Last June a call for papers went round the School of Arts from the Birkbeck Institute of Moving Image (BIMI) for Pittsburgh University’s annual Film and Media Studies Graduate Conference, taking place the following September. The theme of this year’s conference was Limits of Cinema/Cinema Unlimited? and of the suggested topics what stood out to me was ‘fantasies of unlimited cinema’. What, I thought, would happen if you removed the visual element of cinema and were just left with sound?
For context, I’m a student in the department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing, and my PhD focusses on the radio plays of Samuel Beckett. For this conference I explored Rough for Radio II, a play he wrote in the mid-sixties, translated from French to English and broadcast about a decade later by the BBC. The play, purely audio as the name suggests, follows the torture of an old man as he is forced to reveal the strange and horrific details of his life. This horror, I suggested, could be intensified through the removal of sight for the audience, short-circuiting the senses.
I was lucky enough to have my paper accepted, and even luckier for BIMI to cover my trip to Pittsburgh to speak.
Everything about the conference was brilliant, interesting, and eye-opening. The topics were exploded in ways I would not have imagined, covering everything from cannibalism to fitness videos and panel-wide discussions of narrative, what rethinking histories of cinema looks like in the 21st century and how the industry has influenced networking in films. My own panel was on sound(ing) in film, with fascinating but incredibly diverse talks: Eli Boonin-Vail from Pittsburgh spoke about sound aesthetics in the Chautauqua movement, while Olga Tchepikova-Treon from the University of Minnesota discussed the cult and culture surrounding Deafula, a version of Dracula made entirely in American Sign Language. Both these areas were completely new to me so it was a fascinating panel to be on.
One of the original attractions of the conference for me (apart from getting to visit Pittsburgh and learn about such a wide array of films and ideas) was that the keynote was to be delivered by Jeffrey Sconce, whose book Haunted MediaI read as an undergraduate: it set me on a path towards radio drama study that I’m still following over a decade later. Sconce closed the conference with the brilliantly titled ‘Canonical Badness and the New Terrible’, wherein we spent a glorious hour exploring some of the films we love to hate, or just hate, and what a terrible film might look like in the age of democratised technology where anyone can be a filmmaker. My to-watch list had tripled in size by the end of the day.
Of course, my wider experience of Pittsburgh was also incredible, both as a tourist and as a guest. The city is the birthplace of Andy Warhol and boasts the most amazing museum, where I lost an entire afternoon and even did my own screen test. Also, on my last day, a few of us ventured into a more residential part of the city to visit the Museum of Postnatural History to learn about how humans have influenced evolution, or our version of evolution. In addition to this, I would put up by two lovely local graduate students (and their friendly, fluffy cat, Irma) and the team at Pittsburgh were amazing, keeping us entertained, fed and watered beyond the length of the conference.
I’d strongly recommend that anyone interested in film or film studies get involved with BIMI’s partnership with Pittsburgh University. The trip was so inspiring and was my first experience of an American postgrad environment, but I learned more than I can ever imagine both at the conference and outside of it, and met some of the most interesting people ever. I look forward to meeting them again when Pittsburgh comes to Birkbeck in the Spring!