Artist and empire

This post was written by Dr Sarah Thomas, Lecturer in the Art History department at Birkbeck.

In winter next year Tate Britain will host a major exhibition called Artist and Empire. I have been conducting research for the curatorial team at Tate, and on the last day of Birkbeck Arts Week gave a lecture called Curating ‘empire’ at Tate: Dissonance and British Art. I considered some of the major art historical and museological questions that this ambitious exhibition’s premise raises. These include: what chronological parameters might the exhibition best deploy, given the longevity of Britain’s empire? Should the exhibition consider empire’s legacies and thus incorporate the work of contemporary artists? What are the stories of empire that have most preoccupied artists in the colonial period, and do these continue to have relevance today? From whose perspective are they told? What were the effects of what is often called the “centre-periphery” relationship – metropolitan Britain at the powerful centre of a global empire – on the production, reception, and classification of artworks? How might painful and contested histories be dealt with?

I suggested that Artist and Empire provides an opportunity to examine how artists have responded to – and sometimes resisted – imperial themes, and how colonialism and its deep legacies continue to engage artists today.

A podcast of the lecture is now available.

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Fire Walk with Me: Trauma, Catharsis and the Fantasy of Fantastical Kinship

This post was contributed by Louise Smith, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Creative Writing.

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Andrew Asibong and Hannah Eaton outside 43 Gordon Square during the fire alarm.

In a coincidence David Lynch would appreciate, Andrew Asibong and Hannah Eaton’s screening of the director’s seminal 1992 film Twin Peaks, Fire Walk With Me, was interrupted by a fire alarm at 43 Gordon Square. It was an amusing and unpredictable start to a Q and A, which focused on Lynch’s groundbreaking treatment of incest trauma and the influence he’s had on their own creative work.

Eaton’s graphic novel, Naming Monsters, was inspired by Lynch’s feminist treatment of the female body. Victim, Laura Palmer’s subjectivity, is central to the film’s power, creating a narrative that rejects judgment in favor of an empathy for the incest survivor’s quest; the battle to reform an identity obliterated by abuse trauma. Asibong said his novel, Mameluke Bath, was influenced by the film’s supernatural elements because, “Evil can only be represented in fantasy, the only form that’s possible is quite ridiculous.”

These feminist and genre-bending elements probably account for the film’s hostile reception at Cannes. Audiences booed and American critics were scathing, although The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley, whilst missing the point that artistic truth requires aesthetic vision at least acknowledged the film’s power, describing it as, “a perversely moving, profoundly self-indulgent prequel.”

But the cliché’ that time heals all wounds must ring true for Lynch since his savaging twenty years ago. Fire Walk With Me has a unique surreal vision that portrays the lonely nightmare of incest by merging fantasy and reality, relocating the monsters in the mind to the world outside. His aesthetic which mixes comedy, teen pop-culture and small town American Gothic not only influenced Eaton and Asibong but a whole generation of TV and film makers, from the producers of Northern Exposure and Six Feet Under to the Cohen Brothers.

Lynchian tropes that were considered self-indulgent are now the aesthetic mainstream. However, his many imitators have not achieved the mystical power of Fire Walk With Me, or replayed it’s central disturbing message, that the journey towards truth is a paradox, a horrifying ride where salvation can become merely the epilogue to destruction. As Alfred Hitchcock another genius auteur once said, “Reality is something that none of us can really stand.” Those who care to look can anticipate the re-release on DVD of Fire Walk With Me (with previously deleted footage) later this summer.

A podcast of the event is now available.

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The Future of the Book – Dead or Alive?

This post was contributed by Megan McGill, who will be starting Birkbeck’s MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature this summer. Follow Megan on Twitter

Is the book dead? Is the eBook in decline? These are some of the questions that prompted talk at ‘The Future of the Book’ panel on Wednesday evening, chaired by editor of the Writers’ Hub, Rebecca Rouillard. Speaking were Adam Freudenheim of Pushkin Press, Emma Wright of The Emma Press, and Dan Kieran of Unbound. The talk was both engrossing and informative, making the process of editing down eight pages of handwritten notes incredibly difficult. The topics discussed were wide-ranging, from the competition between physical and digital books, the relationship between a publishing house and its readership, and techniques for broadening your audience, giving an insight into the inner-workings of publishing to an audience who may not be, certainly for me personally, that knowledgeable on the topic. It certainly achieved an important closing of the gap between publishing houses and readers that Wright discusses later.

We must first discuss one of the most common questions asked to publishers: books or eBooks? EBooks have proven a massive success for international audiences recently due to the eradication of a need for postage costs; however it’s hard to translate the illustrations of a physical book into a scrolling-screen format. This is problematic with today’s books, with publishers raising their design game over the past five years, experimenting with design, paper, and illustrations as a way to reinstate the importance of physical books. Wright explained how she designs her publications to look purposely handmade as a way to remind the reader that it’s an object made by people, and therefore straying away from the corporate looks many houses have taken up.

Forming this personal relationship between the reader and publisher is becoming increasingly more important, especially when it comes to the provocative subject of the price of books. There’s been an enormous downward focus on the price of books recently; you only have to look at online marketplaces to see this in action. Books prove a better value for money than seeing a live sports game, or going to the cinema, but this pressure to keep their price low still seems to be imperative for many businesses. This doesn’t have to be the way, however. Unbound prints the names of its pledgers in the back of the books they helped fund as a way to show the direct relation between the book and the reader. Kieran explained how the public no longer want to be passive consumers like we saw in the culture of 1990s, but are seeking more enriching personal experiences.

This connection with readers also helps you to know, and therefore grow, your market. This is incredibly important for Wright specifically as she tries to sell poetry to the vast market of non-poetry readers. As a reaction to the erotica boom sparked by 50 Shades of Grey, the Emma Press published an anthology of mildly erotic verse. It’s all about knowing what’s popular and what people want in order to interest new readers, but still keeping to your own way of doing things to maintain your niche.

Did the speakers have any predictions for the future of the book? The eBook boom is levelling off, said Freudenheim, so both print and digital need to be focused on. The physical book isn’t going anywhere, with the majority of publishers still getting 80-5% of their sales from them. For Kieran the importance lies in the use of networks for both publishing houses and authors. Knowing your audience and getting them excited about your releases is the new way of selling books. People will always read and write, it’s how we sell it that will change.  Professional publishing has so many advantages and the majority of successful self-published authors end up becoming professionally published for their subsequent works because of all of these advantages. Large publishers frequently get bad press, but the good aspects of the way they work are truly beneficial. These are the aspects that need to be kept in any development of the industry if it wants to have a rewarding, and successful, future.

Thank you to all of the speakers who took the time to come and teach us about the industry and how many different forms it can take today. I learned so much and am inspired by the stories they told of their personal experiences taking what they’re passionate about and turning it into something new, and rewarding.

The speakers were:

Adam Freudenheim, Pushkin Press. Formerly Penguin’s Publisher of Classics, Modern Classics, and Reference. Now focuses on his passion, translations, discovering popular works from abroad unknown in the UK.

Emma Wright, Founder of The Emma Press. Previously worked for Orion’s eBook division. Now commissions, illustrates and edits books with her friend Rachel Piercey. Press specialises in poetry anthologies, postcards and pamphlets, soon to be releasing their first non-poetry pamphlets of short stories, essays, and plays.

Dan Kieran, Co-founder of Unbound. Unbound is a platform for authors to have works crowdfunded, but also to communicate with their audience. Inspired by the old ways of selling books in the eighteenth century, where readers subscribed in advance for a book.

Learn more about Unbound by clicking here and The Emma Press by clicking here.

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‘Composing Performance’ – a practical workshop for Arts Week.

This post was contributed by Jeremy Mortimer, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance.

walkthewalk02Last term our MA group was based at Shakespeare’s Globe, and in a session on Tudor music workshop leader Keith McGowan explained that John Cage’s idea of silent music would have been old hat to the early moderns and the ancient Greeks. They took their cue from Pythagoras who had identified that the pitch of a musical note is in proportion to the length of string that produces it, and thereby understood that mathematical relationships will express ‘musical’ tones – whether you are able to hear the music or not. So it is that the movement of celestial bodies creates the music of the spheres, and Tudor dancers moving in proportion, to the Galliard or the Pavane, created their own harmonies.

Director Peader Kirk didn’t cite Pythagoras as an inspiration, but form, proportion and harmony were called for, and found singularly lacking when a group of us started to move around Room G10 at the Composing Performance workshop, run as part of Birkbeck Arts Week. Working barefoot, and in pairs, with one leading and the other ‘complicit’, we used the space of the room to walk, stand, sit or lie down. It may sound simple, but for us rookie performers it felt like an exercise in lumbering self-consciousness as we tried to avoid careering into each other, and wondered whether it was right to lock our gaze or to look away.

The aim of the workshop was to reveal how a compositional rather than a narrative approach can be used to create theatre. Peader was going to make a montage performance using us as his raw material, and he certainly had his work cut out. Ever so slowly we took on a broader repertoire of movements. We could vary our pace, and use proximity to move closer to, or further away from our partners. We could swap leader and follower, or even merge with another pair. This was definitely Grade One performance stuff, but the very simplicity of the approach, and the limitations, gave our movements a certain coherence.

Finally, starting from a very simple movement, we were ready to start composing.  A brave volunteer (well done Nick !) walked the breadth of the room. Paused. Turned. And walked back again. We watched as Nick repeated this walk and then each of us had to choose where or how to insert ourselves into the composition in such a way that added to and did not distract from the performance. Very slowly, and with a deal of trial and error, we found positions, and actions, which felt right – in some sort of Pythagorean way. With lights dimmed and to the soothing ambience of a Brian Eno track, Nick’s regular pacing took on additional meaning as each of us joined him in the performance and then, one by one, peeled away. Thankfully no visual record was kept of our debut, but we each found our own narrative in the piece and for a moment, even in G10, there was a sense that, with Peader’s help, we had created a moment of theatre.

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