Digital Footprints: Creating a Loie Fuller Database
From January to April 2017, I team-taught a class entitled, “Digital Footprints: Archival/New Media Research at The Library for the Performing Arts,” with Professor Paul Scolieri from Barnard College. The class was a fulfillment of a grant from the Mellon Foundation received by the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning. The CCTL developed a tool called MediaThread to combine images and footage with annotated text to create a visual as well as written learning experience. The students met at the Library for several sessions to interact with archival material, to discuss the pros and cons of using technology to communicate their theses, and to begin their journey as professional researchers. Two of the students from the class continued their work with us this summer as interns.
One of those interns was Juliana DeVaan, a juniorat Columbia College. She worked on a project compiling a database of programs of Loie Fuller performances in New York to be shared with the wider academic community. Here are some of her thoughts on her experiences at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division:
As a summer intern at the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (LPA), I got to bypass the books lining the stacks of circulating titles and head straight for the archives. Instead of learning from the work of others, I was responsible for observing, analyzing, and interpreting the archival materials and producing a digestible source from which others could learn.
This exciting opportunity began in the spring when I was a student in dance scholar Paul Scolieri’s course at Barnard College titled, “Digital Footprints: Archival/New Media Research at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.” During the semester, I was able to scratch the surface of archival research, spending a few days at LPA to explore the collections of Loie Fuller, American performer remembered for her innovations in dance and theatrical lighting--also the subject of my final project. Over the summer, I was able to spend ten weeks looking at her archives from numerous angles, without the pressure of creating a final project for a grade.
I decided to use the Dance Division’s collection of programs from Loie Fuller performances to create a searchable database so that future researchers could explore where Fuller was, with whom she shared the stage, and the sort of events in which she participated. This database elucidated the immense cultural network Fuller created for herself, and of which she was at the center. To conclude my internship, I used the information gleaned from my archival research as well as conclusions from the finished database to curate two exhibit cases at LPA.
The display cases utilized archival materials from the Dance Division to show how complex, cutting-edge, and trendsetting Fuller was. She was smart, cognizant of her place in dance history (in the first display case, there were some images and text linking Fuller early biblical dances), and a strategic social climber: she squirmed her way into circles that included cultural dignitaries, artists, public intellectuals, and royalty.
One of these artistic companions was the sculptor Auguste Rodin. The two were friends who inspired and impacted each other’s art. The second display case featured extensive archival materials on “The Dance of Hands,” a choreographic work by Fuller inspired by Rodin’s sculptural attention to the expressiveness of hands and digits.
I chose to present items that showed how aware Fuller was of her role as a canonical artist. She drew on the history of dance and theatre, but also took time to educate herself in the latest technology (she spent time with Pierre and Marie Curie, and you can read her “Lecture on Radium” in the NYPL Digital Collection) and use this information to enhance her performances.
The archive, and, in turn, historical figures like Loie Fuller, often are characterized as dusty, old, and irrelevant. My experience this summer proved this to be a false understanding; Fuller was and still is a vibrant character whose archive has so much to offer. I hope that you had the opportunity to see my exhibition and get a glimpse of Fuller’s history for yourself.