Whispering Galleries

Description (in English): 

Whispering Galleries by Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse is digital erasure poetry first exhibited at the New Haven Free Public Library in 2014. As readers gesture over the computer, transcriptions from a New Haven shopkeeper’s 1858 diary dissolve as so much digital dust, leaving behind a shimmering poem. Through a webcam, readers’ shadows emerge from behind the words, creating a symbolic link between viewers and the work. Like the whispering gallery architecture referenced by the title, the project transmits “whispers” from the past across time. Borsuk, an artist and writer, composed the poetry, while Bouse, a creative programmer, coded the JavaScript that yields the digital effects.

Whispering Galleries locates itself within the genre of erasure poetry, as exemplified in Tom Phillip’s A Humument (1966). Erasure poetry creates new art by selectively removing words from an existing manuscript, and in so doing, brings renewed attention to the original. The genre showcases the interdependencies between the past and present and creates a dialog between them. In Whispering Galleries, the past embodied in the New Haven diary is layered beneath, informs, and is transformed into Borsuk’s poetry.

The work was created to honor New Haven’s 375th anniversary as part of Connecticut Humanities’s Connecticut at Work festival, which celebrated the history of labor in Connecticut. In order to find source material that would speak to the local history of work in the New Haven community, Borsuk visited the Yale University’s Manuscripts and Archives, where she uncovered a diary written by an anonymous New Haven-area woodworker and shopkeeper in 1858-1859. On their website, Borsuk and Bouse describe the diary:

“The keeper of this diary worked with his hands: as a woodworker making handles for tools, sawing lumber, and sweeping out the shop; as a violinist making music at intimate gatherings and church occasions; and as a composer, writing pieces for performance at the local school. In daily entries, the author's week is measured out by hand-work. Others come in and out of his shop and home: customers and friends mentioned in passing, whose presence reveals the way a New England community of the mid-nineteenth century relied on careful manual labor for its members' livelihood and enrichment.”

Borsuk transcribed thirty-one entries from the diaries, spanning January 1 through December 31, 1858, and conducted original research to identify references and names mentioned in the diaries. The original diary can be found as (Miscellaneous) Collection (MS 181, folders 8&9). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

The transcribed entries each constitute one webpage on the screen. Against a dark background, the text is rendered in a thick sans-serif font in a textured, greyscale color scheme that ranges from bright white to dusty grey. In the same font and size, the date of the diary entry appears along the top of the page, followed by a paragraph of text from the diary. Due to the font’s shading variations and pointillist texture, the words appear ephemeral and difficult to pin down, as if they might dissolve at any moment like the past itself. Clues to the poetry beneath can be discerned in the color of the brightest, white letters.

To draw readers more deeply into the world of the diarist, Whispering Galleries uses Leap technology to track the hand and finger movements of readers as they gesture over the Leap external device (connected by USB to a computer). The readers’ slow, sweeping movements cause the shimmering characters on the screen to dissolve into fine, digital “dust” that readers can sweep away, gradually revealing the erasure poem lying beneath. The elegant, sweeping gestures required to transform the screen evoke the performance of a magic spell, a puppeteer manipulating strings, or the movements of a conductor at an orchestra. When readers stop gesturing, the dust settles back into place, reforming into the original diary entry. Readers can navigate sequentially between entries with deliberate gestural swipes to the right (backward) or left (forward).

The digital landscape involves readers in another way. When the program is launched, the computer’s webcam projects a faint image of readers into the work. The readers’ shadow appears as if from behind the words, and the gestures they make can be seen visibly manipulating the text. This effect recalls the capabilities of installation art, in which audience experience and insertion into the landscape of the art is a constitutive part of the art itself. In Whispering Galleries, readers find themselves in the work, inhabiting a ghostly connection between the past and present the project weaves together.

Whispering Galleries was commissioned by Site Projects, a nonprofit that supports artistic works. The project was also supported by The New Haven Free Public Library and the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. Originally displayed at the New Haven Free Public Library on April 26, 2014, it later went on to be exhibited at The Institute Library in New Haven (2014), The International Symposium on Electronic Art at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver (2015), and “You | I: Interfaces & Reader Experience” at the Paul Watkins Gallery, Winona State University (2016).

Technical notes: 

The digital art was programmed in JavaScript on a webGL canvas. It makes use of Three.js and shaders to render the text, webcam image of readers, and virtual “dust.” It uses the LEAP controller with Leap Motion’s JavaScript SDK to track readers’ gestures.

For the full experience, a web browser (Chrome recommended), webcam, and Leap motion controller are required.

Screen shots: 

Site Projects presents: Whispering Galleries, by Amaranth Borsuk + Brad Bouse

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Record posted by: 
Stacy Reardon