Digital Designs on Blake
Blake & Virtuality: An Exchange
Adam Komisaruk, Steven Guynup and Fred Yee
In a three-part interview, a group of Blakeans and digital artists discuss their endeavors to represent Blake's thought in digital environments. They explore the practical and theoretical ramifications of Adam Komisaruk and Fred Yee's The Blake Model, and of Steve Guynup's Crystal Cabinet. This essay appears in _Digital Designs on Blake_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.
I. Steven Guynup Interviews Adam Komisaruk about The Blake Model
SG: How did you initially conceive of The Blake Model? Why put together William Blake with new media?
AK: I've been reading Blake since my adolescence and reading him seriously since about my junior year of college, during which The Book of Urizen served as my point of entry to the mythology. By the end of graduate school I had come to feel reasonably secure in my understanding of the Blakean system. Then I received a major jolt at the hands of the great Romanticist, Fred Burwick, who gave me to understand the central importance of space in Blake's thought—the geographical alignment of the zoas and the pas de quatre they perform at the fall. Having avoided this dimension of Blake, but having always found visual schemata extremely valuable to my own learning and teaching, I began to look more closely at Blake's spatial configuration of his universe. His instructions are usually very specific, and the principal passages in which they appear don't number above a half-dozen or so. Taken individually, these passages vary in their intelligibility; to superimpose them on one another poses a considerable challenge.
Four Universes round the Mundane Egg remain Chaotic
One to the North, named Urthona: One to the South, named Urizen:
One to the East, named Luvah: One to the West, named Tharmas
They are the Four Zoa's that stood around the Throne Divine!
But when Luvah assum'd the World of Urizen to the South:
And Albion was slain upon his mountains, & in his tent;
All fell towards the Center in dire ruin, sinking down.
And in the South remains a burning fire; in the East a void.
In the West, a world of raging waters; in the North a solid,
Unfathomable! (M 19.15-24, E112-13; repeated almost verbatim in J 59.10-20, E208-9)
Fourfold the Sons of Los in their divisions: and fourfold,
The great City of Golgonooza: fourfold toward the north
And toward the south fourfold, & fourfold toward the east & west
Each within other toward the four points: that toward
Eden, and that toward the World of Generation,
And that toward Beulah, and that toward Ulro:
Ulro is the space of the terrible starry wheels of Albions sons:
But that toward Eden is walled up, till time of renovation (J 12.45-52, E156)
the four points are thus beheld in great Eternity
West, the Circumference: South, the Zenith: North,
The Nadir: East, the Center, unapproachable for ever (J 12.54-6, E156).
the Eyes are the South, and the Nostrils are the East.
And the Tongue is the West, and the Ear is the North. . . .
And the North is Breadth, the South is Heighth & Depth:
The East is Inwards: & the West is Outwards every way (J 12.59-60, E156; 14.29-30, E158).
In a sense these details are easier to conceptualize symbolically than literally. How would the four aspects of existential space (Eden, Beulah, Generation, Ulro), zoa-space (Urizen, Luvah, Tharmas, Urthona), geographic space (north, south, east, west), geometric space (zenith, center, circumference, nadir), bodily space (head, hands, viscera, feet) and facial space (eyes, nostrils, ears, tongue) intersect? It became clear to me that what was needed was to integrate these details in a single map or model, which could in turn serve as an invaluable tool for readers of Blake at all levels. If I may move from the sublime to the ridiculous for a moment, there was another influence: I had grown up with an early computer game called Zork, an all-text adventure that was famous for its rather baroque narrative. At some point in my later years, I came across a novelty called the "Zork Poster," an attractive flowchart that mapped out the entire game at a glance. I may have seen it hanging on a friend's wall or in a hobby shop; it was obviously designed more as a nostalgic nod to my generation than as a practical user's guide, although the recent adaptation of Zork for the web may spur a revival! I thought, What a great idea—a master-key that unlocks a mystery by spatializing what was temporal. I first intended to build a large physical model that it would be possible to walk around and view from any angle. A three-dimensional replica of the "human form divine" from Blake's "Glad Day" would serve as the centerpiece, perhaps with spheres attached at the appropriate places to represent the zoas; and bullet trajectory rods, the kind used by forensicists, to represent sensory pathways. Since I wanted to retain Blake's own iconography wherever possible, I needed someone who could transpose these two-dimensional images into three; I solicited the help of the visual artist Fred Yee, who's been my friend for almost two decades and from whom we'll be hearing shortly. After further reflection, I decided to shift the medium to virtual space. In this way, one could more easily subject the model to a variety of manipulations (zoom, pan, rotate, disassemble, reassemble, etc.), run a series of animated routines (the fall of Albion, the shifting of the zoas, Milton's passage through Albion's vortex, etc.) and also annotate the space with pop-up windows and hyperlinks. Since most of Blake's images have been digitized by now, they could be grafted into this space wherever two dimensions would suffice, and rendered by hand wherever three were necessary. The result would be an immersive, navigable environment through which one might experience the spatial extent of Blake's vision. So that's the plan right now. I'm still working with Yee and have gotten the West Virginia Virtual Environments Lab involved as well. I discuss some of the practical and theoretical ramifications of the work-in-progress in an article that appears in the Winter 2004-05 issue of Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly.
SG: Mapping Blake's multiverse and narratives has been an obsession with many Blakeans from Northrop Frye's Fearful Symmetry to Donald Ault's Narrative Unbound. Maps of Blake's worlds are often criticized, however, as limiting the horizon of Blake's vision. Isn't your project—despite its possible benefits and insights—yet another chain or net?
AK: This has been an abiding concern of mine since the early stages of the project: am I missing the point, imposing a Urizenic literalism on what is obviously a symbolical vision, compelling intellectual space to obey Newtonian law? I'm hoping it's not sophistry to argue that this anxiety is the point. For all his affirmations of the redemptive power of art, I think there is a powerful suspicion in Blake that such affirmations may be at best wishful thinking, at worst a dangerous deception. Every reality is a virtual one and every medium provisional, just as mediation itself is inescapable. This is the case whether we encounter Blake through my model, through the Blake Archive at the University of Virginia, through the Dover or Princeton facsimiles or through David Erdman's standard edition; it would be the case even if we could hold Blake's own books in our hand. The only way for Blake to present an unfallen vision would be for him never to commit it to paper, and perhaps not even then. Art is the best that we, as fallen beings, have to work with; but as Jay Bolter and David Grusin say in Remediation, any attempt to recover some originary, immediate reality only drives us deeper into the simulacrum. This is the predicament of poor Los, toiling in the very bowels of Golgonooza. The Blake Model reproduces Blake's vision by the insufficiency of its doing so.
SG: How might the user of The Blake Model experience not only the "cognitive dissonance" in Blake's formation of his system but also in your formation of Blake's formation of system(s)? Further, how might the user be made aware of her own cognitive dissonance that arises from those she is experiencing?
AK: One technique is to have The Blake Model foreground its artificiality. I don't particularly want realism, not even the cartoonish realism of films like Shrek or Toy Story, which basically remediate claymation or the hand-drawn cel. I love the richly detailed textures of Yee's storyboards, but these are another artist's riffs on Blake, not an attempted recovery of some authentic text. A more important way to create the dissonance to which you refer, however, is to build little malfunctions into the model itself, representing the aspects of the system about which Blake may have been indecisive or changed his mind throughout his career. As I explain in the print article, one such aspect is the ambiguous genealogy of Los—an appropriate enough place for an ambiguity, since Los himself appears after Albion's fall into genealogy, into reproduction, into temporality. I'd like to program The Blake Model at such places to "flicker" as if a wire were loose, to visualize alternate interpretations at different moments. Along these lines, I'm intrigued by the image of the "shuttle" that Ron Broglio uses to describe the experience of Blake's multifarious page. In the undulating vines of "The Divine Image," where the viewer's "eye moves from black to white" just as the artist's "hand moves from brush to needle," "there is a shuttling between physical image and mental transformation." Similarly, in the "sibyl" plate of America, "the reader's eye shuttles back and forth" between two similar forms, the single red leaf at the top of the page and fiery dragon's breath at the bottom, as well as between this leaf and the "furious flames" of the page following ("Becoming" 1997) (Please see the Blake Archive "Welcome Page" before continuing on to the "sybil" plate of America). For our audience, the "shuttle" image will of course call to mind The Voice of the Shuttle, Alan Liu's pathbreaking web archive of humanities resources. The origin of the allusion is the myth of Philomel who, after her brother-in-law Tereus raped her and cut out her tongue, wove the tale of her violation into a tapestry; Sophocles represented the myth in his now-lost play Tereus. In Tereus, says Aristotle's Poetics, the shuttle—the small boat-shaped instrument on a loom that threads the weft through the warp—speaks where Philomel cannot. By the time the allusion reaches Broglio it has been quadruply deferred—the dismembered Philomel reconstitutes herself at the loom; she is memorialized by Sophocles and then lost; Aristotle remembers her story, then displaces it metonymically onto the "voice" and again synechdocally onto the "shuttle." Liu gathers up the loose ends on his site, itself a weaving-together of data that might otherwise lie mutely in far-flung corners of cyberspace. Aristotle refers to the "voice of the shuttle" while he's listing different ways a dramatist can bring about the anagnorisis, or moment of recognition. Among these options, an "artificial invention" like Philomel's tapestry (My God! Is that what Tereus did to you?) is strictly fourth-rate, slightly better than "tokens" (I know that scar—you're Odysseus!) but not nearly as good as a device that "arises from the events themselves" (Wait a minute—this Laius who I killed at the crossroads was my father?)(Aristotle 16:45-7). Aristotle prefers that the shuttle would shut up, because it announces its factitiousness rather than carry itself with an air of dignified inevitability. The deferred, provisional quality of the shuttle is, however, what piques Broglio's interest (and that of Blake himself, who frequently represents weavers as up to no good) just as the "flicker" piques mine. Perhaps an errant leaf in The Blake Model landscape, periodically flickering into a flame and back again, could combine these metaphors! In brief then, having taken a temporal narration and made it spatial, one must re-introduce temporality, the possibility of decay that arises from the Fall. This imperative occurred to me in the discussion that followed my presentation on The Blake Model at the NEMLA convention in Toronto—indeed, the conference Q&A is an important kind of temporal dynamic! The title of my panel was "Blake: Between Aestheticism and Historicism," which I took to be asking, "Are we to read Blake's poems as self-sufficient works of art or as products of their sociopolitical environment?" My answer, of course, was "Yes, absolutely," to rise to the challenge of "between"-ness—a position wonderfully elucidated by Susan Wolfson in her remarks on Blake's hyphenation, and by Christopher Ricks in his remarks on T.S. Eliot's. I've also tried to stake out this ground in the print article by examining The Blake Model in terms of Blake's own sense of his technology and its material contingencies. The studies by David Bindman, Robert Essick, Morris Eaves and Joseph Viscomi remind us that aestheticism itself is never ahistorical.
SG: Blake's works and objects in these works seem to carry within themselves an internal difference such that the works and characters mutate over time. That is to say, his poems have multiple versions without any one being the definitive edition from which the others are earlier or later mutations. His characters change characteristics from poem to poem and even within the same poem. It is as if his poetry and his characters are simulacra of themselves. Would it be fair to characterize your own digital project as yet another iteration, another simulacrum, spawned from the problems and questions within Blake's works themselves?
AK: Yes, but having said the preceding, I think it's also important to heed Viscomi's warning against fetishizing difference. To return to the "voice of the shuttle" allusion, Liu directs us to a few critics who have meditated on the phrase while avoiding a totalism of dismemberment. For Geoffrey Hartman, the "voice of the shuttle" is an archetype of the poetic condition that is "compel[led] . . . toward an aesthetics of silence," but this silence results from overdetermination; "the problem is that of fullness rather than emptiness" (353). Patricia Klindienst takes the Philomel legend as emblematic of a female artistic and political agency that refuses to be silenced. When the reader's eye "shuttles" along the manuscript of The Four Zoas, says Broglio, it maintains the "minute particulars" of Blake's icons—a toe, for instance—as its frame of reference; the "becoming" of the particulars, moreover, involves a transformation that is purposive although not teleological (Broglio, "Becoming" 1999: 13, 138). In America, the "becoming-flame of the leaf" suggests a "means of liberation via imagination" (Broglio, "Becoming" 1997). The concept of "becoming" builds on Deleuze and Guattari, who ask us to "conceive of [a] world in which a single fixed plane—which we shall call a plane of absolute immobility or absolute movement—is traversed by nonformal elements of relative speed that enter this or that individuated assemblage depending on their degrees of speed and slowness. A plane of consistency peopled by anonymous matter, by infinite bits of impalpable matter entering into varying connections" (255). Viewing the world in its "molecular" reconfigurability rather than its "molar" aggregation, however, doesn't mean that anything goes. The system that "deterritorializes" still "retorritorializes" as a unity; as for "molarity," Blake himself reminds us of the ground-level knowledge that only the "mole" possesses! There is a measure of coherence in Blake's system for all its suppleness, just as I hope there will be in my guide to it. We needn't write off an interpretive methodology as "closed" simply because it doesn't do justice to a text that, although putatively "open," would otherwise remain closed to a great many readers. Of course, as any scientist knows who's ever wrangled with animal-testing protocols, a computer simulation will only take you so far: the notion that you could build such a thing presupposes the very knowledge that necessitates the experiment in the first place. Arguably my project begs the question in the same way. I need to understand Blake's spatial system before I can build a Blake Model, but I need a Blake Model in order to understand Blake's spatial system. I hope, however, that I can parlay this vicious cycle into a virtuous one; that my experiment can be an organic form in Coleridge's sense, in which the Blake Model discovers its character through its own process of becoming.
II. Adam Komisaruk Interviews Steven Guynup about The Virtual Crystal Cabinet
AK: Your refrain in "William Blake and the Study of Virtual Space" is that "Blake is not a game." You associate "game" with "generic plot line . . . classical narration schema . . . a limited, linear story," you seem to want an approach to Blake that is ludic—more so than gaming itself—instead of teleological, and "spatializ[ed]" instead of temporal. Yet there's a specific, step-wise movement that is pretty much assumed of the users, guided not only by Blake's stanzaic structure but by his foundations—whatever his revisionary tendencies—in Judeo-Christian romance. You also suggest at one point that "the human spirit and human desire" alone powers the users' movements; elsewhere, that the text takes on a mind of its own and presents the users with "worlds that are beyond their immediate control." Doesn't your project exhibit divided loyalties—determinacy and indeterminacy?
SG: The development of narrative within the video game genre appears to be paralleling that of early film. Borrowing terminology from film studies, we can see the emergence of a Classical Hollywood video game style. Within this construction, narratology blends with ludology. As story and game-play fold together, ludology can be seen as providing a set of comprehensible rules for dramatic interplay based on user choices. Within strict limits, video game ludology allows users to create a personalized narrative in a predefined system. Viewer control does not create indeterminacy, however, only a faux sense of it that lies in a simple binary code of success or failure. All questions are preprogrammed and the corresponding answers mathematically predefined. True indeterminacy offers more than a series of yes/no answers that always lead to a predetermined goal whose outcome is never ambiguous. The player can either win or lose; there is no middle ground. To hide this fact, this lack of true freedom in a virtual space, game programmers use narrative techniques to focus the player's act of readership on completing narrow tasks. A series of singular mouse clicks allows salvation. Blake's writing appears to function much like a path in a video game. The "clos'd" world of the video game, however, is precisely the type of structure that Blake struggled against. He impresses upon readers the need to create a new narrative, a narrative that removes the mechanical, mathematical limits to understanding and seeks to explore the totality of existence. His works serve as a guide for that process, and the key is the construct of active readership. Active readership is, by video game definition, a ludic practice through which the "path" carries multiple layers of possible signification. Blake, who saw that "Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are the roads of genius," offers us many kinks in the path and opportunities to re-conceive his work. He wants his readers to cleanse the doors of their perception and to become active readers of the world around them, leaving no aspect unquestioned. So while Blake's texts consist of fixed words arranged by stanzas upon the page, they do not create determinacy. Accordingly, immersion into the Virtual Crystal Cabinet is like finding "the world in a grain of sand." It appears to be a small space with limited play, but it provides layers of meaning, infinite levels of interpretation, and unlike the video game, it reaches beyond itself to the world outside the computer screen. A second issue arises in that narrative video games must continuously reinforce their reality to maintain the sense of immersion. There is no world beyond the game spaces of Unreal, Quake or Doom. This places strict limitations both philosophic and physical on the video game. No act can be seen as unreal, in the context of the game world, or else the immersiveness of the game would be broken. This then limits the acts that the virtual designer can code for the space. Poetry and Blake especially allows for an open-ended exploration of virtual reality. There are no real-world requirements. No natural laws or physics need exist. The full potential for the virtual environments and the digital consciousness that seeks to utilize it is approachable through the investigation of informatics set within a poetic frame. Outside the real, new philosophic questions arise. Within the virtual we can look deep into our human nature. It is an existence not as flesh but as the memory of flesh. This knowledge in turn forces a reappraisal of reality. In The Virtual Crystal Cabinet—as in Blake's poem—one falls from one England into another and then returns to a third in the final stanza. Each England is the same England, for it is only our knowledge of it that changes. The fold upon fold upon fold, the virtual space and the written poem, extend a question on the truth of reality and virtuality.
AK: I'd like to ask you about your reading of Blake's poem. Certainly "The Crystal Cabinet" itself seems to be an early crack at virtual reality, which is what I imagine drew you to it in the first place! I'm wondering what you think Blake envisions as the fate of that parallel universe. The extent of the narrator's agency is ambiguous—in lines 23-4, "burst" could be a transitive verb of which "I" is the subject and "Cabinet" is the object, in which case the narrator becomes the "Weeping Babe"; or "burst" could be an intransitive verb of which "Cabinet" is the inverted subject, in which case it's the cabinet itself becomes the "Weeping Babe"! By the end of the poem, does the narrator achieve that "organiz'd innocence" that Blake sought for so long, or does the simulacrum implode under its own weight? Are we back to Eden, or back to the dull rounds of generation as in "The Mental Traveller," another one of the Pickering Manuscript poems?
SG: I should probably note, before it becomes completely obvious, that I'm not a Blake scholar. My background is in new media and for years I've built virtual worlds. In Blake I see a kindred spirit, a forefather, an explorer of media form and a philosopher of the human position within a nonmediated yet equally virtual world. My take on your question stems largely from my belief that Blake believed that innocence, once replaced by experience, must be regained and maintained. In this world there can be no Eden for mortals. The Crystal Cabinet for me represents this process of growth. If the Cabinet is indeed a vagina, Blake is reborn through experience as the weeping babe from it. He is, as a babe would be, innocent. Yet the babe weeps; neither the organiz'd world nor the possession of innocence is that static structure it once was. In adapting this to a virtual interpretation, the London of the seventh stanza is identical to that of the first and second stanza. The underlying code is same as before, yet by virtue of experience the space is much more dynamic and more flexible than before. Triggered by experience, walls of stone and steel (metaphors of the concreteness of the industrial revolution) now spin in a gentle dance with a four-fold vision of the world. Revealed in those walls is image of Blake, the humanity that underpins the structures of a society and society's only hope against the grind of inhuman machinery. Here in the center of the true wilds, the wild of London, the Cabinet as woman and as vagina is "reclin'd." Above sits a weeping reborn Blake. So, as I see it, there is a possibility for birth into a visionary transformation. While my representation of it is virtual, there is nothing to prevent the reader's experience of it from being literal. My play space and Blake's poem space trigger something for the readers, an outside, another space by which the world they inhabit is not the fence and prison it first appears to be.
AK: I love what you've done in populating your landscape with bits of detritus from the Blake iconography, like the vines from "Holy Thursday." Could you talk about your decision to juxtapose these images with the striking photographs by Thomas Tulis and Dierdre Curry, which really rattles the cultural frame of reference in the project?
SG: Thomas Tulis is a both a brilliant photographer and a good and trusting friend. On many occasions he's allowed me to dig through the thousands of photographs he's taken and adapt them to my virtual works. After several conversations with Ron Broglio, about ways Blake scholars have read this poem, I went to see Thomas. To be honest, I was really stumped; how does one represent a "three-fold vision"? Following a literal interpretation, my opening question to Thomas was simply "Do you have pictures of a naked couple in the woods"? His answer was "Yes, I just shot some last weekend." He showed me the contact sheets of an Adam and Eve photo session he did for Dierdre. Two hundred and fifty images laid before me and I was enthralled. They were perfect. I wished I used more of them. The photography brought a sense of presence, of immediacy and of realism to a space that I knew would soon be awash in metaphors within a visionary frame. This play between the real and visionary allowed me to place the viewers in the real at the poem's start, move them into a vision and, at the end, throw them back into a real world as seen through the eyes of innocence regained. It may also be worth mentioning that the time needed to create the Virtual Crystal Cabinet was roughly two semesters. The process of conceptualizing the space, working out ideas of visionary spaces and creating a navigational process between them usurped most of the time. In contrast, the file size of the work, without audio, is only 1.4 megs. In terms of new media projects this is very small, not much more than its literary counterpoint—seven stanzas. Like the original Crystal Cabinet, it is the concepts and visualization that make this piece, not the size of the space or the task of programming it.
AK: Your project is truly a multimedia one. Tell us a bit about Jah Wobble, who provides the extraordinary ambient music for "The Crystal Cabinet."
SG: This is the one major loose thread within the project. I found the Jah Wobble CD The Inspiration of William Blake and immediately knew it was perfect. Jah Wobble sets some of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience and a few other poems to his own visionary music. He captures the spirit of Blake's writings in a way that just explodes within my virtual interpretation. I had little choice but to take small snippets of his longer songs and loop them. Of course, Jah Wobble's own history in music makes for another fold in the virtual work. As a legend in punk rock, Jah didn't just perform music; he lived it. That is to say, his music and life folded into each other. Blake's vision is in his poetry but also outside of it, in the reader and the reader's world. The same can be said for the vision in Jah's music. Sadly, I've been unable to contact Jah Wobble for formal permission. Two letters stamped "undeliverable" sit in my Blake file. My hiring of a web-savvy, musically connected friend to get Jah's email address was a failure. Honestly I hope he contacts me. I've got other music on hand donated by local Atlanta musicians. The new music is good, but it misses the feel of Blake that Jah's music holds. I hope Jah sees my work and enjoys it as much as I enjoyed his music and as much as it helped progress my vision of The Crystal Cabinet.
III. Adam Komisaruk Interviews Fred Yee about The Blake Model
AK: When I asked you to help me bring The Blake Model to fruition, there were many aspects of Blake's vision that you seemed to recognize immediately. One feature of the mythology that seems especially to have captured your imagination is Bowlahoola. A pun on "bowels," it serves as the workshop of Blake's stand-in Los. You've depicted it as a great city of pipes and pathways that makes digestive noises. How do you interpret the idea that art emanates from the lower bodily registers?
FY: I was fascinated by images in medieval alchemy of vessels being heated, of fire and bellies and containers. I knew they were metaphors for multiple internal processes. It is natural for me to think that the creative process comes "from the gut." There is a ferment that creativity undergoes. I liken it to digestion, taking the raw material, chewing it up, perhaps if it's not to your liking spitting it back out. It's not a subtle process; it's one in which things are broken down by acids and sometimes the content fights with you and gives you gas. An idea goes through many permutations, so it would be closer to a cow gut, with its many stomachs, many stages of digestion, of processing and understanding, in and out, in and out. On another level this explains why organized religion and the individual vision of the artist have historically been at odds. The artist transforms what the church shuns and arrives at a distillation. This unruly process is from the body, from the very depths of the body, where passions are stirred. I visualized Bowlahoola [Fig. 1 ] as both an organ and an architectural structure. I remember a grammar-school field trip to the Franklin Institute science museum in Philadelphia. They had this very large model heart you could walk through. It's like that except it heaves and gurgles and has windows. The tantra teacher Vimalananda once suggested that one should not engage in spiritual activity during or after a meal, as the stomach has the dual function of digesting spiritual and physical food. It can do one or the other but not both at the same time. In fact, he identified the mind and the stomach as the same organ. Many mystical traditions take mind out of the picture. Analytical thought becomes an impediment to direct experience. In yoga, you're so busy doing these asanas—poses—that you're far too tired to think. It's as if your mind has been doing these poses too and now is saying "I'm tired. I'll just tag along." You are just so aware of your own physicality at that point. Going back to the idea of the stomach, what happens to a meal after it's digested? It's metabolized. It's broken down and integrated.
AK: How would you describe your vision of Blake's vision of the "Mundane Egg" or "Mundane Shell"?
FY: That was the one I struggled with the most. When at first you said "shell," I thought "seashell," like a clam [Fig. 2 ] or a bivalve, and I imagined something immensely vast which was on the surface of the earth and reached the heavens, and had windows and stained-glass interiors. I realized, having read further, that it has to be something subtler [Fig. 3 ]. Theosophists describe reality as being seven-fold. The realms co-exist in the same physical space, each subtly interacting with the other. The physical world is the densest; each world thereafter becomes finer in quality. And I thought, What if the Mundane Egg was a bridge between realms? How would it be seen in each? On the manifest level it would be an absurd physical form, a great egg collided with the world, spilling its contents unto the land. Golgonooza is the square yolk, the inner sea of ooze out of this cracked egg, runny and smelly. But as one progressed it would become less concrete and more transcendent and beautiful. It's a perfect image, so basic, the symbol of chaos from which all arises.
AK: The collection in which this piece is appearing is part of the Romantic Circles Praxis Series, which seeks to acknowledge how Romanticism has both "dissolved as a period and idea" and also "retained a vigorous, recognizable hold on the intellectual and theoretical discussions of today." Many articles in the series marry theoretical concerns to the real-world contingencies Romanticists are likely to encounter, directly or indirectly, in the classroom. Although you're not a Romanticist, you are heavily involved in what you have called a praxis or practice of your own. Couldn't one argue, though, that what you are doing is more theoretical or abstract than pragmatic?
FY: I've never had much time for theory. I'm very much a bottom-up sort of person. When I say I'm involved in process, it means I'm not attached to the ideas I'm working with. They are temporary vehicles to get me from point A to point B. If someone wants to develop ideas from them, fine. The artist/practitioner is involved with the act, not enamored with rules. It's meaningless to me to have a conceptual understanding of something only and to call that the experience. When you have the experience, you realize it can't be transferred by words and ideas. It can be implied—a direction to go in. The whole point is to show the underlying ineffable structure, to say, What you're seeing is not the thing itself; it's just an approximation, a signifier. That symbol on the map, we're not really there. In graphic design there's one font that is used for creating map symbols; it's a type of dingbat. One's a compass shape, one's a road shape; they're clearly from the ‘50s, car culture and such. I'm far removed from them, I don't know what they're signifying, but they're evocative. At the very least, you need to be evocative, point, show the seams. At worst, mistake the symbol for the object, the footnote for the story. This goes into the idea of monsters [Fig. 4 ] and absurd imagery. The reason why you're given grotesque imagery, imagery that clashes, is to show the limitation of our current understanding of things. It is to say, That which I am depicting is so beyond the aesthetics of the day, the current objects that we have cannot contain it, so we have to show the absolutes of it, side by side. It's supposed to kick you and get you looking past the image. But often people don't get it and get caught up in a convoluted, literalistic interpretation. They get stuck on the surface; they look at the technique of it, the plastic aspect of it, the depth of false space, not the depth of meaning and beyond the depth of meaning. It requires that participation, that willingness to enter, to let go. Let's put ourselves in the student's shoes now. It's really hard to understand that there's something for which only an approximation exists. But that's where you have to start. The novice will look at works like Blake's and say, Where's the “in,” where do you turn it on? Is this the Bible, is this . . . ? Sometimes you've just got to throw them into the fire. It's their struggle in understanding, the attempt itself, which is the "in."
AK: You enjoyed a highly successful career in the professional art business for nine years, then simply walked away from it. At the same time, you will always be an artist. How do you respond to Blake in the light of your own ambivalent relationship to the art world?
FY: Blake wrote, when engraving work was getting slim, "I am laid by in a corner as if I did not Exist" (Letter to George Cumberland, 26 August 1799; E704). It sounds like publishing nowadays. It made sense that as an engraver Blake started creating his own plates, writing his own texts, getting involved in the entire process, because that was the only way for these things to emerge—if he printed them himself, with his very dutiful wife coloring. I thought, How lucky he was, to have his vision, to have his work and to have love. He was also very lucky to have a circle, a following of people in his later years, that he had what he had, the recognition that he had, that he was allowed to this and the work is here for us. The era of the patron was pretty much dead by then, but there were still individuals who gave him assignments, projects to work on. Most artists would sell their mothers for such things at this point. I'm also surprised that, for somebody who saw visions at nine and continued to see them his entire life (the first vision he saw was angels in a tree—that image appears elsewhere; it's a very striking image), he was still able to function as a human being in the time that he did, that he had technical skills as an engraver and got work. I could easily see these visions consuming him to such a degree that he would not function. I could see him starting to disdain these projects that were meant to sustain his livelihood, because the work he was doing was so compelling that he couldn't get away from it. I can recognize that. Once you recognize the true work that you're supposed to do in this life, anything that gets in the way of it seems like a hindrance. Being an artist is actually a very good proving ground for a step in spirituality. It's you and your own vision. It's not about creating a consensus; it's about the truest relationship you can have to the experience. My meditation practice arose from the process of making art. Now there is no object, no end result, just the process itself, this unfolding. There's a recognition that imagination is its own reason to be, not simply a vehicle to arrive at beautiful things or important ideas.
AK: It seems hard to avoid the tension between Blake's claims about the universality of his system and the sense that this system is available only to the initiate. How is the spiritually oriented artist to reconcile esoteric and exoteric traditions?
FY: Every metaphysical system is the macrocosm described within the microcosm, the universal made manifest through the personal. It is a stepping down from that which is beyond description into a form that is relative, limited. The limitation of meaning is needed to view it, with the understanding that it is only from a specific and relative vantage point. To understand a system like Blake's does one need to be an initiate into secret knowledge? When one is approaching a metaphysical system one needs to remove the habit of imposing meaning and allow one's self to be led to it. As an artist I proceed from "I don't know" and run with it. Most mystical texts have built-in blinds. But they're less about trying to deceive someone than about saying, If you're not at a certain developmental level you're just not going to get it. I recently read Initiations and Initiates in Tibet by Alexandra David-Neel, one of the earliest westerners to describe Tibetan mysticism. She was an initiate herself and received secret teachings, oral teachings which were never written down. She asked the lama, "May I print this?" and the lama basically said, "They won't understand it, so go ahead, try, because it's not like there's a secret; it's really about where you're at." I really don't think that there's a secret code; it has a lot to do with one's own development, integration of self, one's willingness to examine every aspect of one's reality. The breakthrough of knowing comes from one's own effort, one's own practice, to pierce the veil as it were. But there are many veils. It's like when you first introduce your students to Blake's works, seeing what their natural processes are to assimilate something alien to them on many levels. As you struggle with the work, you have to start saying, What have I taken on, what am I questioning here? so the very question becomes questioned. When one is successful in any sort of practice one has a mirror for looking back at one's own processes of mind.
AK: You've always been aware of the physicality of the different media in which you've worked. Do you see virtuality as the next frontier, raising possibilities that don't exist elsewhere?
FY: A friend of mine who is a video editor has said, "Video games are the new film!" And it's true; they are a very powerful phenomenon. I grew up playing video games, every eight-bit incarnation. You cannot explain a video game to someone who's never played one; they won't see the richness of it. It's important for individuals who are aware of the implications to influence the direction of this. Video games are already profoundly affecting our culture. Their true symbolism isn't understood yet, because I think it's still emerging. The same is the case with comic books, fantasy movies and science fiction. We don't know why someone had the imagination to think up a person with super powers who dressed up in red and blue tights and flew in the sky, or why one would have a thirty-foot dinosaur breathing radioactive fire, but it taps a very powerful desire in everyone. I've learned not to discredit these desires, these very strange things, as they are stepping stones to something else that we don't yet have a vocabulary to describe. There's something mythic about Godzilla. He destroys cities and fills up the entire landscape. By his unnatural scale I could easily see Godzilla as a tantric deity, a great destroyer of ego, a raging seething god. Pac-Man gobbles around in a maze and is chased by ghosts; when he eats a certain pill he becomes invulnerable and can eat the other ghosts. The Japanese name for Pac-Man is Baku Baku; the Baku is a mythological creature that children who have nightmares can call upon to chase away the ghosts. We do not connect these stories to their original impetus, but they're still familiar to us. They are a new manifestation of something that's always been there. Sometimes you see through the cartoonish things a literal attempt to express ineffable qualities.
AK: Steven Guynup sets up his Virtual Blake project in opposition to the video game, which he says has a closedness that doesn't well serve his—or Blake's—project.
FY: I once was playing a video game and I jumped out of the world. This was a glitch, a programming bug. You could turn back and see the world behind you, and in front of you there was no horizon line; you just went on to infinity, white emptiness. I did this a few times, once for twenty minutes in one direction. It was scary because you could get lost in infinity and not come back. It was like a Castenada novel. When I did return I was able to walk the entire boundary of the world from the outside looking in. This was a whole other perspective that the programmers did not expect you to see. It made a whole lot of wheels in my head turn: what happens when you break out, what does it mean when you recognize the artifice of a place, the rules of a place? That desire to step behind the façade, it isn't just in the virtual. The whole idea of creating viruses and hacking has to do with this desire to see how far one can go. I heard a fellow on NPR from the Urban Exploration movement who made a business of going places you're not supposed to go, the interiors of subway stations and such. When he was in these places no one questioned him; the workers assumed he was there because he was supposed to be there. It's how you get into rock shows; you pretend you're with the band or are in the band. You're not actually pretending; in your mind you basically say, I belong here, and that's the reality. You realize how conditioned we are to obey. When a sign says, Do Not Pass, we stop. When you start disregarding those signs, you realize there's a whole world behind those places, and the world does not crash or end when you enter them. What's the most indeterminate element of a game? It's the player himself, herself. We already see that with multiplayer modes, online gaming, people interacting with each other, the complexity of the game becomes much greater when you have individuals on the other end as opposed to preprogrammed artificial-intelligence enemies. All you have to do is give them a goal other than killing each other. Did you ever play Atari's Battlezone? I always wanted to visit the mountains on the horizon.top of page
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