Isle-to-Isle was a web-based experimental reading project conceived by Sher Chew (designer) and Berny Tan (artist/designer) who have backgrounds in data visualization/information design. The project commenced on June 1, 2014 with the purchase of the domain name isle-to-isle.info for the duration of a year. Every week, we read 10 pages of Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island (Wordsworth Classics edition). Without consulting one another, we each generated a diagram based off those 10 pages.
The nature of the project was relatively organic, with the diagrams serving as a by-product of our engagement with the text. We aimed to publish both diagrams side-by-side on the website by midnight every Sunday, along with the text from the 10 pages.
Our progression through the novel, our shared penchant for diagrams, and the process of reading itself as influenced by our personalities and experiences throughout the year were thus laid bare in this year-long dual input feed. Isle-to-Isle ultimately became, not just a mammoth illustration of Verne's adventure classic, but also a record of the convergences and divergences in our relationship(s) with the text.
The name Isle-to-Isle took its inspiration from the name of the novel, but it is also representative of the collaboration between two individuals. Incidentally, we both moved from one island to another – Singapore to Manhattan – to attend art schools in New York City. The word “isle” is also homonymous with “aisle,” much like the aisles of bookshelves that we traversed in search of the text. This further recalls the format of the website, in which the diagrams run adjacent to one another.
As we wandered around the Strand Book Store in New York City in search of the book for this project, we began establishing loose parameters to aid in our selection. This rule set was formulated based on both practicality and individual literary tastes:
- The length of the novel must be approximately 500 pages – long enough to last a year, but short enough to not be a burden.
- It should be a fiction novel written in a conventional narrative form – no experimental structures or short story anthologies due to the already experimental nature of the project.
- The content should not have anything to do with New York City or be too closely tied to historical events.
- Neither of us should have read the book.
- The bookstore must possess 2 copies of the book so that we can both purchase it at the same time.
Based on this system, we embarked on a grueling process of elimination, eventually settling on Jules Verne's 1874 novel The Mysterious Island. According to the blurb: "a group of men escape imprisonment during the American Civil War by stealing a balloon. Blown across the world, they are air-wrecked on a remote desert island... eventually constructing a sophisticated society in miniature."
Much like the other books in Verne's Voyages Extraordinaires series (which includes Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), this novel weaves scientific detail into an epic adventure, making it an apt choice for a project that is essentially a diagrammatic journey in itself.
Berny Tan was born and raised in Singapore, and graduated with a BFA in Visual & Critical Studies from the School of Visual Arts in New York. She is navigating her potential roles as artist, writer, and/or curator (among others).
Sher Chew is a designer from Singapore based in New York. She graduated from Parsons, The New School for Design in 2014 with a BFA in Communication Design. She sees design as a means of inquiry across all disciplines.