Friday, January 25, 2013

Literary Landscapes and Multiple Points of View

Frame from A Sense of Place, on
Cascadia Chronicle
At the Museum of Culture and Environment and at Cascadia Chronicle, we have been grappling over effective geospatial means of representing and evoking multiple points of view on a given landscape.  Within a GoogleEarth-type virtual environment, The Sense of Place poetry project (edited by poet Kathy Whitcomb)  in effect sticks virtual pins on varied landscape features in Washington State; clicking on these brings up a poem inspired by that location.  The GoogleEarth platform allows users to navigate themselves through the landscape of Washington State, and click at will on varied poems, identified by author.

[For those with GoogleEarth loaded on their desktops, access the site at:

Yet how to represent diverse literary or popular commentaries on any given landscape site?   And how to evoke sensations of moving through a landscape, so that the perceptual frame is not simply static at any given moment? (This is, it seems to me,  a limitation with the current GeoStories platform being developed by National Geographic:

As promising as it is in many respects, GeoStories is still presents a static, map-based vision of landcape. 

The GoogleEarth flyover effect, which gives the viewer the sensation of flying over a landscape from various heights, has struck me, Kathy, and our technology editor Marco Thompson as potentially more promising, and perhaps especially appealing to younger users; the flyover is an aesthetic register well beloved by many of our students, who spend a good deal of time flying over and through the landscapes of Skyrim and many other landscape-organized video game environments. 

In our current exhibition, "Voices of the River: Life along the Yakima," the Museum commissioned   Marco to develop a flyover sequence down the Yakima River, from its headwaters to its confluence with the Columbia.

 In sequence, five poems about the Yakima River appear on the screen over the riverscape:

Xavier Cavanos poem projected   

The Beta version currently projected on the wall, partially framed by a wall design feature evoking the basalt walls of the Yakima River Canyon (designed by Theater scene designer Marc Haniuk) has attracted a good deal of  audience response thus far. 

Some people love being able to read the poetry while seeing the landscape unfold around and through the semi-transparent text; others find the configuration too distracting to appreciate the poems fully. Some express a desire simply to watch the landscape in motion, without having to engage with the poems.  We'll keep on tweaking it during the run of the show, and see what version is most effective.

In Cascadia Chronicle (which I co-edit with colleague Kathy Whitcomb) Marco has developed visual essay I scripted, comparing how Woody Guthrie and Sherman Alexie very differently narrate the Columbia riverscape, with particular reference to Native American absence and presence:

Still from the Columbia River flyover tour, illustrating
line from Sherman Alexie's Powow at the End of the World":
"past the abandoned reactors of Hanford."
Both the Yakima River and Columbia River projects are organized in a linear fashion; the viewer encounters different perspectives on the river in sequence. In the case of the Columbia River piece, this involves multiple trips up and down the river, encountering how the same riverscape looks very different to the two artists --technological triumph over a vanished Native American presence in Guthrie's case;  a millenarian vision of a reclaimed Native American presence for Sherman Alexie). But perhaps it would be best to get away from an exclusively linear representation and to give viewers, in a more interactive vein, the choice of moving between various subject positions. Perhaps there could be a slide bar on the side of the unfolding landscape in motion, so that the viewer could move between "Anglo" , "Mexicano"  and "African American" literary representations of the same landscape-- and perhaps also have the option of clicking on or toggling to an "Un-narrated" landscape tour. 

And yet, even that approach wouldn't full convey the dynamics of multiple consciousness that so often characterize our experiences of landscape. We can, after all, more or less simultaneously experience a landscape in terms of dominant and subaltern perceptual frameworks. How might we be able to evoke that fluid multiplicity of consciousness of place?

In turn how could we effectively "crowd source" these diverse stories of place, so that the members of the public could upload and share their poems and written reflections on a particular river or landscape site, and edit and organize the developing virtual landscape in a way that would let visitors explore very different contemplations of a commonly encountered place?  Perhaps we will need to move to Augmented Reality platforms, involving mobile handheld devices with screens, to more fully convey multiple points of view on a given landscape feature?

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