Digital scholarship blog

4 posts from August 2014

27 August 2014

The British Library Meets Burning Man

Posted on behalf of David Normal (edited by Sophie McIvor and Mahendra Mahey)

The British Library meets Burning Man…

In December 2013 the British Library uploaded over a million images from our 19th century digitised books onto Flickr Commons, with the invitation for anyone to remix, re-use and re-purpose the content as they wish.

The response from the online community was outstanding, but by far the most unexpected use of the British Library’s Flickr Commons images is happening this week - the collection has inspired four large-scale artworks on display at this year’s Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, created by David Normal, a California-based artist with a special interest in 19th century illustration.

David_normal_light_box_errecting_burning_man_1One of David’s four paintings being installed at Burning Man 2014
(photographed by Andrew Spalding)

A video showing the process of one of the lightboxes being installed at Burning Man 2014 
(Courtesy of David Normal)

Before he headed off to the desert to install his “Crossroads of Curiosity’ artworks at the festival, we spoke to David about how this came about, and how he used the image collection:

What first attracted you to the idea of using 19th Century illustrations in your art?

Beginning as a teenager I was interested in making “seamless” collages, in which the elements go together so smoothly that it looks as though it were all one illustration. I love Max Ernst’s collage novel, “Une Semaine De Bonte” which took this seamless collage aesthetic to its zenith using 19th century illustration.  Recently, I began painting over digital collage prints, and this process opened up a lot of possibilities, to the point where I felt that I could use the 19th century in a fresh way that is not derivative of Ernst’s work.

How did you come across the British Library’s Flickr Commons collection?

The guitarist of the punk band “Flipper” mentioned something about it and at the time I had already initiated the plan to create paintings based on 19th Century images for Burning Man, and so learning of this vast online collection was thrilling and truly fortuitous since it was exactly what I was looking for.

How has the Library’s collection informed your artwork?

After being introduced to the collection I realized that everything I needed was there.  I decided to use the collection exclusively, and make that one of the hallmarks of the project. Indeed, I feel that the “Crossroads of Curiosity” celebrates this amazing collection.

One of the most striking aspects of the collection is its colossal size.  Having a lot of material to choose from is important in collage making, since out of excess come the chance juxtapositions that are so magical.

Another thing that was very helpful to me was the randomness.  The majority of the images are in no particular order in the photostream, and viewing the images in succession was like taking a journey through a landscape of illustrated symbols. 

How did you identify which images you wanted to use?

Certain images have some symbolic power or strangeness that intrigues me and those are the images I am drawn too.  This has to do with thematic preoccupations that percolate up from my subconscious on the one hand, and with my taste in things on the other, and also with the specific theme I am working with on the Burning Man project, which is “Caravansary - The Silk Road”.  I have favorited nearly 3000 images on my own Flickr page.

What happens next?

I start with selecting several images that I think will go together well.  I bring them into Photoshop and then begin to arrange and play with them.  As the composition develops the images are increasingly cleaned up, edited, and composed together. 

These images below outline the development of the collage painting, “Conflamingulation”, one of four which will be featured on 8’x20’ lightpanels at Burning Man:

David_normal_flickr_commons_favouritesThe chance conjunction of the machine gunner and the skunk suggests an idea for a collage.

 David_normal_machine_gun_skunkA rough collage is made.

David_normal_collage_1Different arrangements are experimented with.

A final version is arrived at that is the basis of the painting.

David_normal_collage_3Finished painting: 
“Conflamingulation”, Acrylic on polypropylene film, lightpanel,  35” x 96”, 2014

Which is your favourite of all the images you’ve discovered on the Flickr Commons collection?

I think I have not viewed more than 10% of the collection altogether, so I can’t say that I have enough familiarity to choose a favourite fairly.  However, if I had to select a single image then perhaps I would choose this skunk because of his great versatility as a piece of clip art.


Image available at the British Library Flickr Commons page
Taken from  page 42 of the book, OUR EARTH AND ITS STORY, A Popular Treatise on Physical Geography, Edited by Robert Brown, Published by Cassell and Company Limited

What is special about a collection like this?

Being able to use illustrations as a way of approaching books is interesting - typically the reverse is the case;  reading a book you find the illustrations and not vice versa.

What do you hope that people at Burning Man will take from the finished pieces?

Larry Harvey, the director of Burning Man, has said that he hopes the pieces will evoke a feeling of “romance”, in the sense of the romanticism of myths and fairytales such as the Arabian Nights.  I will concur with that.  The pieces are meant to show the intersections of distant times, places, peoples and things in humorous and thought provoking ways.  It is a cabinet of curiosities that has opened up to encompass the world in series of dramatic tableaux.  I hope the Crossroads of Curiosity fills the viewer with wonder, and arouses their own curiosity.

David Normal’s ‘Crossroads of Curiosity’ artworks are on display at the Burning Man Festival from 25 August – 1 September.

Here is one his illuminated panels from Burning Man 2014:

David_normal_light_illuminatedOne of David Normal's illuminated panels for Burning Man 2014.

You can discover more about his work at


20 August 2014

Interactive Fiction Writer-in-Residence for the Lines in the Ice Exhibition

From this week onwards, visitors to the Library may come face-to-chest with the institution’s very own example of cryptozoology. An enormous specimen, hunched (though only when passing through doorways) and pallid from too much time spent in the Rare Books Reading Room, this survival of an earlier era can most often be found in the foyer lapping at the water fountain, reading quietly on his iPad, or roaming the canteen, hunting for delicious vegetarian prey.

The British Library is very pleased to welcome the Library's first Interactive Fiction Writer-in-Residence: Rob Sherman is a writer and games designer whose first digital project, the enormous and sprawling browser-based storygame The Black Crown Project, was published by Random House and challenged digital expectations in the publishing industry. Another notable project is his recent Twine game for Shelter about the housing crisis; called The Spare Set .

Rob has successfully acquired CreativeWorks London funding from their entrepreneur-in-residence scheme; to be the attached digital writer for the Library’s upcoming exhibition, Lines In The Ice, which will display documents, maps and paraphernalia relating to arctic exploration expeditions, including John Franklin’s ill-fated voyage to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. The ensuing tales of cannibalism, exposure and desperate contact with the local Inuit are sure to suit Rob’s nightmarish yet delicate prose, once compared to ‘knitting intestines’ by a staunch admirer.

As well as being glimpsed in the corner of your eye as you walk around the Library, Rob will be researching the collections and producing original and unique digital and physical works to accompany the exhibition. While the details are still being finalised, rest assured that you will not need to visit the Library physically to experience Rob’s work; everything will be released online, and any physical works will be digitised. He will also be documenting his progress via a research blog, and hosting events, where he will be sharing his work and documenting his journey into the farthest reaches of our collections.

However, he would like to point out that he is not as scary and legendary as all that, and if you spot him, he will happily stop for a chat.

Rob Sherman cropped

Rob Sherman, Interactive Fiction Writer-in-Residence for the Lines in the Ice Exhibition


19 August 2014

The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Production

When Walter Benjamin published his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1936, he was far from imagining how technology would become not only the vehicle through which art would be transmitted to a wider audience but, more interesting, how technology itself would provide the very source from which art in the 21st century could be constructed. For Benjamin mechanical instruments for reproduction of art works, for example the reproduction of paintings through photographs or music through recordings, would affect the perception of the ‘aura’ or uniqueness of the work of art to its audiences. Reproduction, in his concept, would diminish the power of art, transforming it into common images through which we would be constantly exposed in our everyday lives annulling, so to speak, the very ethos of the aesthetic experience.

Let’s take the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci as an example. This particular painting has been reproduced continuously and applied to many contexts completely alien to its original aesthetic framework: we see the image of the Mona Lisa not only in books and framed reprints hanging on walls but also reproduced in everyday objects such as table cloths, curtains, coffee mugs and - who would ever thought it - toilet paper!



Mona Lisa on Toilet paper -

The wide diffusion of the image transforms the uniqueness of the painting into the banality of an everyday object. Originally conceived as an unique portrait, the reproduction of the painting becomes completely disassociated from the aesthetic intent of its original creation.  

But, what if Benjamin were to revise his essay given today’s technological context: would he still hold to the same ideas about the uniqueness of the work of art? Or would he adapt his theory to encompass artistic expression in a digital environment taking into consideration the way in which digital objects are accessed, re-worked and shared through various social media channels? What would be his opinion about the use of Big Data in today’s art? These are some of the possible questions that will be debated in our next Digital Conversations event to be held at the British Library on the 10th September 2014. Leading UK artists and researchers will come together to discuss the influence of digital data in contemporary artistic expression. Speakers include Anthony Lilley (Chief Creative Officer and CEO of Magic Lantern and a professor of Creative Industries at the University of Ulster), Ernest Edmonds (a pioneering digital artist and professor of Computation and Creative Media in the University of Technology, Sydney and professor of Computational Art at De Montfort University, Leicester); Michael Takeo Magruder (a visual artist and researcher who works with digital and new media including real-time data, immersive environments, mobile devices and virtual worlds);  Julie Freeman ( artist who translates complex processes and data from natural sources into kinetic sculptures, physical objects, images, sound compositions and animations) and Kevin Walker (researcher, designer, writer and artist working at the boundaries of digital and physical and head of the Information Experience Design programme at the Royal Academy of Arts).  Attendance is free and places are strictly limited. Book your ticket now at  to avoid disappointment.


Aquiles Alencar-Brayner

Curator, Digital Research


13 August 2014

Digital Music Lab: Analysing Big Music Data

Vast quantities of data are being generated every day, in increasing volumes, at increasing speeds and of increasingly complex variety. Today, the majority of this data is digital. With increasingly powerful computing systems and larger storage sizes, research across large datasets has become possible.  Yet engagement with data at this scale presents significant logistical challenges. As data increases in size and complexity, its management becomes more difficult, creating problems for ‘traditional’, hands-on approaches to curation and processing.  Datasets like this are known as Big Data.

While this definition focuses on the challenges that today’s volumes of information create, Big Data also presents fascinating opportunities for research.  Analysing large and complex datasets has applications across business, government, public health and throughout academia.

Recognising the potential for making vast amounts of rich data more accessible and easier to interpret by the public, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has funded 21 Digital Transformations in the Arts and Humanities projects as part a £4.6m investment in Big Data.

Digital Music Lab – on which the British Library is partnering with City University London, Queen Mary University of London and UCL - is one of these projects.


Big Music Data

34367vContemporary trends in music research – particularly in the fields of ethnomusicology and the study of performance in Western classical music – are moving increasingly toward data-oriented, empirical methods to answer research questions.  This approach can benefit from computational methods of inquiry. Using digital sound files, music researchers can use audio analysis and processing tools to extract information on features like timing, dynamics, chord progression and melody. Thus far however, this research has been limited to relatively small sound collections.

Conversely, researchers in Music Information Retrieval (MIR) have begun to explore the use of analytical tools across large datasets, particularly in commercial applications, exploring things like acoustic similarity between large-scale collections of recordings, music fingerprinting and automated identification. Users of some of today’s music streaming services may be benefiting from MIR tools in features like music recommendation and playlisting.

While there are differences between the terminologies, methods and goals of MIR and musicology, there are areas in which the work of one can benefit the other.  If enabled to use software tools to extract information from large corpuses of recorded sound, music researchers can answer more complex questions about the development of musical performance, such as how performance style changes over time or between locations in relation to a particular work or genre, or what influence a particular composer may have had on another.

The British Library is custodian of the nation’s recorded sound collections, and we have a vast digital sound archive at our fingertips.  Using sound recordings from our extensive collections, alongside those of I Like Music and CHARM, researchers will be given access to a wealth of material to enable the large-scale analysis of recorded music.

Bringing musicologists together with computer scientists and content holders, Digital Music Lab will bridge the gap between musicology and music informatics: proposing and developing music research methods and a software framework for analysing big data collections, and producing data from the analysis of recorded sound collections. Through this collaborative approach, the project aims to enable a better understanding of music performance and music in general, and will benefit areas such as music search and recommendation, music archiving and indexing, production and education.

The results of this analysis will, where possible, be made available to the research community; enabling reuse and further collaboration.  The tools developed will be made available under an open source license.

Digital Music Lab is being led by Dr Tillman Weyde, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Computing at City University, with Co-Investigators from City University London, Queen Mary University of London, University College London and the British Library, and is due to complete by the end of March 2015.

For further information and updates, see the project website at


Adam Tovell

Digital Music Curator, British Library