Tag Archives: Arts Week

Arts Week 2018: The Archive Project: 50 years of film and photography

Lynsey Ford, an alumna of Birkbeck, reports on an Arts Week Event from the Four Corners film and photography centre in East London.

On Wednesday 16 May, I had the pleasure of attending The Archive Project: 50 Years of Film and Photography in East London which took place at Birkbeck cinema. Dr Patrizia Di Bello from The Department of The History of Art introduced Carla Mitchell to a packed audience, who provided an excellent presentation as the Creative Director of Four Corners film and photography centre. Now celebrating its forty-fifth year at 113 Roman Road, Bethnal Green, Carla’s talk examined the peak of productivity at the organisation between 1972-1987.

Four Corners was created by Joanna Davis, Mary Pat Leece, Ronald Peck and Wilfried Thust, (graduates from London International Film School). The quartet’s chief mission was to bring accessible film to the borough and to provide regular cinema screenings for local residents and equipment to film and edit material. Over the next four decades, Four Corners quickly developed a reputation as being at the forefront of ‘cutting edge’ film production, nurturing home-grown talent from underprivileged backgrounds as well as from a pool of BAFTA and Turner Prize nominees through hands-on production workshops. The centre introduced monthly meetings where artists, photographers and trainees filmmakers collaborated, exchanging original ideas and clips in front of live audiences. Four Corners also excelled in pioneering film projects; Nighthawks (Dir: Ron Peck/Paul Hallam, 1978), had the distinction of being the first British gay feature film, following a schoolteacher who remains in the closet at work but cruises gay bars and discos at night.

After Channel 4 took over a franchise with Four Corners, sterling work continued through Four Corners apprentice Ruhul Amin, who created A Kind of English (1986) recognised as the first Bangladeshi British film discussing the struggles of a Bengali family adjusting to life in Britain.

Carla also discussed the influence of Camerawork (Half Moon Photography Workshop), a fellow film and photographic organisation which championed community activism and anti-racist causes, and Carla looked at the creative input of leftist British publication Camerawork Magazine founded in 1976, led the late Jo Spence (whose personal library collection is housed at Birkbeck College). Camerawork Magazine challenged the more contentious taboo subjects upon the political landscape of Britain through the transition under Thatcher’s government from the late seventies. Jo Spence launched the magazine with her essay ‘The Politics of Photography’ and was at the forefront of Women’s collective Hackney Flashers (1974-early 80s) which encouraged feminist agitprop exhibitions; Women at Work (1975), Who’s Holding The Baby? (1978), Domestic Labour and Visual Representation (1980) all exploring the woman’s role in and outside the home.

Front covers captured the rise of National Front skinheads upon the streets of Camden and the team of photographers exposed the darker political ramifications upon the landscape caused by the turmoil of the Miners Strikes, where trade unionist Arthur Scargill led the union as a leading activist. Camerawork Magazine would cease as a publication in 1985.

Today, Four Corners has benefited from a generous £1 million heritage lottery grant, which has seen the creation of a new centre in 2007 at 121 Roman Road, thanks to backing from Arts Council England, London Development Agency, Film London, London Borough of The Tower of Hamlets and European Regional Development Fund. Today it houses dark rooms, a gallery, training rooms, edit suites and space to hire.

Four Corners will officially launch their Radical Visions, an archive exhibition from June to September 2018 commemorating their legacy in East London, with a public display showing all 32 copies of Camerawork magazine. With input from 50 volunteers since 2016 and £100,000 from The Heritage Lottery Fund, Four Corners continues to thrive and inspire future generations of filmmakers both nationally and internationally. Carla provided a poignant and fitting tribute to the hard work of skilled artists who continue to cut advance with Four Corners.


Arts Week 2018: Black Mirror

Caroline Mawer reflects on her experience visiting one of the more unusual events which took place during Birkbeck’s Arts Week

What tremendously thoughtful fun I had meandering round Birkbeck with a black mirror, gazing into a fairy ball!

This gazing ball is one of those black mirrors that tempt you into looking off to the side, at the unseen and unseeable.

Sheila Ghelani had designed our route by placing one of the mirrors she’d created onto a map: we were going to meander around the black hole thus created. Decked out with palm-size pebbles of mirrors in black velvet pouches and incongruously unromantic leatherette bum bags, we headed off into the unknown of John Dee and his magic 16th century angels.

It didn’t feel that unknown to start with, since our first stop was only in the square opposite Birkbeck. But we were reflecting. Literally, in our mirrors, and also with lots of the thinking sort of reflection. I pondered and confected. And the unknown gradually came into – or maybe I should say, out of – focus. Our black mirrors held deceptively small-yet-enormous universes. You really can see something remarkably close to 360 degrees when you angle them correctly.

We sketched the landscape like an artist: a 17th-century artist using a ‘Claude glass’ to produce something as eerily picturesque as a Claude Lorraine painting. We acted like tourists: 18th century tourists so horrified by the awesome crags of the Lake District that we could only view them in our black mirrors by turning our back on them. Then like more modern tourists, trying – and generally failing – to get the perfect selfie-shot in, and of, our Fairy Ball.

The nigh-on-360 degree views were, we discovered, seductively slippery. How many times did I perfect my view, to lose it when I tried to sketch or photograph it! And how many times did I discard an impressive vision of pillars or a tree (both, we discovered, were splendid subjects) – in the quest for somehow more perfect perfection. ‘Authenticity’ has sometimes been badged as a holy grail for ‘creatives’. And we kept on looking at, and so creating, authentic black mirror views. So authentic that you really do have to be there to see them. So uncopied, that they are nigh-on uncopiable.

We discussed materiality as another unpredictable and evasive construct. ‘Claude lenses’ and our own black mirrors are glass: sand miraculously made into liquid. The oldest constructed black mirrors were Aztec polished obsidian: volcanic glass was used for divination and as a status symbol. Water is, of course, another ancient black mirror. So we looked out for, and thought about, the water we had overlooked: the drains and rivers trapped under the streets we were walking on.

We noticed, too, how many modern black mirrors there are. Not just the mirrored sunglasses we had seen in Gordon Square, but all those blacked out cars and enigmatic urban windows. Of course, the ubiquitous mobile phones all have sleeping black mirror screens. We’re not that different from the Aztecs: our black mirrors, too, act as finely-graded status symbols and for 24/7 divination.

We were so busy reflecting – in all senses – that we didnt get  time to do any scrying. This is what it is called when you look intently into a black mirror – and not simply for reflection. Scrying has been thought to act as a portal to other planes of existence. But maybe we did well to miss that. John Dee, master mathematician and polymath, was convinced by his scrying partner, Edward Kelley, that the angels had informed him that God required them to swap wives. Fake facts are obviously not a new phenomenon! Nor is #metoo: Dee’s journal reports that the task was achieved ‘after initial protestations’ by his wife.

It’s easy to point fingers at the inhabitants of the past-is-another-country. We were not (quite!) as ridiculous. Only a minority of the passers by actually stopped and stared as I processed down the pavement gazing regally into what must have looked something like a shiny black football.

On reflection, though (ha! see what I’m doing here!), the black mirror and the gazing ball raised fascinating questions about how and what we can and do see.  The transitory nature of what could be seen is a great joy. I’m definitely going to keep on playing with the best souvenir present I ever got: my very own hand-crafted black mirror. Thanks. Sheila!

You can also construct your own black mirror.


Arts Week 2018: Marilyn Monroe – An Unlikely Feminist?

Social worker Benjamin Meißner has had a lifelong fascination with Marilyn Monroe since he saw one of her movies as a boy and has been a member of her German fan club Some Like It Hot since it was founded in 1992. He attended Birkbeck’s Arts Week lecture while visiting London on holiday from his home in Kiel, Germany.


While I was in London, I was delighted to attend the event Marilyn Monroe: an unlikely feminist? which took place at the Birkbeck cinema. Gabriella Apicella who is a screenwriter and studied at Birkbeck herself, hosted the event, while Catherine Grant, Professor of digital media and screen studies at Birkbeck, gave a lecture about Marilyn as an actress. She showed film clips of some of her movies and interviews, and the focus was on her gestures and body language. She slowed down the footage so you could discover how much choreography there is going on in just a few seconds. Catherine selected the opening scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn and Jane Russell both wearing the red dresses. By viewing it in slow motion, you became aware of how much acting there is going on. It is known that Marilyn worked very hard – Jane Russell once said in an interview that Marilyn was the first on the set and the last one to leave. Marilyn went through the dancing numbers with choreographer Jack Cole again and again.

Catherine next compared the Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend numbers performed by Marilyn with those later in the film by Jane Russell. By watching them together, Jane’s performance seemed almost grotesque because it is so exaggerated.

Catherine also noted the queer elements of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In the final scene, Marilyn and Jane are so much the centre of attention, one could be forgiven for thinking they were married to each other.

Host Gabriella then presented the highly-regarded author Michelle Morgan who has written several books about Marilyn and other Hollywood stars. In her latest work, The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and The Birth of an Unlikely Feminist, Michelle discusses Marilyn’s influence on women’s liberation. Marilyn was ahead of her time in many ways, Michelle pointed out. Especially when she left Hollywood in 1955 for New York, taking acting classes and founding her own production company with Milton Greene.

Michelle explained how Marilyn became stifled by her image as the ‘fluffy blonde’. It seemed that some people just wanted to see her in these kind of roles, which left Marilyn herself very unsatisfied as an actress. Michelle illustrated how pervasive – and enticing – this image was by pointing out how a British electric company sent out its bills with a photo of Marilyn because they knew that people would pay attention to it and would open the envelope!

During a Q&A with the audience, Michelle was asked if Marilyn still continues to be a significant role model almost 56 years after her death. Michelle believes she still has an enormous effect. “We can still learn so much from Marilyn”, Michelle observed. Everyone has their own interpretation of Marilyn and there are still many aspects to discover. With so many people fascinated by her after all these years, it is interesting to consider the sort of influence she would have had if she was around today in an era of  social media networks.

Benjamin during his visit to London, at the Proud Gallery’s exhibition of Marilyn photographs by Milton Greene


Arts Week 2018: Gaelic hardship in Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Poor Mouth’

Charlotte Deadman, a researcher in fin de siècle Anglo-Irish culture, the Gaelic League, Gaelic Revival and the Irish literary revival, comments on Arts Week event Gaelic Hardship.

The key theme of this sell-out event was an exploration of movement between languages in Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien’s 1941 novel, An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), considered the first post-modernist Irish language novel. The panel – Joseph Brooker, Tobias Harris and Eoin Byrne – commenced proceedings with a timeline tracing O’Nolan’s background (born in 1911 into a highly-literate Irish-speaking Catholic family), his career as civil servant, epistolarian and novelist.

O’Nolan (as ‘Flann O’Brien’) contributed regularly to the letters page of The Irish Times, leading to his own column, ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ (‘full little jug’), under the pen name Myles na gCopaleen: O’Nolan’s aliases – ‘brand names’ – were pivotal to his deliberate blurring of identity. In a letter to Sean O’Casey in 1942, O’Nolan wrote that An Béal Bocht was his ‘honest attempt to get under the skin of a certain type of Gael, which I find the most nauseating phenomenon in Europe’. The novel satirises the government’s gaelicising of Irish culture to the point that an onlooker could believe ‘all Irish literature was written for school children and nuns.’

An Béal Bocht was O’Nolan’s only Irish language novel; the fossilisation of the language, as he saw it, persuaded him to henceforth write only in English. However, O’Nolan refused to sanction an English version of his novel; Patrick C. Power’s translation was published in 1973, seven years after O’Nolan’s death. We learnt that the genesis of The Poor Mouth can be located in O’Nolan’s ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column and that the narrative framing – Bonaparte O’Coonassa’s autobiography edited by ‘Myles na Gopaleen (Flann O’Brien)’ – was intended to toy with reader expectations of the genre. The novel’s complex intertextuality draws upon a patchwork of phrases and events excised from well-known Irish language autobiographies, blended with pseudo-Gaelic myths, the significance of some of which has apparently been lost in translation. Eoin Byrne explained that the pen names in The Poor Mouth mirrored contemporary reality: while writers adopted nom de plumes, they all knew who was who and, affecting ignorance, publicly trashed each other.

Guest speaker, Hugh Wilde, read a passage after which Tobias Harris explained the significance of the ‘comic extension’ therein conveyed, suggesting O’Nolan’s ‘Jams O’Donnell’ represents a ‘sense of dual consciousness, of two cultural worlds’ – one promoting the idea of the heroic ‘Gael of Gaels’, the other Anglicised and hostile to the Gaels, expressed in Jams O’Donnell’s duality of language; Harris illustrated this duality, citing Irish passports which bear the holder’s name in both Irish and English.

Eoin Byrne speaks at the event

Eoin Byrne explained that the education system in Ireland set about eradicating the Irish language and that the resultant national linguistic divide became fundamental to a sense of identity: while colonial rule punished speakers of Irish, the Irish Free State’s ‘de-Anglicising’ agenda punished speakers of English. The Poor Mouth is effectively a collage of historical times, chronicling the ‘de-anglicising’ of Ireland, the English language symbolic of oppression.

Joseph Brooker then read a passage which he described as ‘a performance piece’, the Gaelic language portrayed as a marker of social prestige: O’Nolan’s parody of the Gael autobiography genre blurs into nonsense and consequently is incapable of saying anything of worth. Eoin Byrne’s animated re-reading of the passage in its original Irish form was a high spot of the evening.

The final reading was given by guest speaker, N. J. Harris. The event culminated in a focus on the novel’s portrayal of characters ‘living up to stereotypes…to their literary fate’ – although this is Bonaparte’s story, he is symbolically rendered silent – and that, central to the novel, is circularity of time, woven through in variations on the leitmotif ‘their likes will never be there again’. At the novel’s conclusion, parody is displaced by poignancy, reflecting on the cycle of imprisonment that runs in Bonaparte’s family: the novel is ultimately a commentary on the restrictions urban Dublin society inflicted on rural Irish speakers.

The panel summed-up The Poor Mouth as ‘a response to the cultural violence of extreme nationalism’ within the Irish language movement: a demonstration of post-modernist pessimism. This was an excellent evening, striking the perfect balance between informal and informative. I look forward to their likes being there again.