Arts Week 2018: Building a hive mind through immersive art

Eva Menger, freelance copywriter and MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student at Birkbeck, reports on Bee Composed Live, an immersive art and sound project featured in Arts Week 2018

When a bee flies into your piano, there are a couple of things you can do. You can choose to ignore it, get a bit annoyed, or carefully listen to the sound it produces and simply let it amaze you. Lily Hunter Green, contemporary sound artist, composer and current artist-in-residence at Birkbeck, opted for the latter. Starting in 2014 with ‘Bee Composed’, a project that involved transforming old pianos into beehives, she is now working towards ‘Bee Composed Live’, a live performance in which contemporary dancers, music and audiovisual compositions will function as an immersive and collaborative representation of the hive mind. As part of Birkbeck Arts Week, she shares her fascinations, findings and future aspirations.

Still of video projecting the collective consciousness of bees.

Bees are extraordinary. The way in which they work is astonishingly efficient and surprisingly relatable to our own neatly organised society. What makes them unique, however, is their ability to work as a collective consciousness. Despite having their own job roles – from bouncer bees to cleaner bees and architect bees – they are not autonomous and only work as part of something bigger, a phenomenon Hunter Green suitably calls ‘the hive mind’. Sharing life footage of this process, Hunter Green shows how it promotes togetherness – a strategy she doesn’t only applaud but tries to apply to her own way of working as well. Collaborating with people from all over the world, including molecular biologists, choreographers and computer scientists, she aims to educate on the science of the hive as well as the reasons why more and more bees are dying.

Having said that, she doesn’t want people to leave her performance feeling hopeless. Narratives around pesticides, climate change and modern farming are to be taken seriously, but hopelessness can lead to inaction – and that’s where Hunter Green wants to make a change. Unlike the 1950s science fiction trend of giant insects ruining everyday life, Hunter Green is keen to show how insects are something to be inspired by. Creating an understanding of their vital role in life through art will hopefully make people see that planting bee-friendly flowers in their gardens will already make a significant difference, she explains.

A piano-turned-into-beehive.

Turning bee science into a life composition seems appropriate both due to its resemblance to Greek tragedies (if there is more than one queen bee around, a violent battle awaits) and geographical nature. As just one of several dances bees perform to communicate with each other, the waggle dance serves to navigate the way to newly discovered food sources (fun fact: the better the food, the more excited the dance). The image below shows one of the contemporary dancers Hunter Green collaborated to visualise this process.

In addition to this dance, ‘Bee Composed Live’ includes visual recordings from the piano hive and original new compositions, ultimately intending to create a simulation of the hive mind. With issues as complex as bee extinction, immersive visualizations can help to create a public understanding. Learn more about Lily Hunter Green and her meaningful work, here.

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Art and memory in Berlin

Kathryn Hallam-Howard, BA History of Art student, writes about the recent course trip to Berlin where she and her classmates explored museums, considered architectural practice and discussed methods of memorialisation.

Birkbeck students in Berlin

On Monday 15 April 2018, a group of enthusiastic students gathered on Berlin’s Museum Island to begin this year’s History of Art field trip. Kasia Murawska-Muthesius and her husband Stefan Muthesius coordinated the trip and brought considerable expertise and personal experience to it.  Inside the futuristic Humboldt Box, we learnt about the work to construct the Humboldt Forum. This world centre for culture will sit upon the former site of the historic city palace of the Hohenzollern Prussian kings. A stroll down Unter den Linden took us to Bebelplatz, where in 1933 the burning of books by Jewish writers took place. A counter-memorial, designed to challenge the monumentality of conventional memorials sinks into the square and can only be seen through a glass panel. Created by the Israeli artist Micha Ullman, it consists of plain white, empty bookcases, capable of holding 20,000 books. Continuing this theme, we then arrived at The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  The work of New York architect, Peter Eisenman, it consists of 2,711 slabs of varying heights and is continuously accessible day and night allowing for a completely immersive experience. Slightly uneven and disorientating, it allows the visitor a unique personal experience and its size and lack of a focal point questions the conventional concept of a memorial. The day concluded with a visit to the Reichstag parliament building and Norman Foster’s glass dome with its double helix, spiral ramps.

‘Fallen leaves’ memorial

Glorious sunshine greeted us on Tuesday and we again found ourselves on Museum Island, analysing the purpose of a museum. We visited three of the island’s museums  – the Neues Museum, the Altes Museum, the Bode Museum – examining in detail their fine staircases and expansive entrance halls. In the Alte Nationalgalerie, we saw the eclectic range of one of Germany’s foremost nineteenth-century painters, Adolf Menzel.  This was followed by another fine staircase and an exhibition, The Beauty of the Big City, containing paintings of Berlin from 1800 to the present at the Museum Ephraim-Palais.

On Wednesday, we enjoyed a bus tour around some key sites in the outskirts of Berlin. First stop was the Albert Einstein Science Park to see Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower. This unique building was erected between 1919 and 1922 and is where Einstein worked on part of his Theory of Relativity. It is a fine example of expressionist architecture. This was followed by a tour around the garden suburb of Dahlem, where we saw villas, built by Hermann Muthesius, Stefan’s great-uncle and a noted architectural historian. This also presented a great opportunity for the architecture fans to see excellent examples of modern Berlin housing estates. These six examples of low cost housing were built by housing cooperatives and are now designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Based on English Garden Cities, they combine multiple occupancy flats with green spaces, emphasising health and wellbeing – and not one bit of graffiti in sight!   After refuelling in the magnificent student canteen at the Free University, we went to the Moabit AEG factory, designed by Peter Behrens, in whose architecture practice, Water Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier all worked. Our final stop was a fabulous exhibition of German painting, montage and caricature from 1890 to 1930 – Berliner Realismus. It included works by many artists declared degenerate by the National Socialists, like George Grosz, Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix and John Heartfield. Dinner at Zum Shusterjunge Kneipe in the fashionable Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg rounded off the day.

Einstein Tower

Thursday began with a walk to the old Nazi air ministry, designed by Mies van der Rohe before arriving at the Kulturforum, to see his only post-war building the Neue Nationalgalerie, which was unfortunately shrouded in scaffolding and tarpaulin. The Kulturforum is a collection of cultural buildings built up in the 1950s and 1960s at the edge of West Berlin after most of the once unified city’s cultural assets had been lost behind the Berlin Wall. It is characterized by its innovative modernist architecture. After a visit and lunch at the Gemäldegalerie, we visited the site of the German Resistance Memorial Centre dedicated to the many Germans who actively resisted or sacrificed their lives opposing the Nazi dictatorship. Two of the best known was the writer Thomas Mann and the painter Käthe Kollwitz. The day drew to a close with a visit to the Berlinische Galerie, which is dedicated to modern art, photography and architecture. It lies close to the Jewish Museum, where we were given a tour of Daniel Libeskind’s interactive building, which uses axes and voids to articulate the Jewish experience of diaspora. One memorable exhibit is ‘Fallen Leaves’ by a Jewish artist, Menashe Kaddishman, which commemorates all victims of violence. Over ten thousand round iron plates lie on the floor in one of the building’s voids. Each plate has facial features cut out of it. The artist invites you to walk across the work and it is totally unsettling to trample across people’s faces and to hear the sound of iron grinding against iron. Eerily, those visitors who walked to the end of the void partially and then completely disappeared.

Our final day came around all too quickly and we emerged onto Karl-Marx Allee to see the wide boulevard created to accommodate the monumental military parades of the East German communist government. At the Berlin Wall memorial, we followed part of the route of the wall along Bernauerstrasse. Here the façades of the now disappeared buildings formed the East German border whilst the footpath beside them was West German territory. This led to residents jumping from windows to escape to the West until the East German authorities bricked and cemented the windows and doors to prevent this. After a visit to the exhibition in the Visitor Centre, we hopped onto the U-Bahn to visit an area called the Hansaviertel. After WW2 much of Berlin lay in ruins including this neighbourhood. To rebuild the old Hansaviertel, fifty-two architects including Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer, Alvar Aalto, and Max Taut were called upon to design an entirely new quarter, complete with church, theatre and library. The project was christened “Interbau 1957” and the eventual outcome was a less dense, green residential area. It was seen as an impressive showcase of the modern lifestyle and seemed a suitable place to conclude our review of the art and architecture of Berlin. Our heartfelt thanks must go to Kasia and Stefan for organising such an interesting and informative trip.

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Birkbeck took me to a new stage in life …

George Richmond-Scott enrolled at Birkbeck to study Theatre Directing to enable him to take a new path with his career. That step has brought almost instant rewards with an important role on the West End hit Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which this year achieved five Olivier Award nominations. Here George, who was awarded his MFA during spring graduation 2018, explains what drove him to a change in direction and how Birkbeck helped:

George Richmond-Scott, photographed by Katya Og

“I have been wholeheartedly engaged with the theatre all my life. After training originally as an actor and later as a voice coach at the Central School of Speech and Drama, including an apprenticeship at the RSC where I worked alongside the legendary Cicely Berry, my work had begun to focus increasingly on directing. I reached a staging post in life a few years ago – one of those moments where you feel the need to resist a comfortable, safe existence and want life to be a daring, exciting journey with a big jump into the dark. So after some serious reflection, I decided to study for the MFA in Theatre Directing at Birkbeck, which I was awarded in 2017 with distinction.

“To rewind a little, a year before I began the course I saw Robert Hastie’s production of My Night With Reg which had transferred from the Donmar Warehouse to the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. I was deeply affected by its story and the clean, clear precision of its direction. So I could hardly believe it when I was given the chance to assist Rob at RADA during my first term at Birkbeck (my first ever assist!). I learned a huge amount on that play, observing how he allowed the actors space; holding off from saying too much and then knew exactly when to give a note that released a moment, or even a whole scene.

“Somehow the stars continued to align. I was determined to try and win my second-year placement at the Sheffield Crucible as I so admired the artistic director Daniel Evans and the work that was going on there. However, the Crucible was removed from our list of choices as Daniel announced he was leaving to take over at Chichester Festival Theatre and whoever succeeded him would need some space to settle in without student directors rattling around! Then I discovered that Robert Hastie was to be his successor as artistic director so I asked if I may still come up to be the resident assistant director from Birkbeck – we knew each other already and I would not be a nuisance! Happily, he said yes and two years after admiring his work from the stalls, I was assisting him on Julius Caesar on the extraordinary main stage of the Crucible.

“It was in Sheffield that I had the privilege of working on the original production of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, and when it was picked up by Nica Burns and Nimax for a West End run shortly afterwards it almost felt like deja vu to find my first job after leaving would be as associate director at that very same Apollo Theatre. I feel immensely lucky and the strange benefactor of a serendipity I have never experienced before in my life. Robert is an incredible director and mentor – and his grace, vision and lightness of touch continue to inspire me.

“My training was a complete game-changer for me: during the brilliantly diverse year at the Sheffield Crucible I also directed the NT Connections play Musical Differences in the Crucible Studio Theatre and co-directed 4×15, with Charlie Kenber, another Birkbeck graduate director. This was an experimental initiative to develop four local female playwrights’ work and explore the role of a movement director (working with two outstanding emerging movement practitioners, Patricia Suarez and Ste Clough).

“Alongside my current associate work on Jamie, I have directed at LAMDA and Mountview since finishing at Birkbeck and am currently developing a contemporary re-imagining of Lorca’s Blood Wedding for Omnibus Theatre later this year, for which I am crowdfunding. I am local to the theatre in Clapham and delighted to be working there on a piece I’ve long loved for its intense, surreal poetry and story of characters struggling against fateful circumstances.

“Story-telling through innovative movement choices and collaborating in a joyful, rigorous way, enabling all participants to find their voice in the room, are at the core of my current work. I feel Birkbeck opened so many doors, both in the profession I want to spend the rest of my life exploring and also within me. The course and my experiences taught me to really trust in what I have to offer and to prepare as fully and deeply as I can for every opportunity that presents itself.”

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Education, aspiration … and Mister Byrite: David Lammy Fellowship

The Rt Hon David Lammy MP was awarded a Fellowship at Birkbeck’s spring graduation for his ongoing work to push for lifelong learning, as well as his contribution to the College’s outreach work. Here is the speech he gave as he accepted the honour at the ceremony staged at the Royal National Hotel

“It was 25 years ago that I stood just across the way, in SOAS. I was wearing a Mister Byrite suit – a very shiny silvery suit and I was with my mother and older brother and I became the first in my family to get a degree and I could never ever have imagined that 25 years later, I would be back in the family of the esteemed University of London. I used to come and drink here at Birkbeck and to hang out and I would never have imagined that this would be the case!

“Throughout my political career I have been obsessed with adult learning and with the ‘campaign’ if you like, to bring back night schools to our country. When my father left and my mother had a very small income as a home-help, she got an elbow from a work colleague and encouragement to study in the evenings so she could increase her salary, get a slightly better job and provide for me and my four siblings. She’s not with us any longer but she, I know, would be very, very pleased that this moment has arrived, and I’m so grateful to be admitted into the Fellowship – it feels like Freemasonry or something! – and I am very pleased to join the club and to be associated with a pre-eminent and wonderful institution.

“You will have got a sense that written right through me is a commitment to working men and women and to working families, it’s as simple as that. And so my association with Birkbeck is very important to me and symbolises everything I believe, and the pioneers that set up this great, great institution were spot on. They were radical, they cared about a different economy and they believed passionately that we had to break down some of those old hierarchies that exist and I believe that we still have to do that in our society and there is so much more to do.

“Over the years that I have had to move in so many different circles, and particularly in recent times, on issues of knife crime, gun crime, poverty, gangs, Grenfell and Windrush. I’ve learnt a few things and I want to share them with you briefly. There are five ingredients to success, I’d say to all of the graduates in this room – and I’m sure that many of the families in this room will recognise these five ingredients. They are education, employment, aspiration, parenting and community. And if those five things are going on you are probably somewhere in Surrey. No, seriously, if those five things are going on you’re in a successful environment. But they’re not always going on at the same time. Why this is such a special moment and why this is such a special institution, is because it runs across all those five things.

“At its heart is education, but not just education for an elite. That’s why I give Oxford, Cambridge and the Russell Group such a hard time. Birkbeck is not just an education for an elite but an education for everybody. Employment, because of the outcomes when you come through Birkbeck – to get a better job, to succeed in your life. I have a family member who is currently doing computing and IT here, and I have seen the way his shoulders have lifted up and the way he aspires and looks forward to getting that better job. Aspiration, because all of us in this room have that aspiration and all human beings have aspirations. One of the things I think has struck the public during this Windrush debacle is the idea that there were aspirations thwarted because of pernicious immigration policies. Parenting – as much as my mother could support me, I did not have parents who were super-educated and could sit with me and help me revise, so I am really grateful to the teachers and institutions that have been in loco parentis to me and I’m sure there’s lots of that going on with academics at Birkbeck. And of course community. It’s not just about us, it’s not just about a selfish desire for you the individual to achieve we’re living in a very peculiar age where we even name selfishness, a ‘selfie’.  It’s about us, it’s about collective, it’s about community and I am very grateful and honoured to join this very special community.”

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