Richard Powers, in the early 1980s, was working as a computer programmer. Upon seeing August Sander’s photo Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, he quit his job, lived off savings and wrote his first novel, Three farmers on Their Way to a Dance. Thinking this would be pretty much his only opportunity to write freely, after which he would have to return to the workforce, he crammed pretty EVERYTHING he knew into it. 


It contains three intertwining narratives:

  1. Our narrator encountering the photo for the first time, spurred on to discover what is happening inside it, the relations between the subjects along with their relationships with the photographer and the outside world, their relationships with the viewer, the reader. In this thread, we are taken on and implicated in essayistic tours of history and photography, philosophy for and reconstruction of the twentieth century: “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, 1914. The date sufficed to show they were not going to their expected dance. I was not going to my expected dance. We would all be taken blindfolded into a field somewhere in the tortured century and made to dance until we’d had enough. Dance until we dropped.”
  2. A reconstruction of the possible lives of our three farmers. From the photo, Powers (and one of his characters, although…) develops a potential narrative of three young men at the beginning of (and going through) the First World War.
  3. The tale of Peter Mays, a technical editor for an Electronics Magazine who becomes infatuated with a woman, following a pseudo detective tale leading him to, among other things, the photo in question.


The way the three tales listed above elide is fascinating and intricate, as those lives of the three farmers. And what we also have is a history of certain parts of the Continent during WWI; we hear of the Peace Ship: Henry Ford, unhappy with the world’s efforts toward peace, decided to take a ship filled with celebrities and common folk alike, from the US of A to Continental Europe, in order to stand between the armies in question and force peace between the warring nations. We also hear the great story of all Parisian taxis being called to take French soldiers to the Battle of the Marne.

However, this is not a tale of the past, it is one of our relationship with it. The three farmers are not just looking at the camera or the photographer, but their gaze is also directed toward us, the viewer, the reader. We are implicated in their tale for more than one reason, none of which i will state here for fear of destroying some of the enjoyment of reading this book.

The photo itself is one of a series entitled Face of the Twentieth Century. Wikipedia tells us

In this series, [Sander] aims to show a cross-section of society during the Weimar Republic. The series is divided into seven sections: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People (homeless persons, veterans, etc.). By 1945, Sander’s archive included over 40,000 images.

His plan was to map out the century via the faces of people. From the novel,

[Sanders’] plan makes Peter think of maps. Photographing society reminds him of making maps of unknown terrain. It provides a key, a way of looking over a place without having to go there. This man’s plan—to build up a document of categories and subcategories, even more precise and encompassing with each new photo—is like increasing the scale of the map. One mile to the inch is clearly better than two to the inch: more detail, and truer to the real estate. Perhaps this fellow on the bicycle, as incurable as he is about posing, might, by taking enough photos, improve the map of the Man of the Twentieth Century to the scale of a few hundred yards to the inch, a few hundred faces to the photo.

But Peter does not take this hope of increasing exactness to its logical conclusion. A map of one inch to the inch, which cannot be spread without covering the countryside, shows nothing that the place itself shows just as well. In order for this encyclopedia to become completely authentic, it would have to include a print of every living face…

[a novel embedded in a map at We Tell Stories]

Aptly named We Tell Stories, here we have a project interested in digital writing, in this case the ways in which we can approach the idea of writing/storytelling/literature using the internet. Screenshot above from an online short novel called The 21 Steps, in which we view a googlemap which contains various nodes, each of which tells us part of the tale— we begin at a particular location, reading the first few sentences and then are led on a detective story through London and in and around the UK, viewing the action from above, as it were. In fact, as it is. Now this is a good place to start: although the story is entirely linear and un-interactive except for the necessary clicks of the mouse, the possibilities it suggest are damn exciting. For example, perhaps having a not entirely linear detective tale on a map, but instead one where you, the reader, actually decide where to look for the story yourself. So then:

An interactive, virtual Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel in which YOU map out your journey figuratively and also quite literally on a journey round the globe.

[The Cave of Time!]

We Tell Stories sometimes gives us somewhat interesting digital renderings of classics (in this case, our googlemap adventure is a reworking of The 39 Steps). As in this case, they could all be more exciting. A major part of the attraction toward digital and web-based literature is the idea of reader interaction and the We Tell Stories stories do tend to play it safe. My inclination would be to suggest something more fractured (an example of which I outlined above as an alternative way to use mapping, to really make the reader the detective), something far less like traditional reading! When dwelling on such issues, I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s words:

There’s a way, it seems to me, that reality’s fractured right now, at least the reality that I live in. And the difficulty about writing… writing about that reality is that text is very linear and it’s very unified, and… I, anyway, am constantly on the lookout for ways to fracture the text that aren’t totally disorienting—

Web-based literature is one way. Or probably many ways. It’s still a bub.

I must say that despite the feelings of the man using a monome to play the html data of websites as sound etc… on my last posting here, i do think the NYTimes have a severely impressive web presence. One need look no further than their interactive map of Baghdad:

[Assessing the ‘Surge’: an interactive map of Baghdad from nytimes.com]

The map itself is a result of a project ‘to study the ground-level effects of the American troop buildup’. As one’s mouse hovers over the neighbourhoods lying either side of the undulating Tigris, connections are made between the map and surrounding text and image. As my cursor wavers over Saydia in the south, i see the region connect to an image of a smiling girl’s face and Saydia: Thousands Flee Active Battle Zone. Not only can I click on a particular neighbourhood to venture into on-the-ground journalism, video and photojournalism but i can also view the map in terms of who inhabits which areas, displaced neighbourhoods, Sunni majority and strong Mahdi army presence. Geographically aware and able. Now we are actively participating in the journalism we view, no longer passive recipients.

How far could one take this? Next of course, please, vantage point mobility, the ability to zoom in and see the street level, to tilt and angle oneself to catch a particular glimpse of the four golden minarets at Kadhmayn;  then palimpsestic maps of infrastructures begin to appear: electricity grids and aqueducts and their lines of communication. Movements of people across the city over a day, a year, a decade, ever since Werner Herzog filmed from above the Iraqi oil fields being sent aflame in Lessons of Darkness. A map of the city shifting over time, rising out of the sands before your very eyes; and the subsequent destructions, captured for posterity.

[from Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness]

The only aspect now missing is the ability to alter the map, the possibility of effecting change. Consider the following: a man, lets call him X, is a voyeur, he places himself at train stations and on trams, above balconies and under bridges, watching keenly all the varied passers-by. Inconspicuous, he seems to himself. Every step he takes, however, leaves an imprint. As do his no-longer-furtive glances. What if interactive maps were malleable in this sense, each place you visit somehow your mark is left upon, a barely visible stamp of your past presence there. Then we could see and hear of viewers movements across the map, paths taken and returned upon. More extreme still and we have a landscape entirely alterable, viewers able to construct small compounds and tap into the electricity grid, shape hillocks and breathe life into the space. I do not, of course, recommend this for Baghdad.

Nor have I said much of the substance of this particular interactive map, which you really should check out yourself since I have no ability to relate to you the complexities of all the information that can be gathered from this particular well. Do, however, permit me end with the words of a small girl, seemingly proud to have been displaced due to her family receiving a letter with a bullet in it:

No matter what, Iraq is so beautiful… Iraq will remain beautiful, no matter what. (Sung) Baghdad of poets and pictures. The gold of time… and its perfume scent.

[A simple pipe i built: news items published on both the new york times and guardian website are filtered to give me all items referencing Barack Obama]

An informational mash-up,  an instant cartography of your interests flung around the ethernet as through plumbing and/or ancient aqueducts, really simple syndication (aka acronymically rss) and other feeds trail-blazing and filtered according to each and every one of your transmedial needs. MAP OUT YOUR MEDIA…—

Self-described as “an interactive feed aggregator and manipulator”, YahooPipes allows you to construct your very own internet feeds by  patching together any # of various modules (the boxes in the diagram above which contain feeds, filters etc…) with pipes in any fashion you want. If you purely want to collate all your national newspapers and view the stories concerning an election, this is simple. Hardcore pipers may enjoy filtering blogs and podcasts to find information about a certain region of Peru (for example?) using geographical data search engines provided by Yahoo here. Not only this, but you can view your pipe output in an interactive map:

[YahooPipes combined w/ GoogleMashUpEditor to represent all feeds geographically; see here]

What a wonderful conceptual refraction of Moog’s original idea for the modular synthesiser, which could create produce a then obscene number of sounds due to its “patching” nature: it consisted of separate modules connected by wires, which could be connected in multifarious fashions:

[Man meets Moog at digitalmedia]

This idea of “patching” has infiltrated many levels of the creative process, most notably that of electronic music. A vast amounts of electronic music software is based around this idea. One only needs look as far as Miller Puckette’s Pure Data and Max/MSP:

[a pure data patch, courtesy of trac]

An example which is probably more suitable for those with less interests in code is Isadora, a piece of software intended for artists whereby one can have interactive control over all forms of digital media, e.g. moving one’s arm up and down to trigger different audio-visual effects. Connecting the patches in a different configuration could change the ways in which bodily movements effect the environment.

Of course, anything that can be done with Isadora can also be achieved in Pure Data. I just recently wrote a patch in Pure Data which allows anybody to sing into a toy duck in order to mix videos. I probably should post that soon…

[A maxpatch from TransAtLab]

Where were we?! This patch-based phenomenon rearing its head in the form of YahooPipes and the ability build online maps-of-sorts signifying the movement of the media YOU want to read around your internet. The next step is finding an intelligent way to make this truly interactive– how about the ability to “play” websites like musical instruments as demonstrated here:

[Finally found a use for the NY Times:a chap using the monome, an open source controller, to play html data of the nytimes website for real! see lily]

Combine such fantastic conceptual arrangements with YahooPipes and suddenly you are able to construct your own cacophony of cartography, your very own subterranean-representation-via-none-other-than-the-apt-metaphor-of-plumbing, maps and sounds and blistering html data, code transferred sonically and all this, all of this, mind you, to tell you that Barack Obama is ahead in the polls.

[Moog and machines from eer-music]

[patching a human body to a —– from Media Theory etc…]

[page 299 from zak smith’s Illustrations for Each Page of Gravity’s Rainbow]

A footnote to and above the last post: the submarine factory and base underneath built into and under the base of the mountain in Balaclava distinctly reminded me of the Mittlewerke in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, where the German V2 rockets were manufactured—

In under parabola and parable, straight into the mountain, sunlight gone, into the cold, the dark, the long echoes of the Mittelwerke. (299)

The shape of the two main tunnels, well over a mile into the mountain, is the shape of the letters SS strentched lengthwise, the double integral. I recall something (from somewhere) about the tunnels mimicking the helices of DNA but cannot find it in the text…. or quite on the internet…. anybody?

A while back I made a comment on the  underground musings of BLDGBLOG in which I mentioned Pynchon’s most recent novel and then went on:

On another note, Odessa, Ukraine was built of limestone mined around the city so there are catacombs all around the place. these create a giant labyrinth (i don’t know if it is connected; i doubt it) which was most famously inhabited by those resisting the Nazis during WWII. The point being people inhabited the place previously taken by the stone underground while others literally lived inside the stone in the form of houses above the stone. Wierdly enough, Odessa is not just a city name, it is also an acronym for Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen, or “Organization of Former SS-Members”.

[Mittelwerke Map from HyperArts: “It appears to be a piece of evidence from the Nuernberg trials, or some similar proceeding, with English imposed over an original German map. It’s from Keith Mallory and Arvid Ottar, The Architecture of War (1973), p. 264. They credit the Institution of Royal Engineers.]

In reference to the elongated SS,

That is one meaning of the shape of the tunnels down here in the Mittelwerke. Another may be the ancient rune that stands for the yew tree, or Death. The double integral stood in Etzal Olsch’s subconscious for the method of finding hidden centres, inertias unknown, as if monoliths had been left for him in the twilight, left behind by some corrupted idea of “Civilisation” in which eagles cast in concrete stand ten metres high at the corners of the stadiums where the people, a corrupted idea of “the People” are gathering, in which birds do not fly, in which imaginary centers far down inside the solid fatality are thought of not as “heart”, “plexus”, “consciousness” (the voice speaking here grows more ironic, closer to tears which are not all theatre, as the list goes on…) “Sanctuary”, “dream of motion”, “cyst of the eternal present”, or “Gravity’s gray eminence among the councils of the living stone”. No, as none of these, but instead a point in space, a point hung precise as the point where burning must end, never launched, never to fall…

Doube integral is also the shape of lovers curled asleep…

[the first beam, courtesy of CERN]

The operations underground have begun, the first beams of subatomic particles have circumscribed their paths around the 17km tunnel deep beneath the Alps, both clockwise and anti– the world still stands. Only later in the year when the first high-energy particle collisions occur, will we have any chance of verifying the existence of the God particle, the Higgs boson.

This is not a post about physics, theoretical or otherwise, and is certainly not a post about science as we know it; all i wish for us to do together is marvel at a particularly striking example of the phemonenon of building underground, an anti-topographical case study in the sense of the surface no longer matters, landforms rendered meaningless as we travel down to view concrete, steel, superconducting magnets and beam pipes—

And this all contained in a 17km circumference underground tunnel which is, at some points, 175 metres below the surface of the earth. A tunnel underneath the Alps which crosses the Franco-Swiss border 4 times due to the work of 2,000 scientists from 34 different countries.

[the beam hitting the collimiters at point 5, courtesy of CERN]

This reminds me of a multitude of subterranean loci, including

  • the underground cities of Cappadocia (which contained a fair amount of agriculture, all things considered, and whither Christians fled Roman persecution);
  • the tunnels Mao had built under Beijing over twenty odd years when he was fearing Soviet attack. These tunnels actually stretch to other cities and come up under such varied locations as the Forbidden City and any number of Peking duck restaurants. Once completed, Soviet Russia attacked Afghanistan and so the tunnels were rendered virtually useless— now their presence causes newly constructed under-planned buildings to fall;
  • the underground city in odessa, ukraine. this place is striking since the buildings  above ground were constructed using the limestone dug out to create the dwellings below: a darkening-subterranean-mirror-image-of-sorts, although in fact a reversal of this, occupied space emptying upon reflecting in the surface of the earth, the full light of day becoming its very own negative with this downward shift.

[Cappadocia, the image telling of its own source]

And many more. What was the city of Balaklava, Ukraine, and is now part of Sevastopol was, under Soviet rule, a closed military base. Yes, it’s called Balaclava. Anyway, in 2006 my mum and i were walking around the base of a mountain there when a woman who claimed to have previously been a Soviet scientist approached us and asked us if we wanted to see the underground facilities. –sure– the eager and  adventurous tourists that we were. We were led through a small hole in the rockface and taken into what it then became strikingly apparent was  a military base carved into the underside of a mountain, in fact, a submarine factory opening underwater onto the Black sea: labs and sleeping quarters, narrow paths of rock with vertiginous ceilings, tracks carved into the ground for the smooth runnings of huge trolleys carrying spare submachinery. the women who led us around had been a Soviet scientist and now buys her bread  by asking the small number of tourists who reach Balaklava if they want to go underground…—

[the LHC viewed arially]

[image courtesy of wired]

[genography: the paths of our ancestors across the globe. image courtesy of wired dot com]

The Genographic Project, a $45 million initiative backed by National Geographic, aims at producing detailed, readable and functional maps (visual and otherwise) of the ways in which DNA has spread around the global over the past sixty thousand years. With a quarter million and growing fast volunteers hailing from the four corners from the earth, the project has already managed to map out some seriously impressive paths across the globe, the primary source of DNA being cheek swabs. You yourself can purchase a starter kit from National Geographic (follow the first link above…), send in a swab and not only discover the many paths your DNA has swept across the globe but participate in and aid this project.

Here we find corroboration that such research is necessarily and intricately intertwined with our histories. To quote,

One study by project scientists Pierre Zalloua and Chris Tyler-Smith has discovered a genetic marker typical of Europeans in modern Lebanese men. The inference is clear they say: this distinctive Y-chromosome was left behind by 11th-century Crusaders when they invaded Lebanon and then settled in the country. A similar sort of genetic legacy has been detected in regions where Gengis Khan ruled and which has been linked to the many male descendants he produced.

These conjectural highways, appropriately (or not?) designated such nomenclature as M343, M174 etc…, paths trodden out and lands rode upon time and time again, necessarily span all the continents bar the southernmost and the Genographic Project’s website has some very interesting interactive visualisations of the interplay between the genography of our multifarious landscapes and the history which is now burnt upon the land: the appropriately named (yes) Globe of Human History and Atlas of the Human Journey.

I would like to see this coupled with Ben Fry’s Genome Valence, which visualises genes themselves, in the sense that it maps out the different sequences of nucleic acids which can occur in various organisms:

[from genome valence, courtesy of ben fry]

[image courtesy of ben fry]

Since 99.9% of the three billion nucleotides which make up the human gemone are the same, what i suggest is an evolving interactive globe showing the paths traced out by all our ancestors, along with imagery capturing data sets which encapsulate those slight variations, that 0.1% which make us all so very different, these superimposed perhaps when your mouse hovers above a particular location at a particular point in time, varying as earth revolves and as the timeline oscillates between then and now. Palimpsests of genetic data fading in and out, meaningful, retrievable.


Next Page »