Arts Week 2017: Dematerialising Theatre with Andy Smith

This post was contributed by Elinor Perry-Smith

glass-of-waterSeeing this remarkable event and hearing Andy Smith talk about his experience and practice gave this particular playwright much to consider. Don’t get me wrong: I love props and spectacle in theatre. There’s something quite magical and transporting about well-thought props and costumes. Also the way in which actors embody the characters we create and say the word we have written for them to speak. But even so, where does the ‘theatre’ actually take place?

Andy Smith averred to an enthusiastic audience at Birkbeck’s Arts Week that it takes place in the audience. That the action, the drama, is not just unfolding in front of the audience, it is taking place inside them as well. To that end, the audience therefore (as I understand it) becomes part of the performance. This privileges audience experience and involvement of course, and makes the performance an exciting phenomenon, evolving before our very eyes, ears, minds and hearts, changing with each performance because the audience changes each time and therefore brings a different set of reactions, sensibilities, and willingness (or not) to participate.

Andy Smith himself is open, warm and funny yet I felt that dematerialised theatre has the potential for psychodynamic effect in all its participants and therefore may not be for everyone. Of course, I could be wrong about this. Andy used a cooking analogy: dematerialised theatre is like a sauce reducing and reducing. The result may not be to everyone’s taste. One phrase certainly stuck with me. It’s not about ‘less is more’ but about doing ‘more with less’. Props and people become representational of objects. Is it any less authentic a ‘performance’ than Robert De Niro wearing underpants made by Al Capone’s underwear maker?

Conversely, how does all this change the experience of the playwright, producers and actors of such a piece? Andy spoke of how plays might be performed by non-actors with scripts in hand and no prop above the size of a show; without the distractions of elaborate props, the attention is sharply focused on the action of the play and the feelings it engenders in the audience. I suppose a cinematic equivalent would be the ‘Dogme’ films where only natural light and sound is allowed. Or even the stage-like markings of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay, where the audience is compelled to imagine the sets.

Andy demonstrated dematerialised theatre to the audience, who willingly participated in the impromptu ‘performance’ that started with the transformation of a glass of water into a tree and ended with an audience member transforming into Miss Julie. It seemed to this participant that it spoke to a very primal understanding of story. One that developed in our earliest days as hunter-gatherers when stories and drama were orally enacted and so our imaginations broadened exponentially as a result. It was utterly fascinating to witness and certainly gave me the urge to research the whole process further.

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Arts Week 2016: Rediscovered!

This post has been contributed by Louise Horton of the School of Arts’ Department of English and Humanities after she attended the Arts Week 2016 event on Wednesday 18 May titled, “Rediscovered! The Story of Birkbeck’s Manuscript and Rare Medieval Book Collection”

Birkbeck Hours; Pentecost

How does half a millennium of possession and loss write itself into the history of a book? How can time eat itself into the very pages of a mislaid book? And what happens to a book when no one remembers it?

Rediscovered! at Birkbeck Arts Week invited us to consider these questions through the story of four medieval books found late last year in Birkbeck Library. Uncatalogued and locked away for safe keeping, these books had slipped from memory sometime in the last century – almost certainly not for the first time in their history.

A tale of finding something that once was lost

Telling the story of the books’ rediscovery were Birkbeck’s Anthony Bale and Isabel Davis, but their fascinating talk was more than a tale of finding something that once was lost. It was a talk that swept through 600 years of European history; following the books’ journey between libraries and collections, surviving the Reformation, Napoleonic and world wars, until finally reaching Malet Street sometime in the twentieth century.

Here and there it was possible to catch glimpses of the forgotten books, swapping owners and countries, but mostly their past is silence; as is history on the fate and identities of those who once read and left their marks within these pages. Yet these are organic books, and traces of the lives that made, owned and touched them do survive.

The pages are palimpsests, layered with centuries of the European book trade. From these medieval manuscripts and incunabula the hands of scribes, illuminators, vellum makers, printers, and book binders emerge; leaving behind the fingerprints of culture and commerce, and belief and behaviour. In the beautiful book of hours, from early fifteenth century Paris or Rouen, the face of an enigmatic bear-bird-man watches the reader contemplate the crucifixion.

And so in this strange figure we find just the tiniest glimpse of a domestic lay culture where fantastical creatures could adorn a scene from the passion – reminding us with a jolt that these books are more than objects. These books were made, read and used with purpose. The books belonged to people who wrote in them, drew in them and with them marked the passing of time, until all that survived was the book.

The road to Birkbeck

Fast forward several centuries and we find a Victorian bibliomaniac on the continent, perhaps adding to his 146,000 book collection from the detritus of libraries broken up during the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars. Forward another century and a Birkbeck mathematician, whose studies were broken by the Great War, adds his personal mark of ownership – an image of a fox in a library. Somewhere along the way woodworm creeps in, a book is re-bound, another is bought at auction, one is catalogued and then lost from the system that makes sense of its numbering. Somehow through trade, acquisition and donation the books reach Malet Street, London and then despite being perfectly safe are lost again. Until 2015.

So, what next? Have these books stopped travelling? Well, yes and no. The books will remain at Birkbeck, but a new journey is beginning for them too. These fragile books will be catalogued anew, and securely stored. Yet, through digitisation and plans for online access the books will take new form. From manuscript to early printed book to online edition a new chapter in the rediscovered Birkbeck medieval collection is about to begin.

Read Professor Anthony Bales recent blog: Four forgotten medieval books at Birkbeck College

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Arts Week 2016: Can Journalism Change the World?

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer in Birkbeck External Relations. On Tuesday 18 May, Andrew attended the event ‘Can Journalism Change World’ run by the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research as part of Arts Week 2016.

The event also marked the launch of the new MA Investigative Reporting, which commences in the 2016-17 year this autumn. It also highlighted the Google Investigative Fellowship (applications close on Friday May 20).

JournalismA panel of top journalists, commentators and academics came together on the second night of Birkbeck Arts Week 2016 to discuss the power and responsibility of journalism at a time of great change for the industry.

“Journalism is on the brink,” Dr Justin Schlosberg told the gathered audience of students, practitioners, scholars and members of the public. Across the course of the evening, we heard lots of evidence to back this up: Traditional revenue streams are thinning, digital technologies are morphing, socio-political structures are

adapting, audience attention spans are waning. All this and more makes for a very dynamic playing field of opportunities and challenges for people reporting the news.

The Fourth Estate was once heralded for its ability – and indeed duty – to question power structures, and to look beyond the status quo. But with such a changing landscape for today’s media industry, can – and should – journalism change the world?

The following panellists made their individual responses to the main question at hand:

Peter Barron (vp communications and public affairs, Google)

Peter Barron

Peter Barron

Peter began by responding that he believed yes, journalism can change the world. Citing recent revelations as the Hillsborough disaster and Panama Papers leak, he said both proved how the profession is still changing the world. The flow of free information and expression, he said, is key to making the world a better place.

He went on to describe that Google aims to be a positive force where freedom of information is concerned. He referenced three current initiatives of the global tech organisation which he said aptly demonstrate this particular mission, namely: Google’s product development (such as the Accelerated Mobile Pages project); its training and research activities; and its €150m Digital News Initiative innovation fund.

Ewen MacAskill (defence and security correspondent, the Guardian)

Ewen McAskill

Ewen McAskill

While he admitted journalism is facing an extremely challenging financial climate, Ewen took a broadly optimistic view, noting that the profession is much better than it has ever been in terms of the public accessibility to journalism, and also in terms of the professions two-way communication with audiences.

Dr Schlosberg then pitched Ewen the more direct question of whether he thought whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange – both of whom Ewen has reported on – have changed anything. Ewen responded that, in terms of increasing public awareness of government surveillance, yes, figures like Snowden and Assange have effected changed. Politically, however, very little has changed. On a whole, people just aren’t as worried about privacy, especially in the UK.

Owen Jones (author and columnist for the Guardian)

Owen Jones

Owen Jones

Owen began by stating he didn’t consider himself a journalist. He is a writer; one that doesn’t particularly enjoy writing, but as a political activist he sees it as a means to an end. Change, he went on to argue, happens with collective action. And further, journalism is at its best when “punching upwards”.

A major problem that stands in the way of the UK media punching upwards, he said, is that it has increasingly become “a closed shop for the privileged”. There is no such thing as “objective journalism”, he said – only journalists and writers such as he who openly disclose their bias e.g. in the form of opinion columns; and those who try to hide it, dressing their reporting as objective news. The rise of unpaid internships in the media is compounding this picture, leading to a situation where “if you can live off the bank of mum and dad, you can afford to be exploited. So we discriminate not on the basis of talent, but on your parent’s wealth”.

The UK media industry therefore is populated by – and predominantly reflects the tastes, biases, prejudices and life experiences of – the white upper-middle class i.e. the status quo.

“The press aren’t doing the job they’re meant to be doing,” he concluded. “We need journalists who see themselves as part of a broader collective struggling to bring power to account”.

Peter Jukes (author, screenwriter, playwright and investigative blogger)

Peter Jukes

Peter Jukes

Peter, who said he identifies more as a blogger than a journalist, highlighted the importance of social media in challenging power structures. Rather than see the likes of Twitter as “an echo chamber”, he believes in “the strength of the crowd” that come together through social media.

“People out there are witnessing and giving testimony,” he said. “It’s a revelation in the way people get and share the news.”

On the flipside, one aspect of the digital era does worry him: monopolies. The power holders which worry him aren’t media moguls like Rupert Murdoch, but rather digital giants such Google and Amazon. The kind of power they have, he said, corrupts.

Professor Natalie Fenton (Professor of media and communications, Goldsmiths)

Prof Natalie Fenton

Prof Natalie Fenton

Prof Fenton said she would try to “put academic bones” on the points which had been raised during the evening. Two major archetypes of modern journalism had emerged during the discussion: the “heroic journalist” and the “delinquent jackal journalist”. Whether a practitioner veers towards one or the other depends in large part on their work conditions.

She cited “Journalists in the UK” – a report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism – which highlights some worrying statistics on the conditions today’s journalists are increasingly working within, including that:

  • 61% of journalists say public relations material has increased in their publication
  • 76% say the pressure of advertising considerations has increased on their work
  • 52% say pressure towards sensationalist news has increased

Increasing workloads, falling numbers of stable employment opportunities, and a lack of legal protection for journalists, are also significant factors.

“When you have a confluence of all these types of factors, you have to look critically at whether journalism can change the world. There are some real problems we are facing,” she concluded.

Dr Benjamin Worthy (lecturer in politics, Birkbeck)

Dr Benjamin Worthy

Dr Benjamin Worthy

Dr Worthy rounded off the panel session with three reasons for optimism:

  • There is far more information and ways of getting it today than 20 years ago
  • There are more ways to distribute this information today
  • There are more ways to be involved in the conversation, both formal (e.g. online petitions) and informal (e.g. social media)

And also three reasons for pessimism:

  • Information on its own isn’t enough. It is merely the first step
  • The attention cycle for news is short. For journalism to maintain a strong campaign for change, it needs to find a way to hold waning attention spans
  • The State is very powerful, and it will stomp down attempts at disclosure of information

The panel session was followed by an open Q&A with the audience. Among the points discussed were:

  • The issue of public apathy and waning attention cycle
  • The question is we are destined to see investigative journalism moving into the philanthropic arm of the industry, rather than remaining as a sustainable profession in its own right.

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RELAPSE – Identity: Performing Bodies, Crossing Borders

This post was contributed by artists Vasiliki Antonopoulou, Nikolas Kasinos, Dimitrios Michailidis and Penelope Koliopoulou – members of the RELAPSE collective, whose next exhibit ‘Identity’ will run at the Peltz Gallery Birkbeck School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square, from 28 April to 20 May.

RELAPSE - Identity exhibition at the Peltz

RELAPSE – Identity exhibition at the Peltz

On Thursday 19 May, the RELAPSE collective will hold a special event to coincide with its exhibition at the Peltz Gallery.

The evening, which runs as part of Birkbeck Arts Week 2016, will kick off at 6pm in room G01 in the School of Arts with a lecture by Dr Constantinos Phellas (Professor at University of Nicosia, Cyprus). Dr Phellas will address the identity development among ethnic minority lesbians and gay men, specifically Anglo-Cypriot men residing in London.

He will discuss some of the key cultural concepts and relevant historical factors that may shape the development of gay identity among Anglo-Cypriot men and provide accounts of sexual identity experiences provided by second-generation Cypriot gay men living in London to explore how these men negotiate their Cypriot and gay identities.

This first half of the evening will also include a roundtable. As with the collective’s current exhibition at the Peltz, the roundtable will focus on the concept of identity as constructed and performed through social rituals. How is identity embodied? How can its visceral manifestations be explored through art, to question political, social and religious ideologies of sexuality and the body? All will be discussed by attending speakers.

This event will be followed at 7.30pm in the Peltz Gallery itself with a drinks reception for attendees.

About the event:

Performing Bodies, Crossing Borders

  • Thursday 19 May, 6-7.30pm (followed by drinks reception to 9pm)
  • Room G01
  • Lecture by Prof. Constantinos Phellas and roundtable discussion
  • Event is free but booking essential

Find out more about the exhibit and RELAPSE in the previous Birkbeck blog article. The exhibition was curated by Dr Gabriel Koureas, and was made possible under the auspices of the Minister of Education and Culture of Cyprus, Dr Costas Kadis.

Open Call

Exhibition reviews

The exhibition team are inviting writers to visit our closing reception and submit their reviews.

Please send us your reviews at with the subject ‘reviews’ after the closing of our exhibition (May 19).

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