El Encanto: artist Freddy Dewe Mathews explores spectral histories of the rubber industry in Colombia

El Encanto will be showing from 6 April – 4 May 2017 at the Peltz Gallery at 43 Gordon Square.

Dr Luciana Martins from Birkbeck’s Department of Cultures and Languages introduces this interview with artist Freddy Dewe Mathews

blog-el-encantoOur modern world owes a lot to a product native to Amazonia: natural rubber. As well as its contribution to the automobile and aviation industries in the form of the tyre, natural rubber is employed in a range of other products: from hoses and industrial belts to gloves, syringes, telegraph cables and condoms. However,a history of forced labour and brutality lurks behind rubber production.

In his project El Encanto, which borrows its name from one of the sites where Casa Arana (a Peruvian rubber company) operated, London-based artist Freddy Dewe Mathews documents traces of the industry that linger still in the Putumayo region in Colombia. As this is a remote region with a dark history, we asked Freddy to explain why he’s dedicated so much time and energy to work on this project.

What drew you to this project in the first place?

I remember being first drawn to the subject from having a vague understanding of the process of tapping a rubber tree; being somehow indirectly aware of how a tree produces this rather spectral white material – and that was something that made me curious. While it’s never been something I have consciously developed, an identifiable thread in my work is whiteness and the aesthetics of whiteness in nature.

In 2013, I was on a residency in Bolivia and I used the opportunity to start talking to an NGO in Santa Cruz, where I was based, about whether there were still producers of rubber in Bolivia. I made a rather eventful journey out to search for some of these small-scale producers in the Bolivian Amazon towards the border with Brazil. It turned out these producers didn’t actually exist where I had been told, but the trees still did and a local man, whose uncle had tapped rubber some 40 years earlier, guided me to them and with the same tool his uncle would have used, opened one of them up. Seeing that process in the flesh really drew me in – especially the idea that the tree still held the scars from when industry existed.

But this was really before I began to read about the history of the industry and became familiar with what happened not only in the Amazon but on to the plantations in Asia, even in the Congo with King Leopold and more recently with Firestone in Liberia. My particular interest in the Putumayo came when I read Micheal Taussig’s book, Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man. It was then that I decided that if I wanted to make a project on this material it would need to focus on that particular site, so I began to work out how I would make my way there.

Tell us a little about Sir Roger Casement and how he fits into your interests.

Casement’s part in this story is that he was sent to investigate the Peruvian Amazon Company, a rubber collecting company run by Julio Arana, that was accused of abusing indigenous populations in the Putumayo. Casement arrives there in 1910. While in the Putumayo, he wrote various diaries which would become a key element of his trial when he was arrested some six years later smuggling arms to topple the same government that was his employer in Peru. There is a huge amount of context that is needed to understand his story, something Jordan [Goodman] or Lesley [Wylie] would far better explain than I can when they are here for the ‘Landscapes of Abandonment’ roundtable, 6 April 2017.

But what really interested me in his story were certain aesthetic aspects of it –in the context of the rubber industry and those processes I had first seen in Bolivia. Casement was a gay man and was having intimate relations with men during his trip to the Putumayo as we learn from his diaries. These revelations at the time changed the public impression of him and still, to this day, complicate how we remember him. This sexual element of the story appeals to the visual nature of the tree being tapped, which is itself an intimate relationship between the tapper and the tree, where the body of that tree is manipulated to produce a white substance, something that happens deep in the forest away from the gaze of others. While these parallels may seem crass, having seen that process first-hand they were extremely striking. I was further drawn to make these parallels when I was in the Putumayo and I heard about the mythology – common throughout Amazonia – of the pink dolphin, a river dolphin common in the Amazon that has a widespread belief associated with it: it can transform itself into a man dressed in a white linen suit that tempts youngsters into the water, never to be seen again. The debt these ideas and the images connected to them have to the rubber industry is very strong.

You had a long period of fieldwork in Colombia. How did this influence your work?

It was a great privilege to be able to spend nine months in Bogotá on a residency (British Council Residency Programme at FLORA – 2016). It gave me access to a lot of materials I would not have come across in London and the chance to meet anthropologists based there. And it also allowed me to travel further into the areas I was interested in.

It also gave me the opportunity to see the story from a different perspective. Somehow the way the history is written from the UK seems to focus on the British as a kind of saviours and their involvement in the investigation and trial of Casa Arana is given a greater significance that it might deserve. Whereas in Colombia you are told that if the Casa Arana hadn’t been able to register in London and receive British investment it would never have been able to expand in the way that it did, to reach the areas it did and exploit the communities it profited from. Profits that were enjoyed by the Britons who had financed it.

And while the trial may have been a noble effort it had very little actual effect in the Putumayo, where the company continued to exist for some years until the price of rubber was driven so low by plantations in Asia.

These stories are far more complicated than the reductive terms I am using to explain them but it was interesting to see it nevertheless from two contrasting perspectives.

Re-assessing the past seems to be a recurring theme in your work. Why does it appeal to you?

I am attracted to the idea that history is malleable and deeply subjective and I feel that the histories that I have tended to look at, which are of remote subjects, represent this particularly succinctly. To the extent that the explorers that were drawn there and even someone like Casement who was tasked with being objective are actually fairly un-reliable and consequently make for interesting reading. Especially when you can see the narratives created as they develop, becoming ever more difficult to separate from the reality.

I want my work to create a space where these stories can be looked at in a very conscious way, examining how we regard these histories once we are aware of how our sense of them shifts with the perspective of time.

You use different media in your work. How do you decide which one is more adequate to express your art? Could you let us know, for example, why are you using 16mm in this show?

There is no specific rationale for why one subject may end up expressed in a certain way. It’s more that techniques and processes are developed alongside the research and journeys that I make. Sometimes, in fact, the same ideas may be expressed in various different media in the same exhibition, almost as a way to make an example of something.

I always want to create a world that can be inhabited in my work and want that world to have many facets and materials, and that is why I have always been drawn to using different media.

16mm specifically is something I was looking at when I started to think about video loops. I wanted these to be made manifest and tangible in the exhibitions I was making and really the materiality of film was the best way to do that. The idea with these works is to make the audience aware of the way their perception of something that is essentially unchanging, a loop of film, evolves the longer they look at it.

Here, in this work specifically, using 16mm creates an exciting tension in the work, referencing the material that was used to first relay images of these remote areas by explorers and anthropologists. Often people will see the images without being certain whether the footage is archival or not. This is something that plays with the idea of the distance we have from these subjects.

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Cyber Security professionals offer students advice and insights at Birkbeck Careers event

This post was written by Jenna Davies from Birkbeck Careers

cyber-2

Students were exposed to plenty of practical advice, industry insights and networking opportunities this week as professionals from the world of cyber security shared their experiences as well as their thoughts on getting into the sector at a panel discussion organised by Birkbeck Careers.

The fundamental message was extremely positive, with every panellist indicating that there is a route for anyone to get into the industry; it’s a case of finding the right one for you.

Nigel Jones, CEO of IAAC (Information Assurance Advisory Council) highlighted that companies are often looking for bothnon techie’ as well as techie people. He revealed his outlook that there’s always a way to map your route into cyber and no matter what your background, there’s a career in cyber if you want to go down this path.

The ever growing skills shortage was a hot topic of conversation and Nick Wilding, General Manager of Cyber Resilience at AXELOS Global Best Practice (a joint venture between the UK Government and Capita plc) highlighted the demand for the skills today’s students have. Being a geography graduate, Nick emphasised that the skills required are multi-faceted and the growth of the industry demonstrates the need for those in the audience to put their skills to use in this arena.

Fellow panellist Erin Jones – Senior Associate at PwC UK cyber security practice – took her teaching role developing computer science and IT schemes and turned it into a career within cyber. Erin spoke of her own education at an all-girls school, indicating that tech was never advertised as a career option, which is controversial given the low number of women currently working within technology. The barrier for Erin isn’t the lack of women in the industry; it’s the lack of awareness as cyber is often seen as the ‘dark art’.

Nick reiterated Erin’s description and the need to change its perception with organisations, who are often tired of hearing about the threats they face and need holistic approaches from those who can support them.

Daryl Flack, CIO of Blockphish facilitated the event and touched on the vast range of roles available within cyber security; management alone provides lots of opportunities such as working as a consultant, within sales, as a creative addition to the team, an entrepreneur or within the ethical side of the industry. He advised the audience to start getting into something remotely cyber to kick off their path, or checking out new websites that need something more secure and finding your route in this way.

Like the majority of successful professionals it starts with passion and commitment, and regardless of your chosen course of study it seems very plausible to get into this ever growing industry.  Erin pointed out that one of her current colleagues does threat intelligence and studied geography at university while another studied Spanish and now works in their technical response team. Anything applies as long as you have that passion.

The conversation continued over networking and undoubtedly left some attendees with the motivation and belief that they can very effectively contribute to this field of work. So more of us can now step forward to stop the hackers, fight the phishing emails and join this exciting and valuable sector that impacts just about everyone in this day and age.

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All done and dusted; dispelling the myths of LGBT equality 50 years on

This post was contributed by Leslie J Moran, Professor of Law in the Birkbeck School of Law

It was a great honour and privilege to welcome Peter Tatchell back to Birkbeck to give the 2017 College Annual LGBT History Month Lecture. Peter has a long and notable reputation for his work as an activist promoting gender and sexual justice for LGBT people. The title of his lecture was, ‘All done and dusted; dispelling the myths of LGBT equality 50 years on.’

Peter Tatchell with Les Moran

Peter Tatchell with Les Moran

The ’50 years on’ refers to the fact that 2017 is an auspicious year, marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. That Act holds a key place in the history of struggles for sexual justice and sexual citizenship. Following the recommendations of the Wolfenden Committee the ’67 Act decriminalised two criminal offences, buggery and gross indecency, as they applied to consensual sexual relations between men over 21 years of age in private. Acknowledging this major achievement, Peter also noted a more sinister side of this reform. In the wake of the ’67 reforms the number of convictions and cautions relating to consensual sexual acts between men increased dramatically; by as much as 400% between 1966 and 1973. And it wasn’t until the Sexual Offences Act 2003 that criminal offences associated with State sponsored homophobia were finally reformed.

Peter went on to identify key moments in what he called ‘the unsung civil rights struggle of our times’; the law reforms that transformed the status of LGBT people from dangerous outsiders who threatened the state to respectable citizens. Highlights of this major revolution include the Human Rights Act 1998, Gender Recognition Act 2004, Civil Partnership Act 2004 and the Same Sex Marriage Act 2013. But as Peter explained these major achievements also contain provisions that allow prejudice to continue. These are a part of ‘unfinished business’ of the struggle for gender and sexual justice that he then went on to catalogue.

The qualified exemptions from some of these reforms based on religion have the potential to sustain discrimination in the delivery of a wide variety of services now provided through faith based organisations. While the civil partnership and same sex marriage legislation introduced sweeping changes they did so through the creation of 2 types of marriage; one for mixed sex couples and one for same sex. Separate, Peter concluded, is not equal. He concluded with a long list of ongoing problems that effectively work against equality for LGBT people; ranging from the particular difficulties facing LGBT refugees to ongoing failure to respond to homophobic harassment and bullying in school and the blight of day to day experiences of hate crime. Change, he concluded, needs people to come together saying ‘enough is enough’, to dream of what a better future might look like and then to engage in the struggle to make it happen.

It was particularly rewarding to note how Peter’s lecture resonates with the internationally recognised research and teaching at Birkbeck. BIGS, the Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality forum has a lively programme of activities that brings together scholars working in the arts and humanities and the social sciences and encourages dialogue with practitioners in the creative industries as well as with non-academic constituencies. The College’s MA Gender Sexuality and Culture provides Birkbeck students opportunities to study sexual justice and social change across the social science, humanities divide. Birkbeck’s School of Law has a long tradition of research and teaching that explores the interface between sexual and gender justice and law. Undergraduate and postgraduate modules cover a wide variety of issues in both law and criminology/criminal justice.

The event was a wonderful opportunity to bring together and celebrate not only the work and passion for justice of Peter Tatchell but also that which is to be found in the wider Birkbeck community.

Leslie J. Moran is College Equality and Diversity Champion, Chair of the College Equalities Committee and Professor in the School of Law. His published research explores sexuality in law in a variety of contexts, from Criminal law and hate crime to debates about sexual diversity in the judiciary.

The Annual LGBT History Month Lecture is part of the College’s programme to promote knowledge and awareness of equality and diversity issues both within the College and the public.  The programme is organised by the College Equality and Diversity Leads in the Human Resources Department.  The College is a proud member of Stonewall Diversity Champions programme, an Athena SWAN Bronze Award holder, Disability Confident member and Mindful Employer.  It is committed to working towards a Race Equality Charter award.  

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Is morality relative?

This article was written by Dr Michael Garnett, from Birkbeck’s Department of Philosophy. The article is taken from the introduction to a study guide on moral relativism, written by Dr Garnett and Professor Lillehammer, ahead of the conference and essay competition on the question ‘Is morality relative?’, which will take place on 28 June 2017.

platoI used to be a moral relativist—I used to think that moral judgements could be true or false only relative to a culture. Not just that: I used to think that moral relativism was obviously true. I struggled to understand how anyone could not be a moral relativist. Denying moral relativism, I thought, meant thinking that you were in possession of the one, true, universal, objective morality—and who could be so arrogant as to think they had that? I mean, maybe if you were religious you might think you had that. But even then, there are many different religions, and religious teachings require interpretation; and so who could be so arrogant as to think that they, out of everyone in the world, had hit on the one true interpretation of the one true religion?

My mother is a social anthropologist, someone whose job it is to study different cultures, and growing up I was keenly aware of the huge differences in moral ideas and outlooks between different human societies. As a kid I’d sit through dinner parties listening to my mum and her anthropology friends swapping stories about the distant peoples with whom they’d lived: the things they’d had to eat (live grasshoppers and stewed goat’s placenta were particular standouts), the different kinds of family structures they’d been welcomed into, and the different ideas about ethics and the cosmos that they’d learned about. For as long as I can remember, then, I’ve known that the ideas I happen to have about things like property, marriage, suicide, homicide, incest, cannibalism, the natural world, and so on, are mostly just local to me and to my little corner of the world.

So how could I not have been a relativist? Perhaps I could have believed in a universal, objective morality if I’d been ignorant of the extent of these cultural differences—if I’d somehow thought that everyone in the world shared more or less the same moral ideas as me and the other white, middle-class Londoners in my neighbourhood. But I wasn’t ignorant: I had a front row seat at the theatre of human cultural diversity. So to believe in a single true morality I would have had to believe, arrogantly, that somehow I (along with the rest of my ‘tribe’) had some special access to the moral truth, a special access denied to everyone else on the face of the planet. What could possibly justify this? After all, it’s simply an accident of birth that I grew up to have the moral ideas that I have. Had I instead grown up on a Fijian island, or deep in the Amazon basin, or in rural China, I would have had an utterly different moral outlook. Clearly, I had no better claim to the moral truth than anyone else. And that’s why I thought moral relativism was obviously true.

But I’m not a moral relativist anymore. So what happened? What happened is I studied philosophy. Philosophy showed me that I was muddled about what exactly did and didn’t follow from these facts about cultural diversity and disagreement, and it helped me to see everything more clearly. I eventually came to understand that, of the various things I thought about this topic, some of them were correct, but weren’t moral relativism; and some of them were moral relativism, but weren’t correct.

It took me a few years to get this all straightened out in my head. I’ve written a short Study Guide to pass some of this on; this is the essay that I wish I’d been able to read after sitting through those anthropology dinners, my head spinning vertiginously at exotic tales of cultural difference. You can download it here. And at our conference on 28 June, some of my esteemed colleagues will share their own perspectives on the topic of relativism. We very much hope to see you there.

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