Principal Investigator: Karin Roffman, Senior Lecturer in Humanities, English and American Studies; Associate Director, Public Humanities, Yale University
User Experience Designer: Monica Ong Reed, User Experience Designer, Yale Digital Humanities Laboratory
Developer: Ninoslav Adzibaba, Photographer and Developer, VR Habitat, Inc. — Ninoslav has been engaged by Yale’s Digital Humanities Lab and led the development of the Ashbery’s Nest virtual tour, integration of a CMS, as well as 360-degree image post-production.
Photographer: Milan Branezac, Photographer, VRH Solutions, Inc. — Milan created the original 360-degree images of each room and recently photographed over 250 objects and collections with still and 360 photography. He continues to develop innovative technologies to enable viewers to have the closest views of objects and collections in John Ashbery’s house.
Drupal Development: YaleSites Team — The YaleSites Team provided development for the Drupal website that hosts John Ashbery’s Nest as well as site-wide user testing. J’Vaughn Johnson worked closely with the Yale DHLab and VRH Solutions to build a content management system (CMS) that integrates seamlessly with the virtual reality experience and serves as an online repository of scholarly writing on John Ashbery and the Hudson house. Chao Hang Lu was involved in the visual build of the Drupal website for the John Ashbery website.
Literary critic Harold Bloom famously labeled post-1950s literature “the Age of Ashbery,” a statement about the stature of American poet, art critic, and collagist John Ashbery (1927-2017). Through a detailed website and virtual tour of the Victorian home in Hudson, NY, that Ashbery bought in 1978 as a place to display objects he had been collecting since childhood, John Ashbery’s Nest offers a wider and deeper angle through which to consider this artist’s work in the twenty-first century. The relationship between Ashbery’s poetic practice, his collage work, and his long career as an art critic is a subject of growing interest to scholars in part through the work of Nest, which reveals through its interlinked visual, textual, and audio evidence how Ashbery’s serious study of objects is, in fact, also everywhere evident in his poems and collages.
This project, the only one of its kind about Ashbery’s former private home, not only seeks to demonstrate crucial connections between the things themselves and Ashbery’s imaginative use of them in poetry and collage, but also seeks to demonstrate a methodology for exploring the relationship between objects and literature in general, an increasingly important field in literary, material culture, and museum studies.
When did you begin this project? When did you complete this project?
Time Span: July 1, 2016 - February 1, 2019
Length: 2.5 years
What is the outcome of the project?
John Ashbery’s Nest is the only documentation of Ashbery’s house and objects—the primary artistic environment in which he lived for the last 38 years of his life—as they existed during his lifetime and is now a resource for researchers who are able to explore the following:
move through 14 rooms and engage with 232 objects
listen to more than 200 audio interview excerpts featuring John Ashbery, his husband David Kermani, and a dozen other artists and scholars
read additional archival information on objects, rooms and collections
explore links to over 100 poems that highlight the relationship between physical objects and poetic imagination.
This project has been used in many courses: including those taught in Digital Humanities, Public Humanities, Ashbery Studies, Material Culture. It is currently used at Yale in the Humanities Core Course: “Film, Music and Art in John Ashbery’s Poetry”; in “Poetry and Objects” taught at the Beinecke Library and the Yale University Art Gallery; and in “Introduction to Public Humanities.”
What tools, resources, programs, or equipment did you use for this project?
Resources: VR 360º documentation team (then called VRH Solutions, Inc.) / Yale Broadcast & Media Services for professional audio recording (for introduction) and a Zoom H4N Digital Recording Device for most interviews.
Software: Audacity (free audio editing software), Photoshop (graphics, photo post-production), Drupal, Adobe XD for design layouts and planning.
Please describe any costs incurred for this project, and (if relevant) how you secured funding for these costs.
A DHLab Grant @ Yale University of $17,000 to support vendor equipment (with VRH) and that provided design consultation and expertise (with Monica Reed). The DHLab grant enabled the allocation of staff time from Monica Reed and J’Vaughn Johnson to the project.
An A. Whitney Griswold Grant @ the Whitney Humanities Center, Yale University of $4000 to support additional vendor equipment and photography (with VRH).
The Poetry Foundation under the auspices of then-President Robert Polito paid $17,000 for 360s of all the rooms in the Hudson House. The work, completed over a week in August 2014, was photographed by Nino Adzibaba and Milan Branezac and overseen by Karin Roffman, Irwin Chen and Emily Skillings.
Please give an overview of the workflow or process you followed to execute this project, including time estimates where possible.
VR photo documentation & development: Nino created 360º photo documentation for all fourteen rooms and photography of 232 objects (around 500 images). Of the objects, about one dozen of them had 360 documentation. Nino also provided the development for the VR environment.
Visual design for VR interface as well as the Drupal Content Management System: Monica Ong Reed (DHLab) created a visual design interface to connect the spatial journey and objects in the space with Karin Roffman’s scholarship on Ashbery’s life and work. The UX research identified key research goals and desired user flow, which helped focus the design of hotspot interactions, wayfinding, and content modals. Reed consulted on the integration of audio interviews and poetry readings, as well as post-production of photo and archival materials to optimize content for online presentation. Reed also provided the visual design for the content management system created on Drupal, where the archive is able to grow.
Scholarly Content Creation and Curation: From 2016-2017, the first phase focused on one room to establish the framework for the scholarly content and curation workflow. With the structure and platform in place by July 2017, the scholarly content was then added to the remaining thirteen rooms over the next 1.5 years by Karin Roffman, with 232 objects, 200 audio interviews, 100 poems, and over 500 optimized images. Ongoing consultations with the DHLab for visual design and media production, as well as support from the ITS Drupal team and the VR developers saw the house to completion by February 2019.
What, if anything, changed between beginning your project and its current/final form?
Early User Testing: Prototyping one room gave the team an opportunity to conduct user testing to observe how visitors explore the house and capture their feedback on the effectiveness of how materials are presented in images, audio, as well as decisions on chronology, proximity, and scale in the space. User testing validated strong audience interest in objects and their relationships with poems, which encouraged further integration of audio recordings of poems with discussions of objects. User testing early in the process allowed the team to refine the design and curatorial decisions for the content and media integration that can then inform the approach to the remaining rooms. The first room took one year to prototype and test but allowed the team to think about how biographical, architectural, and literary scholarship could be ingested and presented, allowing time for many iterations of a front-end design that highlights the unique qualities of the content. By spending time up front to consider all these decisions, the rest of the 13 rooms were able to be implemented during the following year with a clear roadmap and workflow to ensure efficiency as well as quality assurance throughout the process.
Is there anything specific you wish you had known when beginning your project that might help other people to know?
Issues that needed creative solutions came up daily, so a team that was interested in and could perform multi-disciplinary types of thinking was necessary. The robust intellectual content drove the aesthetic standards for the site. The aesthetic standards for this site necessitated workflows with attention to quality of visual post-production and design. The vision was made possible by the technological commitment of many team members for development and implementation. These layered processes were strategic and time-intensive, but driven by a joint spirit of adventure to see this through.
Flexibility and a willingness to learn new skills quickly are a requirement of projects like these. One evening of work would require, for example, interviewing; finding and editing audio clips from hundreds of interviews; sifting through twelve years of research to find the right quotation or photo; writing text to be read by both a general audience and Ashbery scholars about poems and objects; uploading images, text, and audio to Drupal.
The labor demands for a project like this required a genuine interest from all, specific kinds of expertise from each, and a unified sense of purpose and discipline.
Because of the unique languages that each one of us spoke, it helped to communicate often in order to create an infrastructure that always honored the unique archival content. This meant especially:
thinking constantly about translating the demands of how people read on the web into an architecture that would allow for the expansiveness and depth of the archive to exist and even change over time;
displaying poetry (with line and stanza breaks) as precisely as prose;
reflecting the beauty and darkness of the house while still being able to see objects and read text.
Do you have any plans to follow up on this project or work on something similar in the future?
A new project on Ashbery’s final New York City apartment in the works extends the technology used in Nest through an experiential, virtual reality tour that will work on an Oculus Quest and other VR headsets.
Yale DHLab, Talk February 2019
Bard Graduate Center, NYC September 2019
Poetry Foundation, July 2017 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2017/07/pending-take-a-virtual-tour-of-john-ashberys-victorian-nest