Arts Week 2017: “Doing and thinking: methods in practice-based research”

Dr Maria Kukhareva, Educational Developer at the University of Bedfordshire reflects on the interaction of creativity and academia following a workshop as part of Birkbeck Arts Week 2017.creativity-academiaAs an interdisciplinarian (both by background and by own curiosity) I seek opportunities to be amazed by the way different disciplines and approaches interact, the conflict and tension borne out of this process, and the turbulent energy and questions it has potential to generate.

I recently participated in the ‘Doing and Thinking’ workshop during Arts Week, which gathered an exciting and diverse crowd of practicing artists, researchers, and artist-researches – both Birkbeck’s own and external enthusiasts, like me.

Here, I broaden the focus of the workshop and turn to the discourse around creativity, rigour and scholarship in higher education – and what it means for the creative practitioners and researchers, as well as the wider academic community.

“Is it alive or is it ref-able?”

What the workshop discussion demonstrated very quickly and relatively clearly, is that there seems to be a vast and deep ocean between the mysterious continent inhabited by the creative practitioners, and the equally mysterious land of “this is how things are done in academia”.

The ocean was represented by a heap of colourful cards with research (and life?) related words on our tables. As we were shuffling through them, we realised we could not agree on the meanings, values and emotions of some seemingly common words, for example:

impact (think: theatre performance versus academic publication)
serendipity and intuition as a driving force (think: visual arts versus systematic research)
discomfort and doubt (think: open creative process versus evaluation outcomes)

In fact, words and language in general continued to be the cause of frustration, namely the incompatibility of creative output (a painting, a book, a film) and the academic language accompaniment (a thesis).

One could almost imagine how creativity and its magic, so necessary for any artist’s existence, breaks into pieces on encountering the academic expectation. As if to become an academic scholar, an artist needs to give up a part of their soul in exchange for the gifts of rigour, systematic inquiry and strictly formatted self-expression and self-representation. As if the fruits of your labour can either be ‘alive’ or ‘ref-able.’

But… is this really the only way to cross the ocean?

“Follow your nose”

Let’s view creative practice – whether you are a professional artist, early researcher or an educator in any given field – as something you NEED. Whether it’s where you experiment, or where your intuition, or some other undefined drive pushes you to create news things. It’s where a part of your soul lives; it’s something that fuels your daily activity. It’s what inspires your signature pedagogy, your authorial voice and what gives it life – as demonstrated effectively by Emma Bennett, Katherine Angel and Catherine Grant.

If this is what your creative practice does, then not only does it not go against the ‘traditional’ academic activity, with its rigour, systematic approach, structure, format and language – rather, creative practice makes the academic activity possible and interesting, from teaching to publishing.

The messy, unstructured creativity with a mind of its own, should be preserved and nurtured, rather than ‘re-trained’ when entering the world of traditional academic boundaries and standards. As Thomas Fisher has pointed out, creativity can be a rigorous process.

In other words – ‘it’ needs to be alive to be ref-able.

I would like to invite the reader to consider the following questions:

  • How and where do your practice and research activity co-exist?How disparate or how close are these two preoccupations? Do they fuel or hinder each other?
  • Which one of these (research or practice activity) offers more scope for creativity?
  • How does your creative and experimental activity drive your signature approach?
  • And lastly, how can we preserve and nurture our creativity, while we are developing our academic identities and careers?

On that note, I am off to read Katherine Angel’s book!

Contact Maria Kukhareva:
@maria_kukhareva
University of Bedfordshire profile

 

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Arts Week 2017: Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: Selected Artists from the Adamson Collection

Martin Birch, untitled drawing (Mr A moves in mysterious ways). Credit: Adamson Collection / Wellcome Trust.

Martin Birch, untitled drawing (Mr A moves in mysterious ways). Credit: Adamson Collection / Wellcome Trust.

The Adamson Collection is, in every sense, a remarkable archive, encompassing a vast and varied body of work that spans both five decades of asylum history and myriad approaches to artistic practice.

Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways: Selected Artists from the Adamson Collection, curated by Dr Heather Tilley and Dr Fiona Johnstone, features painting, drawing and sculpture selected from some 6000 art objects, all produced under the guidance of pioneering art therapist Edward Adamson (1911-1996) by residents at Netherne Hospital in Surrey, a long-stay mental asylum, between 1946 and 1981. As part of a launch event a panel discussion was held in Birkbeck Cinema, where therapists, curators and artists alike shared their insights into Adamson’s life and legacy.

David O’Flynn from the Adamson Collection Trust and Val Huet from the British Association of Art Therapists spoke respectively about the development of Adamson’s work and ethos; the process of securing and displaying the collection – a task fraught with challenges, curatorial and conceptual – and about Adamson’s continued relevance to art therapy today.

Adamson defined himself not as a therapist, but as an artist; despite being instrumental in the foundation of the British Association of Art Therapists, he did not align himself with any one theoretical position. Adamson was an independent thinker who maintained his identity as an outsider as an act of affinity for those whose work he inspired and preserved.

Initially engaged at Netherne as a researcher into the relationship between mental illness and creativity, Adamson’s job was to encourage patients to produce work for clinical analysis. However, after the study ended in 1951, he established a studio where residents at Netherne were allowed to paint freely. He came to believe that making art was therapy enough; that creative expression could provide people with a bridge back to themselves. Working in this way Adamson amassed a staggering amount of material, writing the artist’s name and date of completion on the back of each piece, and so preserving not only the art object but the personal narratives of individuals otherwise anonymised by institutionalisation.

In exhibiting the work he collected, Adamson believed he could reengage the artists with a society that excluded them, and challenge pre-conceived ideas about the capacity of the mentally ill to contribute meaningfully to culture. As Val Huet emphasised in her talk, Adamson’s lasting impact upon contemporary art therapy was in situating “art at the heart” of therapy; extending artistic agency beyond the borders of allotted therapy time. As continued cutbacks to mental health budgets put pressure upon this practice-based approach, a reassessment of Adamson’s pioneering work becomes more topical, timely and, potentially, radical.

Beth Elliott, a trustee of Bethlem Gallery, and their artist-in-residence Matthew, spoke about the development of artistic practice inside the institution, and the unique pressures, restrictions, and surprising affordances of the clinical environment. Matthew’s description of his own process, together with the slides of his vibrant and luminous artwork, was a clear argument for the persistence of practice at the centre of therapy, demonstrating how art within the asylum can be an imaginative escape, a tool for navigation, and a strategy for resistance.

Invigorated by the talks, people headed towards the Peltz Gallery where the work of eight artists is on display, including pieces by Martin Birch from whose arch drawing of Adamson the exhibition takes its title, and Gwyneth Rowlands, whose eerie and arresting painted flints were my personal highlight of the exhibition.

It is worth noting that this is the first time the artists have been named in an exhibition; their work attributed to an individual with a unique aesthetic outlook and approach, not shown as an undifferentiated mass of “asylum art”.  From Mary Bishop’s bold blocks of Constructivist colour to Rolanda Polonsky’s intricate, spooling pencil drawings, the work defends its right to be considered first and foremost as art. This exhibition asks us to consider the meaning of the phrase “outsider artist” and where in that description the emphasis should be placed.

Mr A Moves in Mysterious Ways interweaves a diverse array of narratives – personal and medical. It is an insight into changing psychiatric practice, a celebration of Adamson’s work, and also a testament to eight unique artistic visions and histories.

Fran Lock is a poet and practice-based PhD student in her first year at Birkbeck

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Arts Week 2017: Science as Spectacle

A Magic Lantern Slide Lecture on St. Peter's Basilica, 1897  An illustration from the December 1897 catalogue of T. H. McAllister Company, Manufacturing Opticians, New York

A Magic Lantern Slide Lecture on St. Peter’s Basilica, 1897
An illustration from the December 1897 catalogue of T. H. McAllister Company, Manufacturing Opticians, New York

Ushered into the dark cinema of Birkbeck, the curious spectators witnessed Science as Spectacle. Over an hour and a half on the evening of Tuesday 19th May 2017, Jeremy Brooker, Chairman of the Magic Lantern Society, demonstrated the workings of the magic lantern.

He began by setting the scene with a brief history of the import of the magic lantern on society. He told the story of Faraday’s presentation in January 1846 to the Royal Institute and was not shy when it came to making it clear that, actually, technologically, what Faraday was displaying was nothing particularly impressive given the popular magic lantern shows taking place at the time.

And this was the crux of the presentation: the lantern’s dual purpose for both entertainment and research. The population were now able to see “actual experiments happening in real time before their eyes.” This capability of the magic lantern was displayed in an archive film of thawing ice. Now, through the magnification properties of the magic lantern, one could peer over the shoulder of an experimenter and see what was being done. Jeremy revealed that people of the time were particularly disturbed upon finding out what was living in their drinking water.

But at the same time, the magic lantern was also being used to show things that were not there. The more familiar history of the magic lantern is for its use in phantasmagoria shows, creating ghostly effects that titillated and terrified the audience. Jeremy and partner Caroline displayed the abilities of the magic lantern as entertainment and Birkbeck cinema witnessed popular magic lantern displays of distant lands, changing seasons and, yes, a vanishing ghost and skeleton or two.

What was remarkable about the display was how science and entertainment were so interlinked. The projectionists at the time realised the capabilities of their tool to both entertain and educate and so, for a time, the two went hand-in-hand. After we were shown the layers of matter that make up the human body, we were rewarded with a skeleton jumping a skipping rope. Similarly, whilst we admired the beautiful vistas of icy landscapes under the rippling Aurora Borealis we also learned something about the geography of distant lands. As the precursor to film and demonstration, the magic lantern projectionists knew that both entertainment and education were of equal importance, making the learning engaging and the enjoyment worthwhile, a lesson that is all too often forgotten on both sides today.

This is not to mention the technical ability of the projectionists themselves. Layering slides via three projectors, working the mechanics of the individual slides and managing the transitions required an artistry and practice that was as entertaining and impressive as anything appearing on the screen.

Ultimately, on Tuesday night we were shown not how the machine worked technically but what the magic lantern did for Victorian society. By not dwelling on the technicalities it remains a medium that is exciting, mysterious and indeed a little magical.

Jonathan Parr is studying jointly at Birkbeck and RADA on the Text and Performance MA

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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.

Further information:

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