The Palimpsest Project


Palimpsest: 1) A manuscript on which more than one text has been written with the earlier writing incompletely erased and still visible.  2) A place whose older layers or aspects are apparent beneath its surface.

The Palimpsest Project will create a digital, illuminated manuscript using the journals of the dead and a shifting population database.  An intersection of The Archive, technology and storytelling, this ‘manuscript’ – an interactive video installation - will breathe life into East-Central Illinois’ history, bridging past and future with an anthology of interconnected stories stretching back beyond memory, just below the surface, incompletely erased.

How to Cite

Weaver, D., 2008. The Palimpsest Project. Body, Space & Technology, 7(2). DOI:


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Palimpsest has two meanings:

* A manuscript on which more than one text has been written with the earlier writing incompletely erased and still visible.

* A place whose older layers or aspects are apparent beneath its surface.

The Palimpsest Project will create a digital, illuminated manuscript using the journals of the dead and a shifting population database. This ‘manuscript’ – an interactive video installation - will breathe life into East-Central Illinois’ history, bridging past and future with an anthology of interconnected stories stretching back beyond memory, just below the surface, incompletely erased.

I’m not a historian. I’m trained as an artist. My work is rooted in storytelling. I write. I perform what I write. I create video for performance and video for single-channel screenings. Transformative acting and judiciously applied technology reinforce my stories. Projected video - that I shoot, edit, and animate - adds a luminous, hypnotic, intimate texture found in first person film and radio narratives. The Palimpsest Project continues this fascination with narrative by telling a new kind of story. The story will be told with technology. The voice of the storyteller will be data. The project will use a contemporary alchemy to create a meditation on a place and it’s people by ritually combining ordinary materials culled from a database - where data is history, history is memory, memory is poetry, and poetry is data. The Urbana-Champaign, Illinois region will become a character and speak through the poetic, theatrical, architectural manuscript that is the University of Illinois’ Siebel Center for Computer Science.

Technology has been used to visualize chaos. Colorful, intricately patterned Julia sets and Mandlebrot sets are often the result of mapping databases as disparate and volatile as stock markets, deer populations and the weather. As the methods of collecting data become more sophisticated, what used to seem like chaos is turning out to be quite structured.

The Visualization and Experimental Technologies group at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) collaborates with scientists to develop data-driven visualizations of complex phenomena like colliding galaxies or the run of the mill tornado. The animated visualizations help researchers gain new insights while providing bridges of understanding for general non-science audiences. This work was recently included in an episode of NOVA on PBS called Hunt For The Supertwister. A couple of years ago I moved from New York City to teach at The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. It’s about 2 hours south of Chicago. It’s a very different place from New York. The stories are different. As you might imagine, tornadoes are near and dear to the denizens of East Central Illinois. A meteorologist in Champaign is a celebrity. Every spring he gives a lecture called Ed Keiser’s Tornado Show. You can’t get a seat. He shows some of these tornado animations that you can see here

O.k., fine. No big deal. Science and technology. There they go skipping down the lane, hand in hand. How about artists and technology?

Artists using databases and statistics as means for expression have begun to make sense of our increasingly virtual world with human scale, warmth and humor. One day sound and multimedia artist Ben Rubin wondered, ‘What do 100,000 people chatting on the internet sound like?’ The result of this question was an art installation called Listening Post. A collaboration of Rubin and Mark Hansen, the project culled text fragments from the torrents of data generated by unrestricted online chat rooms and bulletin boards. While visually displayed on a grid of over 200 small monitors, the text is simultaneously sung or ‘spoken’ by a voice synthesizer. Rubin likens the sound-generating system to wind chimes, where ‘the wind is not meteorological but human, and the particles that move are not air molecules but words.’ (2003)

In Kevin and Jennifer McCoy’s 448 Is Enough, they broke down a single episode of the 1980’s Eight Is Enough television program to uncover the structure and clichés of television family drama and it’s cozy intersection with commercials. In Every Shot, Every Episode the McCoys took 20 episodes of Starsky and Hutch and formed an inventory of 300 categories. Dissecting the linear narratives of pre-digital, prime-time television into a non-linear repository of facts and images using categories such as ‘EVERY ESTABLISHING SHOT,’ ‘EVERY RESCUE,’ ‘EVERY FEMALE COP,’ ‘EVERY ORDERING OF FOOD’ pokes at the structures of mainstream culture while examining the formation of an archive – who determines the categories? Who decides what’s important? Who tells the stories?

Books and libraries could be thought of as ‘databases’ - very sexy databases. Sites of mystery and transformation, books and libraries have provided surprising, unexpected subjects for artists and writers. Author Paul Auster and artist Sophie Calle played an in-the-book/out-of-the-book cat-and-mouse game for years. In Auster’s novel Leviathan (1992) he writes about an artist named Maria, an artist who closely resembles Calle. The character Maria creates 9 works – 7 of these works Auster rips off directly from Calle, but 2 of them he writes himself... new Sophie Calle-ish pieces that she hadn’t authored. After his book was published, Calle created a palimpsest of the novel, reproducing the passages of Leviathan about Maria, and correcting Auster’s story with her reality. And then she went on to appropriate the 2 projects that Auster had written for Maria, creating them for herself – Sophie Calle. Palimpsests of palimpsests – who writes the stories? Who has the authority? Who is the author? And again, who tells the stories?

Photographer Abelardo Morell produced a body of work based on a residency at the Boston Anthenaeum, a private library dating from 1807. Morell’s photographs of the library’s collection of rare and vintage books are incredibly sensual – you can smell the books, feel them. An Art in America review described Morell’s treatment of the books ‘less as objects than as embodiments of magical worlds.’ (Lloyd, 1996) Performance artist Marilyn Arsem used a creative fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society Library to create a performance/séance based on 19th century spiritualism. For writer and librarian Jorge Luis Borges the book, the library, and the map served as portals between past and present, between the quotidian and myth. The beginning of his short story, The Library of Babel reads,

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of infinite hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. (Borges, 1962)

This would be a nice place to describe my experience with The Archive, but let’s wait on that. Let me tell you a bit more about my project. The Palimpsest Project will use both forms of database – the organic, fluid database of a changing population and the acid-free database of The Archive.

Diaries and letters written by people from the Urbana-Champaign region will be gathered from the UIUC Library, the Urbana Free Library and local historical societies. Each half-decade from 1790 up to the present will be represented by a particular piece of writing, the text reflecting the region’s shifting populations and stories. The 44 chosen diaries/letters will be digitally photographed/scanned. With motion graphics software the scanned text will be animated and rendered. These animations (44 separate, three to five-minute digital Quicktime movies, one movie for each half-decade, each half-decade’s movie created from the specific half-decade’s representative diary or letter) will then be shown on the Siebel Center’s video wall, the result being a kind of video-book – a new take on the illuminated manuscript.

However, the animated texts won’t just be cued up on a tape and played throughout the day. The database generated by the round-the-clock physical migrations – the movements - of students, faculty and staff through the Siebel Center will provide an engine to digitally stir Palimpsest’s pot of tales. Particular numbers of people, defined ‘tipping points’ in the Siebel Center’s changing population, will trigger on-screen transformations from one half-decade’s representative animated-text-story to another half-decade’s representative animated-text-story: the movement of the local, in-the-moment population revealing the local historic populations’ stories – like a palimpsest.

Our current decade will be represented by a 21st Century journal – a shimmering screen full of 1’s and 0’s. This decade’s animations would be seen on the video-wall at the height of the Siebel Center’s day - a full house of students, faculty and staff. The earliest decade of the piece would be represented by the image of a shimmering sea of prairie grass – a time near the beginning of the region’s use of the written word, near the end of the time of oral/aural cultures. This early decade’s images would be seen when the Siebel Center was at its sleepiest and least populated. The prairie grass image would be accompanied by the only sound in the work – using speakers designed to focus sound in highly specific locations, whispered languages native to the region would be heard. Very few people would actually hear these whispers since they would only sound during the wee hours when hardly anybody is in the building. To hear the old stories you have to be very quiet, still, and alone. In a way, Palimpsest will create a visual history of the written word for this region, from birth to death – the death of oral/aural culture, the birth of written culture. The death of written culture, the birth of digital culture.


Paying closer attention to human/computer-interaction scientists/artists has begun to open additional interactive possibilities and questions. Like a keyboard or mouse, specific physical-computing ‘triggers’ can be built into the system. Here are a few of the interactive triggers that can be used:

-CO2 levels: depending on the air circulation system, CO2 levels can determine the number of people in the room by measuring their exhalations.






These triggers will cause an effect in the computer. Carnegie-Mellon’s Golan Levin has explored creating screen-based, animated visual abstractions through the movements of live performers in physical space. (2005) UIUC’s John Toenjes – a composer and choreographer – uses the movements of dancers to trigger musical sounds, reaching for that synaesthetic spot where movement IS music. In my case, the triggers will bring up a different animation. Which of these particular physical measurements/triggers will link metaphorically to the notions of storytelling, history, and place? Our place. Perhaps different triggers could affect other elements of the animations on screen? This could provide the kindergarten-joy of realizing that if you’re standing in front of a screen – in just the right place - and you wave your arms at a particular speed the hue or luminance or focus of the animation in front of you changes. Not as subtle as the measurement of CO2 levels, but perhaps useful because people might begin to realize that the place is, well … present. The place is alive. Will the stories we find and animate have correlations with the working day of the Siebel Center’s 2008 population? Part of my artistic practice includes the careful consideration of audience. Is the work accessible? Do I care? Does the work engage people from different backgrounds and interests? Should it? Can it?

I like physical places. While I am amazed by the wonderful “world-wide-inter-web” I get much more excited by work that helps connect us to our physical bodies. The Institute for Applied Autonomy is a group of computer engineers, artists and thinkers actively questioning ideas of audience, place and presence – specifically audience, place, and presence in an increasingly totalitarian era. Through a process they call ‘adaptive reuse’ they are taking military technology and flipping it back into the hands of ‘average citizens, political protesters, and the functionally paranoid’ (2007) – moving from the room with the comfy chair, the glowing screen, the keyboard and the mouse and taking the technology out into the street. The result was a series of, as they put it, ‘contestational robots.’ Here’s a video from their site:

Oh, by they way – the video is intended to look horrible. It’s mirroring the US Department of Defense’s DARPA site. DARPA stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.


While I am not a historian, I am aware that The Archive (capital A) usually consists of the detritus of the winners – the flotsam and jetsam of generals, lords, barons, vice presidents who used to be chairmen of multinational corporations, landowners, senators, bankers, doctors, intellectuals, and titans of industry. As I’ve been told repeatedly: ‘The archive is not benevolent.’

After the first day in the library I realized the scale of this little project of mine. Not only the scale, but the responsibility. Again: whose stories are told? Who am I to be choosing these stories? How are they told? In what context? I’ve stepped into the merry little hell that is public art. Cries of outrage if it’s good. Cries of outrage if it’s bad. No cries of any consequence if it’s mediocre. Kind of a no-win situation unless you are a genius like Maya Lin making her public-art masterpiece The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. One of the elements that makes a piece like Listening Post successful is that, to some degree, the database is stripped of authorship. Listening Post appears to incorporate the entire database – giving an abstract, representational voice for a huge swath of live digital communication.

For The Palimpsest Project the hand of the author, the hand of the curator, is still very much present. To make these animations I am tracing every letter, every pen stroke by hand. Recently, I’ve been getting some animation help from New Media graduate student Collin Bradford. Collin and I are doing a lot of tracing. Tracing by hand every single letter in the available archives is not something I would wish on anyone, so I can’t imagine getting enough letters and diaries animated to give the illusion of a bottomless database of animated letters, as if every letter ever written in Champaign, Illinois is included in this project.

However, even a project like Listening Post has a point of view - even the lens that we choose effects how we see and experience the world. As Dr. Einstein proved, the observer and her tools of measurement directly effect what is being measured. Mr. McCluhan showed us that we can think of the media we use in the same way. The medium is the massage. Particular mediums have their own joys and problems - their own histories. This is nothing new but I think we need to continually remind ourselves of this idea. I loved watching Ken Burns’ 11 hour and 20 minute film The Civil War (in the U.K. the film was known as The American Civil War). I’m told he had originally proposed the film to last as long as the actual war. But now, it’s hard to think of the Civil War without hearing Garrison Keillor’s voice and that bittersweet fiddle music. Quite honestly, what I remember from that series is the texture of the images, the texture of the voice, the tone of the whole piece – but not a single detail.

Ninety percent of the film is made with still images – photographs, paintings, maps. This was a remarkable thing for the American television viewing public. He told a story! With photographs! Remarkable! If you have played with the video editing program iMovie or the digital photo program iPhoto on a Macintosh you’ll know that there is a special Ken Burns Effect that you can apply to slide shows and still images. The Ken Burns Effect on the Mac slowly zooms in (or out) while panning across an image, the way his film panned and zoomed across the 7 to 8 billion photographs and letters used in his 5 year long film.

And ... there’s more! iPhoto can play music along with its slideshows. I remembered iPhoto’s default music that would go along with playing its default slideshows as being ‘Greensleeves.’ ‘Greensleeves’ seems a close cousin to the fiddle music used in the Burns epic. But when I checked on my Mac the default music was some sexy Beethoven number. Kind of ‘Greensleevey’ but not ‘Greensleeves.’ We checked on my wife’s Mac – and – AH HA! – ‘GREENSLEEVES.’ I wasn’t crazy.

Anyway, the result of the whole thing is that with this kind of music, with this sort of camera movement, you can pretty much put in any sort of picture you want and get a nice nostalgic sepia-toned sort of feeling – as if you lived in 1862 … or, maybe more accurately, as if you were living in 1990 watching a 12 hour television movie about living and dying in 1862 in the southern part of North America.

During a Computing in Humanities, Arts and Social Science conference Professor John Bonnett from Ontario’s Brock University presented a project about reconstructing an historic city block in a 3D program. His students used the information they had gathered from photographs and city records to build the virtual scale model of the city block. Of course, they didn’t have seamless information – maybe they’d have a photograph that showed two sides of a building – did the third and fourth walls sides have windows? Doors? They’d take educated guesses. The result was a navigable, virtual city block from 1870. He showed us a video clip of the result – our point of view as the audience was from the virtual camera swooping and soaring through the computer generated 1870 city.

Now, I’m sure there are things that could be learned from the process of this exercise – but what can be learned from the final product? How many flying, perfectly smooth tracking cameras were available in 1870? I think the end result might be more about the limits of the software, the boundaries and conventions of the visual tool then the historic content – a slightly more sophisticated use of a Ken Burns Effect.

It’s something I wonder about a lot. On one of the first days I went up to the Siebel Center a professor proudly showed me one of his student’s projects. The student waved his hands through a particular space. Motion triggers caused a computer to make particular sounds. The movement of the hands looked familiar, and so did the sounds that were produced. He had made a digital theremin. But I don’t think the kid knew what a theremin was. He had rebuilt the wheel. Do we really need new wheels? Performance artist Laurie Anderson did the same thing with a much bigger budget. In the late 70’s she built a brilliant violin tricked out with audio recorder tape heads. For her bow, she strung electromagnetic audiotape that had a particular phrase recorded on it. You could understand the phrase – or not - depending on how quickly or slowly she drew the bow across the tape-head violin. Here – listen.

Fantastic. O.k., jump forward 20 years or so. Laurie gets to be NASA’s first and, as it turns out, last artist-in-residence. She gets NASA scientists to help her build a digital rainstick. Depending on where you hold the rainstick, how fast you run your hands over it, the rainstick speaks, makes sounds…. sounds that were EXACTLY like her tape-head violin. So NASA and Laurie learned something from the process of building the rainstick, but the final product seemed to have been determined 25 years earlier with Radio Shack technology.

Builders Association is a New York based theater group ‘that exploits the richness of contemporary technologies to extend the boundaries of theater. Based on unusual collaborations and extensive periods of development, the company’s productions feature a seamless blend of media, text, sound, architecture, and stage performances that explore the impact of technology on human presence.’ (2007) It sounds great. The trailer LOOKS great (click on TRAILER when you go to

Beautiful animation. Smart design. But when you see the show... well... the main thing you come away with is “Wow. That must have been really expensive. And it all worked! Nothing fucked up. Incredible.” The story is lukewarm. The actors are confused. Do they act for the stage (which is VERY BIG for all those people in the back of the house)? Or do they act for the camera (which is VERY SMALL so you seem normal and not obscenely exaggerated when your face is projected 25 feet tall)? And, while the ideas are interesting, they’re not more interesting because the show is an amalgam of performances by live actors shot by online, live cameras. There’s no depth - the stage has been flattened to accommodate the screen... even if they are multiple sliding super-expensive, computer motion-tracked screens. Why not make a movie?

I love hearing John Toenjes, my colleague in UIUC’s Dance Department, talk about his goals – the reasons, the dreams that drive him. He’s committed to it. Using digital technology, the programming, the electricity, the cables, etc. etc. It’s tricky and fussy and it doesn’t always work very well. He wants to make movement and music the SAME THING. Where you can’t tell what is sound and what is movement. That’s wonderful. He’s doing it all with motion triggers and acceleration sensors. He’s trying to make magic. I love magic. More power to the magicians. But the thing is – there have always been ways to make magic. There have always been ways to tell a story. We’re dazzled by our new toys. And - let’s be clear – very few of us have the privileged access to these shiny new toys - the digital divide is a very deep gorge. Well, under our dazzlement, we forget things that we’ve always known and we’re remaking the things that we forgot. I like hearing about and seeing work that doesn’t rebuild the wheel. I don’t have the rights to this clip, but if you rent the Footlight Parade DVD go to the special features. There’s a vaudeville clip where a family of dazzling lady hoofers dance up and down a staircase. The staircase is built with bells under each stair – so the whole thing acts like a giant xylophone. Depending on when and where the ladies tapdance on the stairs, the bells ring. So, with proper choreography and practice! practice! practice!, movement and music are the same thing ... without digital technology... 75 years ago.

Is my project rebuilding a wheel that doesn’t need rebuilding? Am I making a vehicle for yet another nostalgic Ken Burns Effect event? Yeah, probably. For all of these handwritten documents, photographs and prints, there was a moment in time when they were created. They wound up on a shelf. Decades later I’ve digitally stripped them from the archives – acid-free boxes in climate controlled, dimly lit library stacks. I’ll recontextualize them into a kind of Playstation video-game world, and display them to a disinterested audience of fledgling computer scientists. The video wall on which I intend to display The Palimpsest Project is usually filled with departmental schedules, campus events and job announcements from Microsoft, Google and the Defense Department. Will anybody get a sense of history from this exercise in interactive video animation? Will anybody stop and feel a part of something bigger than themselves?

I heard writer Jim Harrison interviewed about making his novella, The Legends of the Fall into a movie. His major complaint was that everyone was too clean. How often would you bathe if you had to make the soap, haul the water, chop the wood and boil the water? How much grimy stinkiness is there in a virtual world?

But maybe I’m missing the point. Yes there are problems. Yes there are very good reasons to hesitate. But like most public art worth it’s salt, a lot of the heavy lifting will be in how the work is approached. How is the work used? How can it serve as a point of departure for imagination, education, engagement and discussion? I think feature films can leave people with an unassailable, inarguable monolithic ‘it’s done’ feeling. History is never done and shifts with the storyteller. How can the piece serve as a prod to further investigation or as an invitation to come into the room, sit down and listen?

Here’s an in-progress animation sample of The Palimpsest Project.

(Link to video)

My work as an artist has been that of an inter-disciplinarian, a nexus-making alchemist, using observations from daily life and the events that transform those lives. Building and layering meaning with the forward motion of prose and the open-ended depths of poetry, the work feels related to synchronicity and dreams: recurring, shifting, resurfacing with new insights for days after the event.

This conscious layering of meaning seems particularly important in the lateral, attention-deficient horizontality that dominates our contemporary consumer culture. Links spread and mutate over a virtual surface. We skate along thin ice with little thought to the deep dark lake below. In The White Goddess, Robert Graves writes about the verticality of poetry. The individual letters of the alphabet are deeply encoded, each letter thick with meaning. To the great bards of ancient Ireland, the alphabet - used to form words, used to form poems – contained God’s holy unspeakable name. In their free-associative verticality, history, dreams, and memory are related to poetry. On a just-the-facts-ma’am-level history, dreams and memory are rooted in location, to a place. Like the alphabet, a place is encoded. Place as poem. Place as memory. Place as dream. Place as book.

Recognizing something bigger than oneself is important: a recognition of one’s place in history, one’s place in life, humanity, Nature, or the awareness of the divine. For myself, these moments of recognition seem to be synchronous occurrences of sensual, emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual events. During these moments I see wonder in the ordinary. I hope The Palimpsest Project will inspire moments of confluence - a book of gold created through the reaction of base materials: the private and the public; the past and the present; the virtual and the physical. In its plunge through the layers of a location’s history, The Palimpsest Project will visualize the spirit of a place through an alchemical union of technology and the arts.


Deke Weaver is a writer, performer, video, graphic, interdisciplinary, spoken- word artist. His award-winning performances have been presented in Wales, Scotland and throughout the United States. A resident at Yaddo and Ucross, a four-time fellow at the MacDowell Colony, and three-time recipient of NEA regional grants in film/video making Weaver’s video work has screened and broadcast in film/video festivals and on public television stations in Russia, Brazil, Australia, Europe and the United States (PBS, Channel 4/U.K., MOMA, The New York Video Festival, The Berlin Video Festival, MOMA/NY; the Museum of Contemporary Art, LA; many others). He teaches in the School of Art + Design’s New Media Department at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). His website is


Thanks to Melissa Tombro and Collin Bradford for their research assistance, John Hoffman for his generosity, Joseph Squier for his advice and support, The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities for time and feedback, DRHA 2007 for having me speak, and the School of Art + Design at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign).


Champaign County Historical Archives, Urbana Free Library

Illinois History and Lincoln Collections, University of Illinois Library


Auster, Paul (1992) Leviathan, New York: Penguin Books

Borges, Jorge Luis (1962) Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings, p. 51 New York: New Directions

Builders Association (2007)

Graves, Robert (1948) The White Goddess. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Hansen, Mark and Rubin, Ben (2003)

Harrison, Jim (1978) The Legends of the Fall, New York: Dell Publishing

The Institute for Applied Autonomy (2007)

Levin, Golan (2005)

Lloyd, Ann Wilson (May 1996) Art In America.

McKoy, Jennifer and Kevin (2000-04),

National Center for Supercomputing Applications (2007)



Deke Weaver (New Media, School of Art & Design, University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign))





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