Animating Sight and Song
This project provides a historical dimension to my work on avatars and the voice. Arguing that the use of poetic and biographical avatars by queer Victorian poets Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper anticipates expressive strategies used online today, it also addresses the pair's digital afterlives.
A collaboration with literary scholar Ana Parejo Vadillo, Animating Sight & Song resulted in a digital edition of an 1892 poem by Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley, ‘poets and lovers’1 who published under the name Michael Field. The poem 'Antonello da Messina's Saint Sebastian’ initially appeared as part of Sight and Song,2 a volume comprising verse 'translations' of canvases by the likes of Watteau, Titian and da Vinci. The digital edition, along with the article that we published alongside it, aimed to position Sight and Song within the pre-history of the digital avatar. In their verses, as in the journal entries recounting the process of viewing the paintings and writing the poems, Bradley and Cooper essentially turn historical, mythological and religious personages into their avatars, using figures like Saint Sebastian, Lucretia Borgia and Venus to explore questions of desire, faith, gender and aesthetic experience. The collection looks back to Renaissance art, but also speaks to the influence of technological developments that were changing the terms on which spectators encountered images, from photography and the railway to the new forms of glass- and ironwork-based architecture that were inaugurating a culture of 'culture of mass transparency'.3
Informed by Ana's earlier work on how digital media might open up new ways engaging with Victorian poetry4, our hypertext edition of the poem was illustrated with a series of animated gifs. As I explain below, the gifs represent an attempt to echo visually what Michael Field achieve textually by manipulating da Messina’s painting (or, to be precise, a public domain digital photograph thereof) in Photoshop. They were also meant to draw parallels between the aesthetic strategies of Sight and Song and the deployment of memetic avatars on social media, where users frequently post affectively charged 'reaction gifs' of cartoon characters, celebrities or stock characters to express exasperation, delight or confusion.
We were also interested in how Michael Field have become queer heroines for certain social media users. Their newfound fame is thanks in large part to the digitisation of their oeuvre, which has massively expanded what was once a coterie audience (only 400 copies of Sight and Song were initially printed). Tracking the duo’s online afterlives we were struck by how debates about identification and anachronism within queer studies resonate with critiques of the terms on which media circulate online. Queer historians have long cautioned against the tendency to project modern categories and concerns onto the past, arguing that contemporary conceptions of sexuality would not necessarily have made sense to subjects like Bradley and Cooper. In a similar vein, critics complain that on platforms like Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr media are divorced from their proper contexts, so that the intentions and identities of their originators become secondary to the whims of bloggers using these materials to flesh out their online identities and accrue social and cultural capital.
While there is substance to both complaints, Michael Field's work, like their posthumous rediscovery, proves that anachronistic identifications can be galvanising and thought-provoking as well as distorting. While the pair aimed to offer 'objective' interpretations of the paintings they selected, their poems inevitably invest the images and figures they represent with new significance. 'Antonello da Messina's Saint Sebastian’ can be seen as part of St. Sebastian's transition from religious icon to gay icon, tapping into an existing homoerotic tradition while anticipating works by the likes of Yukio Mishima and Derek Jarman. And just as the idea of a queer Sebastian may strike some as perverse or blasphemous, so framing Bradley and Cooper as ‘inspiring historical lezzies’ (as one Tumblr post we encountered did) is not unproblematic. Such a framing might be seen as a means of laying claim to what Faderman calls a ‘usable past’ for historically marginalised constituencies;5 in other respects, however, it can be seen as a reductive misrecognition, domesticating the pair and smoothing over complex, inconvenient or uncomfortable aspects of their sexual identities (both experienced attraction to men) and relationship (which could be read as incestuous given that Cooper was Bradley’s niece). As Sight and Song shows, avatars have a way of entangling us in these kinds of ethical and epistemological quandaries.
This selection of gifs created for the project documents my manipulation of da Messina’s painting in Photoshop, in the attempt to find visual correlates for Field’s poetic modes of navigation, focalisation and metaphor.
The hypertext edition of the poem
We created the hypertext edition of the poem using the then-new platform NewHive, a social network designed to facilitate the creation and circulation of 'web collages' incorporating text, images, links, videos, audio and other kinds of embedded media. As a project that was in part about how the digitization of archival materials and the growth of social media has changed the terms on which we access and engage with cultural works, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to explore this new platform. We were, however, careful to keep offline copies of the materials we had created and collected, and to document the finished product. After all, free online ‘archives’ are notoriously volatile things – see Yahoo’s shuttering of their beloved GeoCities web hosting service or MySpace’s recent admission that it accidentally deleted 50 million songs users had uploaded to the platform during a bungled server migration. Our precautions turned out to be well-advised; while briefly popular with a certain subset of the ‘post-internet’ art community, NewHive hardly succeeded in setting the world of social networking alight, and at present URLs lead to a frills-free landing page bearing the message ‘Home of the NEW NewHive… We thank you for your patience.’ While the original version of the online edition is currently inaccessible and probably lost, these images and videos give a sense of how it looked in happier times.
1. Michael Field, Underneath the Bough : A Book of Verses, ed. Thomas Bird Mosher (Portland, Me.: T. B. Mosher, 1898), http://archive.org/details/underneathboughb00fielrich. 50. ↩
2. Ana Parejo Vadillo, Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism: Passengers of Modernity(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). 182. ↩
3. Michael Field, Sight and Song(London: E. Mathews and J. Lane, 1892). ↩
4. Ana Parejo Vadillo, “A Note upon the ‘Liquid Crystal Screen’ and Victorian Poetry,” Victorian Poetry41, no. 4 (December 22, 2003): 531, https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-114785101/a-note-upon-the-liquid-crystal-screen-and-victorian. ↩
5. Lillian Faderman, “A Usable Past?,” in The Lesbian Premodern, ed. Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer, and Diane Watt (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 171–78. ↩
6. Field, Sight and Song. 73. ↩
7. 70-71. ↩
8. Vadillo, Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism. 182. ↩
9. Martha Vicinus, “The Adolescent Boy: Fin de Siècle Femme Fatale?,” Journal of the History of Sexuality5, no. 1 (1994): 90–114, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3704081. 103. ↩