Like you, I’ve been spending a lot of time near home this year. Without the stimuli and novelty of travel, I’ve tried to be more aware of my well-trodden surroundings, like the small plaques that Boston’s sidewalk masons used to proudly embed in their work.
Good craftsmanship, and worthy recognition, all these decades later.
In 1986, on the 900th anniversary of the completion of the Domesday Book, the comprehensive survey of England after William was done conquering it, the Domesday Project attempted to recreate this record. Instead of trusty vellum, the project used the not-so-future-proof LaserDisc, attached to an even-less-future-proof BBC Microcomputer.
Despite the poor choice of preservation technologies, the Domesday Project did try to preserve the common elements of Britons’ immediate surroundings, which they interacted with on a regular basis and which thus faded into the background. The landscape of daily life.
Artists, of course, are often good at documenting the mundane in addition to the sublime, at noticing those overlooked spaces and buildings and objects, and using their cultivated hyperawareness to make the normal worth examining anew.
The Beinecke Library has an especially good collection of photographs by David Plowden (now digitized), who could do striking formalism as well as anyone, but who also delighted in capturing everyday life and material culture and structures, flourishes like a personalized doorway or a small stained-glass window in a modest neighborhood church.
(David Plowden, “Sea Cliff, New York.”
(David Plowden, “Church of Christ, A.D. 1903. North of Council Grove, Kansas.”)
At an even larger scale, the Getty Research Institute holds over a million photographs by Ed Ruscha of the streets of Los Angeles, the basis for Every Building on the Sunset Strip and other works.
The Getty recently used computer vision tools to tag 65,962 of these images (Nathaniel Deines has a good blog post on the process they used, “Does It Snow in L.A.?”), so you can now easily look up, say, “street art”:
And to top it off, Stamen Design helped to create 12 Sunsets, which lets you “drive” down Sunset Boulevard, in a variety of period-specific cars to go with the year of the selected photographs, and explore the neighborhood. You can also click through to the specific images that have been stitched together to create what you see out the driver’s side and passenger windows.
Similarly, Mural Arts Philadelphia is hosting an online tour—and a live, virtual tour with a guide on November 28—of the 50 murals by Steve Powers that stretch across 20 blocks of Market Street in Philly: “A Love Letter for You.”
(See also: The John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive at the Library of Congress.)
Unicode is one of the wonderful inventions of our era—a machine-readable, encoded superset of languages and their constituent letters and glyphs that allows for the seamless electronic interchange of text. But some languages, especially those that are boring and linear, have been easier to port into Unicode than others. Much more interesting forms of written human expression, like Mayan hieroglyphic text, has not yet made the transition to a searchable and internet-transferable format.
Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Gabrielle Vail of the Unicode Consortium and Deborah Anderson of the University of California, Berkeley, working an international team that includes Carlos Pallán, Andrew Glass, Stephen White, Holly Maxwell, and Céline Tamignaux, are trying to change that. Working off of hieroglyphic text drawn by Linda Schele, they have broken down Mayan text into small parts (the syllabary) and created an interface in which you can construct full (and often rather complex) hieroglyphs out of these pieces.
A second conceptual breakthrough they have had is to borrow from layout conventions that were formalized some years ago for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Unicode implementations. These “CJK descriptors” are like early HTML table layouts, into which the basic units (syllables) of these Asian languages can be arranged to create characters. Along with an even newer “Universal Shaping Engine,” a synthesized clustering and more accurate layout for Mayan logograms is now possible, although some additional layouts will have to be constructed.
Brilliant, and a fascinating global collaboration across cultures and languages.