Open Cultural Data: Discussing Digitisation

This post was contributed by symposium organizers PhD candidate Hannah Barton, Dr Joel McKim and Professor Martin Eve. The Open Cultural Data Symposium took place at Birkbeck on the 25 November 2016 and was co-sponsored by the Vasari Research Centre for Art and Technology and the Birkbeck Centre for Technology and Publishing.

Birkbeck’s recent Open Cultural Data Symposium was an opportunity to reflect upon several decades of major digitisation initiatives within UK cultural institutions. Academics, curators, archivists and IP specialists gathered in the Keynes Library to discuss the successes, ambitions and challenges of recent open access projects in some of the UK’s most prominent museums, libraries and broadcast institutions.

The College has digitised the diary of Anna Birkbeck, the wife of George Birkbeck who founded the College

The College has digitised the diary of Anna Birkbeck, the wife of George Birkbeck who founded the College

Adoption Beyond Access

The theme discussed by the first panel of the day was ‘Adoption Beyond Access’. Dr Rebecca Sinker (Tate), Dr Mia Ridge (British Library) and researcher and curator Natalie Kane each set out to question what, beyond publication alone, institutions can do – or indeed are doing – to facilitate the use of their digitally accessible archives, collections and cultural data.

Dr Rebecca Sinker began by delineating the issues of scale and scope faced by institutions wanting to provide digital access to collections and facilitating associated outreach. Rebecca highlighted the importance of institutions committing to comprehensive infrastructural change and sustained investment when undertaking digitisation initiatives to avoid ad-hoc forays into collections access. However, Rebecca noted that resource limitations oftentimes make this an unattainable approach. Further, since it can take significant effort to establish digitisation and publications systems alone, the importance of facilitating audience engagements with the published collections risks going unrecognised.

Yet the online publication of collections does not guarantee the material will be accessed by widened audiences. Using Tate’s Archives & Access project as a case in point, Rebecca demonstrated how offering a range of ‘entry points’ to digitised collections can support varying levels of participation: from the additional access afforded by large-scale digital publication, to the entrees supported by online learning resources (such as explanatory films and blogs), to the in-person facilitated engagements, which can support audiences with differing levels of familiarity or confidence with cultural collections. Digital affordances allow new and exceptional modes of access, but some audiences may need support as they gain confidence and awareness of cultural collections before they take up that offer. In offering outreach in conjunction with digital access a more comprehensive cultural repositioning of cultural collections may be achieved in the long-term. However, with limited resources in mind, and a growing understanding of the role of outreach in engendering participation, advocacy remains necessary, the message being: publication and outreach in conjunction make for accessible – or rather accessed – open cultural data sets.

. Mia Ridge (British Library)

Dr Mia Ridge (British Library)

Dr Mia Ridge’s presentation followed. Mia suggested that we begin by problematising the notion of cultural data. She asked the room to firstly take into consideration the quality of any data set that may be made open – what errors might it contain? Is it viable as structured open data? –  and secondly to take into account the historicity of the set itself and its context of production. Does it contain any degree of cultural bias? Would it impart any degree of cultural bias if it was made open? To elucidate this point Mia references the digitally accessible Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913 ‘A fully searchable edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court’ – which is an amazing resource – detailed and accessible, but also a necessarily limited one. Exposure to open access data sets poses a risk, insofar as cultural bias may be created by over or under representation in open cultural data collections. The lives of non-criminal Londoners 1674-1913 are not so easily accessed, for instance, which may effect how literature or historical accounts are researched, written and interpreted. Further, individual issues of data set quality have the potential to impact on intra-institutional structured cultural data sets. “Every institution catalogues its archives in very different ways”, noted Mia, which will inhabit the ability for data sets to be joined up, and stymie the ambitions of those who wish to make horizontal journeys. She suggests that staff involved in open cultural data projects would benefit from increased understanding from scholars and other institutions alike – joined up conversations help to navigating this complex and dynamic topic, and events, such as hackathons and roadshows, can help in this regard as well as break down barriers to participation. Data in all forms, from published to collections to outcomes of practice sharing, flows both ways,

Natalie Kane gave the final presentation of this panel; a fascinating talk that asked the room to challenge the politics of the archive, create parallel narratives, disrupt the space work occupies, interrogate categorisation and explore absence. “What might a postcolonial or feminist search engine look like?”, Natalie enquired. Pursuing this line of thinking, she showcased work from a range of artists who have explored this idea: 3D printing is mooted as a form of cultural reconstruction; a bust of Nefertiti is subject to a guerrilla-style digital scan as a challenge to colonial art theft; archival imagery is repurposed in unexpected ways, exploring absence and the tolerances in historical narratives. Natalie draws the audiences’ attention to Cécile B. Evans’ Agnes, a digital commission produced for the Serpentine Gallery’s website.  Agnes is a bot in possession of an ‘aim-to-please’ character that playfully offers website visitors information both direct and tangential in nature. Agnes’ contributions can delight, confuse or frustrate and ultimately showcases disruption and frustrated forays into cultural collections. Natalie seizes upon this lack of structural totality as a distinguishing characteristic for anyone person exploring immaterial collections, and expounds the limits, but also the potential, such terms of distinction offer.

Legalities and Logistics of Digitisation

Fred Saunderson (National Library of Scotland), Bernard Horrocks (Tate) and Mahendra Mahey (British Library)

Fred Saunderson (National Library of Scotland), Bernard Horrocks (Tate) and Mahendra Mahey (British Library)

The second panel of the day focused on the “legalities and logistics” of implementing and maintaining large scale digitisation projects. Our three presenters, Fred Saunderson (IP Specialist at the National Library of Scotland), Bernard Horrocks (IP Manager at Tate) and Mahendra Mahey (Project Manager at the British Library Labs) outlined some of the pragmatic difficulties that can potentially stand in the way of a project’s lofty open access ideals. All three presenters dispelled the optimistic notion that the online environment could somehow alleviate the need for material spaces and physical “leg work” in relation to these projects. Fred Saunderson opened the panel and helped extend our discussion beyond the confines of London. He highlighted the efforts made by the National Library to provide access to its collections to users across Scotland, despite being physically centred in Edinburgh. Online resources are not the only answer to this problem, he revealed, as onsite copyright licences can be considerably less restrictive and not all users gravitate to the digital realm. In response to these factors, the library has just opened a new film archive access centre at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow, with dedicated onsite terminals. While the library has currently been focusing on “low-hanging fruit” (material readily available for digitisation under various existing copyright exceptions, such as preservation requirements), Fred noted that there are considerable “scaling up” challenges ahead as the institution is committed to having a third of its collection available in digital form by 2025.

Bernard Horrocks focused on Tate’s recent Archives and Access digitisation project funded by the Heritage Lottery and involving approximately 53,000 archival items. While these items are all wholly owned by Tate, their copyright is not – a situation which introduces some considerable IP challenges. The scale of the problem was made clear when Bernard revealed that, despite belonging to 53 distinct collections, the items involved in the project could be traced back to some 1,500 rights holders. The number of human hours and amount of chasing involved in securing these rights (including a flight to Zurich) was clear and rather daunting, yet Bernard highlighted the level of success Tate achieved, with 98% of rights holders agreeing to some form of creative commons licences. Bernard emphasized the mix of due diligence, risk assessment and judicious use of copyright exceptions necessary for a project of this magnitude.

Finally, Mahendra Mahey outlined the impressive number of projects that have been supported by the British Library Labs since its inception. The BL Labs is an initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and charged with encouraging public use of the library’s digital collections and data. The nature of the projects supported by the Labs varies considerably and Mahendra introduced a number of recent competitions, residencies, collaborations and events. Again, the success of these digital initiatives required considerable “real world” leg work, as raising awareness of the BL Labs was dependent on going out and talking to people. Mahendra emphasized the importance of “learning the story of the collection” as the origins and background history of the data in question largely determines the challenges involved in making it open.

Ethics and Organisation

The final panel of the day took a turn towards the ethical and organisational challenges surrounding open cultural data. Initially, we were supposed to be joined by a representative from HEFCE, who was sadly laid up with an illness. In his stead, however, Mia Ridge rejoined the panel, which also consisted of Dr Mark Coté (Lecturer in Digital Cultures, King’s College), and Bill Thompson, Head of Partnership Development, Archive Development, at the BBC.

3. Bill Thompson (BBC) and Mark Coté (King’s College)

3. Bill Thompson (BBC) and Mark Coté (King’s College)

The paper given by Dr Coté was provocative. Arguing that many corporations are already collecting quantified behavioural data about users, he suggested that it was necessary for us to consider the opening of personal data as a site of political struggle. The suggestion seemed to be that because these corporations already act in this way, they remain the only entities who benefit from data analytics, leaving other actors out in the cold. But this suggestion came with many privacy challenges that left me feeling uncomfortable. I also was unclear over what political transformation we might see; do social justice organisations, for example, have the wherewithal and technical expertise to efficiently mobilise such data profiling – and how would it be used anyway?

Bill Thompson followed this with a talk about the institutional difficulties of working within an organisation such as the BBC at this time. Noting that the most recent charter for the organisation specifies little other than “programme making”, in contradiction to its founding remit of developing technologies for the public benefit, Bill pointed to the precariousness of his situation, working with the BBC archive; an amazing and diverse body of materials that are of enormous cultural significance.

The day closed with discussions evolving into wine but one final point struck me, that Mia brought home. In this final twist on “data produced by humans as cultural data”, Mia noted that the temporal distance between recording and exposure is now so limited as to cause problems. In a previous era, if one wrote a personal diary, one would expect this to remain private. Not so of the public documentation of lives on social media, which can affect employment and many other aspects of one’s life. Indeed, though, how can we know which elements of our practices might be troublesome? How can we possibly evaluate the transactional benefit against the (only moderately) deferred risk? How does such open cultural data lead to a change in our own behaviours? These are the challenges of open cultural data that arose in the final panel.

More photos of the event are available on flickr.

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Replacement

This article was contributed by Dr Monika Loewy, an associate lecturer in Goldsmiths’ Department of English and Comparative Literature

Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

An interdisciplinary conference on the theme of ‘replacement’ took place at Birkbeck on the 8-10 of December, which consisted of thirty-six presentations from the humanities, arts, and social sciences. Organised by Professor Naomi Segal and Dr Jean Owen, the conference explored the idea of replacement in relation to literature, art, film, politics, and law. There was additionally a printmakers’ exhibition and a screening of three films: Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940), Un Secret [A Secret] (Claude Miller, 2007) and 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015). The keynote speakers (Jean Owen, Naomi Segal, Professor Juliet Mitchell, and Professor Naomi Tadmor) focused on the replacement child and partner, and the way in which figures of the past affect the individuals who replace them. Throughout these discussions, questions often arose as to how works of art embody, illustrate, and represent these effects.

‘Trauma always causes replacement’, explained Juliet Mitchell in her presentation, a statement that underpinned the entire conference: trauma, and specifically loss, is often the precursor to why and how replacement occurs. Generally, these losses referred to relationships and objects, memory and knowledge. Several speakers additionally suggested that absences are often substituted with fantasy, a notion discussed in relation to individuals, theories, culture, and fictional and non-fictional works.

Day One:

The conference opened with parallel panels entitled ‘writing replacement’ and ‘cinematic dehumanisation’. Here, speakers introduced ideas about replacement in relation to cultural works, and about how objects and relationships can replace loss, as exemplified by a statement about the way in which nature can, and has, acted as a foster parent (in this case, for William Wordsworth). The following parallel panels consisted of talks about holocaust stories, cultural theory, and haunting, raising a variety of questions, including how the mother is represented in art, and how Freud may have replaced emotional loss with fantasy and religion. These various strands of thought coalesced in a screening of Agnieszka Piotrowska’s fascinating documentary Married to the Eiffel Tower (2008), which is about three women who feel an affinity for, and are sexually and emotionally attracted to objects such as a bow and arrow, The Berlin Wall, a fence, and the Eiffel Tower. The film conveyed that these attractions might be linked to traumatic experiences and mental illnesses, suggesting that the objects may stand in for and protect against disturbing experiences. Following the screening was a discussion about Piotrowska’s involvement with film, and how she responded to public and personal reactions to it. The day closed with a showing of Un Secret, a film about a boy haunted by feelings of having a superior older sibling, and how gaps in knowledge (about his parents’ relationships and experiences in the Second World War) impacted these feelings. Here, the concept of sibling replacement was introduced, which was central to the following day’s discussions.

Day Two:

The second day commenced with papers about political practice, mothers and daughters, and law and replacement, covering a variety of topics, including representations of replacement in human rights law, haunting mothers in Alice Sebold’s writings, and the politics of surrogacy. Two thought-provoking keynotes followed, which were presented by Naomi Tadmor (on early modern kinship and family life) and Juliet Mitchell (on the toddler and the replacement sibling). First, Tadmor spoke about early modern England’s kinship system and how it changed over time. Subsequently, Mitchell explored the way in which Oedipal relations have failed to incorporate the importance of siblings. Sibling replacement, Mitchell argued, is a foundational trauma that has been overlooked in psychoanalytic thinking; the toddler harbours murderous desires towards the new baby that replaces it. There were three parallel panels after the keynote, which included talks about cinematic replacement, family dramas, and ‘lost boys’. A variety of ideas were discussed here, such as ‘lost boys’ in Ibsen’s play Little Eyolf, the connections between Un Secret and Morrison’s Beloved, and about spouses, siblings and children in Sir Orfeo and Amis and Amiloun. The day came to a close with a screening of Hitchcock’s Rebecca on 35mm film.

Day Three:

On the final day, panellists explored how memory and place are rewritten through film, the connections between clinic and culture, and the way in which personal haunting may leave its imprint through writing and art. Professor Valerie Walkerdine, for example, suggested that a trace cannot be erased, and that performance and photography may embody traces of traumatic experiences. In the afternoon, keynote speaker Jean Owen gave an engaging talk that compared the incestual relationships between fathers and daughters in Jacques Demy’s Peau d’âne, ‘Genesis,’ and the Greco-Roman myth of Myrrha. This was followed by Naomi Segal’s intriguing analysis about what replacement might mean, and what can and cannot be represented or replicated. She asked how language has been altered throughout time, and posed questions about copies, replication, and the act of translation. She additionally discussed how individuals’ lives and works have been impacted by their deceased siblings, exploring various artists such as J.M, Barrie, Didier Anzieu, Salvador Dalí, Phillip K. Dick, and Victor Hugo. The conference then came to a close with a screening of Haigh’s 45 Years, wherein a woman discovers that her entire marriage was, in a sense, a replacement for one her husband had lost.

Dr Asibong introduced the film with a statement that nicely ties together the wide array of exciting discussions about replacement: that ‘real life’ often pales in comparison to the dead, to a loss. Overall, the conference interwove several creative and fascinating thoughts about replacement, raising questions about how loss affects us, how we attempt to replace it, and how experiences and various works of art capture (and are unable to capture) these replacements.

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Embarrassing Bodies

This post was contributed by Dr Emma Curry, an ISSF Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, who organised the Embarrassing Bodies conference on  17 June 2016.

We live in a particularly self-conscious age. In recent years, the rising popularity of the ‘selfie’ has signalled our increased interest in curating our own image. This renewed self-attention means that moments where we fail to live up to our perfected public image have also become heightened: the popularity of the hashtags ‘#awkward’ and ‘#fail’ on Twitter and other sites indicate our need to highlight and process our moments of social misconduct, or the embarrassing slips we witness in others.

Embarrassing Bodies

‘Mr Mac’, unknown author (1886) © Aviva

Like many aspects of modern life, this preoccupation with the particularities of ‘awkward’ behaviour is one which found itself accelerated in the nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary records John Stuart Mill’s use of ‘self-conscious’ in 1834 as the first deployment of the term in its modern sense, whilst ‘embarrassment’ comes a little earlier, in the latter part of the eighteenth century. With individuals moving in ever-larger social circles and the potential for bodily faux pas heightened, ideas of ‘embarrassment’ began to attract growing attention from writers and artists of the period. This can be witnessed in such diverse instances as Charles Darwin’s work on the physiology of embarrassed bodily responses like blushing; the emerging definition of the ‘self’ and ideas of ‘self-consciousness’ in early formations of Victorian psychology; and the scenes of comic humiliation in the writing of Charles Dickens, where characters are forever tripping or slipping or saying the wrong thing.

On 17 June, over 50 researchers and members of the public came together to explore some of these instances of nineteenth-century embarrassment, and to think about the ways in which this particular emotion continues to shape our relationships to our sense of self, to our bodies, and to each other. 

Embarrassed Victorians

The conference opened with a keynote talk from Paul White (Cambridge), who considered how embarrassment spreads across nineteenth-century discourse, surfacing in literary and scientific texts. He described embarrassment as enjoyably ‘readable’, and considered how writers of the period position the embarrassed bodies of their characters as intriguing social texts. This talk was followed by Philippa Lewis’s (Bristol) fascinating discussion of the emotion in a European context, in which she considered the medicalization of shyness in France in the latter part of the nineteenth century. By exploring shyness as a literary device and as a matter of public health, Philippa traced the curious tension between the individual and the social in the expression of this particular emotion, a question we returned to throughout the day.

The next panel focused upon embarrassment’s relationship to nineteenth-century science. Alison Moulds (Oxford) delivered a fascinating discussion of the doctor/patient relationship in the nineteenth century, considering the ways in which male doctors became acutely aware of and embarrassed by their own bodies when dealing with female patients’ ailments. This was followed by Ryan Sweet (Exeter), who made us giggle with comic depictions of animals stealing wigs, whilst sensitively exploring the Victorians’ complex and conflicting responses to the problems of the ageing and prostheticized body. Rosie White (Royal Holloway) then took us through the embarrassing aspects of being a naturalist in the nineteenth century, describing the snobbery from other scientists, the need to use discrete measuring tools when out and about, and the embarrassment of being caught ‘with all your implements about you’.

Self-Consciousness in Literature and Art

Following lunch (which thankfully didn’t seem to involve any awkward silences), we returned fortified to our second panel, which explored the complexities of self-consciousness as represented in literary texts. Amelia Worsley (Amherst College) began by turning to the early part of the nineteenth century to analyse the ‘poetics of awkwardness’, in the work of Wordsworth and other Romantic poets. During this period autobiographical poetry became a useful space for self-reflection. Mike Davis (UWE) then moved to the work of George Meredith, considering the fascinating overlap between evolutionary theory and early forms of psychology in the later part of the century, and the ways in which Meredith’s representation of individual will and emotional intelligence might challenge some of Darwin’s formations. This paper was followed by Hao Li (Toronto), who charted the subtle, shifting overlaps between constructions of consciousness, self-consciousness, and self-awareness in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Finally, Royce Mahawatte (Central St Martins) considered the literary handling of embarrassment in the writing of R. J. Culverwell, a doctor who wrote on men’s sexual health. Royce gave a fascinating exploration of the curiously Gothic construction of the male body in Culverwell’s work, and considered the ways in which embarrassing topics seem to attract and indeed encourage narrative during this period.

Embarrassing Bodies

‘Hush!’, James Tissot (1875)

We next turned to visual representations of embarrassment. Stephanie O’Rourke (St Andrews) opened the discussion with a beautifully detailed examination of French artist James Tissot’s paintings ‘Hush!’ and ‘Too Early’. She drew attention to the blank spaces surrounding the embarrassed individuals in Tissot’s work, describing them as charged focuses for the ‘conspicuous awkwardness’ of the scenes depicted. Her paper was followed by Eva Kenny (Princeton), who delivered an intriguing exploration of Darwin’s representation of blushing in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and his attempts to define the limits of embarrassment in physiological terms. David Russell (Oxford) considered ‘Embarrassing Ruskin’, describing the many and various ways in which the art critic John Ruskin was considered to be an embarrassing man by his contemporaries. David highlighted how embarrassment might in fact be a useful imaginative force in Ruskin’s writing, with uncomfortable experiences used to shape his art criticism and to link intellectual and physical experiences.

Awkward Academics

For our final discussion panel we returned to the present day, to think about the ways that embarrassment shapes modern life, particularly within universities. Joe Moran (Liverpool John Moores) discussed his experiences as a shy academic, and explored the various senses in which research can reward these inclinations towards introversion and reflection. Francis O’Gorman (Leeds) described his propensity for worrying, and considered how academia can encourage but also allow individuals to work through some of these modern neuroses. Both Joe and Francis also considered the positive potential of shyness and worrying to act as counterbalances to certain aspects of academic life, suggesting that they might provide an important challenge to recent professional trends for extended working hours, increased commercialisation, and the need to create a public portfolio. It was refreshing and heartening to hear two such distinguished academics speak so openly about their personal relationship to their work in this discussion, and to the everyday, embodied processes of teaching and research.

In the run-up to the conference, participants had contributed their embarrassing academic moments on Twitter, and as the Q&A session progressed it became comfortingly clear that imagined hierarchies, fear of saying the wrong thing, and a hyper bodily self-awareness when teaching or presenting were experiences common to everyone, no matter how senior their position. Amidst ever-increasing workloads and the intellectual pressures of modern academic life, it was suggested that acknowledging and nurturing our ‘embarrassing’ bodies is now becoming more important than ever.

Following the discussion, the delegates retired to a well-earned wine reception, where no doubt more embarrassing moments were shared (or indeed created!). I would like to thank all of the speakers, delegates, and everyone who contributed to the discussion on Twitter for helping to shape such a fascinating and thought-provoking day, and the Wellcome Trust for their generous funding of this event. I hope we can share our embarrassing moments again in the future, and continue to make light of rather than fear the ‘awkwardness’ that poor Ruskin’s friends found so excruciating.

This event was in association with Birkbeck’s Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies and was funded by a Wellcome Trust/Birkbeck ISSF Grant.

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How to be both: An audience with author Ali Smith

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard. Dr Winyard attended the 2015 Man Booker at Birkbeck event, featuring Man Booker 2014 shortlisted author, Ali Smith

Ali Smith in conversation with Prof Russell Celyn Jones

Ali Smith in conversation with Prof Russell Celyn Jones

On 16 November, in a lively, humorous exchange, Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing Russell Celyn Jones and novelist Ali Smith discussed her Booker Prize nominated novel, How To Be Both (2014). This dazzling, rambunctious novel features two self-contained but intertwined stories: one follows the travails of Italian Renaissance fresco painter, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life artist who painted a series of elaborate allegorical frescos in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, northern Italy; the other story tells of George, a bereaved twenty-first-century teenager who is remembering a family trip to Italy to view del Cossa’s frescos in the ‘Palace of Not Being Bored’.

With its focus on Renaissance art, and painting in particular, the novel is itself a diptych – or ‘dipstick’, as Smith drolly punned to the audience – presenting two separate but intersecting stories in dialogue with one another. The diptych – which literally means ‘two fold’ in ancient Greek – is, Smith explained, book-like in its construction, with hinges that enable it to be closed and transported, making it an appealingly ‘swivel-able form’. In the UK, the book was published in dual form, with half of the copies opening with the del Cossa narrative and the other half opening with the story of George. Smith recounted with delight how the printers hired ‘muddlers’ to randomise the packing of the books and ensure that shops carried both versions of the novel. For Smith, it is important that readers can ‘upend’ the novel and ‘it still works’.

Confounding binary oppositions

Ali Smith-How to be bothThe novel delights in interrogating, unpicking and confounding the binarised oppositions that organise and delimit human life and relationships: male and female; straight and gay; past and present; and even alive and dead. The complex twisting and interleaving of the two stories typifies the ways in which history, memory, feeling, gender and sexuality elude and shrug off human categorisation. George is a boyish young woman with a man’s name who falls in love with another woman, whereas del Cossa is a woman who uses concealment and disguise to reinvent herself as a male artist. The del Cossa narrative opens poetically and strangely with the forcible resurrection of the long-dead del Cossa, who finds herself standing in the National Gallery in London, observing George – whom she mistakes for a boy – scrutinising del Cossa’s stern portrait of St. Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican friar and missionary. The painting is real and is indeed hanging in the National Gallery.

Interestingly, Smith confessed that George’s gender identity was indeterminate when she started working on the novel; it was only later that George became female. Indeed, Smith described the fictional creation of character as a mode of channelling, in which characters arrive fully formed and the task of the novelist is to give them the necessary attention and time to allow their voices to come through. The voice of del Cossa was the first that Smith heard, forcing her to discard 90 pages of the novel she had written and leaving her only seven months in which to complete and submit the manuscript. George’s voice and syntax came, fully formed, about half-way through this rewrite. Smith offered several helpful tips for budding authors, stressing the importance of ‘editing as writing’ and focusing on repetitions, as ‘they’re the things you’re most interested in’. The novel, like its characters, must be patiently listened to and Smith repeatedly emphasised the importance of voice in writing.

del Cossa, a man in and out of history

Man Booker at Birkbeck 2015 event held at Friends-House

Man Booker at Birkbeck 2015 event held at Friends-House

How To Be Both is concerned with history and memory, with what is remembered and how – and what is lost. As Smith observed, humans need to live in three dimensions, to feel connected to the past and the future simultaneously. Del Cossa was a real artist, although we know very little about him: he was born in Ferrara in 1435 or 1436, the son of a stonemason, and he died aged forty, in Ferrara, possibly of the plague. In later times, Del Cossa’s frescos were plastered over and the room used as a tobacco store until, Smith explained, the plaster flaked off in the 1840s and the frescos were rediscovered. Archival letters, in which del Cossa angrily demands more money from his patron (a request his patron loftily refused), are another scanty source of evidence.

The unknown history of the artist, however, gave Smith licence to re-gender and reimagine the life of del Cossa; as Smith drolly admitted, ‘I got away with it!’ In the 1960s, floods in Italy hastened the temporary removal of the frescos from their walls, which further revealed what Smith called the ‘under-versions’ or original sketches and images that had been painted over. The frescos thus stand as a metaphor for thinking about human life and history as a palimpsest, with layers of accretion and loss shaping what becomes ‘History’ or collective memory. Smith gleefully confessed to her excitement in bringing to light the ‘undertows’ that are wilfully concealed or later forgotten.

Thus, in the novel, George is anxious that all that is forgotten is lost, making history little more than a horrifying charnel house. Her mother, though, has a more mystical understanding, insisting that that which has existed does not simply cease because we can no longer see, experience or remember it. For Smith, it is Art that takes us to a timeless place of fragile ‘lastingness’ within ourselves. She spoke of Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘jetztzeit’ (‘now-time’), the moment of epiphany instigated by Art, in which we know we are truly alive and time disappears. Smith also spoke of the novelists’ frustration with the form, as it cannot escape the temporal sequence of action and consequence and is incapable of simultaneously representing the simultaneous occurrences of everyday life.

To know George’s future, the reader must journey back into the life of del Cossa, although, if you encounter the del Cossa section first, you will know (but not necessarily fully understand) George’s future before you know her past. Like last year’s Man Booker speaker, Hilary Mantel, Smith has written a historical novel of sorts, although Smith’s is formally inventive and playfully cuts across genres. Smith admitted that her knowledge of the Renaissance was limited and she undertook broad-brush research to immerse herself in the period without being overwhelmed by details. Smith thus urged the creative writing students in the audience to research lightly in order to give themselves ‘imaginative space’.

Under surveillance

A VIP reception was held after the event at the Keynes Library

A VIP reception was held after the event at the Keynes Library

The novel is also concerned with surveillance, observation, witnessing and spectatorship, in all their benevolent and more menacing forms. Indeed, Smith insisted to the audience that ‘surveillance is the story of our times’. George’s mother, whose voice we only hear via George’s recollections, is worried that her past, radical political activities mean she is under state surveillance, while George herself obsessively watches Lisa Goliard, a friend of her mother’s. George angsts about the ethics of watching and is particularly concerned that the pained performer in a pornographic scene she has watched online is stuck in what Smith called a ‘kind of continual present’. George thus obsessively and continually witnesses and memorialises the performer’s suffering. Our contemporary culture of forcible remembrance is, for Smith, ‘lovely and kind of appalling’, as we have lost the old ability to let go of, and simply forget, the past. Similarly, by scrutinising the painting of St. Vincent, George miraculously and unintentionally resurrects the spirit of del Cossa, who silently watches her. To foreground the ethics of watching, the illustrated frontispiece to the del Cossa story, drawn by Smith’s partner Sarah Wood, features del Cossa’s image of the gouged out eyes of Saint Lucy, which he painted not on a platter, as is usual in Renaissance iconography of the saint, but growing from a small sprout.

Although Smith attentively and gamely engaged with the various readings of her novel proffered by the audience, she ultimately reasserted the work’s capaciousness and playfulness of spirit, insisting ‘I’m not going to tell you what to think about the book.’ For Smith, ‘the reading experience is really volatile’ and she expounded how rereading shifts a novel’s meanings and resonances for us.

This was the fifth Man Booker event at Birkbeck – previous speakers include Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Hollinghurst and Hilary Mantel – and this lively exchange further confirmed and extended the success of this rewarding partnership. As David Latchman, the Master of Birkbeck, observed in his opening remarks, the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck both share an ongoing, deep commitment to broadening knowledge, bringing the best of contemporary fiction to the widest possible audience, and belying cramped, utilitarian approaches to education.

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