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Text of my presentation in the UK last week

Below is the text of the paper I read at MIX: Transmedia Writing & Digital Creativity, a conference Patty and I attended in Corsham Court (part of Bath Spa University) in the UK. The slideshow has all the images that I projected as I spoke.


The Lucerne Project: Re-Imagining Narrative Art in the Digital Realm

Translation


As a writer who became a visual artist who incorporates writing into exhibitions of his work, I have thought a lot in recent years about the idea of translation. When we talk about translation, the most common association of the word is with languages, of recreating the meaning of something written in Russian, say, into English, as the translators Pevear and Volokhonsky have done with the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. For my purposes, I think of the word translation in a literal way, as an act of moving something from one place to another place. And it’s a concept that has cropped up much more since I started working with imagery derived from digital sources. The more traditional forms of art-making that informed my art education involved a different model of execution and exhibition. Materials such as paint or clay were transformed into other shapes and forms, embodiments of something seen or something felt, but which occupied a space in the real world, the world occupied by our own bodies and what we call our own selves—that convenient psychological fiction. If these pieces were exhibited, they were translated from one place to another place, but the spaces were of the same kind: occupying a space in the real world, bounded by the walls, floors and ceilings of a room. I was, and to a certain extent still am, plagued by the idea of the aura of the work of art, as Walter Benjamin described it in his 1935 essay “TheWork of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The aura being that irreducible thing in a work of art, its presence, perhaps, that makes it unique, and the supercession of which Benjamin noticed and indeed celebrated in that essay. As soon as I started working with digital material, the equation changed, and my work began to conform quite closely to the pattern that Benjamin described: the potential of infinite reproducibility erases the notion of an original; and the space in which that non-original can be transmitted, equally infinite, implies a completely different kind of spectator to the audience for a painting or a sculpture in a gallery.

These are concepts that I will come back to later in this presentation. First, let me describe the project that embodied these ideas the most in my career so far.

The project


My work usually starts with a moment of recall, a detail from a childhood memory, the original scene of the crime: a voice, a phrase, details of a place, a series of actions. From these I make images, and things, that symbolize those moments in some way, supplemented by short scenes of written or spoken words that provide a more direct narrative element. These twin elements of my work always seem to be there, and always exist in some creative tension: the urge to present something mysterious and suggestive, and the urge to clarify and to tell the moment of story more fully.

Narrative is a word that was used pejoratively when I was at art college. If someone told you that your work had narrative content, they meant that it was too close to illustration, too direct, not involved enough with process, not serious enough. To a large extent I agreed, at least back then, insofar as I don’t think that the work of art, emphasis here on the word WORK, should arrive at an end point too quickly, but should allow its meanings to unfold gradually. But after I graduated, I came in time to see that the kind of art that I wanted to make – art that said something about my own significant childhood experiences – needed to incorporate some kind of storytelling, some kind of narrative. By narrative, I mean a set of actions told in sequence, from a particular point of view. I know enough about contemporary literary theory to be aware that even when one uses first person, and one talks about one’s own experience, the teller is not necessarily reliable, and that even the notion of the truth of a narrative sequence based on memory must in fact be a semi-fictional recreation, once it becomes channeled through the narrator’s voice. It was that very idea of the unreliability of memory, and the possibilities that that leaves for imaginative narrative telling, that led me to undertake The Lucerne Project.

“The Lucerne Project” came about in early 2010, when I started thinking about personal narratives, and place, in relation to my experience of moving countries often, most recently from England to Chicago in the United States. I’ve made art about my own memories, in places that I haven’t visited for decades, but I wanted to know how would that work if I tried to imagine the Lives of Others? So I asked myself the question: how would I make a narrative for people I’ve never met, in a place I’ve never been? I went to the first place that we all start from nowadays – Google – and did an image search using the search terms “holiday photos”, “people”, and “creative commons.” The first images that appeared on that search were of smiling people posing in front of what looked like an ancient wooden bridge, with snow capped mountains visible in the background. A little investigation revealed that this was Lucerne, Switzerland, which coincidentally happened to be one of Chicago’s twin cities. If the first set of images that emerged had been of Berlin, say, or Beijing, then maybe this would have been called The Beijing Project. But the pictures of people in Switzerland seemed evocative enough in some way, so The Lucerne Project it was.

I trawled the web for pictures of Lucerne, looking for a variety of images that balanced pictures of people with pictures of buildings, streets, monuments, the landscape surrounding Lucerne. Already, then, I was making choices concerning a particular kind of story. I downloaded a few dozen photos, trying to make sure that they came from photos that had been uploaded into public arenas and not private or copyrighted folders. I converted every image from colour to black and white and heightened the contrast between dark and light tones. The first act of translation, of moving the images from one place to another place, came when I printed them all out very small, in the form of a contact sheet. This is so that I could transform them dramatically by photocopying them, and playing around with the magnification setting on the photocopy machine. By enlarging them up to 1000%, interesting details and shapes emerge, more or less randomly, or at least with a lot of trial and error. Technical note: the machines in the high-street copyshop that I used work best for the printmaking technique I employ, because they use a carbon-based toner, rather than water-based inks.

From the Xeroxes, I made paper-litho transfers (similar to lithography, where the Xerox takes the places of the lithographic stone) onto printmaking paper, precut in order to collate as a book. I chose to make a book because it is the narrative form par excellence, but I used the accordion book format for two reasons: it unfolds in an implied narrative sequence, but its shape calls attention to itself as a hand-made object, so that it is both book and work of art. Two further moments of translation occurred here: shuffling the images around to make visually interesting sequences based on balance and contrast of forms; and printing and overprinting images in different colours. I made drawings from the source photos, too, and subjected my own drawings to the same process of Xeroxing, enlarging, and over magnification, so that they become one more visual element among many in the final piece. I stopped when I had reached 100 pages, each page comprising up to five handprinted layers and up to five colours. When folded up, the book is six inches wide, four inches high, and makes a stack about six inches high. When unfolded, the book extends to about eighty feet. It is housed in a hand-made clamshell box, with an interior containing a reproduction of a Renaissance map of Lucerne.

The book took about eight months to make, and I began to document the process on a project blog. At some point, I noticed that certain sequences of images began suggesting moments of story. They wer not fully formed, but implied: what is this person doing here? What is their relation to that place? Do they look like something has just happened, or like something is about to happen? Does it seem that they were interrupted in the middle of doing something? I had the blog, which is basically an internet form of the daily diary. I began to feel the possibility of writing either to or around the images I was creating, and the form that came to me, prompted by the blog, was the travel diary. I wrote a few short pieces, each about 300 words, based on some of the images that I had assembled in the accordion book, in the first person voice of a stranger arriving in Lucerne and recording what he saw. After adding these to the blog, I began writing new moments directly in the blog editor, and quite soon they took on a life of their own, independent of the images that I was making for the book. The blog became the daily journal, an imaginary travel diary of a somewhat hapless foreigner at sea in this different culture. The only research I did was to look occasionally at a street map of Lucerne to get some of the names right. Apart from that, I just let my imagination loose in the streets, so to speak, and tried to see what I could see as fully as possible, and to try to tell it with equal fullness on the page – or the blog page. The tone of the written pieces, in which things tended to go wrong pretty quickly, was probably influenced by the dark tones I had chosen for the prints. The prints and the blog developed in parallel, related but not directly illustrating each other. The end point, as such, was an artificial one: I had chosen to print 100 pages, in time for a physical exhibition of the work, but once the blog started, it could have gone on, and still might, for much longer.

The project now existed in two spaces: the physical one of the book, with its finite number of pages, and the digital one of the blog, where it is infinitely reproducible and infinitely extendible. Exhibiting the project in a gallery produced specific, traditional demands: how to display the book, which I did by placing it on a glass shelf that lined two walls of the gallery (and which produced dramatic shadows on the wall that enhanced the mystery of the printed images). Because not all of the pages of the accordion book could be seen at once, I set up a small video screen that showed every page in sequence. To bring the imaginary travel diary and the accordion book together, I created a print-on-demand catalogue that paired images from the accordion book with some of the texts from the imaginary travel diary. And to retain the connection between the gallery space and the digital world, I placed QR codes on the gallery walls, each of which linked to an audio file stored on YouTube of me reading instances from the imaginary travel diary.

There was one more element: I had postcards made showing a cheesy touristy image of Chicago on the front, and the phrase Greetings from Chicago in English, French, German, and Italian – the last three being the languages spoken in Lucerne. Visitors to the gallery were invited to write a message to someone in Lucerne on the back of a card, and then to affix the address of a real person in Lucerne to it, the names taken from a publicly-available directory of Lucerne residents. Visitors then ‘mailed’ their card to the person that they had never met, in a place most of them had never been, via this beautiful Swiss mailbox. Every postcard was mailed for real once the exhibition ended.

It was interesting that the responses on the blog, the responses from visitors to the gallery, and even responses from a couple of reviewers, were all fairly similar: the images printed in the accordion book, seen on their own, suggested a definite place, and the presence of people who were caught in moments that were filled with narrative suggestion, even if the action remained obscure. The addition of the written text, or spoken text if people followed the links to the audio files, led people to consider the project as more integrated than I had imagined, though more as a set of atmospheric moments rather than a fully joined-up narrative. In other words, the presence of the text provided more information about Lucerne the place, while the episodic nature of the writing still meant that the project could not be made to add up to a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.

Conclusions



To sum up. The Lucerne Project consisted of the following translations of the source material:
  1.  The unwitting vacationer uploading his or her photos to the web;
  2.  Me grabbing those photos to my laptop;
  3.  Printing out those images;
  4.  Manipulating them via a Xerox machine;
  5.  Printing and overprinting them onto printmaking paper;
  6.  Moving them from digital images, zeroes and ones stored in the cloud, into the physica space of the book;
  7.  Moving the possible meaning of the images from the static visual image back into narrative writing;
  8.  Placing the writing immediately in the digital realm in the form of a blog (real/unreal diary);
  9.  Printing those texts again in the physical form of a catalogue, paired with the images from the accordion book;
  10. Recording some of the text to become available as something listened to, rather than something read.

The idea of a narrative – of a sequence of events – was suggested after the manipulation of the images was well underway. But it really got going once I placed it on the blog. I think that the way the writing occurred was significantly influenced by the online blog format: some of the texts became quite long, up to about 2000 words, but in imagining them as a diary, and in saving them instantly online, they each remained as single episodes, with no single line or thread. I noticed, in fact, that they could be read in any order and they would still make sense. This too is reinforced by the blog form, where links to all posts are available in the sidebar, to be clicked on and read in any sequence.

I thought that translating the written text into audio files would create a different way of responding to the narrative content, but in fact I think that it still remains a one-to-one relationship. I live in a city where there are live readings all the time, and where no author is allowed to leave the building without reading at least a couple of pages from their work, and that one-to-many experience of reading as performance is something that doesn’t occur when there are individuals downloading and listening to a file, each in their own private space. Let me emphasise that I think this was a feature just of this project, not of the digital world as a whole. If anything, my final thought is that this project only opened up to me the possibilities that working within the digital realm has of creating, in the words of Walter Benjamin, a “simultaneous collective experience,” and a ”deepening of apperception – the state of the mind in being conscious of its own consciousness.”

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