In the digital age, eBooks, online manuscript archives, ultra-condensed classics sites, and other forms of digitization have separated readers from the original texts. Author Ray Bradbury vehemently opposed the digitization of his work, decrying that, "All this electronic stuff is remote, removed from you...Nothing a computer can do can compare to a book. You can't really put a book on the Internet." Bradbury claimed that advancing technology distracted from the self-reflection necessary to understand the meaning of his work, but at the same time, he wrote about the need to preserve books in the digital age. As a mediation, I have created an interactive digital art installation to rekinect readers with Bradbury's text in a way that allows them to embody the text themselves.
This project initially sought to examine several authors opposed to the digitization of their work. J. D. Salinger fought for his books to stay in print and forbade digital editions. He described The Catcher in the Rye as a "novelistic novel" that could not be adapted for digital or motion picture mediums. His tight control over copyright continues even after his death, and this holds for many authors, such as James Joyce, whose grandson has incessantly worked against the entrance of his writings into the public domain. For other authors, the anti-digital intention remains ambiguous. For many years, Thomas Pynchon resisted digitization, but he never spoke up about why. In 2012, he allowed Penguin to publish a collection of eBooks. Penguin's president commented that Pynchon will not read his own eBooks because "he reads in print," but Pynchon himself has yet to directly comment on the subject.
Due to the ambiguity of digital holdout intentions, I wanted to examine a writer with a staunchly anti-digital stance: Ray Bradbury. In an interview defending libraries, he told The New York Times: “Yahoo called me eight weeks ago. They wanted to put a book of mine on Yahoo! You know what I told them? To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the Internet. It’s distracting. It’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.” Bradbury made it his life's work to warn against the danger of technology. The dystopian future he depicted in Fahrenheit 451 has become the present. Advancing technology has increasingly isolated people from books and the self-reflection and awareness that comes with reading and thinking. Currently, we are more digitally connected than ever, but we have lost our connection with physical books. As Bradbury predicted, we are reading less and spending more time on screens.
Bradbury uses the extended mirror metaphor as a call for self-examination in eras of technological self-destruction. In Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and "The Dwarf," characters function as literary mirrors for the protagonist to reflect on himself and his surroundings. Notably, Fahrenheit 451 ends with the image of a mirror factory to rebuild a society destroyed by its own ignorance: "'Come on now, we’re going to go build a mirror factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them'' (164).
Throughout his work, Bradbury uses mirrors as a literary device, so I use devices as a literary mirror in my digital artwork.
I researched previous art installations, particularly Daniel Rozin’s work creating mirrors out of unconventional materials such as pompoms, wooden pegs, and penguins. I realized that mirror art does not need to produce a mirror image but instead examines reflection through different mediums.
I chose projection as the medium for my mirror art based on Bradbury's own suggestion in Fahrenheit 451:
"It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the [televised] parlor families' today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not" (82). To implement Bradbury's vision, I used an XBox Kinect for its motion sensor technology and connected it to a projector and laptop. I wrote a program to project the mirror art. The Kinect adds the interactive component, allowing participants to play with different types of reflections and read visualizations of Bradbury’s text by physically embodying the text.
This installation consists of three programs coded in the language Processing 2. In order to calibrate the projector to the Kinect depth camera, I used an open-source Kinect Projector Toolkit. The main program is the projection, which accesses the toolkit library to implement the motion sensor technology. This program calls two data types: Scrolling Text and Rectangle. Scrolling Text implements the text animation effect. Rectangle functions as bounding boxes to distinguish users and allows each user to embody a different text quotation and randomly-selected color.
The entire code package is available on GitHub.
Additionally, I created this website using Adobe Muse since I do not know how to code in HTML.
Scrolling Text Data Type
I developed a scrolling text data type in Processing to display Bradbury's text. Other animation effects I considered include: pop-up text, rearrangeable text, and static text. I chose to implement scrolling text because beta-testers felt the effect scrawling across the screen best mirrored the act of reading across a page. The scrolling speed was initially so fast that Bradbury would have responded: "We bombard people with sensation. That substitutes for thinking". I then tested several scrolling speeds before my computer lag slowed the scrolling down at just the right speed to facilitate reading and reflecting on the text.
I also considered the appearance of the text. Fahrenheit 451 is published in Times New Roman, so I adapted it on screen with Code New Roman, which is the same font but monospaced to produce a uniform effect across all bodies of users. I experimented with font size to determine which size best suited the reading experience. I considered including a menu feature to allow users to choose a font size, but I realized that this too closely resembled a standard eBook feature, and I wanted users to be able to squint at the text and move closer to examine it like a physical book instead of customizing the size to suit their own ends. My font decisions for the installation as well as this website are deeply sedimented to connect users back to the original form of Bradbury's text.
The text color emphasizes the nuances of each mirror to reveal the multiple dimensions of each character. Users are randomly assigned a color, making it easy for them to identify themselves in the crowd. In this way, they can first focus on reading the text that they embody and then look at the text embodied by other colored users.
I converted a samizdat copy of Fahrenheit 451 into a .txt file for analysis purposes. I conducted preliminary analysis using Voyant Tools to search for key characters who function as mirrors. I also attempted to create a network for insight into how the mirrors were connected. However, Voyant kept on crashing, so I switched to AntConc to examine concordance. I searched for key character mirrors such as "firemen" to obtain a concordance list. Instead of using the concordance list in alphabetical order, I chose chronological order to display the transformation of a literary mirror. I looked through each concordance result as well as the surrounding text and determined a quotation that offered insight into the function of the mirror at that particular moment in the narrative. For instance, Fahrenheit 451 begins with Montag allowing his fireman profession define himself entirely:
"Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.
He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself,
a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror. Later, going to sleep, he
would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in the dark."
Then, he begins to examine himself through his fellow firemen:
"Had he ever seen a fireman that didn't have black hair, black
brows, a fiery face, and a blue-steel shaved but unshaved look?"
"These men were all mirror-images of himself! Were all firemen picked
then for their looks as well as their proclivities? The colour of cinders
and ash about them, and the continual smell of burning from their pipes."
He watches his peers closely and reflects on the history of firemen:
"Stoneman and Black drew forth their rulebooks, which also contained brief
histories of the Firemen of America, and laid them out where Montag, though
long familiar with them, might read: 'Established, 1790, to burn English-
influenced books in the Colonies. First Fireman: Benjamin Franklin.'"
Fire Captain Beatty sees himself clearly as a public defender who burns books to make life easier and less offensive for a population that distracts itself with technological devices instead of taking the time to read and reflect. Beatty asserts that he and Montag are in the same position as firemen:
"There was no longer need of firemen for the old purposes. They
were given the new job, as custodians of our peace of mind, the
focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior;
official censors, judges, and executors. That's you, Montag, and that's me."
After agonizing self-reflection, Montag realizes that he no longer wants to identify with the firemen:
"'But I kept putting her alongside the firemen in the house
last night, and I suddenly realized I didn't like them at all,
and I didn't like myself at all any more. And I thought maybe
it would be best if the firemen themselves were burnt.'"
I found fifteen quotations for each mirror. I then converted the quotations into individual .txt files. The main program reads in these files for projection.
I showcased rekinection in Whitman College's Dance Studio. I thought it was an interesting space to play with since two of the walls are mirrored, so people who enter the space already expect to see their reflections. Introducing this installation to a blank wall allows people to encounter their reflections in a new interactive medium.
The installation ran for the course of one day. Participants included invited guests as well as intrigued passers-by. Most participants recognized that the text was from Fahrenheit 451. They read the text out loud and moved across the room to help others read their embodied texts. They experimented with body positions that best facilitated reading the text. One popular reading position was corpse pose, as if reading a book in bed.
Work in Progress
One month ago, I presented an rudimentary version of this installation. At the time, I had only created the Scrolling Text data type, so all users would embody the same concordance text instead of individual quotations. The background was white, and when juxtaposed with the black user bodies, it revealed every flaw of the Kinect motion sensor in constructing silhouette edges.
Beta-testers were amused by the projection but were not very motivated to actually read the text because it was one concordance block copy and pasted from AntConc. Feedback lead me to develop the Rectangle data type so that each user would be assigned an individual, colored body of text.
It was not too difficult for me to grasp Processing 2 as a language since it is a visual version of Java. At the time, I was learning Java in COS126 (Computer Science: An Interdisciplinary Approach course), so I applied modular programming concepts, such as creating separate data types, to this project. The program at its current state functions sufficiently, but I have improvements in mind in a future version.
I was not able to implement code that allowed for the mirror to change after users had read all the texts. Instead, I had to create separate copies of programs for each mirror, such as "Firemen" and "Clarisse." During the course of the installation exhibit, I had to manually change the program to Clarisse after participants had read all of the texts that embodied firemen. In future versions, the program will automatically change all the mirror text after recognizing that the participants finished reading or after a set period of time. Since I was not able to implement this feature, I could only create two mirrors for participants to examine. In future versions, all of the mirrors from Bradbury's work will be featured, so participants can examine themselves through the fireman, girl, wife, professor, dwarf, and Martian in the mirror.
As I develop a better understanding of Kinect motion sensor technology, I hope to learn how to refine the silhouette edges. I also have encountered performance issues with Kinect programs; after thirty minutes, the program starts to lag, but it may just be my computer. I envision future versions of my installation to run for hours at a time, so I may need to correct my code and data structures to optimize running time.
I initially thought transferring the program from screen to projection would be straightforward. I anticipated that installation set-up would only take fifteen minutes. It took five hours. I struggled most with setting up the projector. The first projector I borrowed was not compatible with my old-fangled laptop since it needed an HDMI cable instead of a VGA cable. The next projector I borrowed had accepted VGA cables, but I had issues placing the projector in the room so that shadows would not interfere with the projection. I experimented with mounting the projector on tall pieces of furniture, but it did not work out. The dance studio has a ceiling projector, but the light bulb was burnt out. After several office visits and phone calls, University Media Services helped me replace the light bulb. I now had a functioning projector, but the projection format was not optimal. In future versions of this installation, the projection will be larger and span from floor to ceiling. This set-up would achieve Bradbury's vision of TV parlor walls.
This installation uses digital mediums that Bradbury himself predicted to rekinect readers to his text. The use of Kinect motion sensor technology allows the passive mass audience he described in Fahrenheit 451 to become active readers who embody the text through their reflections. Although the medium resembles an XBox video game, this subversive installation preserves Bradbury's anti-digital work in digital art form. My open-source code can also be adapted to rethink, reflect on, rekinect with other writings.
Last Updated January 17, 2017 by Jessica Zhou