We’re thrilled to announce a new volume in the the Kits for Cultural History series. It’s titled Intimate Fields, and it was made by Helen J. Burgess and Margaret Simon, both at North Carolina State University. Here’s an abstract they wrote for the project. You can also visit the project website and repo. We’ve enjoyed working with Helen and Maggie on this compelling iteration of the Kits.

Intimate Fields is an installation work that brings together ‘near field’ technologies from markedly different eras to argue that secrecy, absence, and distance are constituting features of felt human intimacy. Looking back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, our project expands to digital technologies the concept of ‘the posy’ and the practice of its creation and dissemination. Posies are short poems designed to be inscribed on gifted objects, most frequently rings. These bespoke accessories are meant to be worn on the body and to signify or transact amorous relations, act as memento mori, or even enable private and subversive modes of religious devotion. Posies and their objects were widely held to act as reminders of intimacy or as portals to memory. At the same time, the inscriptions themselves, particularly on courtship rings, are often generic and were collected and published in printed books for use and adaptation. By inter-animating today’s methods of near field communication and early modern wearables, this project explores how text and code technologies and the languages they carry can create, interrupt, or re-shape interpersonal connection.

Intimate Fields allows users to explore these potentials through a compact installation work that can be placed on a small table for display. The installation consists of a wooden laser cut box with multiple compartments. The box is bundled with an NFC (near field communication) reader connected to an Arduino Flora microcontroller and miniature thermal printer. Items in the box include printed scrolls and notes containing NFC stickers, textile items containing knotted codes, and a series of six ceramic/steel rings with embedded NFC chips. On touching the scrolls, notes and rings to the NFC reader, scripts are triggered to generate brief affectively charged poems remixed from a range of historical and contemporary texts. An accompanying bot posts remixed versions of posies to Twitter at regular intervals.

Intimate Fields was inspired by the work of Jentery Sayers and the MLab at the University of Victoria. There, Sayers curates a series of maker-inspired digital humanities projects called ‘Kits for Cultural History,’ in which our project resides as Volume 4 in the series. The mandate for Sayers’ original Early Wearables Kit was to create what he called a ‘fluxkit for scholarly communication,’ drawing on the Fluxus model in which boxes are assembled of inexpensive materials to create a shareable art object. Sayers imagined using this model to create what he calls ‘small boxes of inexpensive materials assembled for media history’—kits that can be shared and recreated as scholarly objects that both reveal aspects of material history as well as ‘prototype speculations about the past’ based on absences in what we know—in other words, to build objects that ‘recover, repair, and re-contextualize the stuff of history.’ The Kits are designed to be reproducible and executable—shareable like code, while simultaneously being executed on a local material platform (in code’s case, a desktop computer; in the Kit’s case, a 3D printer, laser cutter, etc). Indeed, Intimate Fields makes use of some of the digital lasercutter schematics from the original Early Wearables kit; it is a fork, in Github’s vernacular, in which project files are copied, modified, and either given a new space (in this case, the repository for Intimate Fields) or pushed back to the original.

As a work in the Kits for Cultural History series, Intimate Fields seeks to share in some of these ideas: reproducibility, prototyping, speculation, play. As a work of media history, its aim is to reveal how media objects conveyed secrets in the early modern period, and extend ‘media objects’ as a term to encompass the smell of rosemary and rosewater, the tactility and luster of linen and handspun silks, the intimate feel of a ring hugging the finger or laying suspended from a thread next to the skin. At the same time, it is clearly a creature of our own moment in history: the inclusion of Near Field Communication chips and an electronic reader shift the reader’s awareness into the now, even while drawing attention to the way in which media objects have always held secrets, if only we knew how to read them. The NFC chip and its forerunner, the RFID system, bring to the forefront the idea of intimacy. There is a secret message here, in this seemingly unreadable and yet strangely beautiful object with its spiraling copper coils and magnifying-glass chip. But we can only ‘read’ it if we place it in intimate proximity to a reader, tuned to the right frequency, coded to find the right blocks of data on the chip. The reader induces a current in the coil, much as opening a secret message induces an affective current in the heart—anticipation, longing, release. Induction, magnetization. 13.56 Mhz of electric love. Typical visual representations of a NFC transaction—and it usually is a transaction, between a mobile device and a payment terminal—represent the moment of communication as a kind of ‘ray-gun,’ beaming information from active device to passive reader. But that’s not how NFC works at all. The reader itself induces current, creating a communicative field that, if it could be seen, would be more accurately characterized as a kind of ‘fountain’ of energy, moving through the chip, inducing new current, and spiraling back to the reader like the roil of the earth’s molten iron core. Magnetism has its own aesthetic.

Intimate Fields also bears witness to Sayers’ observation that reproduction is inevitably an act of situated practice, in which the embodied act of prototyping necessarily changes the act of interpretation. The specific instance of Intimate Fields built for exhibit at the Conference festival here betrays our own particular passions, sourcing materials that speak to us in specific ways (for Maggie, the magic of finding specific letter-folding techniques and reproducing them in specific papers; for Helen, the snagging of raw silk fiber on skin, the twirl of the spindle’s whorl). Here, we offer two boxes: one that is ‘executed,’ complete, and imbued with our own bodily labor and affects, and a second one that is a schematic, a range of possibilities, a kind of historical narrative recipe for reconstructing secrets. In this way, Intimate Fields is a ‘kit for e-Literature’: a kit for reconstructing potential texts that include both material and electronic, hard and soft elements.”

Post by Jentery Sayers, attached to the KitsForCulture and Makerspace projects, with the news tag. Featured image for this post care of Helen J. Burgess and Margaret Simon. Visit the website and repo for Intimate Fields.


More about Jentery Sayers

Associate Professor, English and CSPT | Principal Investigator, MLab in the Humanities