Last week I read an old Annie Dillard essay in which she writes, “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.” A few days later, the universe helped me out: The Spectral Wilderness, my book manuscript, will be published in 2014; Mark Doty chose it for the 2013 Wick Poetry Prize. Blissed out, and now, back to the grind of writing my fall syllabus.
So I’m starting a blog, and what compelled me is I wanted some place to keep track of my experiences at the Humanities Hackathon (at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery) this week, which C. has been referring to as my “day camp”.
It’s been a week of immersion into a programming software called R, which is mainly lost on me but did generate a new project; more on that below. Highlights include a rocking drawing jam with my dear Professor Old Skull (a.k.a. Lynda Barry), a thought-provoking round-table with Jon McKenzie (on, among other things, the vicious divide between scholars and practitioners, how the original romantic genius model of creativity became institutionalized by universities and how others might be recouped, and what “digital humanities” are), and a slightly nauseating but awesome visit in the 3-D Cave at WID.
All week I’ve felt worried that I’m not really absorbing R (and I’m not, very much) though it’s been interesting seeing what it can do. Here we are guessing decades by a visualization of popular music album covers from each. That super-saturated one in the top center is the 90s, of course! And then the 2000’s are the very desaturated bottom right. Something got sad. I do miss the 90s.
My project throughout the week (or “big idea” as WID Director David Krakauer keeps encouraging) hasn’t been a big idea so much as following a vague intuition, which is more how my creative process goes. As soon as I have a “big idea” (i.e. one worried vegetable every day for a year), I tend to crumble under the pressure.
But I needed some data to work with in order to experiment with R, and so on Monday I began to write a poem. In code. Sort of. I grouped each stanza as a list (l1, l2, l3, and l4), and then wrote a command that would “concatenate” the lines (code-speak for stringing things together in a way that sort of braids or collates them). Then Tim Taylor reminded me that poets have been doing that since Beckett, albeit maybe with scissors instead, and what was I going to do to make it new?
I thought on that from Monday until Thursday night. And then, Thursday night, I began to draw the poem I’d written, line by concatenated line.
I’m about a fourth of the way through illustrating the poem. Today I had a brief “hack session” (see: hacker ethics) with Amy, a visual arts MFA who, out of a distaste for neuroscientists turning our brains and bodies into cold hard numbers and colors, is drawing a series of 28 brain scans in colored pencil and is curious about what they would “sound” like if the color frequencies were translated into music. Amy and Tim again gave me some great feedback on directions I could go with my illustrations; I began with text and translated it into image, and Tim suggested translating– or having someone else translate– it back into text. And then back into image. It could go on forever. A kind of translation party project. If you’re interested in taking part, let me know. I don’t know exactly how it would work but I’m very excited about the idea. Artistic skills not required (but you already have them!).
Here’s one of my contributions to Angela’s residence at the Image Lab: where is consciousness located and how is it represented?