Visual Culture and Texts

At the colloquium on ‘texts and digital creativity’ last week, one session was dedicated to ‘texts as artifacts’. Somewhat unexpectedly, this session raised a lot of very pertinent issues for our project. Bruce Zuckerman presented on the project and site ‘Inscriptifact‘ (some assembly required). A large part of the navigation on this site, which provides photos of inscriptions on artifacts (hence the name…), is done using the image as an interface, as an index of further material that can be consulted. Furthermore, the latest visualisation strategy presented these objects in a very particular way. Using a ‘light dome’, objects are photographed from a number of angles and under a number of conditions. The website interface enables one to visualise the object, as though angling it in the light/shifting the angle of lighting. The point, for the Inscriptifact people and users, is that different angles will reveal different aspects of the object and script. The specific interface is a black circle, over which a mouse can be moved, so as to indicate the preferred angle of lighting. The transition is smoothed out, further adding to the perception of seamlessness. (I couldn’t find this particular interface on the site, but that could be because it’s not yet implemented–will have to contact Bruce about that.)

But it’s the logic of the interface that I find so fascinating. It’s a bit hard to put into words, but the interface appeals to a notion of manipulation, of spatial handling of the object. The particularity of this approach was further highlighted by the contrast with the other presentation in this session. Roger Boyle from the University of Leeds spoke about the work he has been leading on the digital processing of images of texts, so as to reconstruct watermarks and other properties of the paper (which are invaluable sources regarding provenance, and printing and circulation history of documents). For this work, he deploys a substraction methodology, to remove the data belonging to the recto and to verso, so as to be left with the data about the ‘in-between’, the paper layer. Not surprisingly, Boyle’s expertise has also been applied and developped through work on medical imaging, where the subtraction methodology has indeed been immensely fruitful–not only to visualise structure, but also to image the function of the brain.

What makes these constrasting approaches interesting? In one case, the images were of interest because of their plenitude, of the wealth of possible views. In the other, it is the removal of excess that makes the image precious and informative. Both kinds of visualisation require a comparison, but its site is different and the viewer has a different role.

These two talks and the subsequent conversations with the speakers sparked further reflections on the role of the observer, on the way the computer was being used in each of these cases, and on the different versions of the digital being instantiated. These are just the kinds of fascinating projects at the edge of digital visual culture that we hope to better be able to characterise and understand as our research develops.

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