Jennifer E. Boyle: Interfacing Affect: The Hollins Community Project

Hollins University, a private, womens liberal arts university located in southwest Virginia, is an embodiment of Foucaults heterotopia: the juxtaposition of seemingly incompatible notions of real and imagined spaces enfolded into a specific context of place.1 Of course, while Foucault gave the term new critical life, he did not invent it. Indeed, if one were to invoke the phrase at a medical conference on brain or body imaging science it would designate the displacement of embodied phenomena. In many ways, the new media project I describe in this paper brings together aspects of the two prevailing definitions of a heterotopia. Interfacing Affect: The Hollins Community Project is an experiment in new media that explores the ethics of new media interfaces through the emplacement of history, narrative, and embodied affect.

The planning for this project was initiated early in 2006 as part of a collaborative National Science Foundation proposal that linked the resources and faculty of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction at Virginia Polytechnic and State University (Virginia Tech) with a much smaller womens university, known for its unique arts and humanities programs. The collaboration between Hollins University and Virginia Tech brings together two institutions that are not only very different in size and mission, but with very different relationships to the history of southwest Virginia. Hollins in particular is an institution that has formed its notions of community out of an institutional identity grounded in tradition and local, self-generative history (many of the narratives describing the unique character of the University draw connections between the cultural and physical environment of Hollins and its creative aspirations and successes). In addition to being a well-ranked liberal arts university, Hollins also holds the distinction of having been in existence through both the prebellum and antebellum South (founded as a seminary in 1842, Hollins became a womens college in 1851). The physical topography of Hollins is itself a ghostly heterotopia a rural landscape that juxtaposes state-of-the-art facilities and literary landmarks with ancient foot trails and a grand old house on the hill.2 On one end of campus is a small trail that leads through a small wooded area. The trail, located at the upper eastern edge of campus, is one of the few remaining geographical links to the Hollins Community, a term that refers to the community established by African American slaves who were brought to Hollins in the early eighteenth century and who remained in the area as servants to the university after Emancipation. The trail is a remaining trace of two sides of Hollins institutional identity: a creative, progressive womens liberal arts institution with a strong community ethos, and the first chartered womens college in southwestern Virginia possessing both prebellum and antebellum histories. The trail itself is a fascinating confluence of the real and the virtual. Along the trail one finds discarded cookware and turn-of-the-century glassware; old small foundations for dwellings; the ruins of wood sculptures from the contemporary era. The trail and the environment surrounding it have had many afterlives: foot trail connecting members of the Hollins Community to the campus; a university dump site earlier in the 20th century; and a sculpture garden for Hollins art students.

A key influence for this project, Ethel Morgan Smith, author of From Whence Cometh My Help, has produced a history of the Hollins Community that mixes extensive archival and field research with personal reflections and creative non-fiction. The rich context she provides for the trails history plays a fundamental role in both phases of this installation from oral histories from members of the Hollins Community who describe leaving stones along the trails so their children could find them at work, to descriptions and images of the psychical, social, and geographical complexities of traversing between two worlds at once spatially and culturally divided and intimately intertwined.

The Hollins Community trail elicits productive confusion over the interrupted logics and narratives of institutional memory. The site is a montage of physical ruins and the competing and conflicted histories that seep through the texts, images, dirt, and artifacts associated with this small stretch of land. This project was conceived as a way of further intensifying the conjunction of these registers through the use of new media. New media has become a contested term for the progressive materiality of new digital technologies.3 Our hope is that this project will serve as an example of how the thoughtful employment of new media interfaces can intensify spatial and temporal experience in such a way that the incipient moment of forming history in narrative can be experienced as embodied phenomena.

What are the possibilities for encountering alterity through new media technologies and interfaces?

The ruin does not supervene like an accident upon a monument that was intact only yesterday. In the beginning there is ruin. Ruin is that which happens to the image from the moment of the first gaze --- Jacques Derrida 4

Derridas musing on the ruin offers up an important critique of originary experience. Originary experience is constituted as a faith in a mythical pre-moment where history was once coherent and intact. In fact, the moment we enact a gaze with the hope of creating a personal or historical narrative out of an artifact, image, or space we are already inscribed in a process of decay. Other possible sites of meaning must be interned as a history emerges. Memory becomes de-composed to the extent that narrative or artistic composition must be adept at animating memory through framing, forgetting, and selecting what gestures, artifacts, and meanings will remain as representations of a given event.

The power of Ethel Morgan Smiths narrative experimentations in telling the history of the Hollins Community adheres in her insistence on retaining the unstable power of the ruin. While she gives voice to the African American community associated with Hollins, she imagines those voices as already embedded in the complex layering of her present narration and embodied experience at Hollins, the subaltern oral histories of former Community members, and the nuances of physical space, institutional memory, and narrative emplacement. While Smiths narratives and fragments construct a montage of ignored and invisible faces and histories, they do so with the intention of imaging them as agents of their own historical experiences.

The challenge for this project is to maintain and perhaps even productively intensify the ruptures and fragments to the narrative logic surrounding the Hollins Community Trail and the communities and histories associated with it. A principal claim informing these efforts, then, is that there is potential for new media interfaces to enact an affective (ethical) dimension to the instability of historical narrative.

Theoretical and Practical Components of the Installation

Several students from Hollins University will be traveling between Hollins and Virginia Tech over the summer and fall of 2007 to work on constructing the interface technologies for the project. Students and faculty will the return to the site at Hollins to experiment with specially programmed hand-held devices.

Students will be in residence at the Center for Human-Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech to learn how to work on programs for the handheld devices they will carry with them at the site. The objective in the design phase of the interface is to create an opportunity for students to think about how technologically coded environments open up or potentially limit interaction with the found objects at the site. The emphasis here is on embodied, performative inter-facing with these artifacts, rather than an augmentation or complete interruption of representational meaning.

The second phase of the installation asks participants to go to the site in small groups, equipped with handheld augmented reality technology. Drawing inspiration from Mark Dions Tate Thames Dig 5, this segment of the project requires participants actively to locate, interact with, and taxonomize remnants, ruins, trash, fragments, and found objects along the Hollins trail. A central technological element of the interface involves creating traces (temporal spatial, and narrative) that record embodied movement and interaction with the objects. The users physical movement in relation to their interaction with a given object is recorded; however, the user can also make their own choices about when to record a particular gesture or movement. Users also generate narrative and image content that become affixed to the time and spatial coordinates recorded. The patterns of activity that emerge are fragmentary and represent multiple dimensions of experience with the space: time/date traces that can be manually triggered; rough geometrical outlines of activity around a particular artifact; text and images produced as an interaction unfolds. This aspect of the installation is designed to evoke a sense of incipient action in relationship to images and artifacts that would seem over-determined if fully contextualized. The hope is to enact various encounters with a version of what Mark Hansen has described as the digital-facial-image (DFI) but through artifacts, gestures, and objects that in turn pose their own challenges and questions. The digital-facial-image is a circuit that moves perception of the image into a mode of affective interaction with and through the image. Such interfaces, rather than channeling the bodys contribution through a narrow frame of software options open the interface to the richness of bodily processing of the image.6 The DFI circuit elicits recognition at a very basic level that the bodys experiences are not a closed ensemble of reality but engaged in a transfer of affective power from the image to the body. There are degrees of unqualified intensity at the level of embodied gesture, repetition, and unstructured anticipation amid this type of interaction.

The experience encourages individual engagement with these objects, as well as the exchange of information, objects, and images through virtual spaces. Elements such as virtual graffiti and tracking further complicate things by encouraging surveillance of and between members as they excavate along the trail. In the end, the complexities that appear around virtual and real space, the authority of human participants, artifacts and objects, and the physical space itself, create competing vertical and horizontal registers for exploring what kinds of circulations, patterns, and displacements of information and meaning can materialize.

The final phase of the project comes in the form of performances, art, and writing projects that draw from connections between Morgans narrative of the Hollins Community and the information and images recorded from the on-site investigations. Conspicuously absent from either phase of the installation are interfaces and performances that would project these experiences as coherent, representational narratives that tell one history or counter-history of the space.

Cathy Caruth has argued that embodied trauma and history are similar phenomena: trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individuals past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated naturethe way it was precisely not known in the first instancereturns to haunt the survivor later on.7 Thus, our recorded histories are symptoms of our desire to recapture the moment we have been unable to escape as a result of our inability to fully experience it at the time. There is tremendous potential in this characterization of history and bodily memory. How can we engage with the traumas (past and persistent) of a place without relying on a reductive re-colonization through re-telling of counter-experience, with or without the aid of the virtual? If history is indeed a lost moment that repeats itself and not just through narrative but at the level of cognitive and embodied response there is tremendous potential in imagining new affective environmental tangles (technology, bodies, narratives, objects) that focus on the incipient, mediated aspects of narrative-making. The Hollins Community installation explores the extent to which digital technologies permit a kind of serious play with temporality, spatiality, and embodied affect. The new media interface is typically imagined in terms of its capacities for access (seamless or interrupted) and immersion, but there is perhaps even greater potential in the gaps that emerge around differing modes of temporality, spatial definition, and bodily anticipation and response within digital environments. In such instances, embodied performance become sites that allow for an experience of alterity as immanent and embodied indeed, prior to any immersive identification with a particular text or spatiotemporal image. The heterotopic place in this project is envisioned not as the re-collection of the layers to existing cultural memory, but as the ever-present threshold of unassimilated histories and traumas and their inscriptions within embodied experience.


1 Foucault, Michel. Different Spaces. Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984. Trans. Robert Hurley et al. (New York and Paris, 1994), pp.175-85. On space and the semantics of place, see the work of Virginia Polytechnic and State University collaborators, Steve Harrison and Deborah Tatar. Places: People, Events, Loci. The relation of semantic frames in the construction of place Journal of Computer Supported Cooperative Work (Kluwer Publishers) (in press).

2 For some examples see the Hollins University website <>

3 For discussions of the relevance of the new in new media See Mark B.N. Hansens New Philosophy for New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004)

4 Derrida, Jacques. Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993)

6 Hansen, 207

7 Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 4