1st November 2016, Cardiff University
The interplay between word, image and the digital is one of the most pertinent and topical areas for research and discussion in the humanities. Whilst important work has been done previously theorising word and image (see, for example, W.J.T Mitchell’s Picture Theory), the addition of the digital to this already complex relationship problematises, amplifies and disrupts our understanding of what it means to be human and consequently challenges us to re-think how we understand visual culture. On 1st November, Cardiff Digital Culture’s Network held its first symposium that interrogated this very subject and in the process acted as kind of prelude for the discussions that the rest of the world would be having a week later when, as result of Donald Trump winning the American Presidential election, concerns were raised over the way the digital allows for the widespread dissemination of words juxtaposed with images in the form of memes to denigrate, abuse and often tell outright lies about political opponents.
The first speaker of the day was Kieron Smith whose paper ‘Word Image Text: The Digital Library of Wales and its Borderlands’, explored a new Cardiff University project that, according to Smith, is a ‘new exercise in exploring the relationships between place and the imagination through the lens of literature’. The purpose of the project is to build an online interactive atlas of deep maps using a selection of Anglophone novels set in Wales. Smith detailed what the eventual website will contain: images, videos, and interviews with authors and experts as well as information about local history and culture. It is a tremendously compelling project and one that is of significant value not only to researchers, but also to Welsh communities more generally. It is going to be very interesting to see how this unfolds over the next year or so. Our second speaker was Penny Florence who brought together David Bowie, poetry, and William Blake’s illuminated work The Book of Thel in her paper Starwoman (punct.uation). As Florence commented, her work is a ‘hybrid of digital poetry, visual art, music, pre-digital poetry and a kind of commentary’. The starting point for the work was when Florence realised the parallels between Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Thel. She argues that like Thel, Ziggy was never earthbound and neither could be born in this world. Starwoman (punct.uation), then, is a digital poem using a bespoke platform called The Readers Project that allows for ‘performative, quasi-autonomous’ readings of poems that are procedurally generated. By combining Bowie with Blake, Florence has created a unique piece of art that comments upon and enacts poetic re-writing using colour and technology in a strikingly original way.
Othniel Smith, our next speaker, has already written a blog piece about his work for us here, but his paper, The Poetry Storehouse – an Experiment in Collaboration and Ekphrasis deserves a brief summary nevertheless. Smith’s paper outlined the ‘work, aims and legacy’ of the Poetry Storehouse, ‘a curated website where published poets made some of their work available for creative remixing by artists from other disciplines’. Smith provided examples of some of the films that came out of this collaboration, including his own – and I highly recommend you watch them (the links are embedded in Smith’s blog piece). Ultimately, Smith contends that ‘The Poetry Storehouse, in providing a safe digital space where artists from diverse backgrounds could engage constructively with one another, was exemplary in its accessibility and ambition’. As is, I suggest, Smith’s own work. Like Smith, Joachim Buur, our fourth speaker of the day has also written a blog piece about his paper for us, which you can read here. Buur, who has recently completed his MA in English Literature at Cardiff University, gave a paper entitled, ‘The Symbionic Cybertext Machine: Andrew Hussie’s Homestuck and its Fans as a Cyborg Collective’ which discussed Andrew Hussie’s webcomic Homestuck and the implications this work has for fans in the digital world. Buur argues that Hussie and his fans have ‘gone through a co-evolution process, together working to create a narrative experience which could only have arisen (and only makes sense) in an online context’. Homestuck, Buur informed us, is the largest webcomic in the world, containing over 10,000 pages and 875,000 words in total. In fact, Buur observes, in its very structure and content Homestuck ‘embodies the internet age’. To learn more about why this is the case have a read of Buur’s wonderfully engaging paper.
Wonderfully engaging is also a term we could apply to WordWanderer a terrific piece of software which, as Dawn Knight – our fifth speaker – demonstrated, is all about taking ‘your text for a walk’. WordWanderer, created in collaboration with Marian Dörk, is an experiment in the ‘visual ways in which we can enhance people’s engagement with language’. The intent with the software was to ‘develop a more playful approach to language that can be characterised by the notion of wandering as an open-ended movement’. WordWanderer, then, allows for users to analyse texts through the proximity certain words have to each other whilst also allowing for users to better understand the context where these words appear in the text. It uses a word cloud system which highlights the most common words used in a text by size. By clicking on a word within the cloud allows you to see its contextual relationship with other words from that text through the size of the words themselves. By visually representing words in this way – through size – to generate meaning WordWanderer is a highly valuable resource for any researcher working either on literature or language.
Our next speakers were Julia Thomas, Ian Harvey and Nicola Lloyd who discussed the challenges they faced when creating the Illustration Archive, the world’s biggest online archive for book illustration. Containing over one million images, the Illustration Archive is an open access resource which can, by the sheer number of images, be overwhelming. This was the starting off point for the project. As Thomas commented, ‘we began from the research question: how do we begin to make searchable such a vast number of illustrations?’ The key challenge to this project was the creation of an interface that would allow users to easily tag images so that other users could then find them. By crowdsourcing in this way the project team hoped that the archive would then, in turn, offer new ways of reading images. This crowdsourced data, the team observes, ‘can tell us about the interaction between word and image and how we must understand the illustrated text as a bimedial work of art’. Indeed: finding images in the digital world, perhaps ironically, still needs words to find them. The penultimate speaker of the day was me, Michael Goodman. I discussed my own visual database, the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive. I’ve written much about this elsewhere (and I’m sure you are all getting very bored of hearing about it), but I’ll just say here that it was one of the first times I had presented my work after the archive had gone live and was publicly available. This allowed me to briefly discuss the impact it had on social media and to examine some of the research that might extend from this.
The final speaker of the day, and our keynote, was Michaela Mahlberg from Birmingham University. Mahlberg’s paper, Digital Humanities and the Study of Fictional People in Dickens – Methodological Challenges and Theoretical Implications detailed how ‘computer-assisted methods can be used to study literary texts and lead to new insights into how readers perceive fictional characters’. Mahlberg is the Principal Investigator on the CLiC Dickens project which will see the development of a web app designed specifically for the study of literary texts. Using the novels of Charles Dickens as a case study, Mahlberg and her team want to investigate how ‘the textual patterns that contribute to the reader’s perception of fictional characters’. The project is hugely exciting, innovative and engaging and I look forward to hearing more in the next few months especially the pedagogical implications of such work which could have massive consequences for the way we teach not just Dickens but any literary text.
Word, image, digital and the research we do around this significant area of culture is both timely and pertinent. The papers from this symposium show, however, in all their originality and diversity, that while memes, fake news and ‘post-truth’ infographs may be grabbing the headlines, the work so many people are doing in this area is, ultimately, positive and hugely life-afiirming.
Thank you very much to all speakers for participating in a wonderful day.
–Michael John Goodman