“Tejas Verdes: I was not there”: Poetic responses

The following poems were written by Dr Steve Willey and Serena Braida, after attending ‘Tejas Verdes: I was not there’ – a collaborative project between sociologist Dr Margarita Palacios and London-based Chilean visual artist Livia Marin, held at the Peltz Gallery from 3 June to 15 July 2016.

Bringing together Palacios’s research on violence and Marin’s work around loss and care, the project consisted of visiting several ex-detention and extermination sites in Chile – such as the Tejas Verdes concentration camp – and the performing of an aesthetic intervention in each of them. The result of the intervention was the production of a series of abstract realist objects that registered traces of the material remains of these sites, marking the materiality of the violent event in its multiple layers of meaning and yet registering its unreadability. This aesthetic intervention explored the possibilities of representing violence without reproducing it and the challenges of non-colonizing experiences of witnessing.

As part of the event series around the exhibition, attendees were invited to provide a textual response to their experiences of the artworks. The following are two poem which were submitted.

Tejas Verdes

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

‘Nine Speculations on Colour’
Or ‘30 Minutes in Tejas Verdes: I Was Not There
By Steve Willey

I.

A frayed edge of brown on white, a thread,
A point of oblivion. Fire has caught it. An analogue.
A wall has come away at a point of oblivion. I forget.
Each projection, a recess, each recess a receding secret.
My tongue, a hand, my eye. I am here. Touching
A shadow of hair, or ash, or grass.
One more analogue for colour.
A pebble, a red, a catalogue. I forget.
The walls have been brought back, to yellow.
The colour of witness. Red earth: the colour of witness.
The refusal of words: the colour of witness. A process
Of whiteness. Clay for contrast. I forget.
A frayed edge of sun. The brick. The blue paint. Doors.
Drips in latex. A mouth. A point of oblivion.
A crease. A frayed edge of brown.
Respond or forget. I forget. The black earth turns.
Forget. There is symmetry in it. There is a mirror in it too.
The upturned smile of a suture.
A frayed edge returns. Here in this too uncertain brown.

II.
In the middle of the room rests a long white table.
On the table lie eight restless corpses.
The corpses have recorded their own coffins
They sing in the earth of themselves.
Their coffins are the state. Soundless and surgical
A clean violent hum. A topography of pain, unapparent –
We, the mourners, gaze. Insufficient. Permitted as frequency
To block out the I. Stuck here with this language,
I insert a corpse into my mouth. I suck on it.
I roll my tongue around to salve its amber doubt.
Unnecessary, I return
To the corpses. In the sunlight, the corpses.
I return to them a tongue. A shoulder runs.

III.

This is the aesthetics of the record.
This is the aesthetics of the transport.
This is the aesthetics of the guest-book.
This is the aesthetics of ill-attention.
This is the aesthetics of a peeling.

IV.

The walls of the gallery display the walls of the extermination camp.
The walls of the extermination camp do not forget this grave insult
And display their disdain. This is how abstraction becomes blame.

V.

The walls transform to cloth
Irreducible buildings become coats
Your face becomes a wall I peel
Where only the blind listen
A fragment of bone bursts the fattening river
Process becomes a ripping or a photograph
Violent, noisy, too soft the invasive
Now all the rhythm of a timed-out pen.

VI.

A single grain, its head is bowed in shadow and in custom.
Sprouting from a map, a country and a promise
The lyric of this grain is the corpse
I keep missing. A poetics of diminished architecture
Builds no poem-world around
This grain, or pins the motivation to move from silence to song.
This grain, this corpse, this only single grain,
Caught up in a focus of exclusion
Cannot know about the dead, but it has thrived on them, fed.
A forensic throng. An analogue. A rhyme. A no sudden song.

VII.

Rage is in this. Desperation too.
In the gap between breath and insulation.
I am reminded of Frankenstein.
Of how the monster hid his monstrosity
Inside a wall to patiently learn their language.
And when he spoke, he was heard.
When he was seen, the walls refused to house him.
In this configuration walls are not architectural: they are guilty.
Rage is in this. Shock too.
Step back and breathe the walls apart.

VIII.

Acid, eggs, grain, ulcers, phlegm.
Tape, celluloid, plague,
Pathogen, alchemy, dogs.
In this desert of graves: glass
In the inadequacy of testimony: walk.

IX.

The colour is repellent,
Almost revolting
A smouldering unclean yellow

Strangely faded
By the slow-turning sunlight.
It is a dull yet lurid orange
In some places,
A sickly sulphur tint
In others.

The paper stained everything it touched
Yellow smooches on all my clothes,

There are always new shoots
On the fungus,
And new shades of yellow all over it.

I cannot keep count of them.
It is the strangest yellow,
It makes me think
Of all the yellow things I ever saw

Old foul, bad yellow things.
A yellow smell.
Outside you have to creep
On the ground,
And everything is green
Instead of yellow.

But here I creep smoothly on the floor,
I cannot lose my way.

All text in IX taken from words surrounding the eight appearances of ‘yellow’ in Charlotte Perkins’ short story ‘The Yellow Wall Paper’

­– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

TEJAS VERDES*

By Serena Braida

hip room. far-off. spitzer Schrei
disjointed. un-jazzed
unlike our kitchen
unlike delighted pecks.

Son of a man, man, mum
mum’s recipe for defending our memories: grind orange dowel until
azure and chalky
&
to take stubborn strata smells
off your clothes, agitate

here is my pupa
the peeler nothing
lovelier than her fuzzy  surface
to be translated into mortars, that is, male
purity of sounds.

a theory of arms for the arms she never cared for.

deserted snow to hydrate her a fecund
quality of salt on her lips,
the shit of warriors smeared on the geographical nape,
lime buttocks, almendras breath, a new Democracy,
a batch of hell

* This poem was written upon visiting the Tejas Verdes: I was not there, and attending the roundtable the Aesthetics of Witnessing: A Conversation about Violence and the Challenges of its Representation, held on the 9 June 2016

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True Crime Fictions

This post was contributed by Dr Joseph Brooker, from Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. Read the original blog post on the Centre for Contemporary Literature’s website. Here, Dr Brooker reports from True Crime Fictions a one-day, interdisciplinary conference held at Birkbeck investigating the growing corpus of hybrid fictions working with accounts of true crimes and their increasing interest to literary, legal and criminological scholars.

In Absolute Power (1997) Clint Eastwood plays a burglar who laconically states: ‘I love true crime’. I always found it entertaining that Eastwood’s next film as an actor was called True Crime (1999). These were fictions referring to a genre of non-fictional narrative, which capitalises on a public appetite for details of crimes that have really taken place. The critic Mark Seltzer has written a major work on the genre, describing it as ‘crime fact that looks like crime fiction’. But what about ‘true crime fiction’? What does that look like?

Northern Crimes: the Moors Murderers and the Yorkshire Ripper

Birkbeck creative writing lecturer Mark Blacklock's true crime fiction novel, "I'm Jack"

Birkbeck creative writing lecturer Mark Blacklock’s true crime fiction novel, “I’m Jack”

Het Phillips (Birmingham) started the conference with a discussion of materiality in true crime, drawing in a wide range of references, mentioning crime writing from the Moors Murders to David Peace. What most struck me was her emphasis on detail as a textual feature of crime writing. Detail might be a literary relative of the detective’s ‘evidence’; reading could be forensic attitude. Phillips referred not just to Roland Barthes’ account of detail in ‘The Reality Effect’, but even, strikingly, to Hugh Kenner’s discussion of material details in Joyce’s Ulysses.

Martin King’s (Manchester Metropolitan) approach was oriented to social science and media studies. His focus was particularly on David Peace’s Nineteen Seventy-Four and the TV dramatization Red Riding, and on the versions of masculinity explored in both. King suggested that Peace cannot be wholly separated from a more prurient representation of gruesome crime. What Mark Blacklock called ‘culture industry questions’ – where is a fiction situated, who is the audience, whom does it benefit, is there profit to be made? – come into play.

Helen Pleasance (York St John) closed this panel with a paper given from a creative writing background, in which creative non-fiction and memoir were key genres. She revealed a personal connection to the investigation of the Moors Murders, via her father who was a probation officer in Greater Manchester at the time. This had deterred her from engaging with the history of that crime – yet she has ultimately been unable to avoid it, and spoke of ‘what it means to know too much about Myra Hindley’. Pleasance criticized Jean Rafferty’s award-winning novel Myra, Beyond Saddleworth (2012) but found much more virtue in David Constantine’s story ‘Ashton and Elaine’ which she described at length. Constantine’s story, it emerged, addresses the murders obliquely and looks to find a way beyond them for the region.

The panel not only highlighted the particular role of the North in crime writing, but also suggested that two cases in particular have dominated the modern history of ‘Northern crime’: the Moors Murderers and the Yorkshire Ripper. Of the two, it seems to me that the former has had the deepest hold over public imagination and has been more prone to mythologization – as was indicated, for instance, by the connections that various quotations drew between the Moors Murders and Wuthering Heights.

True Crime in the United States

The second panel shifted our attention over the Atlantic. David McWilliam (Keele) described the ‘activist ethics’ of author Sarah Burns’ work on the ‘central park five’, a case of wrongful conviction. McWilliam’s presentation opened issues of race, representation and incarceration in the United States. These were also pertinent to the presentation by historian Roger Panetta (Fordham University, New York), who is undertaking a history of Sing Sing Prison. His work took us back to the nineteenth century, as he outlined his aim to better describe the prison’s inmates, ‘retracing the lifelines knotted in one cell’. Adam Gearey (Birkbeck) discussed a work by the former Weatherman activist Bill Ayres, taking ‘true crime’ into the realm of what could be called ‘domestic terrorism’ or home-grown revolutionary activity in the counterculture era. Gearey’s emphasis was not so much literary, legal or political as philosophical, drawing on Aristotle to emphasize ideas of virtue and self-fulfilment, and suggesting that bad rhetoric indicates bad ethical action.

Graphic Art and True Crime

Harriet Earle (Birkbeck) could not be present on the day but her paper was read out. Earle’s discussion of comic book art offered tools for formal analysis, with the comics My Friend Dahmer (2012) and Green River Killer (2011) her particular examples. David Platten’s (Leeds) presentation was on the fiction (written and graphic) of French communist author Didier Daeninckx. Platten showed how Daeninckx had returned repeatedly to the incident of state brutality on 17 October 1961, when Algerian protesters were murdered by police.

Ethical Issues in True Crime Writing

In the final two sessions we moved from criticism towards creative practice. Professor Martin Eve chaired a panel of authors who had written about true crime. Mark Blacklock spoke of his novel I’m Jack (2015), which fictionalizes the Wearside hoax that diverted police attention from the Yorkshire Ripper investigation. Andrew Hankinson is the author of You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] (2016), a narrative based on extensive study of the Geordie killer’s statements and actions. And Daragh Carville spoke of his authorship of a forthcoming BBC drama about the Shankill Butchers of Belfast. The intensity of the material struck me. Author events and interviews often stay at a genial, genteel level; but here, I gradually realized that all three authors had engaged with deeply disturbing and violent material, sometimes in forensic detail. This in turn raised ethical issues – who has the right to write true crime? What about the feelings of the victims’ families? Can you be sued for libel? – which were aired in discussion.

Another point that connected the three was an emphasis on place. Hankinson’s Geordie background connected him to the Moat case. Blacklock talked of his Sunderland background as his crucial motivation, even of his novel as an ‘exorcism’ for his home town. And Daragh Carville spoke of his love for ‘that weird city’, Belfast: a little like Helen Pleasance in her initial avoidance of the Moors Murders, he had avoided the Troubles all his writing life, but here at last he found himself confronting it directly. This intense concern with place – specifically with towns and cities – in turn made me wonder how large a city would need to be to transcend the effects of a particular crime. Sunderland, for instance, is a city of 175,000. Would London, at nearer 8 million, be too large to be haunted by one individual’s actions? True, Jack the Ripper and the Krays are notorious London criminals, but they are also very closely associated with the specific area of the East End. Perhaps the last crime to feel ‘London-wide’ in its effects was the 7/7 bombings: a murder case belonging to that special category called terrorism.

True Crime and Memoir

©Line Kallmayer

©Line Kallmayer

The day closed with a presentation from Line Kallmayer, a visual artist from Denmark who is currently resident in Italy after several artistic residencies in different countries, notably the United States. She described the case of the serial killer Dennis Lynn Rader, who was caught in Wichita, Kansas in 2005. Kallmeyer gave us a narrative of Rader’s life and crimes, but it was intertwined with an account of her own travels in Kansas investigating the case. True crime was mixed with memoir. But it was also a profoundly visual presentation, as Kallmayer’s text was accompanied by a sequence of many photographs that she had taken on her travels. The effect was extraordinary. The academic format of the day was now incorporating a work of art, which accordingly asked for a different response. The quality of Kallmayer’s writing was matched by her immaculate reading and the intriguingly uncertain, Sebaldian status of her images. I already thought that we had witnessed a day of high quality work, but Kallmayer closed it by taking it to a different place, and making us listen and watch differently.

What could the future hold for the study of true crime? Is there more discussion or publication ahead? I hope that this conference has started the conversation in a way that delegates will find helpful as they continue their research on true crime fictions.

This conference was generously supported by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities

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19th Uddevalla Symposium: Rethinking Leadership and Gender

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics. Here, James reports from the 19th Uddevalla Symposium, held at Birkbeck from 30 June to 2 July 2016. Read James’s first and second blogs on the symposium.

Trigger logoAre female leaders more efficient in family firms? Does corruption have a gendered effect on small firm performance? These are some of the questions posed at the recent Uddevalla symposium, held in the UK for the first time at Birkbeck’s Bloomsbury campus, between 30 June and 2 July. As part of its stated themes of ‘Geography, Open Innovation, Diversity and Entrepreneurship’ the symposium took time to focus on gender inequality, with TRIGGER (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research) holding a dedicated paper session to consider the topic.

The question of gender equality among businesses and innovators is a complex one; gender exists as a category long before we enter the workplace and carries with it a variety of social, psychological and material implications. It’s clear that increased gender diversity can have a positive effect on firm performance and, as McKinsey & Company pointed out recently, will be absolutely crucial to global economic growth in the coming years – possibly to the tune of $12 trillion by 2025. However, for both the global economy and society at large to benefit from these prospective dividends, attention must be paid to gender inequality in its current form and its attendant complexities.

Therefore, a much discussed theme of the symposium appeared not so much as, how can we honour an obligation to gender parity, but crucially, how can we unleash the huge productive potential of an equal and diverse workforce and, what are the implications for innovation and entrepreneurship?

Is leadership a gendered role?

A keynote speech from Professor Colette Henry, Head of Business and Humanities at the Dundalk Institute of Technology and CIMR Visiting Fellow, considered the position of female entrepreneurs and innovators through the prism of veterinary practitioners and researchers. Her lecture, the first keynote lecture of the three-day symposium, discussed many of the counter-intuitive features of the sector – notably that there are more than twice as many male as female sole principals, and more than four times as many male directors or equity partners, in veterinary firms, despite women accounting for over 50% of those working or studying in the sector.

Her work suggests that current innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems, despite their propensity to change and evolve, are not sufficiently addressing less visible barriers for women. Professor Henry proposes an ‘integration’ model rather than merely beefing up the curriculum with corrective modules, this, she says, is the way to instil ambitious young females with the confidence and support necessary for them to excel to male dominated positions.

It seems, therefore, that the task of encouraging female innovators and entrepreneurs is one keenly tied to changing perceptions, of decoupling innovation and entrepreneurship from gendered ideas of what makes a good leader or a successful entrepreneur.

Porous Borders

Professor Per-Olof Bjuggren’s paper ‘Are Female Leaders more Efficient in Family Firms?’ also considered how definitions of leadership intersect with wider cultural issues, this time by scrutinising family firms. Professor Bjuggren’s work situates itself at the nexus of two historically gendered leadership roles, head of the family and head of the firm, allowing us to trace the relationship between the two and, ultimately, consider the effects of their intersection.

His work found that, whilst the effect of female CEO’s in non-family firms is ambiguous, female leaders in family firms had a positive impact upon the fortunes of the business. Whilst he proposes further research to unpack this assertion, his findings are crucial to understanding how the question of leadership is not one to be solely directed at businesses, but also society and culture at large. The quest for gender equality and equity cannot be an isolated and compartmentalised pursuit, as indicated by Professor Bjuggren’s work, it must look to consider the porous borders between whom we are at home and who we are at work.

You can see the winners of the 19th Uddevalla Symposium best paper awards on their site. To see the ways in which Birkbeck are tackling gender inequality, please visit TRIGGER’s webpage, as well as viewing the various networking and mentorship programmes such as ASTREA and AURORA.

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Selecting the landing site for 2018 ExoMars Rover

This post was contributed by Birkbeck student, Anja Lanin. Anja attended Dr Peter Grindrod’s lecture, ‘Selecting the landing site for 2018 ExoMars Rover’ during Birkbeck Science Week 2016.

Mars and a rover

Over the last two years, specialist teams in Europe have been working on helping ESA select the landing site for the first European rover on Mars. This is not just a project for PhD-holders, even individual research findings from undergraduate students contribute to the realisation of this mission. Birkbeck students and staff, including the presenter of this talk, Dr Peter Grindrod, have been closely involved. In his talk ‘Selecting the landing site for the ESA 2018 ExoMars rover’, Dr. Grindrod not only brought to light the difficulties in finding an appropriate site in unexplored regions of Mars but also emphasised the problem of balancing safety, and scientific output.

Birkbeck on Mars!

Birkbeck scientists have been directly involved in developing the PanCam stereo-camera system, which is part of the ExoMars instrument payload, led by UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory. This camera will be crucial for understanding the context of rocks and samples investigated by ExoMars.

Risky goals

The ‘search for signs of past and present life on Mars’ is the main goal of this mission, according to Dr Grindrod. The one billion Euro investment will initially rest on the Russian Proton rocket, with an 89% success rate, on the scheduled May 2018 launch date. The precious 300kg solar-powered rover payload is to land on Mars about 7 months later, via parachute and retro-rockets.

Dr Peter Grindrod

Dr Peter Grindrod

Looking for life, but where?

We learn from Dr Grindrod that the rover needs to land on some of the oldest Martian rocks (>3.6 billion years). Why? Geochemical analysis using orbital-based technology indicates that rocks in some of these oldest regions are sedimentary and characterised by hydrated (clay) minerals.

We know that on Earth clay minerals form from the interaction of rocks with water that is neutral in pH and suits terrestrial life. Some of the geologically younger rocks on Mars contain sulfate minerals formed under water-poor conditions and around life-unsuitable acidic water. So we need a site, as Dr Grindrod says, that at one point had some life-friendly water flowing through it depositing soft sedimentary rocks that the rover can get to and drill into.

Access forbidden – the contamination problem

According to Dr Grindrod, the rover is prohibited from landing in what are called ‘Mars Special Regions,’ areas where any terrestrial organisms unintentionally carried by the rover may survive. Thus areas potentially containing terrestrial life-supporting liquid water at present are a no-go. So scientists have been looking for a rover touch-down location in areas where there may have been life in the past but probably not at present.

Zooming in on a landing target

Mars isn’t small, but temperature constraints rule out areas near the cold poles and the seasonally warm southern hemisphere. Equally very hilly areas are also rover unsuitable due to the steep slopes. Keeping these constraints in mind, the most promising geological outcrops scientists were left with covered just 2% of Mars’ surface area. Finally, they had to consider that the rover could land anywhere within a still considerably large ca. 104 x 19 km elliptical area, rather than a particular spot.

Watch Dr Grindrod’s lecture

The chosen few

Two of the eight landing site proposals submitted throughout Europe came from the UK and both made it into the final four.

In the end a site called Oxia Planum was chosen as the destination for the 2018 launch. The location appears to be near the end of an ancient delta-like river drainage network and there may even be different layers present containing different types of clay minerals, possibly suggesting groundwater interaction. However, one problem with this landing site is that some of the surface is covered in small wind ripples – could the small 20 cm ExoMars rover wheels get stuck here??

For the back-up launch date in 2020 two back-up sites have been selected, Mawrth Vallis and Aram Dorsum. The latter location would place the rover near deposits of one of the oldest river systems (now inverted) on Mars and any landing spot would be conveniently located no more than 100 m from a relevant deposit.

Mars, the red planetWhat’s next?

If Oxia Planum for some reason is proved to be not to be safe enough more work is needed to decide which of the back-up sites is best for the alternative 2020 launch. In the end this decision will be up to ESA and the Russian Space Agency.

Let’s remember though, as pointed out by Dr Grindrod, once the rover touches down the scientific results are for us, for every scientist involved, for everyone whose money has contributed to the mission, not just the investors but also the public.

 

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