Category Archives: Musings

Aura, aliveness, and art

A second post inspired in part by Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, and the final one — I think — about my research adventures in the US last month.

So I’ve finished Benjamin’s essay now. At a whopping 10 pages, this perhaps isn’t saying much, but the intelligence, weight, and importance of the ideas presented there are not to be digested hastily. I’m still not sure if I know where Benjamin ultimately stood on the issue of technology’s impact on art: it seems clear that he’s disconcerted, dismayed even, by the way reproduction erases a work’s history and erodes its aura. He compares such a process to prying an oyster from its shell — though he doesn’t say it explicitly, the metaphor is surely one of death. ‘Art has left the realm of the “beautiful semblance”‘, he writes, leaving his readers with the lingering question, what happens next?

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The man himself, aura and all.

I’ll come back to that question at the end of this piece, but before that I want to think a bit more about aura, authenticity, aliveness, and digitization. As I mentioned in my last post, over the past few weeks I’ve been working on an essay about ‘aliveness’ during theatre broadcasts to cinemas and online. For me, ‘a-liveness’ is the less visible but just as important cousin of ‘liveness’, that ever-present topic in discussions of performance, technology, and mediation. What does it mean for something to be live, especially in a digital age? I won’t go into the details of the debate now, but my own response to Philip Auslander’s game-changing book, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, can be found here.

What interests me most in this debate aren’t the details of time and space that have often been taken to constitute different degrees of liveness, but rather the experiential and emotional pull that a work of art elicits when we feel its aliveness — by which I mean its vivacity, immersiveness, and depth, its irresistible demand. While liveness in terms of shared time and space can often enhance and even create a feeling of aliveness, I don’t think that it’s absolutely essential to the experience. In my essay, I’m exploring this idea by looking at how audiences at theatre broadcasts use social media — specifically Twitter — to form online communities of shared experience even when they are located at a distance from one another. In such moments I think we can see audiences ‘doing liveness’, to quote Martin Barker, whose research into live-broadcasting I have blogged about here.

Though my work so far has focused on aliveness as an audience activity and even construction — part of the surrounding context for the work of art — as I’ve been writing I’ve also been thinking more about the aliveness that arises from the work of art itself. This seems to me to be very much akin to Benjamin’s aura: it’s that ineffable substance that draws you in, that makes a work of art present, unignorable, captivating, thrilling. The question of what exactly this substance is is worth a series of blog posts in and of itself, so I’m going to resist attempting to answer it here other than to say that, in my view, it is most certainly about aesthetics (a statement that should seem blindingly obvious, but that has become somewhat marginalized in recent decades). Beyond that, I’ll simply offer an image of a work of art that for me is very much alive, in the spirit of showing rather than telling.

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Portrait of Ginevra Aldrovandi Hercolani by Lavinia Fontana, c. 1595, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Those who know me well may recognize this image from the cover of my first solo-authored book; a further few may be aware of the fact that it’s a painting that privately obsesses me. This is partly down to contextual issues: why had I never heard of the artist, Lavinia Fontana, before 2013, and how did this extraordinary woman manage to become such an accomplished and successful painter in seventeenth-century Italy? Even more important though are the aesthetic issues: for me, this is a sumptuously engrossing painting, startling in its power of presence.

Interesting, then, that until a month ago I had never seen it in person. I first encountered it online, during a standard search for free images that I might use in a seminar publicity flyer, and later through the website of the Walters Art Museum, which through the institution’s tremendous generosity makes high-resolution images of most of its collection available to the public for free (authors, take note!). In fact, when I emailed the museum to see if I could reproduce this painting on the cover of my book, the staff there not only agreed, but also sent me a 275MB TIFF file. For those not in the know (like me), it turns out that this is really big — much bigger in fact than the original painting from which it was made.

It also means that you can zoom very, very deeply into the image, examining tiny details like the shimmer on each of Signora Hercolani’s pearls or the absorptive gaze in her eyes. When you do this, whatever part of the painting you are exploring, you also realize how much of it is made up of rich, inky darkness. Zooming into the painting is like venturing into the widow Hercolani’s very being, which fills up the frame with its cavernous, shadowy presence even as the work’s symbolic focal points, the loyal dog and the pure white handkerchief, point to her recently departed husband. In her eyes and in this darkness, the painting — for me — becomes all about her.

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So when I found myself in Washington, DC last month I wasted no time in making arrangements to get up to Baltimore to visit the Walters Art Museum and see this painting in person. Thinking back on the afternoon, I remember being not only full of anticipation, but actually rather nervous. What if the painting wasn’t actually on display, despite the fact that the museum website confirmed that it would be? What if I couldn’t find it? How would it be displayed? But, most importantly of all, how would I feel when I saw it?

After some shuffling between rooms I did at last find her, and I was impressed, though not in the way I expected. There it was, this painting that had not only fascinated me for years, but that also stood synecdochally for my own intellectual ambitions and achievements, made material in a book on a shelf back in England. I instantly fell in love with it again, but for different reasons than before: now, it was the love of recognition, of self-affirmation, of fulfillment. What it really wasn’t, to my surprise, was the love of unmistakable aesthetic power. This is not to say that the painting was and is anything other than extraordinary. Rather, it’s that looking at it and into it in person was not, in fact, as powerful for me as engaging with it digitally.

This might be down to the fact that it was now familiar: the shock of the new was gone. Perhaps more significantly, the museum’s method of displaying the painting veers more towards the decorative than the aesthetically imposing. Positioned above three smaller works, the painting is mounted well above human eye-line, meaning that there is no chance of meeting Signora Hercolani’s gaze straight-on. Perched on high, she is suitably imperious, authoritative, and aloof — all qualities that I had previously seen in the painting — but gone is the intimacy that I now realize was so impactful in my first encounter with this work.

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What this is all pointing to, as some might already suspect, is my realization there in the Walters that for me the aura and aliveness of the digital image was much stronger than being physically in the presence of the painting in Baltimore. Some of this is certainly contextual, but a good part of it is also formal. There is simply something about the digital image that I love that is not there in person.

In many ways this personal reflection is positioned as a rejoinder to Benjamin and his belief that aura always sided with the physical, original work. But in another sense, it’s not, because Benjamin himself recognizes in his essay that the ‘mechanically’ produced work comes with its own startling advantages. One is the potential for ‘simultaneous collective experience’, while another is the ‘incomparably more precise’ representation of certain actions. But most significant of all is the way new technologies open up the possibility of new worlds of experience in art: ‘a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye … The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.’

This has certainly been my experience with Fontana’s portrait of Hercolani — so much so that I was unsettled and even disappointed when those new worlds of formation were suddenly closed off to me in person. But to return to my very first question, where does that leave us? Benjamin doesn’t offer much by way of a definitive answer: in the final pages of his essay, he turns to a dark reflection on the growth of Fascism in his own time, and the way Futurist artists like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti were celebrating technology as an integral part of an aesthetics of destruction. He also talks about the use-value of art, about audiences, and about the way the technological arts cater the distracted masses rather than the focused observer. In many ways, the conversation really hasn’t changed, and as I read it I found myself agreeing with most of his essay. One thing I do know, however, is that my own encounter with the Hercolani portrait in digital form has been all about concentration, absorption, and auratic experience. It is in this form that the painting, for me, has truly come to life.

Shakespeare: The Game

This month I’m in residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, home to the largest dedicated collection of Shakespeare-related materials in the world. I’m in heaven!

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My focus during my time here is on the pre-history of digital Shakespeares — that is, the kinds of stage technologies that pre-date the proliferation of digital adaptations in the twenty-first century. This means that I’ve been looking at programmes from productions like Robert Lepage’s Elsinore, and also ogling over photos of Richard Burton & co. in their groundbreaking ‘Electronovision’ Hamlet in 1964, which used new film technology to live-record their Broadway production and then show it in cinemas across America. Here’s one explanatory diagram of the technical set-up:

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More than anything, though, I’ve been having lots of fun exploring the collection of interactive Shakespeare games that the Folger holds in its vaults. These games have very little to do with technology per se, but their relevance for my project is in the way they invite their players to be active participants in the making of Shakespeare. For me these board games, card games, and book games herald a form of collaborative and participatory Shakespeare-making that we see today in Shakespeare-themed video games, choose-your-own-adventure books, and immersive, interactive theatre productions. In this sense the games constitute an early history of ‘prosuming‘, a concept developed by Alvin Toffler in the 1970s to refer to ‘production by consumers’. In the world of creativity and culture, the term ‘prosumer’ is often linked to instances in which audiences become creative practitioners themselves, helping produce the artistic world of a theatre production, video game, art installation, etc. by playing an active part in it.

Most of the games in the Folger collection are from the nineteenth century, some with very beautiful illustrations, although a couple come from the more recent past. I thought I’d share a few photographs here with notes about how the games work and what I think is most interesting about them…

First up are versions of familiar games like Checkers, Memory, and Go Fish, which use Shakespeare not as a crucial part of the game mechanism but rather as thematic/decorative content. So, for instance, you get a typical checker board from 1864 (Shakespeare’s 300th birthday!) that you play exactly as you would a normal one, but you also get to look at Shakespeare quotes and trivia as you do so. Ditto for the 19c. ‘Shakespeare Game of Concentration’ that you play like Memory. This seems like a Shakespeare-by-osmosis approach to me: you’re playing a familiar game that doesn’t rely on Shakespeare knowledge or appreciation in and of itself, but by using Shakespeare quotes and images as filler it tries to instill that knowledge in the process.

The Go Fish-style game is slightly more complicated for two reasons: first, because although the game mechanism works as usual for Go Fish, with players aiming to collect sets of cards that they search for in the hands of other plays, the literary trivia is more foregrounded, meaning that quotes and facts will be read aloud with frequency and inevitably play a more central role. Second, this game from c.1887 isn’t actually Shakespeare-specific, even though his face graces the box that the cards come in. Rather, it includes ‘familiar quotations’ from several ‘popular authors’ (Milton, Wordsworth, Longfellow), although it must be said that Shakespeare looms large within the deck. Each card contains several quotations in a different order and players work to collect as many complete sets as they can.

Next up are the board games, the earliest of which really only uses Shakespeare in the title: ‘Wallis’s Fashionable Game of the Seven Ages of Human Life’ (c.1814-26). It’s worth mentioning and illustrating though because it is by far the most beautiful of the bunch! Plus I love stage 29 in the timeline: ‘The Bachelor’, entertained by his faithful cat.

The other two board games are the most modern entries in the collection: ‘The Game of Shakespeare’ from 1966, and ‘The Play’s the Thing’ from 2003. Both invite players to collect Shakespeare cards studded with quotes, facts, and illustrations, and to use them to progress towards the finish line.

Related to these modern board games are the trivia-oriented card games that typically focus on Shakespearean quotes and are often explicit in their educational intent. ‘A Study of Shakespeare’ from the Shakespeare Club of Camden, Maine, in 1901 invites players to ask each other trivia questions and to collect the cards that they win. It also includes several endorsements from Shakespeare academics as to its educative value. The Cincinnati Game Company’s 1901 ‘Shakespeare’ seems to work to similar principles, with Shakespeare quotations and illustrations gracing each card in a deck divided into four suits, but, alas, the majority of its game instructions no longer survive (what is left seems to suggest that you can use the deck to play three different games, indicating perhaps that it’s essentially a regular deck of cards that you can use to play rummy, poker, etc.).

But of all these fabulous games, my very favorites are the two that are the most personalized. In ‘Shakespeare the Oracle’, 1892, and ‘Shakespeare’s Mental Photographs’, 1866, players select questions relating to their own lives and loves and then choose a number that produces a Shakespeare quote in answer. Both of these are meant to be party games, I believe, with the main thrill being the experience of revealing bits of personal information about oneself in front of a group of excitable and chirpy friends. Many of the questions have to do with the man or woman of your affection: so, for instance, you might choose the question, ‘What are his personal charms?’, and then select the number 3, from which you would get the reply, ‘His garments are rich, but he wears them not handsomely’. Ouch! While ‘Shakespeare the Oracle’ comes in the format of a series of circular question cards that participants hold, plus the oracle pamphlet from which the most esteemed member of the company reads, ‘Shakespeare’s Mental Photographs’ is potentially a more solitary affair, presenting its questions and quotes in book form.

Whatever shape they come in, though, all of these games have been lots of fun to explore and to attempt to unpuzzle. I’ve attracted lots of curious questions from fellow readers in the process–everyone loves a good game, it seems! Perhaps we can convince the Folger to let us throw a games night, with players in archival white gloves. Or, maybe more realistically, one or two of the older games could be digitized for playing online or through an app. Words with Friends Shakespeare-style, anyone?

Why I blog

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I’ve been thinking lately about why I originally set up this blog, and why, more than three years later, I continue to post on it. In the very early days I think I was looking for a place to work through some emerging ideas about digital forms of performance, in particular live broadcasts. I was still in the midst of another research project on a different topic, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to publish any work in this new area for quite some time. The blog seemed like a good way to document ideas as they came up, to get feedback on them, and then one day to put them together into something longer and more detailed–i.e. an academic publication.

The difference now is that ‘one day’ has finally arrived. The older project is finally done and dusted and the monograph out, and now my primary focus is on the publications that will come out of this research into digital technology and Shakespearean performance. At last, I’m able to devote the bulk of my research time to these ideas, and that time has also dramatically expanded, as I’m on study leave for about 7-8 months of this year. Hurrah!

But the thing I didn’t expect is that, now that I have the time and energy to focus solely on this digital research, I’ve actually started to blog less. In fact, I haven’t written a proper post on the subject for more than half a year. Instead, I’ve been writing up this research as a series of journal articles and chapters, and making plans for the book that will eventually come. Every research day has gone to this more publication-oriented mode of writing, and as a result the blog has lingered by the wayside.

So now that I am officially on sabbatical, I thought I’d take some time reflect on what I’ve learned about both my research and myself as a researcher through blogging, and to think about what I hope to get from it in the future…

1) Blogging offers a way of working oneself into a new research area, especially when time is limited and has to be split among many other things.

The biggest difference for me between starting my first book project and my second one has been time. When you’re working on your PhD, at least in the UK, your main focus is your research. After I started my first job I was suddenly responsible for a lot more things and many more people. Extended periods of research time took a particularly painful hit: I went from spending 4-5 days a week on my research to 1 if I was lucky. So this blog became a way of stealing snatches of time in between teaching, meetings, proof checking, and everything else to start working my way into a new topic. I could have done all this privately, keeping my own personal research diary, but to be honest being able to share my ideas with others was more motivating. This might be useful for me to remember in other aspects of my life: if I really want to do something, do it publicly/socially.

2) Blogging has allowed me to work up chunks of writing (and thinking) that can become part of future publications.

This is true, but also a bit trickier than I originally expected. It’s definitely been the case that several of the details I focused on in blogs have become key points in articles that I’ve recently been drafting. But I’ve also found myself a bit unsure about how to draw on this previous writing without duplicating it. For the most part I’ve developed existing points in new terms, but there are instances in which I’m just really happy with the way I originally wrote it. So I’ve actually been thinking about redacting the occasional sentence from some of my posts, should it prove an issue. I’m still not sure about all of this: I think it’s a grey area and that feelings about it can differ depending on who you ask. About 80% of A Year of Shakespeare had been published online before it became a book, for instance, and all that material is still available through www.yearofshakespeare.com. But I know that others are understandably more wary about material previously posted online, and so I’ve started thinking more pragmatically about what can go on the blog as I come closer to getting some of my ideas more officially in print.

3) Blogging has helped me become part of a community of researchers in this field, both directly and indirectly. 

This maybe seems like a no-brainer: blogging is social, responsive, immediate, conversational. You can respond to ideas in a few hours, whereas academic publishing would at best take a few months, and more realistically a few years. This doesn’t necessarily make blogging better than academic publishing–just different. I’ve been able to get talking to others in the field, both directly and indirectly, and to learn from them as I go. This has perhaps been the greatest benefit for me. The flip side is, now that I feel well connected and reasonably well read in the field, I kind of just want to get my head down and write my ideas up the old-fashioned way. Blogging has been a great way of getting started, but, as of yet, not the most natural way of continuing on.

4) Blogging can take a lot of different forms and, presumably, they can change with time. 

This is probably the most important thing for me right now. When I first started blogging, I was careful to post regularly and to make sure that those posts were in-depth pieces of writing that I would be happy to publish in more academic contexts. I still really value those posts, and I must say that they’ve been the most helpful in terms of generating feedback from others and establishing some of the key issues that have turned up again in longer publications. But shorter, more whimsical, more descriptive, and/or more irregular posts have their place too. I suspect that as I get further into the writing of this project, the blogs will become more about the process of writing or the activities that surround and support the writing, rather than the writing itself. We’ll see; I might surprise myself. But given how precious having time to write is, I plan to make the most of it while I have it. This blog–or, who knows, maybe a future one–will always be there when it’s time for something different.

 

Staying focused: streamed theatre and me

I’ve been thinking about attention this week. Not the kind that other people give to you, but the kind you create yourself. Focus. Concentration. Absorption. Immersion.

I’ve been thinking about it because sustained, unbroken attention is something that doesn’t always come naturally to me, especially when I find myself sitting in the darkness of a theatre after a long day’s work.

This is ironic – and embarrassing – for a Shakespeare scholar to admit. In years past, when I counted myself more a cultural historian and literary critic, I could just about get away with it; theatre was great, but it wasn’t my bread and butter, so it was almost okay if I secretly spaced out or even nodded off for a bit every now and then.

But now that I’m putting theatre at the heart of my next research project, I’m feeling a little more self-aware. And intrigued. To a certain extent I’ve started training myself to be more alert, to see going to theatre more as work (in a good way — usually). At the same time, a significant proportion of the theatre I’m watching is by online streaming, meaning that several of my ‘nights at the theatre’ are actually me, sitting on my bed with headphones, looking at a screen.

This, I’m finding, proves a particularly formidable challenge for someone prone to breaking focus. With no audience around me to enforce a sense of shared theatre etiquette, a number of new and previously impossible styles of theatre-watching start to emerge. Turning to Twitter occasionally to see what other audience members are saying. Multi-tasking to save time and energy on tired evenings – eating dinner while I watch, maybe even making it. Petting the cat when he climbs on my lap, curious what I’m up to. Saying a quick hello to my husband when he comes in from work. And, if the streaming is on-demand rather than live, pausing every now and then to take a break, or maybe even watching the production over a couple of days in chunks.

Although I’m a little embarrassed to fess up to these practices, I know I’m not alone. I’m not the only one on Twitter after all. Which is why it was all the more surprising, and challenging, and interesting, when online audiences were invited last week by Complicite’s Simon McBurney to turn off our phones.

The show we had tuned in to see was a live performance of The Encounter, streamed online courtesy of Complicite and The Space from the sold-out Barbican Theatre in London (and available on YouTube until the end of today here). This one-man show tells the story of a National Geographic photographer’s journey into the Brazilian rain forest, and his consciousness-bending experiences while there. It is told through the use of immersive, ‘binaural’ sound technology, with all members of the audience – in-person and online – wearing headphones throughout the entire performance.

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McBurney started casually, shuffling along the stage and then addressing the audience in his khaki shirt, baseball cap, and jeans. ‘Ladies and gents, um, we’re just still waiting for some people to come in, apparently the bars are more attractive than the theatre. If you could please, while we’re waiting, turn these off [holds up mobile phone]. Tonight is a livestream, so I suggest anybody at home, who’s watching this also turns these off.’ And I did. No live tweeting during the production, no stopping and starting (not really possible in this case), and once things got going I even turned out all the lights. I did still eat dinner while watching it, but I was lucky enough not to have to cook it.

I don’t know if this single focus made the experience better or worse or the same. Though I won’t go into the details here of the production itself, I should say that it was genuinely extraordinary, and I certainly didn’t feel limited or kept at a distance during my encounter with The Encounter. At the same time, I still experienced plenty of moments of mental interruption, not least as I got to thinking about my own sense of sustained attention and what helps and hinders it. But I did really benefit from the challenge of trying to pay attention to a streamed performance at home in a way that was similar to how I might do so in a theatre. I did my best to perform a social code, even when no one was checking up on me (aside from my fellow audience members on Twitter).

So all this was in my head when I made my way down to London for another theatre event at the Barbican last weekend: Forced Entertainment’s Table Top Shakespeare. This series of 36, one-hour productions saw six actors taking turns as they told the story of each of Shakespeare’s plays using a box of household objects. Beatrice as a bottle of sunscreen, Claudius as a container of flea powder, Hector as a jar of Tabasco sauce, Cleopatra as an old china dish. Look below to see Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.

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I went down to London to see four of these experiments in storytelling live and in-person, after watching about the same number online last summer when they were broadcast live from the Berliner Festspielen. I remember seeing snippets of a few one day during the work week, then hearing more from a friend a few days later, and finally settling down outside on a sunny, late Saturday afternoon to watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While I watched, I took notes – not on paper, as I normally would in the theatre, but published online through Twitter, where I also looked out for the comments of others. A couple of examples:

Close to a year later, I’m left wondering what kind of theatrical experience that was. I know for a fact that I was doing lots of other things while watching, though I do think that I was also paying attention, and really focusing, while navigating my way around those other things. And speaking with others online during the performance did, in some ways, make certain moments and insights more memorable for me.

Being physically present, down in the depths of the Barbican Pit on Saturday was a materially more immersive experience, and I did feel like the co-presence of the somewhat surprisingly packed audience around me did focus my mind and senses in ways that I missed last summer. But I’m not going to lie – in hour 3 I moved to a cooler seat at the edge, and I let my mind wander and even drift off for a few drowsy minutes. This had everything to do with stamina rather than interest. And I don’t know what this all adds up to, other than a growing preoccupation with how I watch theatre – whether in an auditorium, a cinema, or at home, sitting on my bed.

How do these different practices affect my appreciation of what’s before me, and my absorption in it? Do we need to develop a shared protocol for at-home viewings if we want streamed theatre to achieve a certain kind of emotional and sensory effect? Should we turn our phones off, or are they doing something new and helpful for us that we should embrace rather than shun? There are over 1,000 comments on the YouTube page for The Encounter, and despite McBurney’s plea I’m sure that a good portion of them bear a time-stamp from the night of the livestream. Is this a sign of our ever distracted, ever fragmented times, or a mark of a new and maybe even enhanced way of watching theatre, or perhaps some combination of both?

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?

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.

Dressing Hal

Lots of thoughts from last night’s cinema broadcast of the RSC’s Henry IV, part 2, but first a quick non sequitur. I couldn’t help but notice Alex Hassell’s red leather coat and its resemblance to Tom Hiddleston’s in the Hollow Crown. And to Michael Jackson’s, circa the Thriller years. (It’s close to the chimes at miiiiiidnight…)

Shakespeareans in Paris: Notes on the Digital

Back today from a week-long conference in Paris, where I was talking about ‘Digital Shakespeare and Festive Time’. Unsurprisingly the email backlog is about a mile long, but I thought I’d jot down a few notes about digital Shakespeare at the conference before I forget…

Well, there actually isn’t too much to say — this was a fairly un-digital conference. Not that that’s a bad thing. There were several interesting plenaries, panels, and seminars, and I certainly didn’t mind spending as much digitally unmediated free time as possible around the Latin Quarter in Paris. There was a conference hashtag, though no one quite knew what it was (#shakes450? #shake450? #ParisShakes?). And there were only a few sessions that touched upon digital humanities issues, most often through the question of digital methods, rather than direct address of digital Shakespeare as subject matter itself.

Instead, much of the conference actually looked back — to Shakespearean celebration over time, and especially to the anniversaries in 1914 and 1916 that saw Shakespearean commemoration embedded in the traumatic politics of the Great War. Interestingly, some papers suggested that this was when we saw the emergence of a so-called ‘global’ Shakespeare, wrapped up in the processes of global politics, finance, and culture, that has become such a frequent focus in Shakespeare studies today.

A couple of exceptions though to the relatively un-digital conferencing I did last week. The first is that I met in person for the first time three MA graduates of the Shakespeare Institute’s distance learning programme. One is French and is now pursuing a PhD there, another lives in Abu Dhabi and is setting up a Shakespeare society there, and the other is based in Paris and is now doing a PhD with me and one of my colleagues. I’ve ‘known’ each of them for several years, but this was the first time that I got to see them in the flesh, give them a hug, and congratulate them on completing the MA (each with great aplomb). It was a lovely continuation of our relationships, and the shift from digital to in-person and now back to digital felt completely natural — we might be spread across great distances, but in festive moments like conferences both time and geography contract to bring us together in the most concentrated of ways. The only slightly unnerving and even funny moment was when one of the students recognized me in the queue for the bathroom and came up to me and asked — with puzzlement but also enthusiasm — ‘Who are you??’

The other noteworthy digital moment was the final plenary, given by Professor Sarah Hatchuel of the University of La Havre. Her excellent paper looked at how many of the blockbuster Shakespeare films of the 1990s are being pulled apart and repurposed in the digital world. She offered examples of YouTube mashups, video game homages, and theatre trailers, but without a doubt my favorite was the ‘Hamlet gone viral’ social media video created as a senior English project by a very creative high school student:

It’s the drama of Hamlet told through the world of online communication, and there are several moments that offer both witty and critically astute takes on the action and characterization in this story (a personal favorite — the Gmail nunnery scene at 4.00). I think what the project does especially well is suggest the extent to which we enact our own experience of interiority online. So Hamlet uses Google and Ask.com to look up information about grief, to ask anonymous questions about what to do if…, and of course he uses Facebook to navigate the confusing personal relationships making up his social world.

One thing that came up in the questions, and that is of especial interest to me, is the fact that most of Hatchuel’s examples (including the Hamlet) are primarily comic. While she rebutted that some of them were rather serious, I would suggest that the most effective and interesting examples were indeed essentially funny. For me this raises the question of how digital works as an artistic resource. Given the fact that much of our digital and digitized life is made up of the experience of fragments of information washing over us almost constantly (news headlines, interesting links, funny animal pictures, Upworthy videos), it makes sense I think that digital creativity is especially adept at the art of juxtaposition, wit, and subversion. A big question for me though is whether or not it can work in other genres too. Digital media constantly makes us laugh, but can it also make us cry? If so, what might that artform look like?

Backstage tumbling

This week the RSC announced the launch of its #rehearsalcam across Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram, the promise being that we can get glimpses of the theatre’s work backstage through occasional posts from actors, stage managers, and others as they bring a show to life. The project at the moment specifically focuses on  Henry IV, but given the fact that the social media feeds are more generally titled ‘RSC’ you get the feeling that this could be a trial of a more permanent initiative in the future.

There are five posts so far – one from actor Youssef Kerkour as he reads his script on what looks like London’s Circle line, a selfie from actor Robert Gilbert in his stage armor, a shot of a smartphone playing Morphine’s ‘Cure for Pain’, a 12-second clip of archery practice, and a group shot of someone (the assistant director?) addressing the cast.

What does it all add up to? I’m not sure yet, but I have enjoyed checking out the snippets they’ve shared — they remind me of the ‘actors’ bower’ video room from the RSC’s Midsummer Night’s Dreaming project last summer, which offered on-the-go insights into the rehearsal process as the show came together over one short week. I’ll be interested to see what the cast does with the #rehearsalcam between now and the opening of the Henry shows (not far off now — 18 March!) and also if the RSC takes the idea forward with future productions, perhaps starting at the very beginning of the process (director brainstorming, casting, etc.) and following it all the way through to opening night.

O brave new world.

Well, here it is – my first blog. Amidst the notebook scribblings, box folders of photocopies, off-the-cuff tweets, and solitarily composed Word documents, I’ve decided that a blog might be a happy and useful place to set some of my ideas down, in a provisional sort of way. The theme is digital Shakespeare, in particular Shakespeare as digitally performed, adapted, appropriated, memed, and otherwise creatively seized. But I suspect plain old read-on-the-page Shakespeare might creep in quite a bit too, seeing as how that’s how I still encounter him much of the time. We’ll see. It’s an experiment.

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