My research focuses on developing visual narrative, especially with the newly-digitized visual record and image collections. I study transmedial narratology within relational databases and the ways image-driven scholarship in the digital environment opens new pathways of historical research. Theories of visual thinking and observational methodologies inform a software model I am creating to facilitate image-driven digital historiography.
In a theory-practice approach, my case study explores the visual record of China's Boxer Uprising in 1900, an event that inspired unprecedented media coverage around the globe. Parallels with today's media revolution some hundred years later adds meaning to these emerging narrative methodologies.
Software, in a proposed "Visual Narrative Field" (VNF) model of narrative, supports image relationships composed by an author to illuminate historical themes and provocative sub-texts that may lie outside the structure of traditional history, breaking new ground in how we represent the past. The qualities of narrative embedded within a visual data field are experiential, immersive, and unlike linear text-based narrative, sustain a state of unresolved complexity closer to the way events unfold.
Parallax between similar image sets—such as photographs taken by two very different men within the walls of the 55-day siege in Beijing—creates a granular multi-dimensional view. Typically, editors select the “best” photos to publish, but in the digital medium the VNF model design restores rejected views and adds texture to the scene by revealing the "edited-out" periphery and pointing at the presence of the photographers. This complex visual historiography emanates from the participants themselves preserved in graphics as vibrant now as they were then.
Diverse media types suggest multiple visual narrative pathways. Stereographs, for example, appear in large numbers. Marketing materials emphasize the educational benefit of "new knowledge" gained through the unique qualities of stereographic views, using language echoed today. Book-like sets and maps position armchair travelers for a better view of the carefully photographed scenes than if they were on the scene. Other media tropes in the database similarly offer insights into the turn of the century worldview.
The over 2500 images collected over the past four years will become source material for additional experiments I am making in cross-media designs including: (1) a large touch screen exploratory, immersive environment; and (2) wall prints based on an algorithm I developed to map the gestures of observation and looking. Inspired in part by Aby Warburg's "Mnemosyne-Atlas" and other visual narrative works, the prints interweave narrative pathways visualizing the collection through its stories. The algorithm, hopefully, can then be used to derive narrative threads within any digital image collection.
"The Whole and the Journeys: Computational Historiography in the Optical Data Field," The Matter of the Immaterial, Chinese/English, Intellect, Ltd., Bristol, UK, and SIVA Shanghai, forthcoming (2016).
“Civilization & Barbarism: Cartoon Commentary & ‘The White Man’s Burden’ (1898–1902),” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue. 27, No. 2, July 06, 2015.
“Civilization & Barbarism: Cartoon Commentary & the ‘White Man’s Burden’ (1898–1902),” unit on MIT Visualizing Cultures, 2014. view
“Atmosphere: Disorientation in Visual Narrative as a Time Traveler’s Tool,” MutaMorphosis Conference proceedings, Academy of Sciences, Prague (publication tk), 2012. view pdf
“World on the Head of a Pin: Visualizing Micro and Macro Points of View in China’s Boxer War of 1900,” Transcultural Tendencies | Transmedial Transactions, Ascott, Roy and Yuan, Xiaoying, editors, Volume 20 Numbers 2 & 3, Intellect, Ltd., Bristol, UK, 2012 (229-237).
“Around Me: Granularity through Triangulation and Similar Scenes,” Technoetic Telos: Art, Myth and Media Part 2, Volume 30, Number 3, Intellect, Ltd, Bristol, UK, 2012 (69-78).
“Acts of Authoring within a Visual Narrative Field,” Consciousness Reframed 12: Presence in the Mindfield: Art, Identity and the Technology of Transformation, Ascott, Roy and Girao, Luis Miguel, editors, Universidade de Aveiro, Portugal, 2011 (235-239).
“Picture Pathways as Threads through Time: from Opium to Boxers, China 1838-1900,” Making Reality Really Real, Consciousness Reframed 11, TEKS Publishing, Trondheim, Norway, 2010 (179-180).
Traditional essay formats make digital publications highly scalable and meet scholarly standards, but the more visual they are, the more marginalized. Image-driven essays move towards new forms of visual narrative in both obvious and subtle ways, helping bridge working scholars, heavily dependent on text, with future media forms based on the semantics of images.
“Civilization & Barbarism,” my unit on Visualizing Cultures, combines textual and visual arguments within a linear, essay-style format. However, the layout and argument are driven by image sequences that convey historical themes through visual elements like color, shapes, tropes, and characters. Authors writing in the essay format can forget that the image-to-image narrative is an active narrative stream that parallels the text.
For example, the round shape of the globe appears frequently in the image sets. The top image (right) highlights Anglo-Saxon power, the U.S. and U.K. conjoined as a bloated figure who has swallowed the world. Next, the partners hoist the earth toward a glowing, heavenly peace. Finally, the globe falls from the heavens to dark helplessness, like a wounded solder, subjugated and carried off on a stretcher by the two nations. The caption of this French graphic, “Leur rêve" (Their Dream), suggests they have achieved world domination whatever the cost. The third image surfaced as a result of searching for the globe motif, which in turn, revealed a set of valuable French illustrated magazine sources. While these images usually appear separately, together they form a narrative "sentence."
Patterns observed in the database determine the themes and overarching thesis. Image-driven scholarship starts with the images, that is, reading the database, finding patterns, and putting images into sequences. The ocular process stems from what can be seen rather than pre-existing knowledge and hypothesis, which may seem like a small distinction, but changes both the method of composition and the thesis itself. In this way, the database opens windows on a historiography unique to visual sources.