Tag Archives: Steven E. Jones

Banksy and digital art – making it and saving it

Banksy’s newest piece of street art has caught my attention twice this week – first for the work of art itself, and the powerful way that it incorporates digital media, and second for the clearing away of the work, and the way it’s being saved for the public digitally.

So let’s start with the work of art itself. It turned up last Saturday across the street from the French Embassy in Knightsbridge. At its centre is the iconic illustration of Cosette from Les Miserables, but with yellowy tears running from her eyes, and gas from a nearby canister clouding her body. Most have read it as a critique of the French government’s use of tear gas in refugee encampments in Calais.

Photo: banksy.co.uk
Photo: banksy.co.uk

This isn’t the first time Banksy has used his work to speak out against the treatment of immigrants and the dangers of xenophobia – for other examples see here and here. It is the first time, though, that he’s included a piece of digital technology that invites viewers to take his image a step further, and to have a look for themselves at the media footage he’s responding to.

Photo: AP/Alastair Grant
Photo: AP/Alastair Grant

That’s right, a QR code. One of those black and white little squares that you really only see in marketing materials these days. In his book The Emergence of the Digital Humanities, Steven E. Jones takes a swipe at these pieces of low-fi, quasi-digital kit, largely for their ineffectiveness (who actually takes the time to scan them?) but also for their feeble and rather outdated gesture towards some other dimension known as ‘The Digital’. I pretty much agree – I downloaded a QR reader to my phone a few years ago when we got an app-based walking tour in Stratford, but it never really worked that well, and eventually I deleted it in order to make space for something else. But Banksy’s use of the QR code really caught my eye, and got me thinking about how it really can work, provided that the thing it connects you with is something genuinely interesting, useful, unexpected, and important.


As the video above shows, Banksy’s QR code links the viewer to media footage of the very event he is critiquing, and in doing so it layers art with reality, painting with video, street art with newsfeed. It is multimedial and multiexperiential, inviting us not only to revel in his satirical comment, but also to witness a few, harrowing minutes in the lives of people just 100 miles away from London. In a strange way, Banksy’s painting makes this live footage become ‘real’, rather than the other way around. By inserting it into the well-heeled streets of Knightsbridge, by giving it context outside of the numbing repetitiveness of the nightly news, by making it a part of a conversation, it focuses viewers’ attention and creates new impact.

It’s interesting too that the best video documentation of the painting that I’ve found – the piece embedded above – was created specifically for Facebook by the social media outlet AJ+, and doesn’t exist separately as an independent URL. It’s meant to be shared, and unlike the versions that I found on more traditional news sites, it actually mixes in the video footage opened up by the QR code. Plus, it forgoes the heavy, didactic narration of the news presenter and chooses instead to frame the piece through music and single lines of written text. The effect, for me, is far more engaging, exploratory, immersive, and powerful.

Now, the coda – like so many Banksy pieces these days, this one has already come down (or at least part of it – while the bulk of the image was painted on a piece of easily removed plywood, the tear gas can is on the base of a stone wall). Given the price that Banksy’s works now go for, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it makes its way into a private collection. But before the removal occurred, a man from Google came with the company’s Streetview kit to digitally record and document it. In a few months, and certainly a few years, this may very well be the only high-quality, officially archived ‘copy’ of the work available to the public. So what started off as a mixed media piece on the streets of London might ultimately end up as an entirely digital one in the clouds of the internet, increasingly managed by the empire of Google.

Advertisements

Digital Shakespeare and Festive Time

Next week I’m off to a conference in Paris marking the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. I’ll be participating in a seminar on Shakespeare, festivals, and festivity, with my contribution focusing on the place of digital celebration and outreach within Shakespeare festivals. The post below sets out some of the questions I hope to raise concerning the nature of ‘the festival’ and that of ‘the digital’, and how these entities overlap, if at all. Time, synchronicity, boundedness, focus, and togetherness are all key issues in this discussion, I think, and I’m eager to find out where we might get with them as a group.

******

In his introduction to the 1987 collection Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival, the anthropologist Alessandro Falassi writes that festival environments are centrally defined by three factors: ‘time, space, and action’. Time, in the sense of normal, mundane time disrupted and suspended; space, in the sense of either everyday or, conversely, rarely used spaces claimed for collective festival activity; and action, in the sense of the intensification of special activities such as prayers, performances, or feasts not typically a part of daily life. Falassi suggests that when these three things come together, normal life ‘is modified by a gradual or sudden interruption that introduces “time out of time,” a special temporal dimension devoted to special activities’.

My question for this seminar on ‘Shakespearean Festivals in the Twenty-first Century’ is what might such a definition of festivity, and in particular its valuing of ‘time out of time’, mean for the growing use of digital connectivity and communication within Shakespearean festival settings? Do digital initiatives help enhance festive experience by allowing it to be extended in real-time to audiences otherwise cut off from the festival site (a corollary being televised sports events such as the World Cup or music events such as Glastonbury)? Or do they actually undermine festivity by disrupting the specificity and boundedness of time, place, and action upon which festivals depend, producing a more mundane experience of “time within time” – that is, an only partially festive experience mixed into the normal, digitally inflected rhythms of daily life?

How we answer such questions will depend at least in part on our own understanding and experience of digital technology, I think, and the role it plays for us in our day-to-day existence. In his recent book, The Emergence of the Digital Humanities (2014) (discussed earlier this year on this blog), the literary scholar Steven E. Jones argues that the entity once known as ‘cyberspace’ has finally ‘everted’, meaning that what was once imagined as an esoterically high-tech, completely immersive otherspace has transitioned into a more integrated, ubiquitous, and layered form of ‘mixed reality’ – or, as sociologist Nathan Jurgenson prefers to put it, a kind of ‘augmented reality’. ‘People are enmeshing their physical and digital selves to the point where the distinction [between them] is becoming increasingly irrelevant’, Jurgenson writes, and while Jones largely agrees, he also suggests that significant differences between digital and non-digital ways of being still persist, resulting in the increasingly common ‘paradox of living in two worlds at once’.

My interest is in how festival settings, with their unusual emphasis on time and presence – or, to put it another way, on ‘being there’ – have the potential to intensify this paradox of dual-citizenship, and to foreground the questions it raises about physically situated versus digitally mediated ways of being. Can a truly festive atmosphere emerge from a digital performance, or indeed from a digital conversation surrounding a ‘live’ performance? What kind of experience, for instance, is produced by a Twitter exchange around a shared festival hashtag, or the live-broadcasting of a festival performance, and can these kinds of activities be seen as festive in any way?

My working hypothesis is that digital modes of performance and engagement can effectively enhance and extend festivity, but that they don’t naturally do so, mainly because we tend to use them to evade the experience of boundedness and to promote the ability to be in multiple places at once. If, as Roger D. Abrahams suggests, ‘festivals seize on open spots and playfully enclose them,’ digital activity tends to do the opposite, seizing on existing, content-rich spots and fragmenting, layering, disassociating, and dispersing them. The challenge for festival organizers interested in harnessing the power of digital tools, then, is in finding ways of resisting this tendency, and of enabling a more focused, bounded, and ‘present’ form of engagement among digital festival-goers.

There are countless examples of digital activity within Shakespeare festival celebration that we might use to work through such issues, and I’ll be interested to hear about the different digital initiatives other members of the seminar have come into contact with through their own work on Shakespeare festivals around the world. For my own part, my research with Paul Prescott and Paul Edmondson on the Shakespearean celebrations that were a part of the London 2012 Olympics (documented in www.yearofshakespeare.com and A Year of Shakespeare: Reliving the World Shakespeare Festival, 2013) has prompted me to pay special attention to the digital activity and experimentation that took place within and around the Shakespearean events planned as a part of that Olympic year. These events included the Royal Shakespeare Company’s World Shakespeare Festival, the Globe’s Globe to Globe Festival, the BBC’s Hollow Crown series, and also the Olympic and Paralympic Ceremonies themselves, since three of them featured Shakespearean material.

Some notable digital initiatives arising from these events (both planned and otherwise) included the making of 36 of the Globe to Globe productions freely available online during the summer of 2012 on the ‘pop-up’ arts site TheSpace.org; the web-streaming of I, Cinna, Tim Crouch’s adaptation of Julius Caesar for the RSC, to schools across the UK; the creation of MyShakespeare (myshakespeare.rsc.org.uk), a gallery of digital work inspired by Shakespeare and hosted by the RSC; the creation of the Hollow Crown Fans Twitter group (@hollowcrownfans), currently 8,000+ members strong and growing; and the many online conversations that took place around all of these events through discussion boards and social media. In our seminar I’d like to offer some thoughts about a few of these examples of Shakespearean digital festivity, both as a way of exploring the nature of the festival itself as well as the relationship of the digital to it.

References

Abrahams, Roger D. ‘An American Vocabulary of Celebrations.’ In Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival, ed. Alessandro Falassi. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987. 175-183.

Falassi, Alessandro. ‘Festival: Definition and Morphology.’ In Time out of Time: Essays on the Festival, ed. Alessandro Falassi. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987. 1-10. [PDF currently available online at http://bit.ly/1m02RRR]

Jones, Steven E. The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Jurgenson, Nathan. ‘Amber Case: Cyborg Anthropologist (a critique).’ Cyborgology blog. 10 February 2011. http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/10/amber-case-cyborg-anthropologist-a-critique/

—–. ‘Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality.’ Cyborgology blog. 24 February 2011. http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/02/24/digital-dualism-versus-augmented-reality/

The revolution will not be virtualized.

reading

I did some reviewing work for Routledge in the autumn, and in return they very kindly sent me some new entries for my quickly growing digital Shakespeares reading list. Mostly these books have been decorating my desk over the holidays, but I have managed to get started with Steven E. Jones’s recently published The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. It’s a very helpful guide to the growth of digital humanities as an academic field over the last fifteen or so years, though Jones points out that ‘DH’ didn’t become ‘a thing’, as it were, until about 2009 — which apparently is 5 years ago now… (Side note: reading about digital technology and culture is involving a lot of moments in which I encounter dates that look very recent and then realize that, actually, they aren’t.)

Jones works his way through a number of interesting case studies that allow him to talk about the dimensions, people, places, things, publications, and practices that make up digital culture, with each word being the title of a different chapter in the book. His thesis is that digital life is material, located, and social, and most fundamentally that it can no longer be clearly separated from what we might be tempted to call ‘real life’. Virtuality, he suggests, is not a very useful way of thinking about what the digital is anymore, seeing as how digital tools are so enmeshed in so many very real aspects of modern daily life (think email, iPods, Google maps, smart phones, GPS, e-readers, swipe cards, and digitized records of all different varieties).

Rather than think of the digital as something that happens in a weird sort of cyberspace, Jones argues that we need to accept that it has ‘everted’, or exploded outward into the world at large. The result is an integrated, but nonetheless very mixed reality, in which we are constantly presented with ‘the paradox of living in two worlds at once.’ (Another side note: Jones tells us that the terms ‘cyberspace’ and ‘eversion’ both come from the sci-fi writer William Gibson, who coined them in 1982 and 2009, respectively. Which makes me wonder — what is Gibson writing about now??)

I find Jones’s central argument very helpful and persuasive, and I’m interested in how people like me approach the process of moving between the highly related but still distinctive worlds of analogue and digital (I’m tempted to use the word ‘toggle,’ but I feel like that must say something about my own digital coming of age). I think this process of oscillation is what I’m trying to understand better as I think about the experience of watching a performance live in-person versus live on-screen, or of trading Shakespeare quotes with a group of people through Twitter versus underlining passages in my own hard copy of the complete works.

These questions are put into sharper relief this week as my university resumes teaching, and I find myself giving the same lectures and leading the same seminars on-site for campus students and online for distance learning ones. My approach has always been to combine and blend the two groups as much as possible, extending the on-site into the online, and the online into the on-site. But it would be silly to say that differences don’t remain. Which makes me wonder, are there limits to eversion, or is it simply a matter of time?