Arts Week 2017: Dematerialising Theatre with Andy Smith

This post was contributed by Elinor Perry-Smith

glass-of-waterSeeing this remarkable event and hearing Andy Smith talk about his experience and practice gave this particular playwright much to consider. Don’t get me wrong: I love props and spectacle in theatre. There’s something quite magical and transporting about well-thought props and costumes. Also the way in which actors embody the characters we create and say the word we have written for them to speak. But even so, where does the ‘theatre’ actually take place?

Andy Smith averred to an enthusiastic audience at Birkbeck’s Arts Week that it takes place in the audience. That the action, the drama, is not just unfolding in front of the audience, it is taking place inside them as well. To that end, the audience therefore (as I understand it) becomes part of the performance. This privileges audience experience and involvement of course, and makes the performance an exciting phenomenon, evolving before our very eyes, ears, minds and hearts, changing with each performance because the audience changes each time and therefore brings a different set of reactions, sensibilities, and willingness (or not) to participate.

Andy Smith himself is open, warm and funny yet I felt that dematerialised theatre has the potential for psychodynamic effect in all its participants and therefore may not be for everyone. Of course, I could be wrong about this. Andy used a cooking analogy: dematerialised theatre is like a sauce reducing and reducing. The result may not be to everyone’s taste. One phrase certainly stuck with me. It’s not about ‘less is more’ but about doing ‘more with less’. Props and people become representational of objects. Is it any less authentic a ‘performance’ than Robert De Niro wearing underpants made by Al Capone’s underwear maker?

Conversely, how does all this change the experience of the playwright, producers and actors of such a piece? Andy spoke of how plays might be performed by non-actors with scripts in hand and no prop above the size of a show; without the distractions of elaborate props, the attention is sharply focused on the action of the play and the feelings it engenders in the audience. I suppose a cinematic equivalent would be the ‘Dogme’ films where only natural light and sound is allowed. Or even the stage-like markings of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay, where the audience is compelled to imagine the sets.

Andy demonstrated dematerialised theatre to the audience, who willingly participated in the impromptu ‘performance’ that started with the transformation of a glass of water into a tree and ended with an audience member transforming into Miss Julie. It seemed to this participant that it spoke to a very primal understanding of story. One that developed in our earliest days as hunter-gatherers when stories and drama were orally enacted and so our imaginations broadened exponentially as a result. It was utterly fascinating to witness and certainly gave me the urge to research the whole process further.

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How the generosity of donors transforms the lives of students

On 13 July 2017 Birkbeck welcomed donors, volunteers, students and staff for an ‘An Evening of Thanks’ for all they give to the College. Aziza Sentissi, a PhD candidate in Mathematics and Statistics, spoke at the event, and reflects on what the generosity of donors means for students like her, who may otherwise be unable to undertake their studies. aziza850x450My interest in Mathematics dates back to an early age at primary school. I achieved good academic results in Mathematics and I never felt that it was an effort to tackle my math homework or any math puzzle. I have always enjoyed the thrill of the mathematical challenge. It was (and it is still) like going on an adventure where your only tools are your logic and your instinct. I believe that we all have naturally a set of skills in which we reach our optimal potential. It is just matter of finding, nurturing and using them. In my case, it is definitely Mathematics.

Most of my academic and professional decisions were motivated by the need to use Mathematics on a daily basis. I studied industrial engineering for my undergraduate degree, focused on financial engineering when I studied for my MBA and spent more than a decade working in market risk management in both Toronto and London. My career allowed me to gain an expert-level experience in the field while using the mathematical finance skills I acquired through education and experience.

I know that I should have felt a certain degree of contentment with my academic and professional progression, but in reality, I felt frustration that I was still far from my intellectual potential. I felt that I needed to get back to ‘core Mathematics’. It was just about finding the right programme so that I could reconcile studies and work. Finding out about Birkbeck’s MSc programmes was already a big step toward my goals. Indeed, Birkbeck offered the best opportunity to join a recognized programme taught by an outstanding faculty while working in London.  A few years later, I graduated with distinction from the MSc Applied Statistics (2013) course, and with merit from MSc Mathematics (2015).

Studying at Birkbeck by far exceeded all my expectations. It has competitive programmes with strong curriculums, an outstanding faculty, and dedicated staff. Some companies I’ve worked at have spent a lot of money persuading employees to buy into their mission. Well, at Birkbeck, it is an achieved goal. You can sense the commitment to the university’s mission at each one of your interactions either with the professors or with the staff. I have always been amazed that everybody will make that extra effort to help you thrive in your studies and achieve your goals as you are trying to balance your work life and your studies.

My story with Birkbeck did not stop at the end of my second masters. Indeed, as I expressed my interest in joining the full-time PhD programme while highlighting my financial constraints, my supervisors suggested applying to few scholarships which I eagerly did. After a few weeks, I was approved for the Winton STEM PhD Studentship, which aims to promote gender equality in STEM subjects.

The support from Winton has indeed made it possible for me to join the full-time PhD programme in Mathematics. There are no words that really capture how grateful I am to Winton for their support and for giving me the opportunity to pursue a long-term ambition which is to build a career in research in Mathematics either within the academic world or within a research firm. The subject of my PhD is about optimizing one of the advanced approximation methods (Meshfree method) in multivariate setting.  It is a cutting-edge subject with multiple applications in several fields such as engineering, machine learning and artificial intelligence. I am extremely proud to be working on this subject with my supervisors who are experts in the field.

Through my PhD, I have also had the opportunity to take part in an outreach conference jointly organised by Birkbeck and Winton. At the conference, we encouraged young women from schools in disadvantaged London boroughs to consider studying mathematics at university. It was a privilege and an amazing experience to see the impact of the conference on these girls and to see how it changed their perspective on using their mathematical talent.

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Religion on trial

Dr Anton Schütz, senior lecturer at the School of Law reflects on the school’s annual ‘Law on Trial’ week, which this year focused on the theme of religion.lawontrial850x450From Monday 12 June to Friday 16 June, the School of Law, Birkbeck hosted the 2017 edition of its annual Law on Trial event.

The School of Law has staged a Law on Trial event each year since 2011, when it was introduced, on the basis of an original idea of Marinos Diamantides, by former Executive Dean Patricia Tuitt, who also contributed the formulation of the title. The theme for 2017 was ‘Religion on Trial’. Religion is generally understood as a human sphere with an existence and a concern very much of its own, though with a number of points of intersection with matters legal. Especially during the past two or three decades, matters of religion have provided an inexhaustible source for legal problems.

The first event of the week was taken by our key-note speaker, philosopher Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia University). Akeel led the audience through the problems that the political and legal philosophy of liberalism encounters in dealing with religion, and increasingly so since the beginning of the 21st century. Referring historically to a choice among the main topics of his own widely known writing (see his Secularism, Identity and Enchantment), foregrounding Gandhi’s example-based, rather than program-based political action, Salman Rushdie’s exemplification of the divide of artistic and religious imperatives in dealing with identity but also the author of the most celebrated political doctrine of liberal justice during the late 20th century, John Rawls, and his difficulty related to identity politics and deep religious commitments.

The programme of our second evening was placed under the sign of Rastafari religion, music, and forms of life, and was based on an idea from Patricia Tuitt. Author and poet Kwame Dawes was speaking and indeed — in his quotes from Bob Marley — also, if only for short moments, also singing, in a fabulous feat of bringing to life what Rastafari poetry calls the ‘Babylon system’ (‘vampire system, sucking the blood of the sufferah’), relating spiritual, political, geographical, iconographical, prophetic and cosmological features to spot issues of diaspora, oppression and liberation in a relation that is at once timeless and highly contemporary. Kwame Dawes‘study on Bob Marley, Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius, is celebrated all over the English-speaking world. The session was chaired by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera.

The session on Rastafarianism was followed by two sessions on topics related to current issues relating to Islam. The first, on Wednesday 14 June, convened by Birkbeck scholar Qudsia Mirza, staged the long-awaited and hotly disputed topic of Islamic Law and Gender Justice. Interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadith literature within the classical Islamic tradition have famously given rise, based upon theological, legal and ethical principles, to a normative gender hierarchy. The teachings of Sharia are not a secret and neither are the challenges to them by reformist and progressive scholars. Islamic feminism in general, and the participants of our session in particular, have taken measure of the distance still to be bridged with respect to current notions of gender equality. How do reformists/feminists conceptualise notions of gender or equality? How, on the other hand, do issues of gender, widely discussed today, relate to the notion of an Islamic ‘purity of origin’ and to a discourse of authenticity? The panel contemplated the wide spectre of Western and non-Western religious and not-so-religious positions.

Rather different in its outlook was the second Islam-related session, Thursday 15 June , convened by a BBK PhD student Daniele D’Alvia (who also works in a Max-Planck-Institute in Germany) and chaired by Maria Aristodemou, dealt with the topic ‘Islamic Finance: the Middle East, Malaysia, and the West’. Once again, a highly qualified and bespoke-tailored international panel offered a fascinating debate dealing with conceptions of gharar and riba, in contrast to current Western conceptualisations of risk and interest. Doing so, it showed the presence of two different, almost opposing views on the relationship between current Western financial habits and the relevant Sharia rules. Some speakers highlighted the Sharia framework as a possible alternative to the current habits of the global financial markets (with their widely felt instability), something of a global therapy for the latter’s increasing, world-wide exposure to structural, self-engendered crises Other panel members saw the primary problem in the obstacles that Islamic populations are facing, when they are precluded from being clients of Western style global financial institutions, ascribing highest importance to the search of viable strategies of circumvention of Islamic rules of finance.

The fifth and last day of the series, on Friday 16 June , saw the launch event of a study, co-authored by Marinos Diamantides and Anton Schütz, two School of Law academics, that had been released that same week — Political Theology : Demystifying the Universal. Differing from the two preceding sessions, this focussed not on one particular religion opposed to other religions, but on the apparently non-religious question of the secular. With Stewart Motha (chair), Diamantides and Schütz tried to explain how the very stakes of Western-Christian religion have worked as conditions, rather than obstacles, to a society defining itself as secular (liberal, social) and its world-wide success and imitation. They commonly stressed that the secular religion of the West consists in an ongoing effort of managing continuing procedures. The return of explicit religious references under such circumstances was the subject of one ‘case-study’ (Diamantides), while Schütz, focussing on the theologoumenon of the Trinity and its geopolitical fate, explored the politico-legal relationship of Father and Son within the Christian Trinity in its Western evolution. The doctrine known as the ‘filioque’ has, through more than a millennium, transformed the Trinitarian God by endowing Father and Son, by assigning identical ‘rights’ to both, thereby implanting an unresolvable tension, a principle of intranquillity, at the very heart of the Western Christian divinity, altering it from a principle of being into its contrary, a principle of action.

Through the five days of Religion on Trial the public has been guided through: (1) a portrayal, by one of its international top representatives, of the divide between religion and politics in contemporary scholarly interpretation; (2) an in-depth depiction of the vital link of art and religion in Bob Marley’s poetry and its indispensable relationship to the unique and uniquely complex and attractive religious tradition of Rastafarianism, provided by the top international specialist on the matter; (3,4) two matters of extreme actuality in relation of contemporary Islam, the issue of the normative gender dissymmetry and that of contemporary modes of Islamic finance, both presented by highly qualified specialist panels; all rounded up in (5) a series of suggestions concerning the specifically Christian input within the Western model, in its religious as well as secular dimensions.

I would like to thank all of our guest speakers and panellists who helped to make the event such a success and greatly look forward to next year’s events.

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Is caring in crisis? No, but NGOs aren’t helping.

This article was written by Naveed Chaudhri, Head of Campaigns at Results UK. It was originally published on the Results UK blog.

Last week I attended a book launch – not something I’ve ever done before, but this one seemed worth going to. “Caring in Crisis? Humanitarianism, the Public and NGOs”, a new book by Irene Bruna Seu, Reader in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, and Shani Orgad, Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications, LSE, was a title bound to get my attention.

Speaking directly to my day job – helping grassroots supporters of international development share their passion with the public in order to make positive changes in the world – this was an event I had to go to. But with so much data already out there, and with so many reports on public engagement produced over the last few years, I wondered just what yet another set of speakers, another discussion, and another book could usefully add.

A top-drawer panel – Kirsty McNeill from Save the Children, Nicola Peckett from the Disasters Emergencies Committee (DEC), Glen Tarman from Care International, and Paul Vanags from Oxfam, plus the book’s authors – strongly endorsed the view that the British public remains tremendously generous when disasters strike, and that human suffering touches us as deeply as ever. But beneath the surface, there’s a lot for NGOs to think about.

Here are my  top six takeaways from the discussions about how NGOs engage with the public in humanitarian crises and beyond.

1. Caring definitely isn’t in crisis, but…

Despite what some people think, “compassion fatigue” isn’t reducing public support for humanitarian responses, which remains very strong. Some recent DEC appeals have exceeded expectations. Responding to complex, politically driven and, for most people, obscure crises, the East Africa and Yemen appeals gained widespread public support. Faced with stories of human misery and an immediate chance to help, “the heart wins, and people give”. Media attacks on international aid, especially prevalent this year, don’t seem to have damped charitable giving, but there is a “looming crisis of trust” which could hurt public support in the longer-term. NGOs must help the public engage positively to help those in need, and to feel good about their role and act together to counter negative narratives of wasted aid and insularity.

2. It’s all about the money…oh no it’s not!

The challenge of finding meaningful ways to help others who are suffering in distant lands is a perennial one. On the one hand, NGOs would like the public to understand more about the causes of insecurity and suffering, and go beyond giving one-off donations; yet it’s perfectly reasonable for people to want to respond to an emotional appeal and then move on to deal with their own daily concerns, trusting NGOs to spend the money well. On the other hand, giving can be “an act of love” involving a lot of emotion, every bit as engaged as political activism, and sometimes more so (as clicktivism shows). Either way, there’s a need for NGOs to help people find appropriate ways (the metaphor of “journeys” crops up again and again) to engage a second and a third time, and learn more about the issues if they want to. Is giving money the only outlet for people’s empathy? No, but it mustn’t be looked down on. And of course there’s the critical issue of how ‘beneficiaries’ are depicted: there’s now solid evidence that showing distressing scenes of human misery can reduce people’s sense of agency and make them disconnect. The tactic may not even raise more money in the short term anyway.

3. Communities are galvanising – but NGOs aren’t

Back in 2005, the Make Poverty History campaign showed that you can build a big public movement and get real change if the politics are right. Collectively, we helped get $50 billion of debt written off, which fed into real gains for access to health and education in developing countries, and the lives of millions of people improved as a result. But it’s unlikely we’d want to replicate such a big brand-led movement today, as the world has moved on. Recent mobilisations channelling public concern have been far more organic; not leaderless or disorganised, but working perfectly well without a top-down structure. Successful movements allow people to do their own thing, based on a central idea or goal that fires their imagination, but doesn’t tell them what to do. Look at the way people came together around the Manchester terrorist attack, the Women’s Marches, Black Lives Matter, or the Refugees Welcome movement. Only in the latter have NGOs played any kind of a role, and it seems that we haven’t yet properly woken up to the reality of how people organise around causes today.

4. Humans connect – but digital doesn’t (so far, at least)

While digital communications play a strong part in helping people connect with causes (especially social media, where there are no barriers to entry), traditional community organising is once more coming to the fore. The things people actually want to do – marching, demonstrating, celebrating, or whatever – happen in their local communities, in the company of like-minded people. The idea that you can get people to act online seems more and more like a marketing idea that doesn’t meet people’s emotional need to connect and act. Is the digital marketing chapter coming to a close? You’ve got to wonder.

5. Find ways to engage people emotionally

Humans care about each other – in their own lives, and also when exposed to distant communities in crisis. Emotionally and in reality, we see people reacting in similar ways in both cases. International NGOs are uniquely placed to connect people to the issues we work on, but we don’t tend to communicate in ways which aim primarily to connect people emotionally. We are still far too fond of demonstrating truths through statistics, rather than telling inspiring stories of hope and change. And forget ‘myth busting’ – it’s not helpful to show people they are wrong and then tell them what to think. We should instead tell people stories of their successes, holding up a mirror up to the public to show them where they have been powerful agents of progress.

6. So, what’s the plan?

There’s a feeling that NGOs are faced with “a crisis of objectives, not of caring”. What should we be asking charity fundraisers and communicators to do? ‘Just’ raise money, or raise money and build long-public awareness and concern? This is a top level strategic question which needs answering very soon, at the most senior levels. The book’s authors spoke of “cognitive blocks to action”. NGOs have for years been giving out unreal and simplistic expectations of what overseas aid is and achieves – with the best of intentions – and have inadvertently reinforced notions of victimhood and dependency. How long can this carry on? Such fundraising practices may not yet be an immediate problem in terms of how much people give to charity, but in terms of movement building, we should definitely be concerned. Income is easy to measure, but the desire to engage isn’t. NGOs must find ways to do this.

NGOs can be amazing connectors, inspiring people to be the best they can be, expressing our common humanity and making the world a better place. We are needed as much as ever, and few other actors in society can do this – but we do need to change ourselves. The next few years could be a very exciting era for the international development sector, and if a ‘Global Britain’ is going to mean anything substantial, NGOs have a big role to play.

Check out this postcast about Caring in Crisis? with author Dr Bruna Seu, and Glen Tarman, Head of Global Advocacy at CARE International, who discuss some of the issues raised by the book (26min 8s).

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