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Virtual Voyage: New World

September 11, 2017

Sultana projects has a virtual voyage available on the web, commemorating the 2007 voyage that recreated the 1608 voyage that John Smith took around the Chesapeake 400 years ago. The site John Smith 400 provides maps, excerpts from journals kept in 1608, and photos from the 2007 recreation of the voyage.

I wonder about this idea of virtual voyage: to what extent it can apply to any encounter we might have with the natural world. Say–the kind of encounter you will have when you go to Jamestown. Or the kind you have already had in your initial travels and experiences in the field. Those are real voyages, but also virtual to the extent that you are not seeing everything at once. Does “virtuality” limit the importance or significance of the experience? Does virtual suggest something less than natural?

The film The New World  is another virtual experience of Smith and the first encounter of the Chesapeake by English speaking voyagers. But isn’t the journal Smith and others kept during the experience another virtual experience: words they use to record encounters; sketches of what they see and what they hear coming from the people they encounter; the maps that are drawn. Or even further–though it might be perverse to think of virtuality this way: the virtual experience of the new world of the Chesapeake and its environment that Smith has in the food he eats from the water. Isn’t that first oyster eaten a virtual encounter, of sorts, with the whole history that leads up to it–and stranger still (like a film might do, flashing back and forward), the virtuality of the many more times such things will be done in years to come.

Might virtuality be, in fact, not just a limitation–what we are left with–that is inevitable but a necessary way to understand our experience? Might a film of the Chesapeake, such as The New World, be a way not just to represent the Chesapeake in its history and human culture but in fact a good way to understand it?  Good, because virtual. I may be getting into some ethical issues here as much as aesthetic. But I wonder what you think of the virtuality of your experience as you head around the Chesapeake, exploring it like a new world, like John Smith 400 years ago. I am thinking of what Berry reminds us at the end of “Solving for Pattern,” that the organic is still an artifact, something natural mixed with human culture and perception and use. Like a map. Or an ear of corn.

The DVD of the film includes a documentary of the making of The New World. It describes quite an extensive process that the filmmakers undertook to recreate the world of Smith and Pocahantas. Not just the attention to detail–which we might expect from a film, getting things historically accurate. I was more struck by what I am thinking (now) of as virtuality. The various actors portraying the groups of colonists and natives all trained in advance, as a group, in a sort of camp, in order to become closer to what they were portraying. Something like doing an intensive study for a semester. This got me thinking. Would a good research model for studying the Chesapeake–even this Chesapeake semester–be making a movie of it? In other words, a movie in which the product is significant, but just as important would be the process of making it. So, maybe one or more of you will consider that as you continue: turning your learning into seeing the Chesapeake on film.

The photojournalism/photo-essays that you will be doing on each journey is a place to put some of these thoughts to the test.

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