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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MA Literature Review Show 2015: Identity

This post was contributed by Megan McGill who is currently undertaking an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck

MA-Modern-LiteratureThe MA Review Show for students of Modern and Contemporary Literature, and Contemporary Literature and Culture, opened up discussion for various pieces of media from recent months, inviting comparison between them in the hopes to spark some interesting ideas.

The items in question were:

These items were presented under with the theme of ‘identity’ and discussions were opened after a short introduction for each. The panel included students Karina Cicero, Francis Gene-Rowe, Jenna Johnston, Polly Kemp, and Megan McGill, and was chaired by Dr Joe Brooker, and Dr Caroline Edwards.

Ali Smith’s How to Be Both

Polly introduced to the audience the first item, Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, with a 2013 quotation from Frieze Magazine on the idea of frescoes, something that features heavily in the novel, and directly references the artwork from within its pages:

When gods go into exile what do they do? They put on their multi-layered travelling coats and embark on a journey through time. As migrants, they don the costumes of the countries they traverse, until an art work opens up a space in which they can shed their disguise and be free. This is an image Aby Warburg evoked in a lecture he gave in Rome in 1922, to illustrate how key visual motifs pass from one culture to another over the centuries before their dormant potential is awakened by an artist.

The case Warburg makes for Francesco del Cossa’s frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy (c. 1469). They are part of a cycle depicting the months of the year. Seven of the original works have been recovered, including the three that Del Cossa was commissioned to pain: March, April and May. Their pictorial language is as captivating as it is hermetic. Strange characters abound. Warburg defines them as astrological powers governing the months, allegorically embodied by celestial figures from antiquity.

The discussion moves quickly to the fluidity of identity, potentially the most prominent theme in the novel, comparing the text to Jackie Kay’s Trumpet and the work of Jeanette Winterson.

Discussions, however, lead further on to whether our identity is defined by the value of what we do and what we make, linking to an extract from the book where George’s mother asks her if she thinks people should be paid more if they think their work is better than those doing the same work.

The identity of Franchesco as the ‘dead narrator’, something seen before in the work of Beckett, was also brought up in regards to whether her section was a true mystical event, or just George’s imagination spurred by her discussion with H on how Italians from the Renaissance would speak.

Christopher Williams, ‘The Production Line of Happiness’ at Whitechapel Gallery

The next item discussed was the Christopher Williams exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery titled ‘The Production Line of Happiness’. A few members of the panel were able to visit the exhibition. The exhibition is described on the gallery’s website as follows:

Williams’ exquisite prints reveal the unexpected beauty and cultural resonance of commercial, industrial and instructional photography. Often working with set designers, models and technicians, Williams’ technically precise pictures recall Cold War era imagery and 1960s advertising, as well as invoking histories of art, photography and cinema.

His photographs are elements at play in a larger system including architecture, exhibition design, books, posters, videos, vitrines and signage that investigates the state sets of the art world and the publicity structures on which they rely. From his renowned 1989 studies of botanical specimens, Angola to Vietnam, to the hyper-real colour saturated studies of kitchenware made in 2014, this first survey of Williams’ work in the UK immerses us in visually enthralling and politically resonant lines of enquiry.

The exhibition looks into the dependence of commercialisation in photography, also playing on the idea of commodity fetishisation. Williams removes all negative context (e.g. slave labour) from his images of domesticity, leaving them shiny and yet discomforting in their perfection, challenging the idea of apolitical photography.

Other discomforts are included in the exhibition to forcibly engage the audience, including a lack of captions and hanging the photos below eye level. His catalogue available in the exhibition provides the audience with the captions the walls lack, adding the context that gives his photographs meaning and reinserting the politics into the material.

Williams’ photos are not entirely his own, as he takes photographs of other photographs and recontextualises them through his amendments and captions. This reinsertion of is a method of revealing/concealing, creating a palimpsest similar to the frescoes featured in Ali Smith’s work and editing their ‘identity’.

Carol Morley’s The Falling

Following on from discussion of the exhibition came a trailer for Carol Morley’s The Falling, telling the story of an outbreak of fainting at an all-girls school in the 1960s. Initial comparisons were drawn with Peter Weir’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, focusing on the topics of schoolgirl madness and intense relationships. Many clichés of the genre and time in which the film was set were then brought to light, as well as the elements of a British Gothic tradition e.g. mystery, mysticism, the countryside, spooky music.

Many watchers found the film incredibly farcical and often amusing at times as a reaction of the girls’ hysteria that, in the end, had no real explanation. But did the film need an explanation to serve its purpose?

The most popular element for the audience was the performance of Maisie Williams, whose character becomes a force of nature as the film progresses in a story of self-discovery versus self-destruction. Other positive comments came from the fact of its female director and her portrayal of sexuality in an arthouse film as non-voyeuristic, humorous, and warm at times. This fluidity of sexuality portrayed in the film links incredibly closely to what can be seen in the Ali Smith text, once again focusing strongly on the idea of identity and at what age we become who we truly are. The girls in the film are attempting to become an autonomous female body that feels, through liberated sexual awakening.

Channel 4’s The Vote

After many positive comments on the items covered so far, discussion moved to the less popular The Vote, a live theatre performance broadcasted on Channel 4 on Election Day. Initial disappointed comments highlighted how it focused mainly on the political process rather than political ideas, positively showing the different political motivations of the diverse electorate.

Someone questioned whether in its lack of substance and focus on process rather than politics it served as a perfect metaphor for the election itself, showing what’s wrong with the current political situation. It was also questioned whether its value was undermined by the actual election result the following morning, with the whole programme setting up for a hung parliament when, in reality, the election wasn’t close at all.

Aaron Diaz’s ‘Dark Science’ arc, Dresden Codak

Finally, the discussion moved on to the ‘Dark Science’ arc of Aaron Diaz’s webcomic Dresden Codak. The world of ‘Dark Science’ is one post-singularity, highly technologized and visually stratified, its underbelly in plain view to the reader, dangling across the panels.

As a visual piece it certainly fits the Samuel Delany quotation that the landscape in a piece can be the primary character. Discussion, from this point, expanded to the cinematic technique of the webcomic and how it flashes between narratives, leaving the reader unsure on what to expect next. The look of the comic also reminded an audience member of contact sheets for films, showing everything that has been shot but still clearly conveying movement in a montage-like fashion.

It was noted from the medium of the webcomic is free from the publication format and can be seen in this example as used as a way to educate an audience on science, rather than satirising the subject. The highly technical language used forces the audience to engage, like with the techniques Christopher Williams used in his exhibition, by seeking understanding in the finer details.

On the overarching theme of identity, it was concluded that the main idea of identity in this arc of Dresden Codak was that on ‘when do we stop becoming human?’ in regards to transhumanism and the self-repair using robotics that the protagonist, Kim, undergoes. Is there a particular percentage of body mass that needs to be human flesh, or is there a certain group of criteria you must be able to fulfil? This is the question the audience left with as the review show drew to a close.

Thank you to everybody who came to participate in the MA Review Show, whether in the audience or a panellist, and thank you to both Joe Brooker and Caroline Edwards for chairing such a successful event. The discussions were enlightening and the enthusiasm inspiring.

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