Grab Bag: Digital Cubism

In 1938, there was a world’s fair in Glasgow—called the Empire Exhibition—that attracted over 13 million attendants. Modernists from Basel Spence to Jack Coia built dozens of pavilions, most of which have since been demolished. Last month, the Glasgow School of Art’s Digital Design Studio (DDS) launched a digital recreation of the festival, bringing to life many of the buildings from archival film footage, photographs, the memories of surviving participants, and architectural drawings. You can look at a map of the site and click on specific buildings for more detailed perspectives.

I’ve been preoccupied about the implications of such an endeavor since going to Scotland for a walkthrough of the project by the head of the DDS and the researchers involved a few months ago, and it seems to have found a curious counterpart in another recent fixation. Quite by accident, I was revisiting a rather insipid New York blog that I used to read years ago when the author made some mention of a guy called Ben Chappel, a New York-based illustrator and web-whiz who died two years ago.

The post had a link to his website (which still exists), and I clicked on it. The site and his work resonated, for whatever reason, and I Googled him. I’m by no means one of those people who search everyone they know or any stranger’s name they come across, so this in itself was unusual.

Cut to three hours later: I’ve read countless posthumous descriptions of his life and accomplishments. I’ve read email exchanges, instant messenger conversations, and a typed dialogue between him and a friend from an evening spent together during which, rather than talk, they communicated only on a shared computer. I found countless pictures from every angle, of every face, of many locations. I discovered a phenomenon whereby when someone dies, friends and strangers leave them messages on social networking pages (for him, myspace)—wishing them well, missing them, loving them. He seemed a swell guy and a great person with whom to have a romantic entanglement.

I started to realize how limiting traditional obituaries are, how unidimensional and incomplete. The internet, magical place it is, allows for something far more holistic. In its democratic arrangement, it lets anyone join in the grief process and, more importantly, the process of contributing to the story of the deceased.

Duchamp_nude_descending_2I hardly need to point out the parallel between this and the aims of the DDS in recreating Glasgow’s Empire Exhibition. The only analogy I can posit is to look back to analytical cubism, where painters like Braque, Picasso, and later Duchamp attempted to create time and space through a style of painting that simultaneously revealed various facets and dimensions of a subject.

Here, the process is curiously Baudriallardian—the result a digital simulation of reality that, despite its verisimilitude, remains set apart from its original subject. But the two things, this young man and this fair, are to a certain degree recast by digital means and through a process that involves third-party participation. Just as with the DDS’s interface, whereby users have the agency to explore the fair grounds and take detailed tours of the various buildings, so too can a web surfer navigate the waters of a life lost and create a multidimensional portrait of that person based on selective research. It’s a terrifying process in certain ways, as though history is almost too elastic and becomes itself a subjective exploration rather than something with a singular definition. Gone are the days of a tombstone with a single epitaph, now not only do we have a person’s life and accomplishments at our fingertips, but also the dynamics of their relationships and intimate correspondences.

In the case of the Glasgow exhibition, there is a shift from the telling of history through gritty black and white photographs to an interactive and experiential portrait mediated, of course, by its very nature as a virtual environment.

And that’s where things get a bit slippery for me. With the rise of phenomena like Second Life, suddenly the creation of digital personae and places begins to blur my understanding of reality and historical occurrences that are retold through the internet. This Ben (who I am exploiting so despicably here, but only because I am truly fascinated by, and may go so far as to say may actually like), just as this Empire Exhibition, are ultimately going to survive in the annals of the internet, sharing a place with Lara Croft as easily as those pets for whom adoring (and perverted, in my opinion) owners make myspace and friendster pages. Their digitization is, rather than bringing them to life, making them ultimately less real, if not more complex, than people and places sitting in an encyclopedia.

Ultimately I grieve for Ben as much as I stand in awe of the remnants of Glasgow’s fair. I am able to understand them as things once tangible, but it’s taken a lot of imagination and a refutation of the source of information by which I’ve come to know them. It’s an active process, but one that brings them to life beyond the confines of the same digital world through which I came to know them. It’s all a bit twisted, I guess.