As part of the Processing exhibition, I was tasked with collaborating with photographer Stephen King. I first met Stephen when he put on his exhibition ‘Lewis’s a department story’ at the National Conservation Centre. I really liked his work and was happy to say to curator Jack Welsh that I would work with Stephen and produce a response to his body of work, ‘Here to There’, which documents ‘desire paths’ in Liverpool. Very early on I decided to explore the possibility of producing a mobile phone app to present the collaboration, which was also an exciting opportunity to work with developer (and my husband) Daniel Tibble on his first app project.
Here to There the app is available on Google Play for android mobile phones and tablets, by searching: here to there ergodic (iphone version to be launched later this year). To operate the app, swipe up, down, left and right to traverse an individual ‘desire path’ between images and words. This collaboration inverts the idea that images illustrate text, as in this instance Stephen King’s photographs were the starting point. Some of the stories, quotations and extracts occupy the same geographies (sometimes overlapping by utter coincidence) and others walk off towards another part of the Liverpool city region entirely.
Below I have reproduced the essay that appears in the Processing publication, which explains the theoretical background to the app’s conceptual development.
Mediation and navigation:
The potential of ergodic literature as a format for art criticism
The origin of this research is the work of photographer Stephen King. In critically responding to King’s work, there are two issues that present themselves. The first is the concept of the desire path. This essay attempts to promblematize that concept and offer a solution through ergodic literature. A more detailed definition of ergodic literature appears below; however, in summary: ergodic literature makes the reader work, and is characterised by choices and pathways. The second issue is the specific spacial geographies that King deals with: the city centre and suburban areas of Liverpool. This is an emotive and politically charged geography and it is not possible to ignore this in the reading of the work.
The word ergodic was first applied to the study of physics, mathematics and statistics to mean traversing every pathway through a defined space. It was invented in Germany by combining the Greek words for work and path or way. (It was partly this etymological link to desire paths that prompted this research.) It was first used in connection to literature by Espen J. Aarseth in 1997. Aarseth defines ergodic literature by the requirement that the reader ‘work’, not necessarily that there are multiple outcomes or conclusions, but that the reader is presented with a choice of pathways.
The exciting potential of presenting a choice of pathways is that the result can be visual. Art historians have long relied on visualisations to complement their written critique of art. One of the most famous examples of such visualisations was produced by Alfred H Barr in 1936. Barr was the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; his approach to curation has been hugely influential and he was one of the first people to accept the influence of photography, architecture, graphic art, music and film on modern painting and sculpture. In the catalogue for his 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art he reproduced a drawing that links art movements between 1890 and 1935 to one another in a non-linear way (figure 1). Thirty years later George Maciunas produced a similar diagram plotting the influences and references shared by or unique to his fellow artists. What Maciunas and Barr exclude is as telling as what is included. These diagrams go some way towards dispelling the myth that there is one art history and also to anticipating ergodic art criticism.
We could compare the structure of a typical exhibition review as similar to the structure of a short story (figure 2). A short story begins with setting and characters, a problem occurs, action rises, climaxes and falls, and it finishes with the denouement: when something is decided or made clear. As visiting an exhibition is a journey to a place never experienced before, this structure is appropriate (one enters with a quantity of knowledge and leaves with a response to the exhibition.) Without intending to dismiss this format entirely, it could be that other writing structures are worth exploring to present a criticism of art.
To stay within the parameters of printed text for the moment, and invoking the spirit of Barr’s diagram, one possible alternative structure for art criticism is a ‘chose your own adventure’ story. In a CYOA the text is written in the second person to make the reader the protagonist. The reader makes a series of decisions that direct them to a number of different conclusions via a series of autonomous plot lines. This format was used for children’s books and was popular in the 1980s and 1990s. It has the potential to present every line of the argument and take it to an eventual conclusion; however, it could be problematic for the critic in that it creates a sense that they are indecisive. It has connotations of the ‘playground fortune teller’ (figure 3) game where no one conclusion has a higher status than any other.
Naturally in the 21st century we do not have to stay within the realm of printed text when presenting art criticism. Online, a CYOA or ergodic format could simply translate as hyperlinks in a text that offer an alternative point of view when a critic adopts one side of the argument. In her essay Visualising Art History, 2003, Katja Kwastek says, “The demands of complex topics are often better met by a non-linear structure, and it is precisely this non-linear structure which is the central motif of the digital era. The most important feature distinguishing this media shift is not an abandonment of literacy, but a renunciation of linearity.” It is important in the context of this research not to confuse linearity with literacy. The intention is not to reject literature, but to be open to the potential of ergodic platforms in presenting it.
To find a contemporary equivalent of Barr’s diagram, we might consider the phenomenon of data visualisation as a potential tool for art historians. Using this method, artists’ techniques can be analysed and visualised (many universities are conducting research in this area: there is even a module at City University of New York called ‘data visualization and computational art history’). The data could be the selection of subject matter or the density of brush strokes (read more about this here). Although this might be helpful for identifying trends, it seems to create another source material to analyse, rather than be a visual manifestation of a critique.
To help understand the difference between a critique and an analysis, this essay turns to the writing of art critic Daniel Mendelsohn. In The New York Times in 2012 Mendelsohn published A Critic’s Manifesto, in which he said, “The role of the critic… is to mediate intelligently and stylishly between a work and its audience; to educate and edify in an engaging and, preferably, entertaining way,” he also offers the equation, “KNOWLEDGE + TASTE = MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT.” On this basis, data visualisation only offers us half of the equation, in that it communicates knowledge. It is potentially educational and engaging, and even stylish, but it cannot assume the role of mediator between the subject and the audience.
One publisher experimenting with ergodic platforms, specifically the ‘app’ format, to present their poetry holdings is Faber & Faber. In 2011 they released an app that presents and offers an analysis of T S Eliot’s The Wasteland, 1922. In the app there are ‘readings, performance, perspective and notes’ and it is an outlet for material from their archive, such as an audio recording of T S Eliot reading the poem in 1933. Their partner in producing the app, Touch Press, say that it helps the reader understand “the oddity” of the text when combined with the “unpredictability” of the app format. They contend that publishing may in time evolve to something more akin to production. Although slightly different to art criticism (in that the readings and the written form constitute the poem itself) this product can be useful when considering the ways in which we present responses to art: if critics do not embrace new technology they may find that other groups such as publishers or gallerists will do so.
Returning to the etymological root of ‘ergodic’ for a moment; for the purposes of this research it is as important that the word requires the reader to ‘work’ as that it contains multiple ‘paths’ or ‘ways’. A parallel could be drawn here with the way that learning new information creates new neural pathways in the brain, and that the more these are used the stronger they become. In the theory of learning styles there are three patterns of learning: visual, kinaesthetic and auditory. The app platform has the potential to incorporate all three learning styles, the most significant of which for this essay is kinaesthetic learning i.e ‘do-ing’. It may be that by navigating a series of choices the audience has a personalised experience and feels a greater sense of ownership over their own learning.
Stephen King’s work is concerned with pathways that occur when a number of people act in a similarly intuitive way to travel from one place to another. The visual evidence of their choices can be seen when pathways become worn through the shrubbery or fences are broken down. It is a silent rebellion against the way that town planners or councils would want us to live and behave. By bringing King’s images together with extracts from poetry and literature, as well as an original series of short autobiographical ‘walks’ inspired by the artist Hamish Fulton, this project attempts to give a voice to this silence.
The landscape King focuses on in the series From Here to There is his home town of Liverpool (figure 4). Since the Victorian era when Liverpool experienced its highest status and wealth, the city has struggled to grow in population in line with other cities in the UK, although it has developed a reputation as a centre for culture, in particular music, visual arts and sport. In the executive summary of the Index of Multiple Deprivation 2010, it says that “There are persistently high levels of deprivation in the city and Liverpool remains ranked as the most deprived local authority area in England.” Many suburban areas of the city display the legacy of governmental neglect and the impact of decennial recessions since the 1970s. This project will use poetry as well as political quotations to highlight the political and emotional charge in King’s images.
The idea to create a mobile phone app in collaboration with Stephen King began as an exploration of the link between the desire path concept and the etymological origins of the word ‘ergodic’. The app is both a visual solution and one which gives the audience choices, offering a number of possible ways to understand and appreciate King’s images. This qualifies as a critique using Mendlesohn’s definition, as it combines both knowledge and subjectivity; it should be seen as a tool to help mediate and navigate the ideas within King’s work as well as an autonomous work of art.
Linda Pittwood, 2013
Processing is on display at the Cornerstone Gallery, Hope University Creative Campus from 7 June – 29 September 2013 (more info about the exhibition here)