Arts Week 2018: Floating Islands

Ellie Warr is a full-time student on the Birkbeck and RADA Text & Performance MA. She is currently collaborating with members of the T&P course to develop a new show inspired by the offshore bars established by the LGBTQ+ community of New Orleans. She writes here about Professor Gill Perry’s lecture Floating Islands In Contemporary Art, and was drawn to the event by the promise of different perspectives on the way that islands, and the themes of exile and identity, interact.

Floating plastic waste … a trash island in the making

The lecture took place in the cinema at 43 Gordon Square, which allowed Visiting Professor Gill Perry to share large images of the work of Alex Hartley, Robert Smithson and Andrea Zittel with her audience. ‘Floating islands’ is a sub-category of the subject of Perry’s forthcoming publication, Islands in Contemporary Art, and the lecture provided an opportunity for Perry to work through some of the issues that she was encountering in her research, including the scarcity of women artists creating work in the topic.

Coverage of floating islands in literature is abundant, Perry argued, while in the visual arts the subject is a lot less busy. Perry is thinking specifically of 18th and 19th century science and fantasy fiction, such as Jules Verne’s, The Floating Island, in which a propeller-powered, aristocrat-laden mobile island tours the Pacific Ocean. For contemporary visual artists, the idea of the floating island is pertinent to critical ideas such as migration and ‘post-Brexit fantasies of our separate island status’.

Global warming was the direct cause of Alex Hartley’s ‘Now Here is Land’, an island in the high arctic region of Svalbard that Hartley ‘discovered’ in 2004. Now Here is Land (also pronounced ‘no where island’) was revealed as a result of glacial retreat and claimed by Hartley in a satire of colonial statement. After securing a commission from the Arts Council as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, Hartley won his appeal for the island’s independence and tugged a piece the size of a football pitch around the south west coast of England. His ‘new nation for a complicated world’ ornamented, or ‘disfigured’, the seaside snaps of holidayers from Weymouth to Bristol, many of whom became citizens via the island’s mobile embassy. 23,003 signed up in total, and were ‘rewarded’ for their global spirit by receiving a chunk of the island once the tour was done.

The commission was a subversive element of the Cultural Olympiad and Perry wryly commented that Hartley does not think the idea would receive funding if proposed today. As an anti-nation state, Now Here is Land pokes at the resurgence of the nation-state in recent years. Perry juxtaposed the island with the more easily recognisable Orbit, the 114.5-metre-high sculpture by Sir Anish Kapoor that has reshaped the East London landscape and exemplifies the ‘hubristic masculinity’ that Perry also recognises in Christo’s forthcoming Mastaba, a huge floating installation piece coming to the Serpentine this summer.

In contrast, Perry argued, Hartley’s work is more in keeping with the potentially ‘naive’ works of Lucy and Jorge Orta, whose Antarctica Project (2007) featured a series of tents decorated with flags from around the world recalling the temporary accommodation of refugees fleeing military and social conflict. Like Hartley, the Orta’s mimicked the processes by which nationhood is constructed, distributing the Antarctica World Passport, ‘which included a proposal to ratify the UN Declaration of Human Rights: Article 13.3. Everyone has the right to move freely and cross-frontiers to their chosen territory. No individual should have an inferior status to that of capital, trade, telecommunication, or pollution that traverse all borders.’ Perry emphasised the way that contemporary artists invoke symbolic citizenship as a form of political activism; acts of collective power that are exempt from the 21st century ideals of individualism and isolation that the island motif offers.

Perry opened the floor to questions towards the end of the session, inviting her audience to comment on the wide-ranging nature of her research so far. One of the issues of the subcategory of floating islands, Perry explained, was in constructing a justifying criteria. However, while the international campaign to recognise the Trash Isles, the island of plastic floating in the Pacific, as an official country continues to raise awareness about the critical issues of the contemporary, I think Perry’s efforts will remain highly relevant.

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Arts Week 2018: Gaelic hardship in Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Poor Mouth’

Charlotte Deadman, a researcher in fin de siècle Anglo-Irish culture, the Gaelic League, Gaelic Revival and the Irish literary revival, comments on Arts Week event Gaelic Hardship.

The key theme of this sell-out event was an exploration of movement between languages in Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien’s 1941 novel, An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), considered the first post-modernist Irish language novel. The panel – Joseph Brooker, Tobias Harris and Eoin Byrne – commenced proceedings with a timeline tracing O’Nolan’s background (born in 1911 into a highly-literate Irish-speaking Catholic family), his career as civil servant, epistolarian and novelist.

O’Nolan (as ‘Flann O’Brien’) contributed regularly to the letters page of The Irish Times, leading to his own column, ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ (‘full little jug’), under the pen name Myles na gCopaleen: O’Nolan’s aliases – ‘brand names’ – were pivotal to his deliberate blurring of identity. In a letter to Sean O’Casey in 1942, O’Nolan wrote that An Béal Bocht was his ‘honest attempt to get under the skin of a certain type of Gael, which I find the most nauseating phenomenon in Europe’. The novel satirises the government’s gaelicising of Irish culture to the point that an onlooker could believe ‘all Irish literature was written for school children and nuns.’

An Béal Bocht was O’Nolan’s only Irish language novel; the fossilisation of the language, as he saw it, persuaded him to henceforth write only in English. However, O’Nolan refused to sanction an English version of his novel; Patrick C. Power’s translation was published in 1973, seven years after O’Nolan’s death. We learnt that the genesis of The Poor Mouth can be located in O’Nolan’s ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column and that the narrative framing – Bonaparte O’Coonassa’s autobiography edited by ‘Myles na Gopaleen (Flann O’Brien)’ – was intended to toy with reader expectations of the genre. The novel’s complex intertextuality draws upon a patchwork of phrases and events excised from well-known Irish language autobiographies, blended with pseudo-Gaelic myths, the significance of some of which has apparently been lost in translation. Eoin Byrne explained that the pen names in The Poor Mouth mirrored contemporary reality: while writers adopted nom de plumes, they all knew who was who and, affecting ignorance, publicly trashed each other.

Guest speaker, Hugh Wilde, read a passage after which Tobias Harris explained the significance of the ‘comic extension’ therein conveyed, suggesting O’Nolan’s ‘Jams O’Donnell’ represents a ‘sense of dual consciousness, of two cultural worlds’ – one promoting the idea of the heroic ‘Gael of Gaels’, the other Anglicised and hostile to the Gaels, expressed in Jams O’Donnell’s duality of language; Harris illustrated this duality, citing Irish passports which bear the holder’s name in both Irish and English.

Eoin Byrne speaks at the event

Eoin Byrne explained that the education system in Ireland set about eradicating the Irish language and that the resultant national linguistic divide became fundamental to a sense of identity: while colonial rule punished speakers of Irish, the Irish Free State’s ‘de-Anglicising’ agenda punished speakers of English. The Poor Mouth is effectively a collage of historical times, chronicling the ‘de-anglicising’ of Ireland, the English language symbolic of oppression.

Joseph Brooker then read a passage which he described as ‘a performance piece’, the Gaelic language portrayed as a marker of social prestige: O’Nolan’s parody of the Gael autobiography genre blurs into nonsense and consequently is incapable of saying anything of worth. Eoin Byrne’s animated re-reading of the passage in its original Irish form was a high spot of the evening.

The final reading was given by guest speaker, N. J. Harris. The event culminated in a focus on the novel’s portrayal of characters ‘living up to stereotypes…to their literary fate’ – although this is Bonaparte’s story, he is symbolically rendered silent – and that, central to the novel, is circularity of time, woven through in variations on the leitmotif ‘their likes will never be there again’. At the novel’s conclusion, parody is displaced by poignancy, reflecting on the cycle of imprisonment that runs in Bonaparte’s family: the novel is ultimately a commentary on the restrictions urban Dublin society inflicted on rural Irish speakers.

The panel summed-up The Poor Mouth as ‘a response to the cultural violence of extreme nationalism’ within the Irish language movement: a demonstration of post-modernist pessimism. This was an excellent evening, striking the perfect balance between informal and informative. I look forward to their likes being there again.

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Arts Week 2018: the architectural beauty of Cook’s Camden

Kayleigh Woods Harley, project support coordinator at Birkbeck, reports on Arts Week event Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing, a talk delivered by Mark Swenarton. 

On a beautiful Monday evening in the sunlit Keynes Library, Mark Swenarton addressed a crowd of architecture-lovers about his recent book, Cook’s Camden: the making of modern housing. The London borough of Camden in the 1960s and 70s was awash with high rise social housing. But that began to change under borough architect Sydney Cook. While adhering to the need for high-density accommodation, the new designs under Cook were all about simplicity, efficiency and quality.

In 1968 Cook commissioned young up-and-coming architect Neave Brown with his first major housing development at Alexandra Road, just off the famous Abbey Road. Brown was disorganised in appearance when he presented his plans for the site to a large audience wearing the ‘office tie’ which Cook had conscientiously supplied for such occasions. Nevertheless, they were greeted with applause.

The Alexandra Road estate is a seminal example of this new architectural style. Parallel rows of houses are accessed from a central, pedestrianized street. All the houses face one another, to accord with Brown’s belief that children playing in the communal space would be better behaved if all the neighbours could watch them from the window. (Brown designed his own house this way too; he installed a first-floor balcony overlooking the garden, allowing the adults to supervise the children in comfort.) Shirking tradition, Brown’s interiors lack any space-wasting hallways or corridors and he instead created light-filled open-plan spaces with the flexibility of Japanese-style sliding partition walls. The quality of the build and materials was such that these homes – many of which were bought by their tenants under Thatcher’s right to buy scheme – are still highly desirable today.

Brown’s designs became popular with planners because of their economy of space, filling out the development area right up to its perimeter –like laying a carpet wall-to-wall – and other young architects were quick to pick up the gauntlet. Arguably the most beautiful council housing in the world is the Branch Hill estate. Cook handed the strict brief to Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth to build homes on newly acquired land belonging to the estate of the grand Edwardian Branch Hill Lodge. To fulfil the requirement not to build above two storeys, they designed an ingenious interlocking system of maisonettes, each with a large roof terrace overlooking the verdant grounds of the old estate. The development was a not-so-subtle statement about the repurposing of previously aristocratic-owned land for the wider public’s use, giving a snapshot into the political mindset of Cook’s department.

Sadly, when Sydney Cook retired, his grand, pioneering ideas went with him and his young talented architects lost out to their less innovative peers. The political landscape shifted to adopt less progressive notions about social housing, and the architectural style of Cook’s era waned.

Mark Swenarton’s beautiful book is a labour of love which has been ten years in the making. It is published to a high standard with gorgeous original photographs of both the exteriors and interiors of the Cook era developments and new cross-sections have been drawn to modern standards. The book has proved so popular that it is already sold out, but further copies are available to purchase directly from its publisher, Lund Humphries, with more coming back in stock over the coming months.

Kayleigh Woods Harley is a project support coordinator at Birkbeck College. She has held professional service roles at other universities such as the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the University of St Andrews. She holds a PGCE in secondary English teaching and a Master of Arts in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh. Alongside her full-time job, she reads classic literature, art history, architectural history and natural history, writes literary fiction and has an active interest in sustainability issues.

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Family Learning: promoting the benefits of lifelong learning to a wider audience

Birkbeck alumna Yvonne Plowright and current student Liliana Torres discuss their experiences with the Family Learning events attended by the Widening Access team. 

Yvonne Plowright at a Family Learning event

The Widening Access team at Birkbeck collaborate with other London universities (including UCL, King’s and City) to attend parents’ evenings and other family events at these institutions, with the aim of promoting learning which spans the generations.  Through workshops and talks in which current students and alumni also share their experience of studying at Birkbeck, we are able to demonstrate to parents and carers what Birkbeck, and higher education, has to offer.

Often they are in attendance to support their children with making a decision about where to study, so it is a fantastic opportunity to talk with people who may not have considered studying at university.  By providing them with information, advice and guidance, we encourage parents and carers to consider embarking on their own university journey too.

One Birkbeck alumna, Yvonne Plowright, has been a regular ambassador at the family learning events we attend.  Here, she discusses how she got involved and why she enjoys doing these events:

“Among its many attributes, Birkbeck prides itself on being the university “for students who simply refuse to stop learning”.  That rubric always strikes a chord with me, perhaps because I am a mature student who has made a commitment to lifelong learning.  I am passionate about education for all, so when Birkbeck’s Widening Access Team invited me to join them at family learning events, I jumped at the chance.

“I have a BA in Philosophy from Birkbeck and these events are my opportunity to share my story and to say thank you to this magnificent university for changing my life in ways I could never have imagined.  I returned to student life after an absence of over thirty years, when I was busy with a career, working full-time and raising a family.  Once my children had grown up and left home to further their education and pursue their interests, I was able to fulfil the promise I had made to myself to continue with my own studies.

“When I attend the family learning events, I usually give a short talk about my journey to Birkbeck and the absolutely wonderful experience of being a mature university student – how this has grown my sense of self-worth, my confidence and how it has made me a much happier, more productive member of society.  The highlight of each event for me, however, is always the time I then have to meet and interact with adults who may have come to the event in support of their children, or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews, without realising that a big part of our presentation is aimed at them.   Much to their surprise, our adult guests discover that Birkbeck wants to engage with them too.  It is a joy to be told by guests that they feel really inspired and are now thinking in terms of taking that first step to either return to university or go to university for the first time.  It’s the feeling of planting seeds which will one day bear fruit that I find so rewarding about these tremendously worthwhile events.”

Liliana Torres applied to study the Foundation Degree in Management and Accounting after meeting Birkbeck representatives at an event in 2017.  She has shared her experience of being a student at Birkbeck so far:

“I first heard about Birkbeck at a Family Day event last year at King’s College in Strand. I heard two accounts from Birkbeck graduates and felt inspired. I decided to do a Foundation Degree in Management and Accounting as I am running a small business and wanted to further develop my professional skills. I decided to do the four years part-time as I have children and other commitments. I believe I have chosen the right university for me as there is a lot of support and my tutors are always happy to give me feedback and answers any queries I have. I attend the study skills workshops which offer a lot of help, this has really supported me in me learning even receiving a merit on my first essay was a big achievement for me. Most importantly, I have enjoyed my experience at Birkbeck and have recommended it to family and friends.”

For further information about our family learning activities and the organisations we work with, please visit http://www.bbk.ac.uk/about-us/outreach/family-learning

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