MA Literature Review Show 2015: Identity

This post was contributed by Megan McGill who is currently undertaking an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck

MA-Modern-LiteratureThe MA Review Show for students of Modern and Contemporary Literature, and Contemporary Literature and Culture, opened up discussion for various pieces of media from recent months, inviting comparison between them in the hopes to spark some interesting ideas.

The items in question were:

These items were presented under with the theme of ‘identity’ and discussions were opened after a short introduction for each. The panel included students Karina Cicero, Francis Gene-Rowe, Jenna Johnston, Polly Kemp, and Megan McGill, and was chaired by Dr Joe Brooker, and Dr Caroline Edwards.

Ali Smith’s How to Be Both

Polly introduced to the audience the first item, Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, with a 2013 quotation from Frieze Magazine on the idea of frescoes, something that features heavily in the novel, and directly references the artwork from within its pages:

When gods go into exile what do they do? They put on their multi-layered travelling coats and embark on a journey through time. As migrants, they don the costumes of the countries they traverse, until an art work opens up a space in which they can shed their disguise and be free. This is an image Aby Warburg evoked in a lecture he gave in Rome in 1922, to illustrate how key visual motifs pass from one culture to another over the centuries before their dormant potential is awakened by an artist.

The case Warburg makes for Francesco del Cossa’s frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy (c. 1469). They are part of a cycle depicting the months of the year. Seven of the original works have been recovered, including the three that Del Cossa was commissioned to pain: March, April and May. Their pictorial language is as captivating as it is hermetic. Strange characters abound. Warburg defines them as astrological powers governing the months, allegorically embodied by celestial figures from antiquity.

The discussion moves quickly to the fluidity of identity, potentially the most prominent theme in the novel, comparing the text to Jackie Kay’s Trumpet and the work of Jeanette Winterson.

Discussions, however, lead further on to whether our identity is defined by the value of what we do and what we make, linking to an extract from the book where George’s mother asks her if she thinks people should be paid more if they think their work is better than those doing the same work.

The identity of Franchesco as the ‘dead narrator’, something seen before in the work of Beckett, was also brought up in regards to whether her section was a true mystical event, or just George’s imagination spurred by her discussion with H on how Italians from the Renaissance would speak.

Christopher Williams, ‘The Production Line of Happiness’ at Whitechapel Gallery

The next item discussed was the Christopher Williams exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery titled ‘The Production Line of Happiness’. A few members of the panel were able to visit the exhibition. The exhibition is described on the gallery’s website as follows:

Williams’ exquisite prints reveal the unexpected beauty and cultural resonance of commercial, industrial and instructional photography. Often working with set designers, models and technicians, Williams’ technically precise pictures recall Cold War era imagery and 1960s advertising, as well as invoking histories of art, photography and cinema.

His photographs are elements at play in a larger system including architecture, exhibition design, books, posters, videos, vitrines and signage that investigates the state sets of the art world and the publicity structures on which they rely. From his renowned 1989 studies of botanical specimens, Angola to Vietnam, to the hyper-real colour saturated studies of kitchenware made in 2014, this first survey of Williams’ work in the UK immerses us in visually enthralling and politically resonant lines of enquiry.

The exhibition looks into the dependence of commercialisation in photography, also playing on the idea of commodity fetishisation. Williams removes all negative context (e.g. slave labour) from his images of domesticity, leaving them shiny and yet discomforting in their perfection, challenging the idea of apolitical photography.

Other discomforts are included in the exhibition to forcibly engage the audience, including a lack of captions and hanging the photos below eye level. His catalogue available in the exhibition provides the audience with the captions the walls lack, adding the context that gives his photographs meaning and reinserting the politics into the material.

Williams’ photos are not entirely his own, as he takes photographs of other photographs and recontextualises them through his amendments and captions. This reinsertion of is a method of revealing/concealing, creating a palimpsest similar to the frescoes featured in Ali Smith’s work and editing their ‘identity’.

Carol Morley’s The Falling

Following on from discussion of the exhibition came a trailer for Carol Morley’s The Falling, telling the story of an outbreak of fainting at an all-girls school in the 1960s. Initial comparisons were drawn with Peter Weir’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, focusing on the topics of schoolgirl madness and intense relationships. Many clichés of the genre and time in which the film was set were then brought to light, as well as the elements of a British Gothic tradition e.g. mystery, mysticism, the countryside, spooky music.

Many watchers found the film incredibly farcical and often amusing at times as a reaction of the girls’ hysteria that, in the end, had no real explanation. But did the film need an explanation to serve its purpose?

The most popular element for the audience was the performance of Maisie Williams, whose character becomes a force of nature as the film progresses in a story of self-discovery versus self-destruction. Other positive comments came from the fact of its female director and her portrayal of sexuality in an arthouse film as non-voyeuristic, humorous, and warm at times. This fluidity of sexuality portrayed in the film links incredibly closely to what can be seen in the Ali Smith text, once again focusing strongly on the idea of identity and at what age we become who we truly are. The girls in the film are attempting to become an autonomous female body that feels, through liberated sexual awakening.

Channel 4’s The Vote

After many positive comments on the items covered so far, discussion moved to the less popular The Vote, a live theatre performance broadcasted on Channel 4 on Election Day. Initial disappointed comments highlighted how it focused mainly on the political process rather than political ideas, positively showing the different political motivations of the diverse electorate.

Someone questioned whether in its lack of substance and focus on process rather than politics it served as a perfect metaphor for the election itself, showing what’s wrong with the current political situation. It was also questioned whether its value was undermined by the actual election result the following morning, with the whole programme setting up for a hung parliament when, in reality, the election wasn’t close at all.

Aaron Diaz’s ‘Dark Science’ arc, Dresden Codak

Finally, the discussion moved on to the ‘Dark Science’ arc of Aaron Diaz’s webcomic Dresden Codak. The world of ‘Dark Science’ is one post-singularity, highly technologized and visually stratified, its underbelly in plain view to the reader, dangling across the panels.

As a visual piece it certainly fits the Samuel Delany quotation that the landscape in a piece can be the primary character. Discussion, from this point, expanded to the cinematic technique of the webcomic and how it flashes between narratives, leaving the reader unsure on what to expect next. The look of the comic also reminded an audience member of contact sheets for films, showing everything that has been shot but still clearly conveying movement in a montage-like fashion.

It was noted from the medium of the webcomic is free from the publication format and can be seen in this example as used as a way to educate an audience on science, rather than satirising the subject. The highly technical language used forces the audience to engage, like with the techniques Christopher Williams used in his exhibition, by seeking understanding in the finer details.

On the overarching theme of identity, it was concluded that the main idea of identity in this arc of Dresden Codak was that on ‘when do we stop becoming human?’ in regards to transhumanism and the self-repair using robotics that the protagonist, Kim, undergoes. Is there a particular percentage of body mass that needs to be human flesh, or is there a certain group of criteria you must be able to fulfil? This is the question the audience left with as the review show drew to a close.

Thank you to everybody who came to participate in the MA Review Show, whether in the audience or a panellist, and thank you to both Joe Brooker and Caroline Edwards for chairing such a successful event. The discussions were enlightening and the enthusiasm inspiring.

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