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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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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Reflecting on a career in criminal policy research 

Professor Mike Hough has retired from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research after serving for more than 20 years as its Director. His ICPR colleague Gill Hunter writes about Mike’s retirement presentation and shares some of the insights amassed during his career. 

Mike Hough bows out with his presentation Does justice policy listen to criminological research? Experiences of speaking truth to power

On 8 March, 2018, the ICPR, Law School, Birkbeck hosted a retirement event for Professor Mike Hough. Mike was Director of ICPR for 23 years (ICPR has been at Birkbeck since 2010), and before joining academia in 1994, he was a senior researcher in the Home Office for 20 years. His presentation – Making Justice Policy Listen to Criminological Research: Experiences of Speaking Truth to Power – drew from a long and distinguished career in criminal policy research to offer his reflections on the vagaries of achieving research impact but also the politics and ethics of policy research. Mike has held over 100 research contracts and has some 300 publications. He sought to identify – and to share with us – the ‘magic ingredients of impact’ by reference to examples of his own work which have attained policy traction and others that, in his words, ‘sank with little trace’.

As a policy researcher, Mike has seen impact as being not only about academic citation – although he is a researcher of international renown and has made a significant contribution to the field of Criminology – but how, and in what ways, his research has been able to positively influence justice policy and practice. While having research impact beyond academia is now ‘measured’ in the Research Excellence Framework, there are numerous hurdles to achieving this.

Mike’s move from Home Office to academia in the mid-1990s was instigated by his desire to carry on doing policy research but with greater freedom, and the late ’90s was a boom time for policy research. Mike was a beneficiary of some of this plentiful Government funding and contributed to programmes of research firmly in the tradition of liberal reform – more of which below. However, as he highlighted, there are ethical issues when one is in a position to secure large amounts of public or charitable trust money that may affect public policy, and a government can choose to accept or ignore research that doesn’t tally with its political vision. He noted the fine balance between making compromises when reporting critical research findings to funders and of being compromised, and described this often laborious negotiation process as a largely neglected craft.

Through reference to his research undertaken with colleagues, he described some impact successes and challenges:

  • The British Crime Survey (now Crime Survey of England and Wales) has had enduring impact as a reliable indicator of crime trends. This had scale, was novel and had access to policy power through its location in the Home Office.
  • Research into problem drug-use was committed to the idea that encouraging dependent drug users into treatment was better policy than punishing them. This was done at a time of increasing Government investment in drug treatment, but relationships frayed with Government’s move to mandatory treatment and its over-claiming of success, which reduced scope for independent research.
  • Research on public attitudes to sentencing and penal populism provided good evidence that there wasn’t a monolithic punitive public, and that sentencing practice wasn’t wildly out of kilter with people’s sentencing preferences. Research on the sentence of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPPs) played a part in the abolition of this unjust sentence. This programme of work had traction with senior judiciary and was assisted by the Prison Reform Trust who secured access to politicians and senior policy advisors.
  • Research into public trust in the police. One well-funded study charted falling public trust in the Metropolitan Police, attributed to perverse effects of numerical targets. This work lacked a good conceptual framework, policy allies or interest from senior police managers but it did lay the foundation for later work on procedural justice theory which has had a significant impact on policing ideas in the UK.

Through these examples Mike emphasised his lessons for achieving impact as: having something noteworthy to say that is based on research done on a significant scale, within a coherent conceptual or theoretical framework; timing; working with NGOs who understand the policy process; cultivating non-academic allies, including within Government; knowing how to amplify your voice through the media and contributing to the parliamentary process.

Last, but by no means least, is building strong collaborative working relationships with academic and policy colleagues. Some of these longstanding colleagues, including Gloria Laycock (Professor of Crime Science, UCL), Ben Bradford (Professor of Global City Policing, UCL), Juliet Lyon (previous director of the Prison Reform Trust and Visiting Professor, Birkbeck) and Julian Roberts (Professor of Criminology, Oxford University) paid tribute to Mike and encouraged his continuing contribution to criminal policy research. Mike is currently a Visiting Professor in the School of Law.

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