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“…And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.”

by Richard Elen on 26 Oct, 2009

in Art, Audio Production, History

“…And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.” is the final line of Anthem for Doomed Youth by World War I poet Wilfred Owen – one of the WWI poems I've recorded for the University of Oxford's First World War Poetry Digital Archive. Photo courtesy of First World War Poetry Digital Archive.

As readers may know, one of my several activities is audio production, both voice-over work and the production of complete packages with voice, music, effects and so on.

Recently many of these productions have been particularly associated with educational programmes, clients including the British Library and City of Sunderland College. Interestingly, all these projects have resulted from meeting people in the virtual world of Second Life. (Partially as a result, incidentally, I do not have a great deal of time for people who criticise me for “playing” in SL or try to convince me that nothing significant will come of it.)

I have a teaching qualification myself, and I’m particularly interested in the educational possibilities of virtual worlds: Second Life is by far the most popular and widely-used of the virtual worlds currently available, although there is increasing activity in “OpenSim” variants using essentially the same technology.

Most recently I was introduced to some of the staff of the First World War Poetry Digital Archive, based at the University of Oxford. They are on the point of launching (on 2 November) a new region in Second Life (named Frideswide after the patron saint of Oxford) which is home to a painstakingly-built environment designed to shed light on aspects of the life of soldiers in the trenches along the Western Front during the First World War. Students can visit the site and learn not only about the conditions endured by infantrymen during the Great War but also hear poetry from the ‘War Poets’, along with interviews and tutorials.

Here’s how they describe the installation:

This tour of a stylised version of the trench systems in the Western Front has … two objectives:
• to show you the physical context of the trench systems
• to expose items held in the First World War Poetry Digital Archive in a three-dimensional environment

…This [is] not an attempt to give you a realistic experience of what it was like to be on the Western Front. The physical depravation, or the chance of serious injury or death, cannot be replicated, and this should always be remembered.

More importantly perhaps, this is but one view of the War – and it would be safe to say this is a view open to discussion. …we have presented rain-sodden trenches, infested by rats, in gloomy surroundings. But this was not always the case. The opening day of the Battle of the Somme, for example, was a beautiful summer’s morning in stark contrast to the depictions we often see of the muddy hell of Paaschendaele.

Chris Stephens, who has been instrumental in putting the simulation together, commissioned me initially to provide an audio version of an A-level/University-level Tutorial on “Remembrance” along with four poems: Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen, Does It Matter? by Siegfried Sassoon, plus Louse Hunting and Dead Man’s Dump by Isaac Rosenberg.

I’ve now recorded some additional poetry readings – Repression of War Experience, Aftermath, and On Passing the New Menin Gate, all by Siegfried Sassoon; plus 1916 Seen From 1921 and Can You Remember by Edmund Blunden – and an introduction and epilogue.

These poems have a great deal to tell us about the feelings of their authors, and many of them are powerfully moving. Dead Man’s Dump in particular is full of vivid, detailed imagery.

The tutorial, on the other hand, encourages us to ask a number of questions about our conception of what the Great War was like, and uncovers where much of our information has come from. It also challenges some of our assumptions about the conflict. At the time of writing, there are only three veterans of the First World War left alive, so we rely increasingly on indirect sources.

In the Second Life representation, you start off at an army camp and then proceed to the trenches via a floating bubble, during which you hear the introduction to the installation.

Once at ground level in the trenches, you can walk around and visit different aspects of the trench network. Along the way, images of soldiers flicker into view and you might hear an interview or a piece of poetry. The tutorials are accessed via a “HUD” (Head-Up Display) enabling you to proceed through the material and exercises at your own pace. Additional audio extracts are initiated by clicking on loudspeaker symbols.

A scene from the University of Oxford's First World War re-creation in Second Life. The visitor is able to walk around in the trenches; the cubes with a loudspeaker symbol on them enable playback of audio material such as poetry readings and interviews. Photo courtesy of First World War Poetry Digital Archive.

A scene from the University of Oxford's First World War representation in Second Life. The visitor is able to walk around in the trenches and ultimately climb a ladder up on to the battlefield itself; the cubes with a loudspeaker symbol on them enable playback of audio material such as poetry readings and interviews. The green-tinged cloud and floating text ahead are part of a section on the use of poison gas during the War.

Overall, the Second Life representation is quite an intense and powerful experience, and I can imagine it will be a particularly effective educational tool.

The challenge for an environment like this is that there is a fairly steep learning curve before visitors can fully experience what a virtual world like Second Life can offer – before you can experience an installation like this you have to learn how to move around, activate things and generally operate successfully in the environment. However in this case you really need to be able to do little more than walk around and click on objects, so most people will require no more than a few minutes of training to be able to get the most out of virtual re-creations like this.

I wish the First World War Poetry Digital Archive every success with this project and am very pleased to have been able to make a small contribution to it. This installation will also be featured in the 10 November edition of the Designing Worlds show on Treet.TV.

*“…And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.” is the final line of Anthem for Doomed Youth by World War I poet Wilfred Owen – one of the WWI poems I’ve recorded for this project. Photos courtesy of First World War Poetry Digital Archive.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Allan October 29, 2009 at 09:29

Wow – that Second Life project by Oxford looks amazing!

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