EXPERIMENTS IN LITERARY CARTOGRAPHY: THE ISLE-TO-ISLE PROJECT
SHER CHEW AND BERNY TAN
Written five weeks into the project
Published in The Parsons Journal for Information Mapping, Volume VI, Issue 3
READ THE FULL ESSAY HERE
ABSTRACT The application of strict rules or the limited variables of data visualization to the immense fluidity of literature may seem at first counterproductive. Does systematizing literature diminish its power? Yet, authors weave great works of literature out of a specific organization and selection of words. This process, as intuitive and emotional as it might be, can thus be viewed as an interpretation of data. The infinite possibilities of the novel, the essay, the poem, and so on, are essentially crafted from linguistic data sets. Each work of literature, through their interpreters, then becomes the birthplace of derivative interpretations of data: stratums of innumerable branches that represent an individual reading of the text.
Isle-to-Isle is an ongoing web-based collaborative reading project that grew out of one designer’s and one artist’s separate investigations into the visualization of literature. Drawing from our shared passion, yet differing approaches, we dissect the same literary source material – Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. Every week for a year, we will read ten pages of the novel. Without consulting each other, we then each generate a diagram based off those ten pages. At this time we are going into the second month of the project. The results are publicly displayed online through a dual-input feed that explores the challenges of critically visualizing a discrete qualitative data set. Our personal and idiosyncratic method may stimulate new interpretations of the novel and the act of reading itself.
WHY A SITE? (ORIGINALLY TITLED WHY A BOOK)
I embarked on Isle-to-Isle with the intention of coercing myself into learning how to collaborate with another person. Although the approach we adopted was merely “quasi-collaborative” – there was no mutual discussion before crafting our diagrams – we actually evolved in relation to one another through the course of the project. Creating in parallel with Berny gave me access to an alternative frame of reference for the information set with which I was interacting. Her uncanny ability to create across a variety of media also provided the impetus for me to delve into the strange and unfamiliar, experimenting with media I had long neglected or dismissed.
The quote ‘mobilis in mobili,’ the motto of the legendary Nautilus, is sometimes translated as ‘changing through the changing medium.’ This quote has always struck me as profound, especially in relation to thinking about Isle-to-Isle as an agent of change. The process of constant iteration was a harbinger for innovation, challenging all preconceived belief systems that I once had about how to process and present information.
The content for this site originated from a book that Berny and I co-wrote after the completion of the Isle–to–Isle project. Documentation was imperative to Berny and I, in order to preserve the ideas driving this project lest they be lost. Creating a diagram every week on top of our real world commitments made it difficult to truly reflect on the project. In fact, a good part of the experience, on my end at least, consisted of uploading a diagram half asleep, destroying the entire website and then crawling straight into bed, leaving Berny to deal with the carnage. The strength of this project is not so much based on the finished quality of each diagram, but more on the possibilities that the project evoked in dealing with qualitative information, especially with such an extended time frame. Creating some kind of end product gave us the opportunity to synthesize the reflections that would have otherwise fallen by the wayside.
When viewers interacted with our diagrams on a weekly basis, they were only privy to fragments of two narratives – the narrative of The Mysterious Island, and the private narrative of our collaboration. By including synopses, others would be able to understand how the diagrams relate – or didn’t relate – to the novel with more clarity. And by including our reflections on each diagram, we allowed others to be privy to our processes and interactions.
The book we published, as well as this site, present a holistic consummation of our project. By attempting to write about the project, Berny and I were thus forced to contemplate every single diagram, regardless of whether we cared for it or not. This was a daunting task – writing has always been an unpleasant endeavor for me, as the process demands that I articulate my thoughts beyond a vague sense of ‘knowing.’ Throughout the project, we have always provided explanations for our diagrams of our own volition. These short blurbs that I sporadically included in some diagrams over the course of the project were actually instrumental in jogging my memory about long-forgotten ideas.
The very core of our project was a book that we found together, and so it seemed serendipitous for it to culminate in a book that we created together. As the designer of the Isle-to-Isle book, I was not so much concerned with having a resolved end product as I was with discovering what happened when I put all the information back together in an analog format. Given that the layout of a book in itself is a system, trying to devise a way by which all our diagrams, writings, and synopses of the original text related to each other had the potential to result in new and exciting insights. However, the book as a physical artifact had it's limitations as well – accessibility and affordability. Therefore, it seemed imperative that we create a site as well, so that we could share our project freely with others.
I have the misfortune of possessing a personality that is both intensely competitive and cripplingly self-critical. This is a very trying combination in a project set up for weekly compare-and-contrast – each week I would look at Sher’s diagram, more often than not admiring her solutions while simultaneously feeling inadequate about my own skills, and eventually trying to push myself to do better. I would struggle between learning from Sher’s aesthetic and conceptual approaches, while trying to figure out how to “distinguish” myself.
“Distinguish” myself? At the conclusion of this project, I’m still not absolutely sure what “me” or “my style” is, and though I feel that I know what Sher’s “style” is, perhaps she might fail to describe herself. I think we can each see how different we are – and that is one of the joys of Isle-to-Isle – but the articulation and even consistency of those differences is another matter. For example, we agreed early on that Sher prefers using black and white. But twenty weeks later, she designed something with a color palette that I couldn’t have conceived. As for myself, I started the project with this underlying empathy for the characters, trying to chart their emotional states. But thirty weeks later, I’m counting and arranging punctuation marks. It was as if becoming aware of our predilections was to acknowledge them as limitations to overcome, or to ultimately weary of fitting into that mold.
Of course, the point is not to be able to pin down a definition of oneself or one’s style. We are all fluid, we are all affected by external circumstances or internal conflicts, and that in turn affects what and how and why we create. It’s easy to assume that a project with such defined parameters exists in its own self-contained vacuum, but it is when those parameters exist that the variables truly run riot – being sick or depressed one week, seeing an inspiring exhibition the next, or failing to connect with a particular week’s ten pages. In every one of those situations, our approaches adapt to our circumstances; I counted punctuation marks because I needed something stable and quantifiable in my life that week. We had already realized this when we co-wrote a paper five weeks into the project: “The structure of the project inherently reflects the erratic and occasionally fragmentary experience of reading; as we latch onto different aspects of the book each week, it mirrors how a reader engages with a story on multiple levels (or sometimes not at all), and remembers or is attracted to some parts more than others.”
The truth is, I am not an information designer. This project was never a platform for me to prove anything about data visualization and its possibilities, or to prove anything about myself as a designer and/or artist. Personally, creating a diagram is a means of personal reflection and contemplation through a process of organizing information. Therefore, I see Isle-to-Isle as a diary – though my fifty diagrams reveal little about my day-to-day life in the past year, they map this parallel existence that I was living with Sher. Each week was a personal challenge – which part of the text was most striking to me? What can I do with that information? How can I make it true, not necessarily to the plot, but to my experience of reading the book? How can I enrich my own understanding of the novel, or of diagrams as a medium, or of the project itself? How can I abstract, expand, distort, distill, uproot, undermine, recontextualize, decontextualize, control, surrender to, play with, engage with, be frustrated by, and even possibly give up on the information? (And: how would Sher solve this? How can I learn from what she did one, five, twenty weeks ago?)
For me, a diagram is always destined to fail. Yes, it can be clear, it can be well designed, it can be innovative, and it can even be beautiful. But there is always some part of the story that it cannot fully represent; one must exclude and simplify for the sake of clarity or aesthetic, or sacrifice accessibility for the sake of concept. Creating a diagram is tantamount to facing failure, to force oneself to decide what to give up. Yet, faced with these limitations, faced with a text with which we weren’t always engaged, we forced ourselves to create meaning, to solve problems. We gave ourselves room to fail – next week would be better, we could say, and if not, then maybe the next week. In fact, seeing Sher’s diagram each week was itself like facing a new kind of failure on my part (why didn’t I think of that?) – a failure that opened up a new path for future experimentation (what happens if I try that, mixed with this?).
Over the past year, Sher is probably the person with whom I texted most regularly. I don’t think she will refute that we are very different people; the evidence is in the diagrams. And yet, Isle-to-Isle became the conduit for our expedited friendship. It wasn’t just the weekly post-diagram-reveal discussions, which ranged from the very basic (“omg, same!” or “ugh, mine sucks”) to the meditative (analysis, praise, comparison, regrets).
It was also everything else in between – work, life, love, drunk texts from her, stress texts from me. In the end, Isle-to-Isle resides as much in those pairs of diagrams that were supposed to appear every Sunday by midnight from June 2014 to May 2015, as it does in the bubbles of text that appeared in my phone almost every single day from June 2014 to May 2015.