Tag Archives: School of Arts

Life as an Indian scholar in London

MA Journalism student Vimal found studying in London a totally immersive experience, so much so he wrote a book about it. Here, he uncovers his own story and shares perspectives on the differences between the media in the UK and India, with a personal take on the COVID-19 pandemic news coverage. This is his #BBKStory.

Vimal Chander Joshi

In 2020, Vimal published his first book though he refutes any notion of being the main character in the story: “I am not Ajay but our experiences are closely linked and all the places Ajay visits are places I’ve either visited or lived in.”

Gentlemen: Stories from London tells the story of Ajay Vashishth, a young man from Delhi who comes to London and lodges in different parts of London including Bexleyheath, Ilford, Southall and Golders Green. Even with the exclusion of the Bloomsbury location, where Vimal would have spent much of his time while studying at Birkbeck, you’d be forgiven for assuming he and Ajay are one and the same.

However, Vimal insists not and divulges the details of his own upbringing, sharing aspects of life within a middle-class family, having a lawyer for a father and a grandfather hailing from Pakistan, with family members keen for him to follow a ‘conventional career path’ in either law or medicine. With gentle resistance and with more creative inclinations, he pursued his undergraduate studies in commerce at the University of Delhi then decided on journalism at postgraduate level.

In 2019, his academic transition took him to Birkbeck and a city he’d never visited before. “It was the first time I’d been to London. I enjoyed the opportunity to visit places. I would see people wearing a coat and tie with office bags and a newspaper in hand.”

He accepts that the pre-pandemic period presented him with his best chances of socialisation saying, “I attended all workshops and events which were either very relevant or marginally relevant. I would go and meet people from other departments and would attend most of the events. I never skipped any classes. I would go out with friends. I went to the library as much as I could, including at Christmas. I even met friends from my country.”

Studying an MA in Journalism was a logical choice. He’d always liked writing and was fascinated by India’s booming television industry and the increasing acceptance of a career in the media. Prior to his studies, Vimal had spent ten years working in the media, primarily in India.

He has noticed subtle differences between the news in the UK and India, “The biggest difference is the way in which newspapers are heavily subsidised in India. I couldn’t imagine spending the two pounds or so on a newspaper in India. Of course, the newspapers in the UK can be found across the world but Indian newspapers are less likely to have that international reach.”

With a pandemic still in effect and with India having faced the brunt of it earlier this year with the Delta variant of the virus, Vimal shares his own personal reflections of how the media has handled the coverage: “I felt really pained watching the Covid-19 news. I was there when Delhi had one of its earliest lockdowns and I watched how the media covered the evolution of the virus and the spread of the variant. The media has an important part to play in exposing the pandemic but there needs to be accountability and the true picture should always be reflected. But we should also balance that because the reality of the situation can also spread panic.”

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London’s architectural history comes alive in Birkbeck Arts Week walking tour series

Covent Garden Piazza and Market (Joseph van Aken) - cc Irina via Flickr

Covent Garden Piazza and Market (Joseph van Aken) – cc Irina via Flickr

Londoners will be able to get up close and personal with their city’s architectural and cultural history in May during Birkbeck, University of London’s Arts Week 2016.

From an exploration of Covent Garden Piazza’s long-gone original structure, to a wander among the West End’s media industry heritage, a series of free walking tours will run as part of the college’s annual showcase of the arts, which this year runs from 16 to 20 May.

Highlights of the walking tour series are:

(Monday 16 May, 5-6pm. Meeting at the south-west corner of Covent Garden piazza by NatWest Bank)
Not much remains of Covent Garden’s physical structure as it was between 1631 and 1830 – but, with the aid of contemporary images, and a lot of imagination, it is possible to recover something of how the piazza was viewed across those first two hundred years. Join Dr Thom Braun for an illustrated walk around Covent Garden piazza.

(Tuesday 17 and Wednesday 18 May, 5-5.50pm. Meeting outside 43 Gordon Square)
Dr Leslie Topp and Nic Sampson of Birkbeck’s Architecture Space and Society Centre will lead two linked but self-standing tours unearthing the hidden and not-so-hidden traces of architectural modernism in Bloomsbury. Behind the demure Georgian facades we’ll find stories of gentle liberation, false starts and fraught battles.

 

(Wednesday 18 May, 2-5pm. Meeting at the southwest corner of Fitzroy Square, W1)
This guided walking tour, led by Birkbeck’s Dr Joel McKim and Dr Scott Rodgers (Birkbeck), explores West End London as a lens into the media in city life and its environments. Join us to visit a range of buildings and neighbourhoods associated with major media industries. We will also observe some of the more unconventional forms of urban media and communication.

 

(Friday 20 May, 4-5.30pm. Meeting outside the National Portrait Gallery main entrance, St Martin’s Place, WC2H 0HE)
Join us for a guided tour of the politics and power plays of the Stuart era (1603 and 1714). Taking portraits as our starting point, we will attempt to reconstruct some of the careers of those at the courts of James I and VI and his son – and the lives of those who fell from favour. Decide whether James I was poisoned, whether Ben Jonson loved his king, and what happened to Arbella Stuart.

Running parallel to these tours will be the Arts Week Competition 2016. Titled “London Relocated”, the competition centres on the ever changing nature of London’s architecture. Members of the public are invited to submit a photo of any artefact or remnant of London’s ever shifting built environment – such as a sign, a map or a monument – along with 150 words about why it’s interesting. Up to two entries per person can be sent to Londonrelocated@bbk.ac.uk before 18 May, for a chance to win a £100 book token.

Birkbeck Arts Week, the College’s annual celebration of arts and culture, will this year feature the widest programme in the festival’s five-year history, with more than 50 free events for the public to attend.

Primarily hosted in and around the School of Arts (43-47 Gordon Square), the 2016 programme includes a packed schedule of lectures, performances, screenings, book launches, workshops and discussions. It features contributions from Birkbeck’s own academics and guest artists and scholars from all over the world.

Professor Hilary Fraser, Dean of Arts, said the walking tours reflect one of Arts Week 2016’s wider themes: ‘exploration’.

She said: “The walking tours at this year’s Arts Week offer a fantastic opportunity for members of the public to explore their everyday surroundings through a new lens, as guided by a team of experts in the history and architecture of the area.

“These events are part of a key thread running through this year’s programme; the theme of ‘exploration’. Whether it is attending one of these local walks, a panel session such as the ‘Writing Arctic Disaster’ event, the special showcase of Colombian filmmaking, or any event across the week, we hope to inspire our community to discover and explore the world around them at the points where the arts and research come together.”

Birkbeck Arts Week 2016 runs from runs from May 16 to 20. To see the full programme of free public events visit www.bbk.ac.uk/artsweek, at facebook.com/BirkbeckArts or on Twitter @birkbeck_arts (being sure to use the hashtag #BBKArtsWeek). While attendance at all events is free, booking is essential.

Listen to the Arts Week 2016 preview episode of Birkbeck Voices:

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About the Arts Week Competition 2016: “London Relocated”

London is a city which is constantly changes. Every day Londoners pass a notice that ‘near this place’ something happened, or find a monument made up of sections of an old wall, or even, like Temple Bar, a whole chunk of the city removed and re-sited. This year Arts Week wants to find out more about bits of London that have been relocated. We are interpreting this widely – notices and signs of events close by count, as well as actual monuments. The prize is £100 book token.

To enter send us ONE image (photograph, map, or something else) of ‘London Relocated’ and up to 150 words telling us what it is and why it is interesting. Not more than TWO entries per person, please. Email your entry to Londonrelocated@bbk.ac.uk.

Closing date 18 May 6pm

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How to be both: An audience with author Ali Smith

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard. Dr Winyard attended the 2015 Man Booker at Birkbeck event, featuring Man Booker 2014 shortlisted author, Ali Smith

Ali Smith in conversation with Prof Russell Celyn Jones

Ali Smith in conversation with Prof Russell Celyn Jones

On 16 November, in a lively, humorous exchange, Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing Russell Celyn Jones and novelist Ali Smith discussed her Booker Prize nominated novel, How To Be Both (2014). This dazzling, rambunctious novel features two self-contained but intertwined stories: one follows the travails of Italian Renaissance fresco painter, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life artist who painted a series of elaborate allegorical frescos in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, northern Italy; the other story tells of George, a bereaved twenty-first-century teenager who is remembering a family trip to Italy to view del Cossa’s frescos in the ‘Palace of Not Being Bored’.

With its focus on Renaissance art, and painting in particular, the novel is itself a diptych – or ‘dipstick’, as Smith drolly punned to the audience – presenting two separate but intersecting stories in dialogue with one another. The diptych – which literally means ‘two fold’ in ancient Greek – is, Smith explained, book-like in its construction, with hinges that enable it to be closed and transported, making it an appealingly ‘swivel-able form’. In the UK, the book was published in dual form, with half of the copies opening with the del Cossa narrative and the other half opening with the story of George. Smith recounted with delight how the printers hired ‘muddlers’ to randomise the packing of the books and ensure that shops carried both versions of the novel. For Smith, it is important that readers can ‘upend’ the novel and ‘it still works’.

Confounding binary oppositions

Ali Smith-How to be bothThe novel delights in interrogating, unpicking and confounding the binarised oppositions that organise and delimit human life and relationships: male and female; straight and gay; past and present; and even alive and dead. The complex twisting and interleaving of the two stories typifies the ways in which history, memory, feeling, gender and sexuality elude and shrug off human categorisation. George is a boyish young woman with a man’s name who falls in love with another woman, whereas del Cossa is a woman who uses concealment and disguise to reinvent herself as a male artist. The del Cossa narrative opens poetically and strangely with the forcible resurrection of the long-dead del Cossa, who finds herself standing in the National Gallery in London, observing George – whom she mistakes for a boy – scrutinising del Cossa’s stern portrait of St. Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican friar and missionary. The painting is real and is indeed hanging in the National Gallery.

Interestingly, Smith confessed that George’s gender identity was indeterminate when she started working on the novel; it was only later that George became female. Indeed, Smith described the fictional creation of character as a mode of channelling, in which characters arrive fully formed and the task of the novelist is to give them the necessary attention and time to allow their voices to come through. The voice of del Cossa was the first that Smith heard, forcing her to discard 90 pages of the novel she had written and leaving her only seven months in which to complete and submit the manuscript. George’s voice and syntax came, fully formed, about half-way through this rewrite. Smith offered several helpful tips for budding authors, stressing the importance of ‘editing as writing’ and focusing on repetitions, as ‘they’re the things you’re most interested in’. The novel, like its characters, must be patiently listened to and Smith repeatedly emphasised the importance of voice in writing.

del Cossa, a man in and out of history

Man Booker at Birkbeck 2015 event held at Friends-House

Man Booker at Birkbeck 2015 event held at Friends-House

How To Be Both is concerned with history and memory, with what is remembered and how – and what is lost. As Smith observed, humans need to live in three dimensions, to feel connected to the past and the future simultaneously. Del Cossa was a real artist, although we know very little about him: he was born in Ferrara in 1435 or 1436, the son of a stonemason, and he died aged forty, in Ferrara, possibly of the plague. In later times, Del Cossa’s frescos were plastered over and the room used as a tobacco store until, Smith explained, the plaster flaked off in the 1840s and the frescos were rediscovered. Archival letters, in which del Cossa angrily demands more money from his patron (a request his patron loftily refused), are another scanty source of evidence.

The unknown history of the artist, however, gave Smith licence to re-gender and reimagine the life of del Cossa; as Smith drolly admitted, ‘I got away with it!’ In the 1960s, floods in Italy hastened the temporary removal of the frescos from their walls, which further revealed what Smith called the ‘under-versions’ or original sketches and images that had been painted over. The frescos thus stand as a metaphor for thinking about human life and history as a palimpsest, with layers of accretion and loss shaping what becomes ‘History’ or collective memory. Smith gleefully confessed to her excitement in bringing to light the ‘undertows’ that are wilfully concealed or later forgotten.

Thus, in the novel, George is anxious that all that is forgotten is lost, making history little more than a horrifying charnel house. Her mother, though, has a more mystical understanding, insisting that that which has existed does not simply cease because we can no longer see, experience or remember it. For Smith, it is Art that takes us to a timeless place of fragile ‘lastingness’ within ourselves. She spoke of Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘jetztzeit’ (‘now-time’), the moment of epiphany instigated by Art, in which we know we are truly alive and time disappears. Smith also spoke of the novelists’ frustration with the form, as it cannot escape the temporal sequence of action and consequence and is incapable of simultaneously representing the simultaneous occurrences of everyday life.

To know George’s future, the reader must journey back into the life of del Cossa, although, if you encounter the del Cossa section first, you will know (but not necessarily fully understand) George’s future before you know her past. Like last year’s Man Booker speaker, Hilary Mantel, Smith has written a historical novel of sorts, although Smith’s is formally inventive and playfully cuts across genres. Smith admitted that her knowledge of the Renaissance was limited and she undertook broad-brush research to immerse herself in the period without being overwhelmed by details. Smith thus urged the creative writing students in the audience to research lightly in order to give themselves ‘imaginative space’.

Under surveillance

A VIP reception was held after the event at the Keynes Library

A VIP reception was held after the event at the Keynes Library

The novel is also concerned with surveillance, observation, witnessing and spectatorship, in all their benevolent and more menacing forms. Indeed, Smith insisted to the audience that ‘surveillance is the story of our times’. George’s mother, whose voice we only hear via George’s recollections, is worried that her past, radical political activities mean she is under state surveillance, while George herself obsessively watches Lisa Goliard, a friend of her mother’s. George angsts about the ethics of watching and is particularly concerned that the pained performer in a pornographic scene she has watched online is stuck in what Smith called a ‘kind of continual present’. George thus obsessively and continually witnesses and memorialises the performer’s suffering. Our contemporary culture of forcible remembrance is, for Smith, ‘lovely and kind of appalling’, as we have lost the old ability to let go of, and simply forget, the past. Similarly, by scrutinising the painting of St. Vincent, George miraculously and unintentionally resurrects the spirit of del Cossa, who silently watches her. To foreground the ethics of watching, the illustrated frontispiece to the del Cossa story, drawn by Smith’s partner Sarah Wood, features del Cossa’s image of the gouged out eyes of Saint Lucy, which he painted not on a platter, as is usual in Renaissance iconography of the saint, but growing from a small sprout.

Although Smith attentively and gamely engaged with the various readings of her novel proffered by the audience, she ultimately reasserted the work’s capaciousness and playfulness of spirit, insisting ‘I’m not going to tell you what to think about the book.’ For Smith, ‘the reading experience is really volatile’ and she expounded how rereading shifts a novel’s meanings and resonances for us.

This was the fifth Man Booker event at Birkbeck – previous speakers include Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Hollinghurst and Hilary Mantel – and this lively exchange further confirmed and extended the success of this rewarding partnership. As David Latchman, the Master of Birkbeck, observed in his opening remarks, the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck both share an ongoing, deep commitment to broadening knowledge, bringing the best of contemporary fiction to the widest possible audience, and belying cramped, utilitarian approaches to education.

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Curating Feeling: Understanding Sentimentality in Victorian Art

This post was contributed by Madelaine Bowman, writer, and soon-to-be student on Birkbeck’s MA Modern and Contemporary Literature

Curating-FeelingExploring the representation of emotion in nineteenth-century works of art, Curating Feeling, organised as part of a wider conference on the Arts and Feeling in Nineteenth-century Literature and Culture, offered fascinating insights into the relationship between human emotion and cultural artefacts of the Victorian era.

Influencing interpretation

Curator Alison Smith of the Tate Gallery was the first to speak and got things started by looking into how the ways that artefacts are displayed in a space can affect the ways they are observed and how they make us feel.

Using images from previous Tate exhibitions, Smith talked us through how the layout and colour of the spaces in which artworks are exhibited, as well as the language that is used to describe their history and meaning, can play a part in influencing how they are perceived and interpreted.

She made the point that, whilst it is no longer the curator’s job to care for cultural artefacts, it is their purpose to create a certain mood and to display items in such a way as to tell a story without or over-influencing the emotional effect that they have on the viewer.

Meaning derived from spectator’s own emotion

Next up was University of Warwick Professor, Michael Hatt, who questioned whether it’s possible to curate feeling, arguing that cultural artefacts do not speak for themselves when it comes to the feelings which they convey. Instead, he suggested, meaning is derived according to the spectator’s own emotions, which are projected onto artworks at the time of observation.

Focusing on sculpture in particular, Hatt concluded by suggesting that Victorian examples may at first seem devoid of sentiment, but that what they are really doing is asking the viewer to explore their own emotions rather than telling them what or how to feel.

Curating traumatic experience

Toward the end we heard from Dr Victoria Mills, who shared some of the challenges that she has faced whilst curating the forthcoming exhibition on fallen women for The Foundling Museum (runs 25 Sept 2015 to 3 Jan 2016).

With non-marital relationships being severely frowned upon in Victorian Britain, many of the women in question petitioned to leave their illegitimate babies in the care of the Foundling Hospital, where they would be looked after until they were old enough to work.

The petitions give intimate details as to how the women became pregnant in the first place, some referring to instances of rape, violence and stalking, which, Mills told us, has made choosing which of them to share and how to share them in a respectful way very difficult.

Understanding through that which is not present

Adding to this was Birkbeck School of ArtsProfessor Lynda Nead, who argued that whilst it’s easy to view the women’s petitions as hard evidence of tragedy and trauma, it could be due to their fear of exclusion from society rather than truth that they were inclined to give details of sexual assault to explain their situation.

In a society which disregarded female sexuality and desire, the women may not have felt comfortable sharing information about adulterous or non-marital relationships with men who they were in fact in love with. Nead finished by stating the importance of considering collective emotions when considering the sentiments attached to artefacts from the era, as it may be those feelings which are not present that enable us to better understand.

Raising important questions about the nature of nineteenth-century sentimentality and the factors which affect our interpretation of emotion in artworks from the era, this conference offered fascinating insights into a subject which is becoming a growing area of interest for scholars, and which I am also now keen to learn more about.

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