Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Reflecting on Illuminations,
Transparencies, and Shadows:
An Exploration of Reading and Writing as 
Artistic Installation in Emerging Technologies at 
NCSU's James B. Hunt, Jr. Library

Heather Marcelle Crickenberger

"For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning points of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation, alone. They are mastered gradually by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation." - Walter Benjamin

"Taking a walk is a haecceity...Haecceity, fog, glare. A haecceity has neither beginning nor end, origin nor destination; it is always in the middle. It is not made of points, only of lines. It is a rhizome." 
- Deleuze-Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

Projections: Exploring Reading and Writing in Emerging Technologies (or How an Apparatus Becomes Self-Aware) was an Artistic Installation Presented in the Creativity Studio of North Carolina State University’s James B. Hunt, Jr. Library as part of the North Carolina Literary Festival on April 5, 2014 from 1:00-4:00 PM. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved. This project is an extension of the work begun in the essay "The Structure of Awakening: Walter Benjamin and Progressive Scholarship in New Media" (2007) which was part of an online virtual installation The Arcades Project Project (2002-2007).

NEW (as of 4/27/14): Configuring Apparatus for April 5, 2014 1:00-4:00PM. Music by Robert Johnson.


Artist Statement
(presented on North-East TV)

"If in the beginning the street had become an intérieur for him, now this intérieur turned into a street, and he roamed though the labyrinth of merchandise as he had once roamed though the labyrinth of the city." 
- Walter Benjamin

“Installation art” involves the staging and framing of spaces as interactive texts for contemplation. It is an art form that encourages and reflects a critical approach to constructed space, one that can be extended to the world of the everyday.



Photos taken at various stages of setup. 

The James B. Hunt, Jr. Library’s Creativity Studio is both a highly-modifiable writing apparatus and an interactive space. It has full networking capabilities and is comprised of two rooms, multiple cameras, projectors, monitors, and adjustable panels that serve as projection surfaces suspended from an elaborate tracking system.

This shot emphasizes the texture of my computer screen on which I shot many of the photos to be used as content. Here, one can see clearly how images and text interrupt and interact with one another when projected onto the apparatus. 

It is a canvas that invites its users to imagine the future of reading as a response to the ever-advancing technologies of textual production and the new ways of seeing they make visible.

William Blake obsession meets search for Cold War propaganda.

The apparatus was configured to emphasize its potential as a versatile means of artistic expression, one that blurs the line between word and image and transforms and allows texts to be experienced as interactive environments.

A search for advertisements that reached back to the 1700s blended with eye-catching moments of nostalgia for reading.

Images and words emerged in varying constellations. Wrenched free of their context, they combined to form fleeting landscapes of minutia, mixing history with fiction, advertisement with propaganda, and manufacturing with high art.



Here Klee's 'Angelus Novus' breaks up a close up shot of some flowers I stumbled on many years ago. Benjamin wrote of this painting in his Nineth Thesis on the Philosophy of History: "A Klee drawing named 'Angelus Novus' shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."

The flat, framed-in world of the computer screen took on new dimensions as it interacted with transparent and reflective surfaces at varying angles.

Many philosophical and literary themes underlying this story emerged in this image. In the foreground, grocery store orchids wrapped in plastic reflect onto the shiny surfaces of the panels. Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer was integral to the work of Deleuze who I studied in depth while developing my approach to Benjamin's arcades. The novel itself provides an excellent example of a flâneuristic narrative technique, one that blends the mind of the narrator with his surroundings.

The text became a physical space, through which each reader was left to wander, a unique cache of all that could be remembered of the dream.

Eyes in the architecture. (Photo by Jason Jefferies.)


Project Introduction
(presented in part on South-East TV)

“In the windswept stairways of the Eiffel Tower, or, better still, in the steel supports of a Pont Transbordeur, one meets with the fundamental aesthetic experience of present-day architecture: through the thin net of iron that hangs suspended in the air, things stream—ships, ocean, houses, masts, landscape, harbor. They lose their distinctive shape, swirl into one another as we climb downward, merge simultaneously.” Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frankriech. . . In the same way, the historian today has only to erect a slender but sturdy scaffolding—a philosophic structure—in order to draw the most vital aspects of the past into his net.” -Walter Benjamin

Theoretical Background

This project draws heavily on the work of writer Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish theorist and philosopher of the early 20th century, who spent his life investigating and experimenting with the way writers use technology to restructure their work and thereby make new ways of reading possible. Now, more than seventy years after his failed attempt to escape Nazi persecution, the scope of his vision is beginning to take form, as the tools and canvases writers use evolve and change. In what follows, some of his primary themes and practices are briefly summarized.

Walter Benjamin. (Photo found on 

Walter Benjamin

Drawing on literature, Jewish mysticism, historical materialism and the evolving art of photography, Benjamin wrote innumerable volumes exploring the manner in which artists and writers have recorded the poetry of daily life. His greatest work, The Arcades Project, is a multimedia collection that examines the architectural phenomenon of the Parisian arcades and its relevance to philosophy, literature, and economics as an emblem of modern consciousness. Within these passages, Benjamin located the character of the flâneur, a reader of the increasingly complex texts created by consumerism.

"Industry and utility are the angels of death who, with fiery swords, prevent man's return to Paradise. . . . And in all parts of the world, it is the right to idleness that distinguishes the superior from the inferior classes. It is the intrinsic principle of aristocracy."

Henri Fantin-Latour's "Portrait of Edouard Manet," completed in 1867. Manet's work is often associated with the flaneur.

The Flâneur

Flâneur is the name given to the wealthy educated men who wandered the arcades during the nineteenth century, reading the surrounding scenes like texts designed for their own amusement. He was the shopper with no intention to buy, though with plenty of money to spare; thus overcoming his kind of aloofness forced the world of advertisement to cross-over into the world of literature and art. Wealthy, educated, and without need of a job, the flâneur was removed from the economic hardships of life. His greatest enemy was boredom. He strolled the arcades in search of novelty—the kind of art that occurs by chance—scrutinizing the fashions of the day, the menus, shop windows, and wares for sale as texts to be read in moments of idleness.

Though long a creature of the past, there is something of his attitude that remains when we read online: transient, aloof, and comfortably seated in the first world, we observe the lives of others at an optic distance.

Photo found at 

The Arcades

Made possible by 19th-century advances in iron and glass construction, one that parallels in its effects the invisible enclosures through which we wander in hyperspace today, the arcades were not the result of city planning but instead emerged as improvised structures as capitalism began to take root. Merchants banded together and commissioned their construction in hopes of using the shelter they offered to lure customers off the boulevards in times of bad weather. As constructed worlds, these passages offered their dwellers an experience that was both aesthetic and commercial. Storefront windows became artistic installations and advertisements became works of art.

Cover of the 1999 English edition of The Arcades Project

The Arcades Project

While a few of his writings emerged on the intellectual scene in 1968, The Arcades Project was not to assume bound book-form until its publication in 1982 (English version, 1999). It is a work of scholarship that more resembles a stack of file folders a collector of textual artifacts might pull from a filing cabinet than a book.

Here, Benjamin approaches the task of reading not as a critic who reduces and interprets the texts he reads so that he might fit them into a well-wrought argument for whatever purpose, but as an exploration—an investigation—that serves as an end in itself. It is a way of looking at research and scholarship that is on the rise as our technologies of writing evolve to accommodate such a process.

"The Tyger" by WIlliam Blake. (Image found at http://www.nimbi.com/copyright/william_blake_the_tyger.jpg)

The Author as Aesthetic Engineer

Much like poet and artist William Blake used etching as part of his writing process to create poems that present language and image as a single unit, Benjamin reconfigured scholarship to better represent the experience of the modern reader. Such an innovation in the writing process speaks to the concurrent roles writers play today as researchers, storytellers, and textual engineers, not simply supplying publishers with content, but instead, self-consciously modifying the way their readers inhabit and engage that content, whether through the text itself or the way it is delivered to the reader. This artistic installation is intended to explore the idea of reading as an immersive experience, one that is likely to become increasingly transparent as technologies of writing evolve.


The Apparatus
(a description of the "Creativity Studio" at NCSU's Hunt Library)

"Method of the project: literary montage, I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse—these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them." - Walter Benjamin

Above, the Creativity Studio is pictured as it was first encountered.

The above images and specifications were taken from NCSU's information website for the Creativity Studio available at https://magnolia.lib.ncsu.edu/tech_specs/?room=crn


Above, NCSU's Standard Configuration is pictured. Panels are typically stored providing the most amount of open space. The studio has various furnishings, among them several chairs and tables.


Configuration from 1-4PM on April 5, 2014

Configuration on April 5, 2014

In the final configuration, the panels were arranged so that the four glass panels would align in a staggered fashion, connecting the two rooms in the same way the Parisian passages--arcades--connected otherwise separated parts of the city.

Both doors were left open during the exhibit so as to vary the order in which participants would experience the flow of text.

The swiveling doors adjoining the two rooms were aimed at the Southern corners. If aligned in this manner, both sides of the doors became illuminated, as well as the East and West walls in the South studio. If the swiveling doors were aligned with the Northern corners, the East and West walls in the North studio would be illuminated.

I chose to illuminate the Southwest and Southeast walls because there were already 4 TVs on the Northwest and Northeast walls.

Panels were arranged in front of the South and North walls so as to break up the texts and images, accentuating and modifying their content through the geometry of optics.


(Presented in part on the South-West TV)

“Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.” -Walter Benjamin,1936


Picture of my personal library.

Recognizing Earlier Versions and Extensions of the Apparatus

This project began in books: the aforementioned Arcades Project, Deleuze-Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus which considers the book as assemblage, Baudrillard’s concept of reading as interplay in Seduction, the intercommunication of everyday things as examined by Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons, and the montage-like renderings of modernist writers like Dos Passos, Miller, Barnes, Boyle, Hemingway, Colette, etc. I returned to many of these books during my preparation for this project, revisiting my own annotations and under-linings, their folded pages, and the things that had been folded into them. In de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, I found notes for a novel, lists of musicians to download, phone numbers and addresses of once potential employers. I can see the wear in their spines. They fall open magically to the most interesting sections….

Early notes.

Getting to Know the Apparatus

During my first session, I experimented with the apparatus in order to see what it could do. Note the web-like tracking system which enables panels to be moved with relative freedom around the room.


North Studio ceiling. (Photo courtesy of Jason Jefferies.)

Testing Content

I used two photographs of some glass dishes I’d come across while wandering Asheville’s galleries many years ago. They made testing pretty.

Stained glass projected on early configuration. (Photos courtesy of Jason Jefferies.)

Optical Illusions

The floor became part of the canvas as well. I looked at the picture above several times thinking it was someone's coffee cup.  It wasn't until I was editing it in Photoshop that I realized it was part of the projected desktop.

Apple's waste basket projected onto the floor. (Photo courtesy of Jason Jefferies.)

Realizing It’s Quite a Clever Apparatus

The South Midi and North Midi projectors actually swap canvases when the doors are placed in an open formation. The glass in these doors reflect and display the projected images, creating a layering effect.

Early configurations and experiments: a streetlamp emerges at the end of a corridor of text.

2-D Becomes 3-D (and then 4-D)

I was reminded that the size of an image depends on the distance between the surface and the projector, and that gaps in surfaces give a 2-dimensional image 3-dimensional qualities.

Cnn.com projected onto an early configuration. (Above photo, courtesy of Jason Jefferies.)

Creating Surreal Contexts

Strange combinations of headlines and furniture create new perspectives for viewing text.

Above photo, Cnn.com projected onto floor. (Photo courtesy of Jason Jefferies.)

The Apparatus Extends Into My Office

I extended my experience of the apparatus to my own home office, which I configured as pictured. I chose not to use screen shots because I wanted the texture of the computer screen to be visible.

One arrangement of camera and monitors as I mined the internet for images.

The Search for Content

Strange combinations emerged in my virtual wanderings. I edited the photos using Photoshop so as to capture interesting juxtapositions and eye-catching textures and colors.

Raw shots of the monitor: these would be cropped and color edited in Photoshop before being format to fit the various components of the Creativity Studio.

Strange intersections of found art and old photographs.

Framing & Selection

As I wandered through the virtual arcades of Google search results and the random divagations they brought forth, I looked for moments of aesthetic pleasure. The white backgrounding outlining the image searches I ran sectioned off the chaos of content into captured moments that could be remediated when projected onto the apparatus.


Above are pictured various cropped and color edited shots of the original photos I took of my computer monitor. In some cases I left the web URL as part of the picture, along with the search term used to generate the images.

Testing Content & Configuration

I visited the Hunt Library five times during the writing process, adjusting the surfaces and experimenting with different arrangements and slides.

Graffiti and some strange Steampunk-style skull sculpture in the background. (Photo courtesy of Jason Jefferies.)

Moving the Panels and Doors

I learned that the revolving doors are not only projection surfaces but can also reflect light onto the side walls, combining to create a 360-degree virtual environment at the center point where they converge. Note the manner in which images are broken up and reassembled in new configurations by the staggered arrangement of the projection surfaces. (Play video above.)

Exploring configurations and available features.

The Most Natural Fits

I ended up choosing the content that most naturally reflected the thematic interests of the project as these images most emphasized the relationship between image and surface. I focused on images that were relevant to Walter Benjamin’s times, as well as modernizations of the sort of everyday art of the publically-accessible world that his writings had helped me to see—graffiti, advertisements, propaganda, and canonized artworks, to name a few.

A picture of some graffiti I found while wandering the internet. Graffiti projected more beautifully than any other type of image onto the apparatus. The texture of the computer monitor blends interestingly with the texture of the cement wall.

Remediating the Remediated

Some chance encounters in my virtual wanderings resulted in shots that were both relevant to and reflective of the space in which I was working. Above, one can see the revisiting of Warhol’s soup cans as they might be projected onto a train car. The windows and clefts in the train’s surface resemble the windows and separating panels I was working with in the studio and helped me imagine how they too may break up space and reintroduce the art we have grown used to.

Train art meets Andy Warhol. Screen creates strange curvature in the image revealing that it was shot from the floor.


I constructed several collages of small parts in addition to creating slides of cropped content so as to vary the image sizes to be used in the slideshows for the apparatus. While each is somewhat generated by artificial intelligence in the sense that they were selected by a search engine, the collages rework and reframe patterns and arrangements in ways that defamiliarize the data and emphasize aspects of its content as artistically constructed.

Stacked images.

Landscapes & Hue Saturation

Some choices were driven simply by personal preferences and tastes. I took the time to edit several cropped search photos in order to create color combinations I found interesting or that blended well with the studio lighting options available. Above, I altered the colors of the images so that the ocean would appear a distressful green. When projected onto the large walls, these images take on a landscape quality.

A striking image made toxic.

Original Paintings and Photographs

I chose to use some landscape photos from my own personal collection in order to contrast these with the virtual landscapes encountered in my online wanderings. I also used parts of my paintings, a few snapshots of old friends who wandered widely with me, and textured surfaces that were started but never finished. I was afraid these large unified images would be jarring against the collages, but it turned out that the apparatus split up the images enough that they appeared similar to the others.



Above images are from my personal collection.  I chose them for their landscape qualities.  They contrasted the split-up world of framed search results with a broad-stroked wholeness that fractured inside the apparatus at various vantage points. 

Photographs of Books and Online Text

I used many photographs from my personal library. Sometimes I tried to find passages that spoke to the arcades. Other times, I just photographed the book; content was secondary to the shadows on the page or the marginalia. When projected onto the apparatus, these images of text broke into parts, mixing with the images in foreground and background, mirroring the way we experience text in everyday life.

Above, blurred photos, of The Arcades Project. These created an interesting effect when projected onto the more complex parts of the apparatus. 


Above photos, courtesy of Jason Jefferies.

Finalizing the Apparatus

The final version of the installation is comprised of six Powerpoint presentations. All content was accessed using Dropbox. In the next few slides, I have altered the Magnolia schematic to help identify landmarks for a reinstallation.

Final walk-though, April 5, 2014. 


Inviting Visitor Participation
(Photographs from visitors were presented on the North-West TV along with an invitation to post pics on Twitter.)

"The particular difficulty of doing historical research on the period following the close of the eighteenth century will be displayed. With the rise of the mass circulation press, the sources become innumerable." - Walter Bejmain

Above, an image from the slideshow featured on the Northwest TV. (Photo, courtesy of Jason Jefferies.)



Above photos, courtesy of Jason Jefferies.




Above, various shots from April 5th presentation. 

Click below to print out event pamphlet


Special thanks to NC State University, the Hunt Library’s staff and technical support team, the 2014 NC Literary Festival staff and participants, the Friends of the Library and Jason Jefferies who provided conceptual assistance and contributed photographs. 

For more information see http://arcadesprojectproject.com or contact the artist at https://twitter.com/hmcricken @hcricken #arcadesprojections.