Monthly Archives: July 2014

Digital Revolution at the Barbican

The first thing I felt when I entered the Barbican’s new ‘Digital Revolution’ exhibit was nostalgia. In front of me were the ghosts of technology’s past, puzzling all the young kids in the room with their bulkiness, squareness, resolutely black-and-whiteness. A monitor where you could play Pong, a glass case containing an original Apple II machine (basically a glorified typewriter), an old Speak-and-Spell from my kindergarten days. The opening display seemed designed to tell to us that the ‘revolution’ had started a long time ago.

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I AM… the revolution.

As it turned out, this was the part of the three-sectioned exhibit I ended up spending the most time in. Partly because I always do this — spend inordinate amounts of time reading every blurb next to every object at the start of the exhibit, and then realize I’d better hurry up if I want to leave before dinner time. But partly also because of the precious familiarity so many of those objects offered. I spent several minutes watching a steady stream of people play the original Mario Brothers game, delighting in the range of ages queuing up and smiling when I remembered which tunnels turned into secret passageways, and where special tokens could be found. I watched the multi-screen multimedia display several times over, gawking at the clips from Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ (the soundtrack to a beloved home video my father made in the 80s), the gameplay segments from Castle Wolfenstein (the very first computer game ever played in our house), the VFX clips from Jurassic Park, The Lord of the Rings, Terminator 2, and The Abyss (James Cameron was a theme), and the brief snippets of Parappa the Rappa, an animated rapping beagle (which I certainly never thought I would see in a world-class museum exhibit). But I guess that’s the thing about pop culture — you don’t always realize in the moment what is defining the time that you live in.

This opening historical room gave way to detailed exhibits on the state of digital play in film, video games, and music. I skimmed through the Inception documentary but watched every last bit of the one for Gravity, a film that stunned me in not only in the vision of space that it offered, but in the way that vision made me feel. Something that I hadn’t noticed when I saw it, but that seemed obvious once it was mentioned, was how long so many of the takes were — on average 45 seconds long, as well as an opening 17-minute single sequence. As I discussed in my Donmar Coriolanus review, I increasingly find myself thinking that the long shot is the most interesting, immersive, and involving kind of cinema. Next in the exhibit I started to learn a bit more about Minecraft, a video game phenomenon that I still don’t really understand, and I listened in with many sets of headphones to artists and audiences talking about advances in digital music and music video making. One of the last things I explored in this room was Arcade Fire and Chris Milk’s collaboration The Wilderness Downtown. This project sets one of the band’s songs to an online, interactive music video that asks you to enter the address of the house you grew up in and then features footage of it in the multi-windowed film that follows. It made me wonder if nostalgia-creation is actually a hallmark of some of the most successful digital art — does it mask its own innovation and newness by sending us back into a rose-tinted past? Why do we like photographing things on our very 21st-century phones and then filtering them to look like faded Polaroids from the 70s? Just typing my childhood address into the browser triggered a sense of nostalgia, and it was in equal measures disappointing and reassuring to see that the footage this produced didn’t quite get the location right. Google maps haven’t completely charted our universe.

The Wilderness Downtown

The final room in part 1 was filled with interactive digital art projects, most of which I tried to use and couldn’t quite get — I had moved from the past into the present, and my sense of familiarity had faded. Ditto for part 2 of the exhibit, which allowed you to go into a pop up arcade in the Barbican foyer filled with what they called ‘indie’ computer games — that is, those produced non-commercially. I spent a feeble 10 minutes trying to play a few of them, and wishing my brother were there with me. I’ve never been very good at video games, both in terms of the hand-eye coordination many require, and the patience the more exploratory, world-creating ones demand. For the hopelessly task-oriented among us like me I find it hard to enjoy waiting to figure out what kind of game I’m playing, and so I moved on to part three without much delay.

Getting to part 3 involved going down several flights of quiet, concrete stairs to the very bottom of the Barbican Centre, a kind of compound in its own right. A small group of people clustered at one of the doors, the room behind it usually used as a cinema, and there the ushers gave us a series of instructions — no children under 5, it’s very dark in there, don’t look directly into the lasers. We nodded and trundled past, and then made our way through a darkened corridor with a few sparse words scrolled along it — ‘reach out your hands’, ‘feel the light’, ‘play with others’. As we all padded through I was reminded of my two experiences this year going to Punchdrunk productions, which disorient you at the start in order to immerse you in the world constructed at the end of the tunnel (not unlike a haunted house). The smell of the air also took me back to Punchdrunk — slightly musty, cool and damp.

When we finally entered the main room we saw a dark space before us with about a dozen projectors suspended in the air, shooting rays of light down to the ground. And as we each approached the beams, we found that they moved with us, responding to our touch, swinging away like a tether ball, dividing into multiple strands, and inviting us to explore them through movement. As I (literally) tried my hand at fanning out one of the beams, I saw the air curl and haze in front of me, and I realized the source of the musty smell — smoke machines, no doubt also used in Punchdrunk’s foggy sets. And as with their shows, this was an immersive experience of sorts, asking you to be an active participant in the scene created. The stark difference though was the lack of any narrative. Dancing and playing with the light lasers was more of a sport than a theatrical show — there was no predetermined story, no beginning or end, just movement, response, color. When I finally left the room I was flooded again with overhead lights, and I realized that that was it, that the exhibit was over.

Climbing back through the concrete stairways of the Barbican, I found myself thinking about how fun so many of the displays in the exhibit has been, but also about whether or not there was much more beyond that. They clearly demonstrated ingenuity, innovation, the merging of creativity and commerce, and to some extent the way we use technology to recreate and celebrate the past. But what about art? What was there to make us think harder about what it means to be alive, to be a part of a culture or society, to seek out beauty? To some extent this was present too, in the snippets from Gravity and the interactive lights, which the exhibit blurb said should make us question how much of a divide there really is between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’, between ‘us’ and ‘others’. But I don’t think we can say that such questioning was the main event. That was reserved above all for interactive play, and it made me wonder if this, even more so than the production of nostalgia, is the real calling card of digital art.

Such stuff as sales are made on.

New Shakespeare-inspired advert from IKEA, sent to me by one of our excellent Shakespeare Institute DL students. Though it’s not digital in an obvious, self-referential way (meta-digital?), it clearly is in terms of production and distribution.

And I sometimes wonder if The Tempest is Shakespeare’s digital drama par excellence. O brave new world?

Shakespeare Pedagogy in the Digital Age

A question I was left pondering after part 1 of Shakespeare in the Digital World was whether or not digital research was inherently more or less social than its non-digital counterpart. Bruce Smith argued strongly that it was less social, less experiential, less time-bound–in a word, less human. But David McInnis also showed how fundamentally collaborative some digital projects are, and how this enables a form of international social and professional exchange that simply wouldn’t have been possible a few decades ago.

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I bring up the social here because in part 2 of this book, which focuses on TEACHING, similar questions relating to digital interaction, sharing, and sociability make up a central theme. In his introduction to the section, Peter Kirwan points out how active, up on your feet, interactive approaches to Shakespeare have dominated many pedagogical discussions in recent years. ‘The focus on physical bodies, proximity and movement tends to gloss over the integration of new technologies’, he writes, ‘except when that technology reinforces the live classroom’ (p. 59). This recent emphasis in Shakespeare studies on pedagogy as a kind of theatre is interesting and provocative in and of itself (is your classroom ensemble-led, or more the director’s theatre variety?), but in this post I will restrict myself to saying a few words on these issues specifically in terms of the digital. I will keep it to a few words though, since one of the essays in the section is in fact by me and so to a large extent I’ve already said my piece on the subject, both in the essay itself and in a previous blog post here.

Sarah Grandage and Julie Sanders, Sheila Cavanagh and Kevin Quarmby, and Peter Kirwan himself have written the other essays in the section, and together we cover experiences relating to distance learning, blended classrooms, joint teaching via video conferencing, collaborative class wikis and Twitter hashtags, and new resources for teaching performance online. As I read the essays together I found myself underlining phrases like ‘experiential creativity’, ‘digital connectors’, ‘socializing practices’, and jotting down notes such as ‘social facilitation’, ‘experience, experiment’, ‘interactivity, engagement’. I suppose this emphasis on digital pedagogy as collaborative and social shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, given the fact that the Web 2.0 tools so frequently discussed in this section are essentially what we know as social media. But it is interesting, I think, to see how all of us have emphasized social liveness and communal exchange in our reflection, with the assertion very often being that not only can digital teaching be as social as its non-digital counterpart, it can sometimes be more so.

I think that’s right, but it’s an idea that is worth further consideration. In their discussion of joint teaching via Skype, Cavanagh and Quarmby explain how students recognized the authority and presence of the Skyped-in instructor as fully as they did the co-instructor that they knew in the flesh. ‘The virtual presence was, albeit unconsciously, fully integrated into the class psyche’ (p. 93). All of the essays, in one way or another, talk about habituation to the digital. That is–once we get used to using it and seeing it, it no longer becomes something that is different, or worryingly non-human. It is simply part of normal life. I am reminded, though, of Bruce Smith’s comment in part 1: ‘If I have learned anything since I started teaching in 1972, it is to distrust binaries … What is needed in every case is a third thing, a tertium quid, a synthesis that reconciles thesis and antithesis’ (p. 28). Leaving aside the question/joke of what Smith makes of binary code, I am left wondering what the third thing might be for digital sociability. It is certainly not inhuman or beyond the human–we are, after all, the agents (or subjects?) driving and making it–but neither is it a part of human experience and exchange as we’ve previously known it. What is the synthesis then that lies, unconsciously, in between?

Alongside the discussion of big questions like this one, the section offers a helpful range of practical ideas and tips that I’m sure I’ll be making use of in my own teaching. From performance resources available online, to how to create a sense of presence through the Skyped screen, to how to use a student-led wiki to fuel research, there’s lots to think about and work with here.

‘Digital Humanism’ by Oskari Niitamo

 

Shakespeare Research in the Digital Age

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In my last post I spent some time reflecting on the introduction to Shakespeare and the Digital World by way of the Year of Shakespeare project; in this post I want to dive right into part one of Carson and Kirwan’s edited collection, which focuses on RESEARCH.

Each section in the book is fronted by a short introduction by one of the editors, and here Carson begins with a quotation from Katherine Rowe: ‘Older forms and values provide a vital intellectual framework for the way we use newer media, shaping the needs we bring to the new tools and the opportunities we find in them’ (qtd p. 10). It’s an apt start to a section that often focuses on the experience of the researcher, and especially on the experience of researchers for whom the world hasn’t always been digital. Essays from John Lavagnino, Bruce Smith, Farah Karim-Cooper, and David McInnis make up this thought-provoking opening section, and below are four big ideas I am left with after reading it.

(1) Digital research is more than what we think it is.

John Lavagnino starts us off with a snapshot of the long history of digital, electronic, and computer-assisted humanities research. Digital humanities may have come on the scene in or around 2008/9, he reminds us, but ‘”applied computing in the humanities” has been visible since the 1940s’ (p. 14). In addition to looking back, Lavagnino’s chapter also looks around and forward at digital research now, in particular its use of tools and resources created by industry rather than the academy (Google Books, YouTube, etc.), and the fact that even people who wouldn’t consider themselves digital humanities scholars are doing ‘invisibly digital research’ through their use of EEBO, Literature Online, and the like (p. 22). Bruce Smith’s subsequent chapter discusses what it feels like when that naturalized kind of digital research is made visible, primarily through its disruption. Here he reflects on the experience of locating a book in the library that eludes him online, which prompts him to consider how much and how quickly we have come to take for granted widespread access to research materials that were previously the focus of more limited, time-bound, and difficult scholarly pilgrimages.

(2) Digital research is more mediated than non-digital research– or is it?

Karim-Cooper’s chapter on iPad technology continues with a meditation on the experience of the researcher today, one who is ‘no longer able to sit for hours researching and writing in university libraries, but … [is] instead encouraged to run multiple projects simultaneously, create new partnerships and travel around speaking to the public, all while maintaining an impressive publishing profile’ (p. 37). Tools like the iPad help facilitate research in unlikely but necessary places — namely, on trains — but for Karim-Cooper they ultimately remain just that: tools. While research into haptic technologies is working on putting the sensation of touch back into the touchpad, Karim-Cooper observes how researchers ‘of the screen’ miss out on the full sensory experience of handling, and thus learning from, material books. Does this mediation of physical feeling, she wonders, also entail a parallel mediation of emotional and cognitive affect? When we use an iPad or any other screened device to read literature, ‘Will we be able to feel the effects of poetry in the same way?’ (p. 38). Smith likewise considers the embodied experience of the researcher, and the way in which digital research methods are reshaping what he calls ‘the phenomenology of knowledge’ (p. 29). For him, though, digital research is radically unmediated, in that pages from digital facsimiles appear to us online without context, without ‘sedimentation’, without history. They are simply there, and their dissociation from anything else leads Smith to suggest that digital research is a supremely ‘presentist’ way of working. What you see is what you get, but perhaps not much more.

(3) Digital research has often been about tools and resources, but maybe it needs to start being more about research questions.

Lavagnino’s opening essay suggests that the most influential digital scholarship has taken the shape of scholarly resources rather that critical or analytical innovations, and Smith and Karim-Cooper’s interest in the digital primarily as tool or approach adds to this line of thought. But David McInnis’s final chapter presents an example of how digital ways of working may also allow us to change the fundamental research questions we can ask. Although he explains that he and his colleagues did not initially think of the Lost Plays Database as an online project, they eventually realized they needed to go digital in order to allow for the international scholarly collaboration that was needed to meet the aims of their project: ‘Creating a record of this disparate and obscure information [i.e. that involved in tracing lost plays] relies on collective knowledge and the assemblage of information which has little significance on its own … encouraging new and easy ways of interacting with other scholars is essential if the sum is to be greater than its parts’ (pp. 45, 52). While we might often think of digital work as isolating, distancing, or even antisocial, McInnis shows that this certainly need not be the case. What’s more, his bibliography of the collaborative print publications that have emerged from the LPD project likewise illustrates that the divide between ‘traditional’ and digital ways of working may not always be as stark as we first think.

(4) Digital research is not necessarily easier, cheaper, more democratic, more manageable, more innovative, or faster than non-digital research.

Lavagnino starts the section with the warning that ‘a common problem has been unrealistic ambition or overestimation of what can be done in a purely computational way’ (p. 17), and McInnis finishes it with the observation that ‘the transition from print to web is often made with little planning or critical reflection’ (p. 43). That has certainly been my own experience in terms of digital projects. What’s the point of doing things digitally, if you don’t have a strong sense of how or why you’re doing them in the first place? Which is something I’ll no doubt come back to in my post on part 2 ofShakespeare and the Digital World, which focuses on teaching and pedagogy in the digital age.

Technology and the Book

In my last post I mentioned the fact that an essay of mine has recently been published in Shakespeare and the Digital World, a new book edited by Christie Carson and Peter Kirwan for Cambridge University Press. I received my contributor copies in the mail last week, and I’ve been enjoying flipping through the pages and seeing what kinds of issues come up in the other chapters. The book is divided into four sections – research, teaching, publication, performance – and rather than wait until I’ve finished the entire thing, which might take awhile given all the other stuff that is (quite literally) on my desk, I thought I’d blog about the book section-by-section as I work my way through it. I think it’s fair to say that it’s the first book to try to take stock of how digital knowledge, practice, and life is shaping the way in which academics of all varieties are working with Shakespeare today, and I think and hope it will be of interest to quite a lot of people in the field.

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But before jumping straight into the four sections, I wanted to reflect a bit on Carson and Kirwan’s introduction, which invites us to think about the nature of the book itself. I suppose some people might question whether or not a critical discussion about digital transformation should really take place in a physical book like the one photographed above, but I think Carson and Kirwan are right that ‘What a book can do well, and has always done well, is to provide an extended argument on a topic through a structured approach that leads the reader through it in manageable stages.’ (p. 2) The idea gave me pause; it is, on the face of it, an obvious statement, but it manages to articulate something clearly and succinctly that we very often take for granted – that a book is a discursive form, and that switching to other kinds of publication platforms isn’t just a change in delivery format, it is a change in discourse and argumentation themselves.

I hadn’t fully realized it, but the power of the book as a form hit me last year when we published A Year of Shakespeare: Re-living the World Shakespeare Festival, much of which already existed online as a collaborative blog (www.yearofshakespeare.com). The aim of the website and book was to document and respond to each of the more than 70 productions of Shakespeare’s plays that were put on in 2012 as part of the UK’s Olympic celebrations. While the website finished around November 2012, the book came out in April 2013, and I was surprised by how publishing the essays as a book really did give them a new identity and life. Of course, somewhat predictably, it meant that certain people now recognized its contents as research – authorized by an academic press, materialized on a physical page, it gained new status for some as legitimate knowledge. But this wasn’t all the book did for the project. First, and very simply, the physical book reached readers that the website didn’t, and vice versa. I suppose it wasn’t unlike touring a theatre production to different audiences, or even recording it and sending people the DVD. By putting the contents onto different kinds of stages, a wider cross-section of audiences knew about it.

Year of Shakespeare: the website

Second, and even more significantly, the book influenced the fundamental nature of the project, even if most of the words themselves did not change. While the website contained about 130 essays, hundreds of user comments, dozens of audio interviews with audience members, and as much multimedia material as we could find, the book contained one essay for each of the 74 productions in the World Shakespeare Festival celebrations, topped and tailed with new material from me and my two co-editors. Most of the production essays had already appeared on the blog (in fact, they’re still there), but they had not appeared as a sequence that could be worked through step by step, and they certainly hadn’t appeared as a collection that you could hold, measure, and visualize as an object (i.e. object-ively?).

Year of Shakespeare: the book

As a book the size and scope of the project is more easily grasped – even if, ironically, the book is a more select version of the collaborative website. I don’t think some people realized that the project really did cover all of the festival until they could see it together in material form. There is also a sense of linear progression and narrative sequence in a book, even if that sequence is at times arbitrary (we ended up going with alphabetical order by Shakespeare play, meaning that people can read about three Romeo and Juliets at once, but also that that the reason things start with All’s Well and finish with The Winter’s Tale has nothing to do with the live, lived experience of the 2012 festival itself). What I suppose is most significant about all this is not what the book does to the essays themselves, but rather what it does for our apprehension of them. It creates a story out of them that we can follow, even if we know that story is largely imposed. The website on the other hand creates a landscape out of them that we are free to explore, but that we can also get easily lost in.

The final thing that’s worth mentioning is that, at least for our project, the physical book has proven more durable than the digital website. While the book took longer to generate, once it arrived it hasn’t changed. The website on the other hand was faster and more responsive in its publication, but has been quicker to deteriorate. Over the last two weeks I’ve been working with two PhD students to archive the site for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which holds the Royal Shakespeare Company’s archives and collections (the World Shakespeare Festival was produced by the RSC). Led by specialists at the SBT, our archiving process has, perhaps paradoxically, involved printing out all of the website’s contents into a hard copy, and saving as much non-textual material as possible to CDs. In the process of doing so we’ve been surprised by how many of the website’s links, plug-ins, and videos have been broken or died in the 18 months since I stopped maintaining it regularly. Call it naivety, but I didn’t fully appreciate how present a blog could be in the moment, but how ephemeral it might prove a few years into the future.

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Year of Shakespeare: the archive

The question for me, then, is the extent to which these differences are intrinsic and the extent to which they will fade with time. I have no doubt, for instance, that a website could be preserved just as well as a book by someone who was more diligent, and more technically skilled, than me. But what about the academic status of digital publishing, or the potentially divided audiences for digital and analogue publishing platforms? Will these distinctions become less visible with every year? Most significantly, what about the way digital and analogue forms and formats shape our ability to understand and interpret the contents they hold? If this changes too, then it may very well be us, as psychological and social entities, that are the main things being changed.

So — many thoughts, and all within reading of the first 7 pages of Carson and Kirwan’s introduction. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next 250 hold, and so I move into part one of its sequenced, structured conversation, flipping its physical pages as I go.