Doing, thinking, experiencing - the magic of Theatre Book

Matt Hayler of Theatre Book talks about Thoreau, technology, tools, and how doing is as productive as thinking in Digital Humanities

I've been working with artists Davy and Krisitin McGuire on Theatre Book, an experience that blends reader’s imagination with new ways of storytelling. It turns a book into an intimate cinematic experience by combining a pop-up format with the latest pico projection technology.

My relationship to the project is a little on the nose: it's just so perfect for the things that I'm interested in. I mostly write about three things: technology, embodiment, and reading practices, so watching the McGuire's artwork come to life unites these things is mesmerising and reminds me that doing things is just as productive for the process of theorising as thinking about them.

Tools of our Tools

There's an incredible English course in the US where a group of students read Henry David Thoreau's Walden, a classic text about the author's escape from the drudgery of daily life in 19th century America where technology was already becoming just too much. Thoreau felt he was being kept from the natural world by the expectations of society and so he moved to Walden Pond, built himself a cabin, and lived and wrote out there for two years; the students studying his book, Walden, over the 12 weeks of their course build their own cabin, and in the act of making learn more than they ever could by just pondering the text.

There is something to making, and to considering newly made things, that makes us think differently. I'm not capable of building what the McGuires are building, but I get a huge amount out of seeing what they've built, what they want to build, and the discussions that these built things provoke in me and in others – and not just the object, but the process.

Thoreau thought that humans had become "tools of their tools," that they had become subordinate to the technologies that they increasingly used in their lives. But part of what I write about is that humans are always the tools of their tools, always affected by, shaped by, and working in entanglement with their devices. There has never been a human for which this wasn't true. There is no such thing as a natural human without technological supports. Without the technologies of fire and tools and shelter none of us would last very long, and the larger the band of humans, the more tools we need in order to drag a subsistence out of the land for our needy bodies.

The archaeologist Timothy Taylor (in The Artificial Ape) presents convincing evidence that the use of animal hide slings by pre-human hominids called australopithecines is what let to possibility of the development of the modern human mind in the first place. My argument is that Thoreau wasn't wrong; he just didn't know for how long he'd been right.

But if humans are in constant thrall to their technologies it's also because we train them to produce the things that we consider to be the most beautiful. Walter Ong (in Orality and Literacy) noted that there is nothing natural about playing a violin sonata, as evidenced by the hours of practice that it takes to get to concert standard, to merge your body with the violin and bow, and yet the result is profoundly human. Expertise and our commune with our tools, or the practicing to get there, are some of the richest moments of our lives, whether that's driving, drawing, playing tennis, playing an instrument, painting or sculpting, writing a poem, or reading. And, for me, this book, this new kind of book that the McGuires have made, sits right in the middle of all of this. This is what draws me in. At a time when we're worrying again, like Thoreau, about becoming tools of our tools, about giving-in to our technologies, the McGuires remind us that we can make any technology beautiful if we look at and act with it in the right way. Not quite digital, but not quite material either.

This humanisation of technology is vital I think – it makes us more nuanced, less liable to be reactionary. The way the McGuires' work mimics huddling under the covers with a torch, is profoundly moving. And maybe it's more so at this time for parents who remember that experience so well, and for children for whom torch and book have always been one and the same thing, and for those in the middle who lived across the transition, swapping torch for Gameboy for tablet.

The Digital Humanities

So is this a Digital Humanities project? It's certainly made me reflect on what the Digital Humanities are and what they should include. There's no database here, no new way of reading texts with computers, and yet it seems to me to be something that we should absolutely consider as being an example of Digital Humanities research, even though not one of us is maybe doing it in isolation.

But the McGuire's aren't doing Digital Humanities. They're making art and, by devising the mechanisms by which their art functions, they're engaging in design, prototyping, and fabrication - these can be elements of Digital Humanities work, but they are not its sum or sole components.

And the Royal Shakespeare Company aren't doing Digital Humanities either; they're providing vital support for the project, acting as producers and putting the other participants in contact with Shakespeare and his plays.

Finally, I'm not doing Digital Humanities; I'm just writing a series of short essays to accompany the project, like extended variations on the gallery blurb beside a painting, ideally to help articulate what's going on.

The project, however, seems to be absolutely a Digital Humanities project – there's something in its sum.The question of "is this Digital Humanities?" remains uneasy if it's neatly reduced to practices or outcomes, but this project combines. It breaks the Digital Humanities dictum of "more hack, less yack" (build more, theorise less) by showing how building is theorising - and talking about built things, placing them in context, gives them a greater solidity, a greater potency, and particularly in a time in which it can be situated amongst fraught debates of what it means to be human and how we should act in the world.

The conversations that the McGuire's work prompts - about the continuing importance of stories on paper in a digital age, about the potential inherent in drawing on old myths and new technology, those pure and devastating drives of memory and hope – the conversations and the device itself require what any sensitive reading of a text has always required: paying attention to the conditions of their production and reception.

Collaborations like this give each member new ways of considering the objects under discussion, but despite the importance of building things for the Digital Humanities, as both a source and a provocation, it also requires, a significant critical component so that it doesn't have politics evacuated from its concerns. To defend theorising for a second, I think that understanding any technology, particularly at the moment, demands that researchers have at least a basic knowledge of and interest in the popular means of content access, the practices of using devices, and the kinds of cultural concerns that surround them.

After all, to try and read this work and to not be attentive to these wider concerns around digital technologies would be like studying Victorian novels without considering Empire, industry, or urban sprawl; it would be like studying Shakespeare's manuscripts without thinking of where the plays were performed and how they were received.

So, that's what I'm up to. While the McGuires do the smart bit of thinking with their hands and their heads, I'm doing the bit that too often gets mistaken for the "real" smarts; trying to work out why I find this project as beautiful and as provocative as I do. I'll write some of it down and ask you to read it and after this Theatre Book has blown you away, I hope my words will give you a means to work through the effect that it's had on you which, I guarantee, will be as personal as your fingerprint, on the back of a book, under a cover, lit by a torch, years ago.


Theatre Book is a collaboration between Matt Hayler and award-winning artists Davy & Kristin McGuire. The project was funded by REACT's Prototype programme. You can follow the team on Twitter at @The_McGuires and @cryurchin. 

Matt Hayler is a lecturer in post-1945 literature at the University of Birmingham specialising in digital studies. This paper was originally delivered as part of the Pervasive Media Studio's Lunchtime Talk Series. You can watch another of his talks at TEDx Exeter here.