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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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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Women in tech panellists inspire students to break the gender disparity in the industry

Jenna Davies, Employability Consultant, writes about the Women in Tech Panel Talk, held on 24 January 2017

women-in-techBirkbeck Careers’ Upscale programme welcomed an exciting panel of women in the tech industry to deliver a thought-provoking discussion around their journeys within the world of technology. With stories ranging from eye opening career hurdles to key bites of advice for aspiring techies, guests were treated to an evening of laughs, gasps and inspiration.

Emma Beer, Senior Delivery Manager at the Government Digital Services, revealed a past fear that many women today resonate with: that you have to be a proper ‘techie’ to work in the digital world. But every tech company requires the so called ‘old skills’. Communication is vital, having the natural ability to talk articulately and express yourself well. Project management is also among a host of skills that are equally crucial to such organisations, yet often overlooked by potentially strong applicants, who are bound by this belief that they don’t have the right knowledge for this sector.

The knowledge topic proved to be a fundamental part of the discussion and Nicola Byrne, successful entrepreneur and CEO at Cloud90, identified with Emma’s point. Understanding tech is one thing, but you don’t need to necessarily do it to succeed in this world. Nicola has built extremely successful businesses by understanding the industry and highlighted the vast amount of jobs that she, and fellow entrepreneurs, have created that never existed before. The job for those in the audience is working out how to innovate for the future, looking ahead at jobs that don’t exist now but will in five, 10, 20 years’ time.

wit3Jo Salter, Director in People & Organisation at PwC and the first female fast-jet pilot in the RAF, looked at where children start their tech journeys; primary schools are doing great things but it’s soon reinforced that tech isn’t ‘cool’. Exciting, vibrant people are needed in IT classrooms to teach children and young people the exact opposite; that tech is the way forward. Jo also highlighted that pivoting in your career is perfectly acceptable and thoroughly encouraged; changing direction builds experience, presents new skills and keeps you moving.

The panel discussion, facilitated by Gen Ashley, Director of Women Who Code, certainly succeeded in positively influencing the audience towards the reasons women need to be key players in tech sector, with many guests indicating they’re inspired to get back on track with their tech goals. Gen emphasised the importance to be yourself in tech, and reinforced a key piece of advice from Emma to join Ada’s list, the global community for women in tech where Gen is part of the leadership team. The evening ended with guests and panellists mingling over wine and continuing the conversation, bringing more women into the world of tech.

So what did we learn? Networking is vital. It’s ok to pivot. Being ‘flighty’ is good. And that watching a demo on folding a fitted sheet could change your life.

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