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88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (to be Played with the Left Hand)

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88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (to be Played with the Left Hand) is a hypermedia work that takes on the form of a constellation map. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is the central figure of the piece, which however touches upon various other subjects, such as Charlie Chaplin’s life, or Frank Capra’s films, for example. One navigates through the work by clicking on the stars that form each constellation. This mode of navigation allows the user to easily grasp the connections made between the various sections of the piece. For exemple, the star named “Wittgenstein” is connected to those named “Godard” and “Macguffin,” while the latter is associated with the star called “Philosophical Investigations.” The work, full of depth and complexity, allows the user to learn about Wittgenstein’s life, as well as the historical context in which he lived and the other famous names of his time. Each of the sections contains a voice-over narrative, along with a video sequence or an animation. 

In addition to its historical and biographical nature, Clark’s creation questions our perception of events. The visual medium that guides the user’s navigation through the piece, i.e. the sky map representing each of the eighty-eight constellations, functions first and foremost as a means of orientation. The map allows the user to move in a certain way among the fragments which, though each is independent from the others, take on different meanings through their proximity with other fragments. This mode of navigation, in which each of the fragments is a star in the sky map connected with other stars and forming a constellation, reveals the particular worldview conveyed by the piece. Indeed, many fragments present Wittgenstein’s ideas, one of which is taken from the famous opening propositions of the Tractatus logico-philosophicus: “The World is the totality of facts, not of things.” Based on this premise, David Clark presents each of the fragments as an independent fact. However, the artist also makes use another one of Wittgenstein’s key ideas, i.e. that meaning emerges from the family resemblances connecting different facts. He thus suggests that one must take these connections into account if one is to make sense of the facts. In the fragment entitled “Constellations,” this idea is explicitly stated:

A point is a fact. A line connects two points. A line is a story that connects two facts. Stories are vectors connecting facts together. These vectors makes pictures, as above, or below, or vice-versa.1

In Clark’s piece, these ideas are expressed in relation to a certain view of history, in which events, curiously, are connected through a series of echoes, coincidences and recurring structures. The choice of the sky map as a visualization device is therefore significant. Indeed, it would appear to be a reference to astrology, and to the notion that our lives are governed by the stars. The idea that facts are governed by a global principle pervades the piece. David Clark does in fact strive to create links between the stars in his constellations, and these connections tend to show that through facts events are always somehow connected or connectable.

The first fragment, entitled “eighty-eight,” introduces this principle of events’ resonance. The fragment indicates various connections with the number eighty-eight. We learn for example that a piano has eighty-eight keys, and that there are eighty-eight constellations in the sky. The narrator then goes on to tell us that Wittgenstein, Chaplin and Hitler were all born in 1889, within a few days of each other, while highlighting the fact that the number eighty-eight appears in this date. In the fragment about Hitler, we learn that football players, in Germany, never wear the number 88. The letter ‘H’ is the eighth of the alphabet, and the double ‘H’ is therefore associated with the sinister Nazi salute : “Heil Hitler!” Likewise, in the fragment about Chaplin, much is made about the fact that Chaplin played the piano, and died at the age of eighty-eight.

This network of facts, woven around the number 88 and the piano, is also invoked in the fragment entitled “Piano,” in which we are reminded of the analogy Wittgenstein made between uttering a word and playing a note on a keyboard: “Uttering a Word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.” The fragment about Wittgenstein’s brother also adds to this network of meaning: here, we learn that Paul Wittgenstein was a very singular pianist, Indeed, having lost his right arm during World War I, he began writing music to be played with the left hand. Thus, we understand why the phrase “to be played with the left hand” appears in the work’s title.

In the end, we can consider that the hypertextual device developed by David Clark seeks to represent history as the sum of the connections that can be discovered between facts. Though this resolutely rhizomatic vision of history can be (albeit imperfectly) rendered in print, the hypertextual medium seems perfectly suited to the portrayal of its inherent complexity. The links existing on a cognitive level are materialized with the help of the graphic interface presented on screen. In representing history as a series of constellations, David Clark’s device allows the user to grasp intuitively the notion that events, through time, echo one another, and thus he is brought to understand that the connections we establish are what makes these events meaningful to us.

How to cite
Brousseau, Simon. May 20, 2010. “88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (to be Played with the Left Hand), by Clark, David”. Entry in the Laboratoire NT2's Hypermedia Art and Literature Directory. Available online: Laboratoire NT2. <http://nt2.uqam.ca/en/repertoire/88-constellations-wittgenstein-be-played-left-hand-1>. Accessed on August 3, 2020.