The Digital Alchemist: A Mixed Reality Exploration of Jonson's Alchemist as Site-Specific Theatre

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Kirk Quinsland

    Fordham University

  2. 2. Rebecca Rouse

    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Work text
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The Digital Alchemist (DA) is an interdisciplinary project currently in development that is dedicated to presenting both scholars and a general audience with tools for understanding Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist as a piece of site-specific theatre ( Our aim is for the DA to provide a framework for the development of multi-dimensional digital environments that explore works of literature in the historical contexts of their original production.

The Alchemist and Site-Specificity
Jonson’s The Alchemist is an ideal piece for exploring the relationships between place and performance. The narrative of the play is set entirely within London’s Blackfriars district, where Jonson himself lived, and where the play was first performed in the Blackfriars Theatre. Using a variety of digital technologies, we are able to recreate aspects of what it would have been like to see the play in its original context, as well as articulate the argument for understanding The Alchemist as a piece of site-specific theatre.

The term site-specific is most often used in relationship to visual arts such as sculpture, although more recently performance studies has claimed the term as well [Kaye (2000); Pearson and Shanks (2001); Wilkie (2012)]. Work in other fields on the concepts of space and place has also provides relevant connections to the topic of site-specificity and locative artifacts: from cultural studies [de Certeau, M. (1984); Bachelard, G. (1994); Auge, M. (1995), Kwon, M. (2002)], literary studies [Bly, M. (2007); Hopkins, D.J. (2007); Howard, J. (2009)], architecture [Tuan, Y. (1977)], design [Charitos, D. (2009)], and media studies [MacIntyre, B. et. al. (2004); Bolter, J. D. et. al (2006)]. Across all of these engagements with the concept of site, a deep interconnection between place and content is emphasized. Sculptor Richard Serra has provided what continues to be a key definition for site-specific art: “Site-specific works deal with the environmental components of given places. The scale, size, and location of site-specific works are determined by the topography of the site, whether it be urban or landscape or architectural enclosure” [Serra in Kwon (2002), 12]. A site-specific work, then, is one that is created specifically for a particular location, and whose content is determined by the space it will occupy.

A close examination of Jonson’s The Alchemist and supporting historical documentation suggests this work includes a deep connection between place and content, and was likely intended to be understood by its contemporary audiences as site-specific. The play was written for the Blackfriars Theatre, and the action of the play was set in the Blackfriars district as well, in a house near to the theatre itself. This positioning is unique in the early modern theatrical world: while many plays were written to be performed in the Blackfriars Theatre, The Alchemist is one of only a small handful that is also set in that environment. Literature scholar R. L. Smallwood explains that Jonson’s “[...] temporal and locative immediacy is carefully built into the play. The audience within the play and the audience in the theater are one and the same” [157]. Despite these and other strong textual ties to site, the fact that the site of the play’s original setting and performance no longer exists creates a disruption in the relationship between the play and the site. The DA seeks to address this disconnect.

The Problem of Representation: Site, Authenticity and Simulation
Even though this project is developed around the concept of site-specificity, there is a problem in determining exactly what constitutes a “site.” This problem of the shifting nature of the term has been explored by Kaye in depth. However, this problem becomes magnified in the case of The Alchemist in the context of creating a map of the Blackfriars site based on the pertinent historical documentation contained in the Loseley manuscript archive. This archive includes documents spanning nearly two hundred years (1489-1682), during which the Blackfriars changed in many significant ways. Nevertheless, some important aspects of the site persist even today: most of the district’s original streets are in their original locations [Whitfield, P. (2007); Barber, P. (2012)], and a few of them--most notably Playhouse Yard--reference topographical features that have long since vanished.

Because of the problematic nature of determining “the site,” the DA must contend with a kind of temporal-specificity that parallels site-specificity: if The Alchemist was written for a particular place in London, so too was it written for a particular time. We can never completely replicate an environment, or fully recapture the audience experience of the original production. It is possible, however, with the use of digital media, to simulate the environment in a way that engages contemporary audiences with the site-specific nature of the play.

Additionally, the use of digital technology itself results in complex negotiations around the concepts of aura and authenticity. This question of aura becomes especially interesting in the case of work that combines the physical and digital, as in augmented or mixed reality [Bolter, J. D. et. al (2006)]. As opposed to virtual reality, mixed and augmented reality systems maintain a connection to the physical. This connection can provide the possibility for a differently embodied form of experience, which includes elements of a reproductive technology experience, and is “both immediate and mediated” [Bolter 29], thus highlighting both the presence of site (or a site’s remains) as well as the absence of site.

Solution(s): Multi-nodal Experience Design
The DA addresses the problematic nature of site-specificity in a site that no longer exists by providing multiple experiences, addressing different aspects of the play and the remaining traces of the site. These multiple nodes provide different kinds of access for multiple audiences. Each of these nodes provides a means for audiences to engage and interact with the archive itself in different ways depending on participant interest. For example, scholars will be able to explore the original documents along with their connections to Jonson’s text, while participants in an augmented reality experience will be able to interact with a version of the play unlike any previously staged. These different experiences are not mutually exclusive, and in fact compelling connections are revealed by participating in more than one, although this is not required.

Moving forward, we plan to conduct user testing to solicit feedback on the each node of the project, and develop a framework that could be applied in practice to create similar explorations of other literary works that also demand attention to site-specificity. Future objectives include collaborations with colleagues in a variety of fields, such as architectural history and palaeography, to expand our design such that the content is accessible for a range of interdisciplinary uses.

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Smallwood, R. L. (1981). “Here, in the Friars’: Immediacy and Theatricality in The Alchemist.” Review of English Studies. 32:126.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

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Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO