Among the inspirations for this project is the wonderful online exhibition of a London art exhibit from 1813. What Jane Saw offers a virtual tour of the British Institution visited by Regency crowds including Jane Austen. The site provides a room-by-room experience of historical art, most notably the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds, letting the user pass through different spaces as web pages and offering details and contextual information about the art on display with a mouse click. The model was built in SketchUp—a popular and accessible tool for architectural drawing, with static room views refined and softened in PhotoShop. It’s a great example of mounting a virtual exhibition on the web with a simple set of technical resources, and a great resource for researchers and students and anyone curious to experience such a model of the past.
What attracted us about What Jane Saw were also the opportunities for further development it suggests, particularly in terms of creating a more immersive experience of gallery space. In its own model, What Jane Saw idealizes how a viewer encounters rooms and artworks. Each web page lands the viewer perpendicular to a wall in a statically lit room empty of people, movements, and changing angles. Of course, this is not to discredit its achievement. But how might we further develop a more dynamic encounter? Instead of modeling an idealized experience, how might we insist on the mutable, embodied experience of art and architecture in ways that both testify to their historical condition and also foreground the mediation of art, from its Victorian production to its contemporary remediation through the digital?
Here again, the Virtual Paul Cross Project offers inspiration. Much of its press coverage celebrates the project for being a time machine, as if transporting us back to the seventeenth-century church courtyard as it really was. The VPCP does this not by stripping away the impediments to John Donne’s historical performance, but adding them all back in. In other words, at so many levels, the VPCP insists on the obstructions and mediating conditions of Donne’s performance. It foregrounds the ambient noise of a crowd in attendance. It interrupts the sermon with barks and bells. It dampens its reverberations by modeling the acoustic reflection of sound off dirty stone. It darkens the visual model by conjecturing about a cloudy November day. It employs a voice actor to use a not uncontroversial pronunciation of Elizabethan English, invoking an interpretation of the past in current scholarly debate. In other words, the VPCP faithfully depicts the past by foregrounding as many possible mediating and interpretive conditions as it can. In its model, Donne’s sermon is not some idealized thing whose historical accretions have been stripped away, or its essence recaptured. Rather, the sermon only exists as an embodied performance subject to a set of specific mediating conditions. In a way, the VPCP extends the last century’s debates about scholarly editing of texts: it refuses an “ideal” text and offers instead a virtual “edition” of Donne’s sermon which glories in its embodied, editorial, and interpretive passage from then to now. The VPCP exemplifies the “resistance in the materials” that William Morris deemed essential for art, updating it for the “resistance” which, according to recent scholars, is key to the enterprise of digital humanities.
Victoria’s Lost Pavilion endeavors to extend this important work in context of modeling historical artworks and texts in ways which foreground their embodied condition as well as the project’s own digital interpretation of them. In addition to What Jane Saw, there have been other notable efforts to recreate historical environments in virtual space, including on platforms like Second Life and gaming engines, in purpose-built projects for virtual archaeology and historical tourism, and georectified historical maps and documents. Our approach is to create a richly referenced critical edition of a lost building. At the same time, we aim to develop an immersive environment in which users can experience resistance for themselves. Our goal is not to perfectly reconstruct what Victoria saw, but to help envision the contingencies and complexities of that act of seeing and its relation to how this curious pavilion and its experimental artworks were interpreted.
What does that actually look like? Stay tuned.
For a great recent take on “resistance” in DH and media, see Whitney Trettien, “Layouts, Patterns, Networks.” diapsalmata 4 Feb. 2014. Web. http://blog.whitneyannetrettien.com/2014/02/layouts-patterns-networks.html