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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Arts Week 2017: The contemporary: an exhibition

This post was contributed by Hafsa AlKhudairi, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Contemporary Literature and Culture

the-contemporaryThe exhibition featured multiple pieces that could be defined as both art pieces and theses.

My contemporary: student videos

During the autumn of 2016, the students of the MA Contemporary Literature and Culture were asked to create a short video that expresses their experience of the contemporary. Magdalena Sałata’s response, called “Reading (The Contemporary)”, literally shows the books that created her contemporary reading experience. My response, called “Fandom in The Contemporary” shows all the different ways people express their love to shows, books, movies, and comics. Annapurna Barry’s submission is the experience of an audience watching Rachel Maclean’s ‘Wot U 🙂 About’, expressing an enjoyment and an interaction with subversive and modern art. Nourhan Souk’s “Week 11” explores Peter Boxall’s statement in Twenty-First-Century Fiction: A Critical introduction (2013): “When we look backwards out of a speeding car, the place we are occupying at any given time is a simple, lateral blur, which resolves itself into a picture only when we have left it behind, as it fades into the distance” (1-2). Finally, Samatha Bifolco’s contribution is both an observation about how the hairdressing industry has become creative and innovative using the stylings of the common street factions and turning it into a trend for the masses, commenting on humanity’s affinity to remix trends.

Remote action and reaction

Using a virtual reality headset and an iPhone, war becomes an entertainment and a game, yet this technology is used to train military personnel before they are shipped. For the bystander, it is just an interesting experience into a new type of gaming or a new way of exploring life. However, the exhibit highlights this new technology use in the military, bringing forth criticism towards remote warfare that desensitizes military personnel from the tragedy of war and the loss of human life, but at the same time helps save those who train in a safe environment before being thrust into war.

The expansion of narrative in the digital age by Hope Dinsey

Hope Dinsey breaks down their topic into print media’s reaction to digital, digital media and new fiction formats, fandom and changes to the narrative environment. This exhibit relates the changes in narration to the existence of the internet, for it created a more varied approach. The exhibit demonstrates how print media responded by becoming more creative and innovative in their physical books. Moreover, there was a rise of digital literature after the internet such as interactive fiction and hypertext fiction, presented with an original story by Dinsey. Lastly, the global existence of fan culture became accessible and was perpetuated by the reorientation of the canon in a creative and mostly inclusive manner.

Ghosts of the future: ruination and (re)creation by Daniel Pateman

Daniel Pateman created a multimedia exhibit that shows a video that shows the ruins of a past life and re-created scenes that could have happened in these sites of ruination. It shows the contemporary’s obsession with scenes of the past as a means of exploration of the futility of life and the speed in which things can change from prosperity to devastation. It’s also a reflection of not just physical dissolution, but a mental one too because of the desolate political landscape. However, the exhibit didn’t focus solely on the video; it was accompanied with images and poetry that explores the idea of ruination as well as display different stages of ruination, bring the theme to life.

It’s a Fairy Tale! by Aefifa Razzaq

The current political climate is filled with stories about the American government and children are listening to these stories. As a teacher, Aefifa Razzaq, felt compelled to confront the topic and explain how despite the overarching belief that we have become completely progressive and united, Donald Trump was still elected president with his racist, bigoted, and misogynistic opinions. What was created out of that was a bunch of students expressing their opinions on how influential he is in terms of his aptitude in swaying people’s opinion towards his view. The outcome was a book filled with quotes from past presidents stylized by one of Razzaq’s students.

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Arts Week 2017: Speaking in Brogues

This post was contributed by Hafsa Al-Khudairi, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Contemporary Literature and Culture

broguesMarina Warner opens the event with the definition of a brogue. It is a type of shoe that her father gave her mother, which is popular in England and a symbol of the start of their life in the country. The other meaning is a rustic accent that accompanies rural areas. Though Warner specifically emphasized that it should not be a pejorative word, but an expression of beauty and strength. Brogues at university level is the language people interact with and use to create an environment of integration.

Social Constructions and Burdens in Language:

Maria Aristodemou, who is interested in law, psychoanalysis and society, starts by exploring how alienating language can be for both foreigners and for the native speaker. Humans animals are limited by their use of language to express their desires for not all their wants can be expressed in this manner and they have no other means to do so. This makes all humans immigrants in the house language as even the native speaker has to learn from childhood how to use the language, so they are “doomed” by their restrictions. However, language is also built through a socially-constructed idea of identity that holds the historical and societal desires and expectations.

Language is about Sharing:

Mattia Gallotti, who is working on a project called The Human Mind, where he explores the differences between people of different disciplines, explores the idea that language is about sharing. Specifically sharing minds because it is what philosophers think discussions produce. Sharing minds is most effective when it is produced from sharing stories. There is a power in sharing because it produces difference and power. The more people exchange stories through language, the more they can change the world they live in and empower themselves and others. For him, this helps people create their own sense of self, including identity and culture, wherever they go, producing the feeling of a collective ‘we’.

Photography is a Bridge between Two Languages:

Rut Blees Luxemburg, who is a photographer, used her creative photographs to explore the idea of bridging the gap between the English and the German language. She explored themes of connecting marginality with water, the divine, culture, and poetic meanings. Water is related to how she remembers rivers that can connect places and transfer languages beyond the confines of the arbitrary lines that separate countries. Hence, Brogues is a reference to the ground and the soil, which is an attachment to a nation, but it is a sense of home through language, beyond the actual boundaries of the actual home.

The event ended with a Q&A about identity, the term ‘we’, personality, and strangers in a strange land, and their intersection with language. Identity was clarified as an unappeasable fantasy, but identification is real. Then, how many people associate ‘we’ with negative connotations, however, it does have positive communitive connotations as well. The conversation turned towards personalities and strangers. It was concluded that knowing multiple languages helps create patterns of personalities based on a person’s association with the language. Also, the romance of being a stranger is a privilege for the difference in language capabilities and accents helps categorize people into other beings and it can be detrimental to the sense of belonging. Still knowing different languages can help people communicate and sense a feeling of comradery when people find someone who understands them beyond grammar and syntax.

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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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