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Writers handling pictures: a material intermediality (1880-today)

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - HANDLING (Writers handling pictures: a material intermediality (1880-today))

Reporting period: 2019-07-01 to 2020-12-31

The project “Writers Handling Pictures: a Material Intermediality” studies the uses of pictures by writers since 1880—when images of all sorts started being mass reproduced—until today. What do writers do with pictures? How does literature stage the handling of pictures? What do writers have to tell about the power of images?
Literature can help to better understand the handling of pictures. Our main challenge is to think of contemporary iconographic practices, especially the uses of digital images, in an archeological way. This research contextualizes a contemporary social phenomenon in a long-term perspective, exploring the genesis of what we call today intermediality, the porosity between the media and the so-called invasion of the text by an all-powerful image. In this regard, HANDLING is an answer to the alleged crisis of literary studies and textual culture. It also shows the significant and unexpected role of literature in material visual culture.
The main objective is to enlarge the scope of literary studies by opening them up for anthropological questions such as the functions of images and the impact of material environment on creative processes. HANDLING also emphasizes the forgotten importance of materiality in literary history, especially the role of gestures and objects. It aims at integrating the study of literature into visual ecosystems.
The archival work we planned as the core of this first period has been heavily impacted by the COVID related crisis. A lot has been made: we started to explore the visual archives of Michel Butor, Raymond Queneau, Marcel Mariën, Robert de Montesquiou, Henry Bauchau and Roger Martin du Gard, for instance. Montesquiou and Martin du Gard were found to be very good case studies of the picture handling phenomenon, but the crisis prevented us to go further.

The COVID crisis has forced us to focus on a collective reflection which led us to the step of conceptualizing earlier than expected. Through remote work and our reading seminar called “La main et l’image, séminaire de lectures théoriques”, held online, we did a lot. We worked for instance on the concept of “wall of images” in the collective book we are writing all together, on a typology of the handling of pictures in the digital age, on the notion of “hapticity” in text/image relationships, and finally on the model of “iconothèque” (in the frame of a set of 3 conferences about “iconothèques d’écrivains” and the collective book based on these meetings).

The first meeting of this conference cycle was held online in January 2021 after several cancelations (“Les iconothèques d'artistes et d'écrivains. Du romantisme aux modernes”, dir. Jessica Desclaux and François-René Martin). Like most of the people in the academic world, we had to cancel and postpone a lot of meetings, conferences and workshops since March 2020.
The main meeting we had in this first period was the 1 day-conference held in UCLouvain on Sept. the 9th 2019. Called “L’écrivain iconographe : manipulation et agencement d’images” and directed by the PI, Anne Reverseau, it launched the research project. It started with two keynote conferences by Anne-Cécile Guilbard, literary scholar and specialised in intermedial approaches and text/image relationships, and Garance Chabert, curator at the head of Villa du Parc, and a specialist of contemporary art. The afternoon was devoted to a workshop about walls of images, with 15 participants around a light table, 2 cameras and a projector. During this research experiment, Adrien Genoudet, involved in the project as an artist and writer as well as a researcher, made the movie “Penser avec les images”. This collective experience has been followed by a projection of the first chapter of Le Roman algérien a film by Katia Kameli about a wall of postcards in Alger.

This first period has also been devoted to the preparation of the exhibitions planned in the project – the main ones being at the very beginning (“Cartes postales, nouvelles d’un monde rêvé”, Rencontres d’Arles, France, Summer 2019) and at the very end of the calendar (“Murs d’images d’écrivain.e.s”, Spring 2024, Musée L, Louvain-la-Neuve).
In this first period, some important works have already been published on the functions of writers’ portraits in libraries (Anne Reverseau), about the ways writers stocked their images in the past (Jessica Desclaux). Many more articles and book chapters were elaborated during this period and will be published in 2021: on contemporary writers not often tackled in an intermedial perspective (Corentin Lahouste), on new perspectives on surrealist visual environments (Marcela Scibiorska), about the issue of writers’ working spaces’ reconstitution in libraries (Anne Reverseau) and museums (Jessica Desclaux).
We expect major results concerning the circulation of digital images in the literary world (Reverseau, Lahouste, Franco Harnache), but also about the handling of pictures in fiction (Lahouste, Scibiorska, Basso).
This first period (especially because travelling was scarce), has been a thought-starter for a larger reflexion about the visual environments of writers and new perspectives of material history of literature. The topic of “Iconothèques” appeared as a very new approach and the collective book we will publish after the 3 meetings planned in 2021 and 2022 will be for sure a reference book.
The collective book we have written together during the Academic year 2020-2021, while the 6 of us were isolated at home will be the first comprehensive study on an original topic. This book about “walls of images” will go beyond the state of the art because it will build bridges between cases of specific writers that have already been studied, and also bring new cases to light.

Finally, the work we made on the bibliography within the frame of our reading seminar “La Main et l’image” since January 2020 made clear that what was at stake in HANDLING was the transfer of the notion of “image act” within the field of literature. The monography Anne Reverseau is currently elaborating will revolve around this main objective.
Screenshot of th online workshop “La Main et l’image”, Séminaire de lectures theoriques, Feb 21
The team at work. Hands holding books. Oct. 2020
Screenshot Penser avec les mains, film by A Genoudet, workshop “Murs d’images”, 9 Sept 19, UCLouvain