use real-time spoken words and text. Listening Post collects fragments of text from unrestricted chat rooms and other digital public forums. The text is read or sung aloud by a voice synthesizer, and then, by way of a data algorithm, is

cycle[d] through a series of six movements, each a different arrangement of visual, aural, and musical elements, each with it’s own data processing logic.

n-cha(n)t uses words spoken by an intercommunicating set of computers and by participating audience members in an attempt to examine and synchronize the verbal flow of language. The computers converge in their communications and begin chanting, and are then broken apart and become divergent when new input is introduced by an audience member/viewer, who then also becomes a creator and artist in his/her own right. Again, this exemplifies how the computer has become a transformative technology that is re-shaping how we work and think, and how art is reweiring us to examine “stable” reality anew. Within the spaces of these installations, time and text become fluid and unfixed, allowing for a new kind of interaction between viewer/reader and piece.

From this discussion of contemporary art, Hayles moved into more scientific realms to pose the question, “How does the body know time?” Drawing on arguments from neuroscience, she argued that the brain only understands time through space. Neural complexity arises because of connections between groups of neurons that produce change in each group, which results in increased intricacy due to the re-engineering of synaptic environments. This complexity allows for the simultaneous experience of diverse temporalities. A good illustration of this might be multi-tasking: often I find myself writing a paper or class-planning in the “present” while remembering something from the “past.” Hayles’s conclusion is that linear time is “an illusion perpetuated by time measurement,” which is in turn perpetuated by what she terms the “colonization or globalization of time,” an idea based in capitalist society’s attempts to harness time to increase profits and efficiency. She noted that a 24-hour basis of operations is now the norm for many companies, who have indexed time to a global standard and have “sutured” it to the local (I’m really enjoying her use of this metaphor here because it gets at a certain violently unnatural quality inherent in Western ideas of time).

The internet, though, is changing all of this, and bringing about a reconceptualization and reenactment of space/time through digital technologies. According to Hayles, “the computer has enabled a collapsing of space, [and there is no longer] a need to navigate space.”

This is best seen with projects like hypercities, in which space becomes what Hayles terms “a container for different temporalities.” This project provides cities a chance to “preserve their time and memory” through interactive mapping technologies that allow a user to explore different layers of time within the boundaries of a given city. Mapping here becomes an exercise in temporalization as it is defined through the user’s choice of a space.

The possibilities this re-imagined space/time relationship opens up for digital projects in the humanities will continue to transform scholarship as those projects continue to evolve and become increasingly interactive, recursive, and revolutionary. Hayles’ talk makes me excited to see, and participate in, the future of humanities computing.

-Ali McGhee

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