Arts Week 2019: The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov

Luke Buffini, an MA Philosophy Student at Birkbeck and co-founder of Lamplight Magazine, reviews Askold Kurov’s documentary shown as part of Arts Week 2019.

Oleg Sentsov

Above all else what a writer wishes to avoid is cliché. Cliché is intellectual laziness; a kind of self-sabotage in the battle for expression. So when I went to see a documentary called The Trial, about an infallible regime and its distressingly public display of absurd “justice”, I told myself there was certainly one person I was not going to mention. Franz Kafka would be the first two words in any review of this film. No, not me: too obvious; too boring; too cliché. Eleven months into his detention-pending-investigation, Oleg Sentsov stood up in court and pronounced, in a sarcastic tone shrouding genuine boredom, that he knew he would soon be given a 20-year prison sentence because he had been told this was his sentence on the day before his arrest. Ah, I thought, now I have to mention Franz Kafka.

Such is the nature of totalitarianism. Obvious, boring, cliché. In 1990 the Soviet Union finally ended a 40-year ban on 1984 and rereleased it (with edits, of course). That Russia continues to take this 70-year old satire of itself as an instruction manual is their way of telling you just how little they care about being boring or cliché. In China, 1984 is easy to purchase. However, internet forum enthusiasts endeavouring to reference those four digits, or any combination of words which equates to them, will find their message unpublishable. It doesn’t matter to these regimes that they are so easily comparable to their literary denouncements. The point they want to make is unaltered: there is nothing you can do about it.

This nature, or rather the appropriate attitude towards it, is embodied by Sentsov over roughly a year of footage with spartan consistency. He is weary. Yet not because he has been eroded by incarceration, torture, or intimidation. Weary in the way a precocious, intelligent teenager might be in a class he already has all the answers to. This is the primary triumph of the film, I think: revealing Sentsov’s stamina of mind. Totalitarianism is not merely repulsive and frightening because of the imaginative tortures, daylight beatings or midnight kidnappings. Perhaps the most disgusting aspect is the conquest in the individual mind which it seeks and often secures. For Sentsov, this meant humiliation; torture; threats of death and further torture; testimonies brought against him by way of still more torture; planting of evidence; and the repeated and meaningless extension of his detainment whilst under investigation (justified again and again by Sentsov’s apparent, yet still-dormant, “threat” to Russian civilians). Through all this, Sentsov smiles and peace signs for his supporters in the courthouse; remains stoic and silent when the judge or prosecutor speak; and, in a bizarre display of his enormous talent for irony and bravery, high fives his “co-conspirator” at the eventual announcement of his long-expected 20-year prison sentence.

During the film I kept asking myself; how can anyone continue to get away with such blatant corruption, lies and violations of human rights. I wanted to know how totalitarianism had adapted in the past century in order to continue working so effectively. Neither the film nor the panel of academics afterwards could produce a substantial answer. I returned to the Bloomsbury sunlight thinking that totalitarianism hadn’t had to change very much at all. That it still had the same naked, shameless hatred for the faces under its foot. That humiliating torture was still a reliable currency for acquiring human minds. That if people were afraid enough, it could carry on its nauseating merry-go-round of “justice” for all to see and (enforcedly) cheer.

One more thing hasn’t changed: individuals like Oleg Sentsov – ironic, impenetrable, and at all times ready for their sentence – reveal the silly, odious face of totalitarianism for the rest of us. I hope the reader will join me in writing, mailing or shouting something to the effect of the following imperative: Free Sentsov.

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Retinal Justice: Rats, Maps, and Masks

On Thursday 2 May, the Department of Law welcomed Professor Peter Goodrich to give the department’s annual lecture on Retinal Justice: Rats, Maps, and Masks. Professor Goodrich is one of the co-founders of the School of Law at Birkbeck and in 2018 was elected an honorary fellow of the College.

Reader in Law and Political Theory, Dr Elena Loizidou and Professor of Law, Professor Adam Gearey reflected on the evening.

Dr Elena Loizidou: Images in the US are more and more an integral part of judicial judgement and moreover they produce what Professor Peter Goodrich calls an imago decidendi. In his lecture ‘Retinal Justice: Rats, Maps, and Mask’, Professor Peter Goodrich did not only guide us through ways of reading images in judgements, and called for the necessity of having an in court curator of images but gave us a lot to dream for. His powerful, enjoyable and humorous delivery facilitated even more the opening of the imagination.

I could not help, as somebody that is interested in seeing a social, legal and political transformation that at least undoes hierarchies, to imagine a time when judicial ‘pronouncements’ would be made of an assemblage of images that would be specific to the case that the court is handling. I could not stop myself of imagining that this has the potential of undermining the concept of the precedent and how this in turn may see the emergence of a system of adjudicating disagreements without the restrains of law, but emerging out of some other guidelines agreed by parties in dispute from case to case. One always lives in hope.

Professor Adam Gearey: Professor Peter Goodrich gave the Annual Law Lecture, ‘Retinal Justice: Rats, Maps, and Mask’. Professor Goodrich was one of the founders of the law school- and is presently an honorary fellow. There was certainly a sense of occasion, as alumni, students, staff and friends crowded into the basement lecture theatre. Peter Goodrich always gives a good show, and tonight was no different. One of the most interesting and important of contemporary legal philosophers, Professor Goodrich is also a fine performer. Sporting rainbow shoes, he paced the stage and banged on the projector screen for emphasis—a scholar and a dandy whose thinking exemplifies the rigour, intensity and playfulness that characterises thinking that is worth one’s attention.

Such a strange title! Professor Goodrich has long been interested in masks—his legal theory (hardly surprisingly) draws on ideas of drama and performance: the mask allows the actor to speak. It is an artifice or a convention that allows an audience to experience the drama as something ‘natural’. If masks allow actors to speak, then law allows subjects to speak by giving them a kind of structure or affiliation: man/woman/child – property owner; legatee, beneficiary, father, mother, citizen, criminal, holder of rights or duties etc. These features of law are ancient- and so- is the court’s concern with images. These are not just the images of law with which we are all familiar- but the way in which the law must adjudicate images. Professor Goodrich’s lecture primarily concerned images given in evidence; increasingly a central part of the court’s business. What conventions must the court invent to allow images to make sense forensically?

Hence ‘rats and maps’. The rat in question refers to an American case in which an image of a giant plastic rodent figured in the court’s reasoning. The maps evoked in the title are representations of title  to land — evidence often lead in property disputes. Retinal justice- then- describes how the court seeks to do justice using images.

Professor Goodrich’s point is that the courts are incredibly bad at reading images– often using them to merely illustrate words- or- misreading them altogether. It may be that the modern technologies of images have outpaced law’s imaginary (the rhetorical and semantic techniques law uses to encode the world in its own terms). But there is something stranger at stake. Images point elsewhere- compromising techniques that set out to control them. Certainly, in some religious traditions, the image threatens the understanding of divine truth. Other traditions carefully guard licenced images and rituals. What if the disturbing effects of images were also at work in law; disturbing the ways in which it judges the world? Professor Goodrich’s point is that this most ancient of problems haunts modern law. To engage with law and images is to think critically about the ways in which law makes claims about its authority and validates its operations. The disturbances wrought by images provoke us to think about different kinds of adjudication, and perhaps to see different kinds of affiliation: different ways of being and living. Professor Goodrich is challenging students of the law to become more productive, more creative and playful—and, perhaps, as well as dressing better—to see things differently: retinal justice.

Watch a video recording of the lecture here.

Listen to an audio recording of the lecture here.

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Arts Week 2019: History As Collage/Collage As History/As Collage History/History Collage As

Fleur Kaminska, MA Museum Cultures student at Birkbeck shares insights from the Arts Week event that explored rethinking history through collage.

The left-hand side is a doctored cover by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, and the right-hand side is Fleur’s attempt at a doctored cover, produced on the evening.

Adam Smyth (author and professor of English Literature at Oxford University) and Gill Partington (academic and writer, and the current the Munby Fellow at Cambridge University) took the attendees of last Tuesday evening’s Arts Week event on a cheerful journey through the creative reimagining of the pages of a book, dismantling the idea that ‘cutting up’ is a destructive act and reframing pages as material for endless possibilities of creative expression. Both conveying an interest in the intersection between the physical book and literary writing, Adam and Gill introduced collage as a creative, rather than destructive act –an act potentially of protest that is open for experimentation to anyone (including, at the end of the session, us!).

Collage as self-portrait 

Starting with an early form of collage, Adam spoke about a commonplace book made by John Gibson in the 17th Century. Gibson was a royalist who used his time in prison to produce a vast book, weaving together poetry, literary references, images, anagrams and political details to construct almost a distanced self-portrait of a royalist sensibility. The pages produced are incredibly varied and interesting on many levels. Often also open to manipulation through pictures stuck in as flaps layering over one another, or through the scattered presentation of the material, the pages invite the readers eye to encounter images and pieces of text in different orders, creating different associations. Later on, Adam also read to us from his book 13th of March 1911, in which he collected information about events from the date of his grandfather’s birth to create a meandering portrait of the day.

Collage as criticism 

Moving forward in time, Gill Partington talked us through the work of wonderful and, at the time, controversial, Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, who spent the early 1960s visiting libraries, taking books out, doctoring them in their shared bedsit, and then returning them to the libraries for unsuspecting readers to encounter. The pair, who reworked the covers, and sometimes the blurb and whole sections of the books, blurred genres into one another to create ludicrous and joyful mismatches.

The way this was done, mixing high and low culture, fiction and non-fiction, poked fun at the books and their readers, but also more seriously at the status of the library as an institution. The library, especially at this time, served as a gatekeeper of knowledge, and a place in which good citizens enacted their duties of not only self-improvement but also a demonstration of their commitment to the accepted histories and categories of experience presented on the shelves. In this way, the library was at odds with Orton and Halliwell’s lives together as a gay couple. In the end both were caught and sentenced to six months in prison, a much harsher sentence than you’d expect, but most likely reflecting the higher taboo of their lives, rather than the damage to public property. By destabilising norms and expectations in their personal lives as well as in their library collaging, Orton and Halliwell were perceived as a threat to society at the time, but are now celebrated as creative activists.

Collage for beginners 

For the final section of the evening the scissors and glue were passed to us, and we had a go at doctoring text, dust jackets and creating whatever the hell we wanted from a selection of books and print materials. With the whole room getting stuck in and experimenting (or, in my case at least, regressing to childhood and throwing all notions of sense out of the window) some fantastic work was created. Ultimately,  we all learned to get over our nervousness about cutting into books, creating incongruous scenes, and blurring the boundaries between printed page and meaning.


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Arts Week 2019: Silencing the Virus

Claire Frampton, an alumna of MA Arts Policy and Management, Birkbeck College, 2013 shares her experience attending the immersive performance presented by Lily Hunter-Green, artist in residence, School of Arts, Birkbeck.

The work Silencing the Virus explored the threat to bees from diseases, specifically Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, in an immersive interactive digital experience that took place in Birkbeck School of Arts. I walked into the gallery and saw white jumpsuits hanging from the ceiling, with some headwear that resembled beekeepers’ hat and veil.  This introduced themes of interaction with nature, the jumpsuits created an atmosphere of an environment in which humans would need protection from infection. On the floor yellow and black tape marked out an area where the main action of the interactive performance took place, like a quarantine area. An information panel on the wall set out the definitions of this project; ´infectious composition, contagious performance, ground breaking performance, eusocial experimentˋ.  It described the context of the installation as evoking ´the disturbing dystopian world of a beehive under attackˋ from the virus, ´which is decimating honeybee colonies globallyˋ. A video on a small screen part of the installation explained in more depth, and included footage of bees illustrating the subject of the project.

In the first part of the presentation, audience members watched a film on a big screen which described the experience of artist Lily Hunter-Green working on her practice at a residency at The Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge where she was invited to work with molecular biologists. The video also included an explanation of the specific virus and the threat to the bee community by molecular biologist Dr. Eyal Maori. The tone of the video expressed the serious nature of the inspiration of the piece.

In the next part of the piece, audience members were given headphones and experienced music composed by Lily Hunter-Green and violinist Tom Moore, like a silent disco experience. Hunter-Green informed us that one participant, patient zero, infected the others. Participants held devices which vibrated, mimicking the sounds of bees, a small screen part of the device displayed computer code, highlighting the digital element. Hunter-Green had conducted experiments working with a computer scienctist who had written a code which infected music with a virus. The sound involved instruments playing music, and the introduction of buzzing sounds which took over. Participants walked around each other in the confined space, a bit like bees in a hive, having time to contemplate the installations. I was excited by innovation and how the project combined elements of nature and computerised music. The installation also included an interactive sound sculpture that demonstrated the spread of a virus through a beehive with changes of green and red lights.

The different elements of this work demonstrated exploration of creativity surrounding this topic and raised awareness of the threat to bees through disease. After the experience I felt I had better knowledge of this topic and a memorable experience. Listening to music on headphones had similarities to everyday experiences in the contemporary world, the infection element an interesting twist on the usual modern experience of listening to digitally stored music.

More information is available on Hunter-Greens‘ website, which describes phases in history of her project.


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