Performing American Literature
Professor Wai Chee Dimmock
Open City Walking App Proposal
Introduction: Paths and Palimpsests
In his Open City, [i] Teju Cole masterfully travels through sites in Manhattan, Brussels and Nigeria through the eyes of the book’s protagonist, Julius. As Julius visits places like Ground Zero, Trinity Church, and Columbus Circle, he weaves effortlessly between themes of memory, historical reference, diaspora, and alienation. On and off, Julius’s daydreams are interrupted by real-world interactions with characters, both humorous and somber. For me, these moments reflect the thought-paths I traverse during my own long walks in New York. As a native Manhattanite, with one parent on the Upper West Side and one in downtown Chelsea, I could relate to Julius’s miles-long walks, equal parts reverie and real-time observation.
My first thought (and error) was to propose a walking map that traveled the entire narrative path of the book. This would mean a complete page-by-page walking tour of Manhattan (admittedly enjoying cafe stops to read Julius’s sojourns to Nigeria and Belgium). I assumed the book articulated a linear trajectory, but it was only upon a second reading and further research that I realized my mistake. Cole’s engagement with Manhattan comes in the form of blips, or bursts. Some sites, like Ground Zero, are blaring with detail and thought, while others project only a “vaguely hallucinatory feel.” [ii]
James Wood[iii] explains Cole’s seamless sense of continuity springs from the journalistic quality of the book. Traveling through memory and the steps of daily life, Cole mimics the way we experience and perceive. Wood notes that Cole’s achievement, the illusion he creates, is both masterful and rare.[iv] While this somewhat assuaged my dismay at misreading the book, I faced a practical predicament: how can I create a game to better reflect Cole’s highly saturated moments in Manhattan’s landscape? How would I approach those sites that seemed like islands, connected more by memory and narrative than an actual path?
Looking for another analogy, I turned to thoughts of medieval manuscripts. During that era, the pages of those texts, which were considered very valuable, were often recycled. Older writing, deemed lackluster, would be erased or chipped off. New data was then inked onto the denuded paper. Today, scholars can look at these pages, and discern the ghostly imprint of old words that were there before. Through the character of Julius, Cole projects Manhattan like a page whose writing is often erased and rewritten. New York becomes an old manuscript with layers of history imprinted upon it, not readily visible to the naked eye. Considering such layers, the city, in other words, is a palimpsest.
James Wood, in his 2015 review of Open City for the New Yorker, remarks on this quality of layers: “It is a place of constant deposit and erasure… and Julius is often drawn to the layers of sedimented historical suffering on which the city rests.” [v] Yet what gives the book its richness are the variegated layers that Cole injects into the narrative. As Wood puts it, “Julius’s attention to the contemporary, in particular to those in danger of becoming modern victims of prosperous urban forgetfulness or carelessness,”[vi] is what gives the book its luster.
Of course, Cole injects aspects of himself into the book. ‘A writer, photographer and historian who was raised in Nigeria and came to the United States in 1992,’[vii] this diverse background may help explain the textured, multi-media sense one has when reading his descriptions of the sites. This feeling inspires the intuitive development of an app that would help us visually and aurally recreate the spaces of Cole’s novel.
Proposal: Observational Palimpsest Entertainment Navigator or “OPEN App”
Developing an app for Open City requires a multi-media approach. This is reflective of Cole’s experience as a writer, photographer, and historian, who clearly employs different perspectives in his narrative. The book begs to be seen, heard and researched. The novel’s palimpsest quality, its layering of history, imagery, and sound, is what I want to explore with an app. Even more specifically, a walking app.
The working title is the “Observational Palimpsest Entertainment Navigator,” referring to the title of the book. Teju Cole cites nearly 250 locations in NYC. Practically speaking, rather than map out all of them, I will create an app that takes the player to a curated series of charged spaces. I identify “charged spaces” as those which lend this multi-layered information to the reader, rather than those sites which critic Makiko designated as “hallucinatory.”
Each of these spaces would be marked on a map connected to a GPS service (such as Bing or Google Maps), where you could go to different ‘pin’ locations. Attached to each pin would be a direct quote and page number from the book, creating an experience that anchors the site, reader, and novel to one another. In this way, the app synthesizes the wide breadth of information that Julius refers to in his travels, connecting it to specific locations around New York.
Victora Wang and I will collaborate on this multimedia project, dividing our work between sight and sound. Sound qualifies perhaps as the atmospheric recordings of the location, folk music from an era, or radio recordings of events that took place there. Sight could be defined as contemporary or historic photography, news clippings from the era, or artworks depicting a specific moment .
DH Mapping Models:
Digital humanities projects that map out the entirety or a portion of a book are not uncommon. Drawing just from DHCommons.org[viii], there were some portions of several mapping projects which we could model our game after. Overall, these projects would serve as visual tools for the reader, literal maps which provided in-depth investigations into a book’s narrative, but never creating an interactive program.
One project, titled “Mapping At The Mountains of Madness,”[ix] bears resemblance to aspects of our proposed app in both its agenda and the challenges it faces. “Mapping at the Mountains…” geographically charts both the real and fictional locations that appear in H.P. Lovecraft’s novella.[x] Similarly, we are attempting to render the layers of history, memory and contemporary reality that Cole imbues into geographic sites across Manhattan. Another parallel is that Lovecraft’s book is written in the first-person, creating a similar sense of journeying and travel that we see in Open City’s Julius. Both mapping projects thus follow the narrative path of the main characters’ first-person voice.
Where our projects differ is that “Mapping at the Mountains…” is a map, not an interactive game. Its purpose is to be a visualizer; it shows the overlap between real geographic spaces the character travels in Antarctica and the fictional spaces he travels. For us, the game is meant to immerse the player in the many layers of material imbued in one space. A secondary difference is that our game, at its second stage, would be interactive; the player would be able to add their own layers to the palimpsest.
Another project pertaining to literature and mapping that we use for comparison is HESTIA.[xi] Powered by Oxford University, it examines representations of space in Heroditus’s Histories,[xii] juxtaposing places he referenced to geographic data the matches his descriptions. Yet HSTIA stops short of interactivity, let alone being a game. Instead, its purpose is to create a more detailed, annotated map of classical Greece, going beyond a simple two-dimensional map of the region.
Developing A Platform for Our Data:
There are four types of software we toyed with using a platform for our data. We ultimately settled on a combination of Shanti Interactive/Visual Eyes and Walk Jog Run.
GPS Software: Initially, we had hoped to create a much more interactive game, tracking one’s motions in real time. This would allow you to visualize your own path on the ground as it parallels Cole’s narrative in the book. However, the technological skill needed to create a GPS-oriented walking app is beyond both our skill-sets and the project timeframe.
Exploding Axon: Another tool we considered but rejected was utilizing a series of computer-generated exploding axonometric maps. Commonly used by urban planners and landscape architects, an exploding axon is a three-dimensional map that takes multiple elements on a site (such as its buildings, waterways, landscaping, etc.) and organizes them into distinct layers. These layers are then separated (or “exploded”) from one another and organized into a stack. This series of distinct but related maps can help highlight concurrent elements on a site that weren’t previously apparent.
Initially, we hoped to use this technique to illustrate the palimpsest quality of sites in the novel. However, this tool is more related to the alternate goal of visualizing data, and would be better suited to projects such as HESTIA or “Mapping the Mountains of Madness.”
Walk Jog Run: Drawing on pre-existing maps of Manhattan, we aim to target 4 or 5 locations that have dense layers of descriptions of history, memory, and contemporary interaction. Using interactive software, such as Google Maps or Walk Jog Run,[xiii] we will mark out the locations on the map.
Shanti Interactive and Visual Eyes: Software such as Shanti Interactive[xiv] and Visual Eyes[xv] will allow us to apply the information we gathered to the ‘pinned’ maps we will make. Opening the Open City mapping app, a user can click on the ‘pin’ that correlates with the site that they are standing at in real time. A window will open that presents the different layers of the palimpsest on that site. Selecting between three layers (or more), which we can loosely term as ‘past’, ‘present’ or ‘future’, the user is directed to a secondary window that allows him or her to choose from audio-visual material pertaining to the palimpsest subject.
Choosing Sites: As mentioned prior, Cole references over 250 streets and landmarks between Manhattan and Queens. Amidst this mass of locales, Victoria and I will isolate several areas to focus on. Practically speaking, it is not possible to cover every location in the book, and there are only a select handful that truly demonstrate this palimpsest narrative quality. For this reason, we anticipate using Battery Park, Trinity Church, Ground Zero, Columbus Circle and Harlem as our main locations.
Photographing and Filming Sites: Going to each site, I will photograph and film each of these environments. By doing so, we will have images of the locations to compare to the descriptions in Open City. Further, we will attach archival themes to these images to help users understand the relationships between the archival material and the sites where they are connected. I anticipate using/experimenting with the following tech (all of which can be rented from the DMCA):
- Canon 5d Mark iii
- Go Pro Hero Three
- Sony PXW-X70
- Go Pro Omni 360 Degree
Identifying Palimpsest Layers: I will isolate the layers in each zone/location according to either the time or theme Cole uses when describing the site. This will require further research to better understand the contexts behind the data that Julius reveals at each place.
Collecting Archival Material: I will draw from a variety of sources such as the Smithsonian Photo Archive, Yale Library, Yale Art Gallery, The Metropolitan Museum, The Morgan and Frick Libraries, Getty Images, etc. Additionally, I will choose news clips, historic and contemporary photos, works of art, and other archival material to assign to the layers I have identified for each space.
[i] Cole, Teju. Open City: A Novel. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012. Print.
[ii] Kakutani, Michiko. “Roaming the Streets, Taking Surreal Turns.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 May 2011. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.
[iii] Wood, James. “The Arrival of Enigmas.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 25 Mar. 2015. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.
[vii] Wood, James. “The Arrival of Enigmas.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 25 Mar. 2015. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.
[viii] “View All Projects.” View All Projects | DHCommons. DH Commons Journal, n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.
[ix] “Story Map Series.” Arcgis.com. Wright State University, n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.
[x] Lovecraft, H P. At the Mountains of Madness. N.p.: Del Rey, 1991. Print.
[xi] “Hestia.” Hestia | Hestia. Oxford University, n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.
[xii] Herodotus, and Tom Holland. The Histories. New York: Viking, 2014. Print.
[xiii] “WalkJogRun – a Free and Easy Way to Create or Find Routes.” WalkJogRun.net. Almost Awesome Inc., n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.
[xiv] Shanti Interactive.” SHANTI INTERACTIVE. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.
[xv] “VisualEyes.” VisualEyes. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.