The Acts Between

This post was contributed by Éimear Doherty, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Arts and Policy Management.

‘The Acts Between is performance piece which aims to explore the themes of mental health and the passing of time’.

On the Arts Week programme page, it explained how ‘audience members can drop in and out at any time.’ However, on the ‘Events in the School’ it explained how The Acts Between was a ‘performance … which asks the audience to move around 43 Gordon Square. … The performance is around 20 minutes in duration – please book a time slot online.’

This left me a little confused. Unsure as to whether I was attending a performance or an installation; whether I was going to be a member of an audience or a viewer, I arrived at 18.00 (so as not to miss any important introductory explanations). With no information provided about the artists involved, I decided to be embrace the mystery of it and not research Between the Acts (the final novel by Virginia Woolf, published in 1941 shortly after her suicide), as I would have normally been inclined. In hindsight, this might have been a sensible thing to do, however I am of the opinion that one should be able to attend a performance or exhibition without extensive preparation and still be able to participate.

Due to this unfamiliarity with the referenced novel, I entered G10 curious, with a kind of nervous excitement, which lent itself to the experience. Feeling as though I had stepped into the mind of an over active imagination, I did not know where to start first. Kevin Barry describes how he flits and hops from book to book, in the same way we flit and hop from site to site. I wish I did not identify with this behaviour, the curse of modern society and technology, but I know I am not alone. At first, my impatient mind was quite satisfied by the overlapping of Sinéad O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ and Britney Spears’ ‘Circus’. The problem with this amalgamation, alongside a loop featuring the sound of a crying baby and the infamous internet dial-up tone, is that I did not recognise the fire-alarm and thought the noise to be part of the show.

Sadly, this mass- exit and re-entry into No.43 by the audience was the only occasion when we did in fact move around the building. (Perhaps it really was all part of the piece?)

On return, I was ready to do some reading and found some Silvia Plath handwritten on dark rice paper, before moving on to a table filled with pamphlets on Bi-Polar disorder. Then I flitted off to a small table covered in diamonds and aspirin and listened to Marilyn Monroe sing ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’… this was complemented by a nearby overturned chair, surrounded by bottled liquor, make-up and hairspray.

Curious, but it wasn’t long before I was hopping in and out between the shoe-strings, which presented punched photocopies of texts, checking out the small pebbles and bagged popcorn along the way.

The Acts BetweenFor me, the most intriguing aspect of the installation was the black and white video being played on the screen, left of the entrance. I did not watch it at first, too engrossed by the flickering pink projection been screened on the central wall. However, it was this monotone video that maintained my attention above the other stimuli.

The viewer was invited into no.43 and guided up and down the building’s labyrinth of corridors and stairs. What made this video eerie was the fact that the performers were outside room G10 throughout the performance/installation, so even exiting The Acts Between had a sense of the surreal to it.

The video eventually leads us into The Acts Between installation, so that we are left watching a view of the very room we are starting in. Up until that moment I felt unsure about the space as a whole but I think this moment brought it together for me. The idea of recording. Of never really being ‘present’, too distracted and concerned about experiencing moments behind a piece of technology.

I am not going to pretend that I now (or ever did) know how this all links to Virginia Woolf, her work and life in Bloomsbury. However, I will say that it made me consider even more carefully the veils through which we view our daily lives and what we use to alter our impression, and people’s impression of us. Time did move quite quickly while in The Acts Between, feeling as though someone had pressed fast-forward. Perhaps the idea was to create an environment where guests had the opportunity to gain a sense of what living with anxiety can feel like. Or perhaps this visitor did not read between the acts, objects, space and lines in way the artist’ had envisaged one to.

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Clouds: Objects, Metaphor, Phenomena

This post was contributed by Rebecca Royle, who is starting Birkbeck’s BA Creative Writing in September. 

The space in between the troposphere and the infinite density of human
comprehension is where science and God fuse. I think humanities and sciences
are mutual companions and they certainly happily existed together last Monday at
Clouds: Objects, Metaphor, Phenomena. There was something quite magical and
ephemeral about the evening as it passed from daylight to dusk and I had to ride
on the eventide’s warm sultry breeze to catch my train.

Richard Hamblyn, accomplished environmental writer and historian and Birkbeck’s own lecturer in the Department of English and Humanities opened up the proceedings with a gentle, easy and earnest welcome. What fascinated me most about his lecture was the phenomenon of the Brocken Spectre. The Brocken Spectre is often seen by mountain climbers when they reach a high ridge and look into fog or mist. They stare at the vision of a spectral figure in front of them in the mist and into the glare of a corona radiating from its head. Striking fear and foreboding for centuries, this deception can be traced back in literature and art to the 18th Century. It is ourselves we see of course, the sun centred directly behind us at the antisolar point. The point that struck me is that it is impossible to see the same spectre. It is the individual’s vision alone.

This leap in perception made me think of the art of Josef Albers and his series Homage to the Square. His nested squares explore our chromatic reactions and the internal deception of colour. I stood in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a group of people and discussed the possibility that we were seeing completely different things. I was suddenly acutely aware of being in a body in the room talking with the people, leaving the piece slightly more
alienated and uncertain of my footing.

Descartes – “And so something that I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact
grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind.”

Vladimir Jankovic a historian of atmospheric sciences (PhD University of Notre Dame) took us on a jovial and rich panorama breaking apart our reasoning of the many clouds around us including that to which I am saving this document. He questioned our perceptions of beauty as we viewed Romantic artworks such as the Wanderer above the
Sea of Fog followed by a slide that could’ve been a Constable yet the next, revealed the source of the cloud: a power station in the foreground. Or the “lovely bouncy fluffy
clouds” that were actually acid foam.

So the question that Jankovic posed was, can we know beauty if we do not understand it? For example Jankovic explained a cumulonimbus cloud holds the same power as the atomic bomb ‘Little Boy’. It suddenly seems more impressive, no? He spoke of Aristotle’s ‘Four Causes’ governing that we are unable to understand a thing until we know it’s final cause. We now even know how to make a cloud! The Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde creates clouds indoors.

The final cause makes me a little uncomfortable. I know nothing of the final cause of many a thing. Am I then unable to see their beauty? No. I see it everywhere, yet I seek to learn, so the desire is there for the definitive.

Esther Leslie, Professor in Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck, concluded the evening with
a dialogue befitting the Beat Generation which is unfortunately now out there in
the ether. It was like a one-way channel beyond my retention outside of the
moment. I was utterly dissolved as I listened and watched a freeform slide show of
clouds in all their beauty as well as their destruction, speaking of dreams against
the dark clouds bulging from the Twin Towers. I was very nearly moved to tears.

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London Connections: ‘The Mediated City: A Tour of Media and Mediation in West End London’&‘London: A Renaissance City ?’

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

Scott Rodgers and tour participants in Fitzroy Square

Scott Rodgers and tour participants in Fitzroy Square

Birkbeck Arts Week on Wednesday featured a double bill of London events. First off a West End walking tour guided by Dr Joel McKim and Scott Rodgers who promised us that we’d be using the city to rethink the way we use media, and using media to rethink the way we see the city. From Fitzroy to Leicester Square (both spaces re-fashioned to reap the rewards of film industry activity, from ‘Georgian’ location to Red Carpet stargazing) we tracked the spores of London’s media creatures. We inspected a protected Banksy under the shadow of the BT (formerly GPO) Tower and submitted ourselves to airport-type security to peer in at the ants nest that is the BBC Newsroom. Whereas George Val Myer’s Broadcasting House (1932) looks like an Art Deco liner bearing down on Oxford Circus, the Apple Store occupies Regent House (1898), built on the site of the former Hanover Chapel in Regent Street, like a cathedral. Scott pointed out the Venetian mosaics over the ubiquitous logo, showing that when it was built the building already had connections with Paris, New York, St Petersburg and Berlin.

Venturing into Soho we passed the artisanal post-production houses, rendering, digitising and generally buffing up the raw material for untold hours of viewing, and in Soho Square found the ducal palaces of film production, the address for the likes of Twentieth Century Fox.  Joel told us how the film and tv industries had benefitted from the fibre-optic digital networks installed by banks for high-speed transfers, and how companies like Sohonet were now enabling post-production on the same film to take place simultaneously in London and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, just round the corner in Dean Street is Rippon Newsagent’s, which has been distributing media from its Georgian storefront  since 1791.

Joel McKim and tour participants in Clipstone Street

Joel McKim and tour participants in Clipstone Street

Dodging the crowds round the Eros Statue, we learned about the history of advertising in Piccadilly Circus, where flashing lights have been selling soft drinks since 1908. Perhaps, suggested Joel, the Piccadilly screens may at some future point be used for purposes other than advertising, as in the innovative Times Square Arts collaboration with contemporary artists, or the transnational project that used public screens to link Seoul and Melbourne. We reached Leicester Square in time for the five o’clock serenade from the Glockenspiel Clock to hear about the plans for the replacement of the Odeon West End  with a 10-storey hotel and cinema complex which Rowan Moore, in the Guardian, describes as being ‘the architectural equivalent of the premium-priced vats of tepid Coke on sale in the foyers of multiplexes’.

The re-development will mean the end of the Hand and Racquet, the pub in Whitcomb Street which is apparently named after a nearby tennis court used by Charles II, a sports facility roughly contemporary with the publication of Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) which Dr Stephen Clucas considers to be the final flowering of the English Renaissance.

In the session which asked the question ‘London: A Renaissance City?’ Stephen Clucas spoke up for some of the powerhouses behind discoveries in the Natural Sciences in the mid-to-late Sixteenth Century as coming not from the city, but from the periphery of London. Specifically the mathematician and astronomer Thomas Harriot, who lived in the grounds of his patron Henry Percy’s  Syon House in Isleworth, and the astronomer and astrologer Dr John Dee who lived just downstream at Mortlake. We heard how in 1575 Queen Elizabeth called on Dr Dee in order to have a look at his ‘scrying glass’ but didn’t disturb him because he had just come from his wife’s funeral. Dee had a library of over 2000 printed books in Mortlake, and Henry Percy had one of the largest libraries in Europe, although the ‘Wizard Earl’ had to make do with regular deliveries of books when he did a seventeen-year stretch in the Tower for his part in the Gunpowder Plot.

The Earl was lucky to get away with his life. Dr Brodie Waddell told us how in 1590’s London, anyone found guilty of Grand Larceny, which meant the theft of anything of the value of one shilling or more, was sentenced to death. Those found guilty of lesser thefts would be tied to a cart and whipped through the streets. The population of London had doubled in the years from the mid-16th Century, to reach over 140,000 by the year 1600. Refugees from religious persecution in Holland flocked to the city and provided cheap labour. Bad harvests led to a three-fold increase in the price of flour between 1594 and 1597, and following the ruinous attempts to contain the Tyrone rebellion in Ireland, demobbed soldiers added to problems of vagrancy, crime, social disorder and sedition.

The backing track to the extraordinary developments on the Elizabethan stage was more likely to be the sound of apprentices rioting, or the plague bell, than the colloquy of classical scholarship. Dr Gillian Woods made the point in an analysis of Shakespeare’s most brutal play, Titus Andronicus that in the early 1590s, Shakespeare shows his villainous characters, the rapist brothers Chiron and Demetrius and their provocateur Aaron, ransacking classical authors for a guide to depravity and then adding new tortures of their own devising. And in a marked departure from classical convention, Shakespeare presents much 0f the violence on stage ‘thereby forcing the audience to examine a development of what is at the heart of the Renaissance endeavour’.

Dr Susan Wiseman concluded the session by paying tribute to a group of dedicated (or perhaps obsessed) men and women who took it upon themselves in the late 19th Century to record and preserve London’s ancient monuments and buildings. Chief amongst them was Charles Robert Ashbee, editor of the Survey of London. As Sue pointed out, many of the buildings photographed for the Survey are commonly used to illustrate Dickens’s London, whereas they actually provide an extraordinary visual record of London before the Fire. The 1590’s façade of Sir Paul Pindar’s house in Bishopsgate has been preserved in the V&A, but The Oxford Arms, a 17th Century coaching inn, was demolished in the late 1870s.

England came late to the Renaissance party, and none of the speakers at the session seemed confident to give a full affirmative to the ‘Was London a Renaissance City?’ question. But one thing was clear, that from Dr Dee plotting the course of Jupiter’s moons from the roof of Northumberland House on the Strand, to today’s digital pioneers developing the future’s equivalent to Dee’s ‘scrying glass’, London has incubated a pursuit of knowledge and artistic endeavour with all the energy and innovation of its classical antecedents.

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Shell Shock, Celluloid and World War One: The discomforts of being a spectator

This post was contributed by Rebecca Royle, who is starting Birkbeck’s BA Creative Writing in September. 

Spectators for Shell Shock“What deep wounds ever closed without a scar? The hearts bleed longest, and but heal to wear that which disfigures it.” – Byron

Last night at Birkbeck Arts Week 2014, Theatre expert and cultural critic Tiffany Watt-Smith, like a poultice drew out a longing within me that only human moments like war can.

WAR Neuroses (1917) a Pathos ‘motion picture’ on celluloid created by Major Arthur Hurst at Netley Hospital was already projected on the wall behind me as I awkwardly hurried into the Keynes Library with a million operational travel frustrations zipping around my hot head. The inward body language and afflicted eyes of the audience as I approached to
find a seat immediately sobered me. I sat. I watched. I winced. The figures on the screen jerked and ticked. The celluloid flickered. Internal references of Charlie Chaplin collided with a loin clothed Private contorted with paralysis as he contracted and spasmed on the floor of a skeletally furnished room. A frivolity, a mimicry, a vaudevillian performance as men were assumingly instructed to line up and exert themselves in the matter of walking or running seemingly on a street corner for some amusement of the unseen camera man.

What is it about deformity, disease and mental health that repulses and fascinates us so much? These defects exposed to our crimeless eyes, thrust shame upon us as they repel the guided and expected behaviours our society dictates. And do these feelings of shame and negative evaluation change across time?

Shell shock blog

 

Aristotle asserted that being female represents the ‘first step’ along the road towards deformity. Gender interestingly did become a subject of debate during the Q&A as we discussed Charcot and his photographic studies of hysteria in women.

 

 

 

Da Vinci Vitruvian Man

It made me think about Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and his proportions of perfection, the ideal body. Are we programmed to feel more shame for a man than a woman? Is a deformed man more shameful than a pitiful woman? And is it only perspective that separates our reaction as an audience today from the suspicious, unsparing damnation of its day?

I think here it’s worth thinking about the great rhetoric of Lord Kitchener and his propaganda campaign, the fact that Germany was starving both soldier and countryman and the heavy daily governance of the people. For example, before the WWI garden allotments were reserved for the eccentric, by its end there were 1.5m across the country. There was a ‘Win The War’ cookbook, beer was watered down and drinking discouraged, the Women’s Patrol founded as part of The Police Force were now unbelievably guarding the sex lives of soldiers on leave. The status quo had changed so why shouldn’t hungry, frightened, dissatisfied people be disgusted by the weak deserters who presented such a
ghoulish spectacle? For me I think this context of punishment, shunning and ostracism makes WAR Neuroses and Shell Shock that much heavier to bear. That shame that lies within our DNA reminds us there are still lessons to learn for the future. WWI and the destruction it hurled at the world has then at the very least served us in reforming how we view mental illness.

As we followed the narrative of Watt-Smith’s paper, we were accompanied by a screen saver slide show with close-up photography from the natural world. Perhaps it was triggered by talk of fractal perfection from the stunning lecture Clouds: Objects, Metaphor,
Phenomena from the previous night, but contrary to its incongruence, it served to me as a stark contrast to the examination of such a spectacle of pain and disfigurement.

A truly enriching evening, thank you.

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