My Digital Life with D.H. Lawrence

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A digital storyteller is someone who makes content available across media devices. This could be videos on a Youtube channel, an App that gets you to perform tasks, or via a website. The content usually has an interactive element to it, meaning that the reader, or perhaps more accurately the user, needs to engage with the story in some capacity.
Whether we like it or not, reading has changed. Younger audiences now expect content to be presented in a wide variety of formats and in bytesize chunks. They read on their mobile phones, their iPads and those laptops that get smaller and lighter each year. To accommodate these changes my digital projects conform to a simple ethos: If the 20th century was about knowledge, then the 21st century is about experience. Therefore I’m always looking at ways to bring people into the conversation.

My specialism is in cultural heritage trails, exploring the lives of key Nottingham writers. I do this in collaboration with Paul Fillingham, of digital agency Think Amigo. Our first project together was The Sillitoe Trail (www.sillitoetrail.com) which explored the enduring relevance of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Very simply, this was an App which navigated you via GPS to key locations of the novel. At each location you would be provided with pictures, facts, quotes, audio and an essay. These in turn were created by different artists. My aim was to make literature more accessible by providing different ways of understanding the story, with the hope that our readers may then go on to read the book. More recently we created Dawn of the Unread, an online graphic novel serial celebrating’s Nottingham’s literary history.

Now Paul and I have turned our attention to D.H Lawrence. Lawrence was a controversial writer who championed sensuality in an over-intellectualised world. In the 1920s he embarked on a journey of self-discovery known as his ‘Savage Pilgrimage’ which took him across Europe, Asia, Australia and Mexico. Accompanying him on his journey was a travel-trunk, which we encountered at the recently closed down Durban House, Eastwood. We were intrigued by the object, its construction, its floral decoration and internal drawers; which in addition to housing Lawrence’s socks and undergarments would have contained manuscripts, sketches and stories, documenting his travels around the globe.

We want to develop Lawrence’s personalised travel-trunk as a Memory Theatre. Memory Theatres, very simply, were filled with rare and expensive artefacts and once used by the aristocracy to convey cultural capital and status. But whereas only selected guests got to view them, ours will be available to all.

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Lawrence lived a nomadic existence, travelling the world in search of Rananim – a utopian community of like-minded people. But he would never find it. In essence, he enjoyed the journey, rather than the final destination. In the opening chapter to Sea and Sardinia he talks of a desire that “comes over one” that is an “absolute necessity to move. And what is more, to move in some particular direction.” Rather than writing yet another book on Lawrence we want to capture this unsettled aspect of his personality by creating a moveable object.

Our Memory Theatre will be a beautifully crafted work of art in its own right, to be explored and admired, stopping off at key locations in Lawrence’s life. The drawers will contain artefacts that capture the essence of his personality. So for example, in 1918 Lawrence sent Catherine Carswell a shoebox containing 20 varieties of wild flowers with their roots intact, all carefully placed inside damp moss. In her biography of Lawrence she explains “With my box of Derbyshire flowers there was a small floral guide, written by Lawrence, describing each plant and making me see how they had been before he picked them for me, in what sorts of places and manner and profusion they had grown, and even how they varied in the different countrysides.” One of our drawers will contain a book of 20 pressings of flowers from Derbyshire. When the Memory Theatre arrives in Sardinia we will arrange for a local guide to add 20 more, and so on. As the Memory Theatre travels in physical and digital form, its aesthetic and emotional value will grow, accumulating its own savage history and provenance.

The Memory Theatre will include digital screens to give context to the artefacts. It will also have a virtual presence for those unable to see it in the flesh. Users will be able to virtually ‘open’ drawers with content geared towards the capture and sharing of the users’ experience.

The internet is all about collaboration, and at times it can bring the best out of people. If nobody uploaded videos, shared knowledge on Wikipedia, or stopped tweeting their opinions it would effectively be a technological void. I wonder whether Lawrence would approve. He was always seeking a small community of like-minded people. He certainly wanted followers. But I doubt he would approve. If he thought industrialisation dehumanised people, goodness knows what he’d make of the Youtube Generation, all gawping into screens.

I’d like to think of our D.H Lawrence memory theatre as a form of digital literary criticism in that we’re trying to create an artefact to represent and encompass the personality and body of work of a prolific writer. I want our students to look differently at stories, and the modes through which they can be told. Lawrence raged his way across the globe, his work was constantly censored, he wrote about sex, pit villages, he knew every flower off by heart, he was a prude, prickly, the greatest DIYer the literary world has ever know, he deplored money but was fastidious with it, and he had some very weird ideas about submission. How do we make this artefact look, smell and feel like Lawrence?

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To help Paul and I think through the project, we’re working with three students from NTU for one year. Rebecca Provines, Richard Weare and Stephen Tomlinson are helping us think about the artefacts, reading and researching through Lawrence’s work, and figuring out costings and audience engagement. Then we’ll start to build it and map out our journey.

If you want to follow the progress of our digital savage pilgrimage then please visit our website. Lawrence was an avid letter writer and we’re paying homage to this by sharing our progress in a weekly blog. Better still, why don’t you leave a comment and join in the conversation?

This article was originally published in the Southwell Folio, November 2016.

#MondayBlogs – Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form.

Jacques Callot, The miseries of war; No. 11, “The Hanging”, 1632,

Jacques Callot, The miseries of war; No. 11, “The Hanging”, 1632

The following review was first published in The Spokesman Issue 133: Socially Useful Production

Hillary Chute puts forward a convincing and comprehensive argument that comics as a medium are perfectly positioned to act as documentary, as a form of witnessing, as a means of engaging and prodding history (particularly war-generated and traumatic histories). The artist is able to enter spaces that have previously gone unreported either due to censorship – there are no photographs from the torture chamber – or because many stories of ordinary lives have simply been ignored because they do not fit snugly into dominant ideologies.

Culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is the product of a never ending struggle to make sense of the world and our lives. If there is one thing that links all people, no matter what our religion, gender, sexuality or postcode, it is war. We’ve been kicking the living shit out of each other for centuries for a whole variety of reasons. Therefore a central question throughout the book is how war generates new forms of visual-verbal witness. And this is what makes this account so important. It is the first sustained critical study of documentary comics.

To do this, Chute blends a mixture of cultural studies, semiotics (textual analysis), literary theory, case studies, history, and critical theory from the likes of Bernard Latour, Roland Barthes and Judith Butler, to ensure a compact genealogy of her subject matter. Although it is largely accessible in tone, you will have to dip into the dictionary on occasion as it can get a little academic at times, although nothing to put off a confident reader. And if you do get lost there are eighty pages of footnotes offering support.

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Chute identifies key artists who specialise in visualising war and death from across the ages in Callot, Goya (see above), Nakazawa, Spiegelman and Sacco. To contextualise her arguments we are provided with key illustrations from each artist, all of which are analysed in precise detail to enable a better understanding of their approach. For example, we are taken back to the Thirty Years War via Jacques Callot’s aptly named The Miseries of War which captures the complete disregard for the suffering of others. “The force of its mode of witness is in its attention to observing and revealing endemic suffering on all sides of war” writes Chute, where even ruthless soldiers are “subjected to atrocious acts of punishment for committing atrocity.” The dog is not so much chasing its tail but ripping it to shreds. These intimate portraits position Callot as the “first great reporter-artist”. Chute then shows how Callot’s work would influence court artist Goya, whose eighty three etchings of atrocities in Disasters of War begin with haunting first-person modes of address. “This I Saw” or “This is how it happened” send shivers down your spine through their complete casualness.

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Disaster Drawn positions contemporary comics as part of a long trajectory of works that have each informed and created new idioms, practices and typologies of expression. To fully understand their significance “the context of the text must be part of the reading of the text”. Let’s take 1972, which Chute defines as a crucial moment as this is when both sides of the globe came together to bear witness to the very worst atrocities of waring nations. In the East, Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa’s eyewitness account Ore Wa Mita (I Saw It) would spawn “atomic bomb manga” and break down cultural taboos that had previously induced silence surrounding the subject. While in the West, Art Spiegelman’s Maus would depict Nazism through a very personal secondary account of Spiegelman’s own family’s survival of the Poland death camps.

The reason that this new genre emerged at this historical moment is the previous decades had paved the way forward for greater openness and expression, thanks to the battles fought around identity politics (race, sexuality, gender) as well as growing anti-war protests across the world brought about by the latest war in Vietnam. These issues couldn’t be spun or swept under the carpet anymore, thanks to the mass ownership of television which brought all of this death to glorious life in colour on the screen. Critic Michael Arlen (1966) described this mediation as ushering in the “living-room war” and Chute argues that this led to other countries, particularly Japan, to reflect on the past. It is worth noting, however, as Jean Baudrillard has in his collection of three essays The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, that we’re become increasingly desensitized to violence and now instead we witness stylized, selective misrepresentations of conflict through simulacra. Television may have paved the way forward for documenting certain conversations around war but it now functions as a passive medium.

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Comics on the other hand, particularly personalised accounts, bring a more human face to suffering and can push the conversation in new directions. Keiji Nakazawa was six when Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. He was saved purely because a wall fell on him and protected him from the heat of the blast. His friend’s mother, who he had been stood next to, was instantly transformed into a blackened corpse. It was “violence so extreme it appears abstract.” I’ve read a lot about survivor guilt, particularly in the work of Primo Levi. But until reading this book I had never heard of survivors of an atomic bomb suffering stigmatisation due to cultural anxieties and misinformation. In Japan this is known as hibakushu (explosion-affected people) whereby survivors are treated like lepers.

Nakazawa’s mother was pregnant at the time and out of the city when the bomb was dropped. When she returned home the shock was so much she gave birth there and then on the street. The child didn’t last long. His mother died in 1966 and was cremated. It is a Japanese funeral practice, after a body has been cremated, for relatives to select major bones and place them in an urn. Due to the radiation, her bones had disintegrated. There was no tangible evidence left of her. Consequently, Nakazawa has made the atomic bomb the focus of his creative endeavours. His mother has become tangible by documenting her story. He has helped break down cultural taboos by daring to talk about them. He will not be shamed. Phew.

9780674504516Usually I judge a book by how long it takes me to read it and this book took a staggering five months. Usually this would be a bad sign but there’s a more pragmatic reason for my slowness at turning the page. I was so drawn in by stories such as Keiji Nakazawam, that I had to pause and go and read his, and the other featured artists, comics. So through one review book I ended up reading twenty. Talking of which, readers may want to try Hydrogen Bomb Funnies (1970) by Robert Crumb in which his character Mr. Sketchum writes a letter to Bertrand Russell, believing he may like what he has to say. He steps out on a glorious hot day and happily marches down to the post box full of hope. I won’t tell you the ending. Let’s just end on hope.

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