Exhibition reflects on the history of ‘un-pregnancy’ through art

A collaboration between Birkbeck academic Dr Isabel Davis and artist Anna Burel has produced a series of artworks depicting the history of ‘un-pregnancy’, which are currently exhibited at The Peltz Gallery. 

Dr Davis, from the Department of English and Humanities reflects on the research which led to the collaboration.

Finding out you’re not pregnant can be a very odd experience of nothing happening. While of course, there are plenty of people who feel relieved on discovering they aren’t going to be parents, there are conversely lots who feel disappointed, and often this isn’t the first time they’ve felt this way. So, they are (or their partner is) not pregnant … again. Grieving for something that never was, feels strange.

My Conceiving Histories project explores how this nothing, this thing that never was, a thing which I call ‘un-pregnancy’, appears in the historical archives. I am particularly interested in how people in the past thought about the time before diagnosis, either of pregnancy or infertility. What do they have to say about trying to conceive, about on-going childlessness (involuntary or otherwise), about the difficulty of diagnosing early pregnancy, about not knowing whether they were pregnant or not and about early pregnancy loss? What I am finding is that there is a lot of archival material about this apparent nothing. If there are things that can be touched, seen and read in archives about un-pregnancy, then this experience can’t really be a nothing; it must be a something, after all.

To pursue this project, I teamed up with a visual artist Anna Burel who, for a long time, has been working on the female experience of the body, particularly the female body in the gynecological encounter. Like me, she is interested in history and thinking about the points of identification between people today and those in the past. Working together, we have started to look at all sorts of aspects of un-pregnancy; simulated, imagined, misdiagnosed and phantom pregnancies at different points in time, as well as the difficulties of diagnosing pregnancy before home testing. Our exhibition, which presents the work we have done in the first phase of this collaboration, is open at the Peltz Gallery, in Birkbeck’s School of Arts, and continues until 13 December.

In the exhibition we explore four curious case studies: Queen Mary I’s two false pregnancies (1554-1557); a strange fashion for simulating pregnancy by using a pad (1793); a science-fiction fantasy about discovering how to diagnose early pregnancy and date human gestation (1826); and materials from the Family Planning Association (FPA) archive concerning the international transport of live toads for use in the FPA’s pregnancy diagnostic centre (1949-1964).

To give you a fuller sense of just one of these, let me tell you about the strange fashion in 1793 for wearing what was known as The Pad, which simulated pregnancy. The Morning Herald, a contemporary newspaper tells us: “Pads continue to be worn; and on account of these the dress is still a loose gown of white muslin flounced in front, appearing to be put on with the negligence permitted to the supposed situation of the wearers.”

Contemporaries described it as a fashion which moved around from the back, where it functioned as a bustle, to the front. Most of the evidence for it is satirical. Contemporary cartoonists were savage, presenting The Pad as silly and French. They were particularly delighted, but also perhaps horrified by the idea that it was a social leveler, ironing out differences between rich and poor, large and slim, young and old – making a nonsense of the pregnancy swell as a social sign.

A one-act farce, The Pad by Robert Woodbridge opened at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden the same year. It presents three interlocking stories of couples disrupted because women have taken to wearing The Pad. The main protagonist, Lovejoke, sets out to teach these women a lesson not to ‘outstep the modesty of Nature’ by wearing one. Two of the stories end happily but the third is more bitter. In this story, Sir Simon Meagre and his wife are childless after years of trying; Lovejoke leads him to believe that they might finally have the child they’ve hoped for, although in truth his wife has just taken to wearing The Pad. When the truth comes out, Lovejoke makes an exception for Lady Meagre – she can continue to wear The Pad as consolation for her childlessness. ‘Poor comfort!’ Sir Simon replies, ‘sad substitute for a Son and Heir! – I thought to have had a little boronet [sic]’. Although it is ostensibly a comedy, the play ends on this dissonantly poignant note, bequeathing us some odd evidence for trying to conceive in history.

Anna’s work on this bizarre fashion object explores its tragicomic potential. Her series of photographs show women wearing The Pad, sometimes with fools’ caps. Using the typography of Woodbridge’s play to mark up Pads with dates and slogans, Anna’s photographs explore the emotions around the absence of pregnancy.

Pregnancy is very privatising and not being able to become pregnant can feel humiliating, as if one can’t get into an exclusive private club, or as if the world is laughing. Women and men have long learned to resort to silence about their struggles to become parents for fear of exposing themselves as in some way inadequate. Maternity clothes today emphasise pregnancy as a special category. The current Western aesthetic in maternity wear stresses the neatness of the pregnancy bump, isolating it and giving it clear definition in relation to the female body. For those looking on from the outside, this kind of definition – both to the contours of the pregnant body and to the community of those who can get pregnant – is sharply distinct from the ambiguities of a life lived in uncertainty about the future, the body, pregnancy and parenthood.

The eighteenth-century Pad offers an odd sort of reflection on these complex emotions and there isn’t the sort of evidence that one would really like; what women thought and felt about wearing it, what their motivations were and so on. The imaginative world that it suggests, however, is one in which women can somehow side-step their own longing and the socially isolating experience of un-pregnancy and temporarily enjoy looking pregnant. What if we could collapse the hard boundaries that we set up today, so firmly reinforced by the fashion industry and other institutions, between those who can fall pregnant and those who can’t? Such things are taboo for us: celebrities who fake pregnancies are vilified as if they’ve violated some sacred estate, anyone else is deemed mad.

Yet history and art offer a temporary and neutral space, in which we might think about ourselves and ask questions like: ‘what if …?’

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Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image: Winter term 2016

Kelli Weston, MA Film, Television and Media Studies graduate, reports on the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image’s (BIMI) recent events. 

This season the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) has hosted a variety of collaborative events, from special screenings to horror film-inspired lectures. From its inception, BIMI has aimed to address a broad range of issues within an interdisciplinary context. Here are just a few highlights from the past year:

  • On October 14, BIMI hosted the annual University of Pittsburgh lecture with Adam Lowenstein, who spoke to guests about the urban spaces of Detroit, Michigan and all its implications in the recent horror film It Follows (2014). The discussion touched on the film’s framing of scarcity within an unconventional landscape and contemporary connotations. Listen to Lowenstein’s talk and the following conversation.

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  • BIMI partnered with Birkbeck’s Sci/Film on October 28 to present a special Halloween screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) followed by a talk from Professor Alex Kacelnick of Oxford University on the nature of birds, complete with recordings.
  • On November 4, in collaboration with the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research and Dogwoof Pictures, BIMI presented The End of the Line (2009), a documentary based on Charles Clover’s 2006 book of the same title about the widespread decline in fish stocks around the world. After the screening of the film, Clover was in conversation with the BISR Guilt Group’s James Brown. You can find more information about the Guilt Group on their website.
  • On November 7, with the London Korean Film Festival, BIMI presented ‘Detours through the History of Korean Cinema’ a focus on essay films – My Korean Cinema (2006) by Kim Hong-Jun and Cinema on the Road: A Personal Essay on Cinema in Korea (1995) by Jang Sun-woo –  which both explore and interrogate the history of Korean cinema.
  • On November 11, just in time for filmmaker John Berger’s 90th birthday, BIMI and the Derek Jarman Lab presented Seasons of Quincy: The Four Portraits of John Berger followed by a symposium the next day where a group of panellists discussed Berger’s legacy as a broadcaster, activist, artist and art critic while showing clips of his work over the years.

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  • On December 2, BIMI and Dogwoof Pictures presented The Age of Stupid (2009), Franny Armstrong’s drama-documentary-animation hybrid film starring Pete Postlethwaite about the last man on earth pondering the consequences of human apathy toward climate change.
  • On December 10, as part of the Children’s Film Club and the Irish Film Festival, BIMI screened Song of the Sea (2014) followed by a free shadow puppet theatre.
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How the generosity of donors transforms the lives of students

On 13 July 2017 Birkbeck welcomed donors, volunteers, students and staff for an ‘An Evening of Thanks’ for all they give to the College. Aziza Sentissi, a PhD candidate in Mathematics and Statistics, spoke at the event, and reflects on what the generosity of donors means for students like her, who may otherwise be unable to undertake their studies. aziza850x450My interest in Mathematics dates back to an early age at primary school. I achieved good academic results in Mathematics and I never felt that it was an effort to tackle my math homework or any math puzzle. I have always enjoyed the thrill of the mathematical challenge. It was (and it is still) like going on an adventure where your only tools are your logic and your instinct. I believe that we all have naturally a set of skills in which we reach our optimal potential. It is just matter of finding, nurturing and using them. In my case, it is definitely Mathematics.

Most of my academic and professional decisions were motivated by the need to use Mathematics on a daily basis. I studied industrial engineering for my undergraduate degree, focused on financial engineering when I studied for my MBA and spent more than a decade working in market risk management in both Toronto and London. My career allowed me to gain an expert-level experience in the field while using the mathematical finance skills I acquired through education and experience.

I know that I should have felt a certain degree of contentment with my academic and professional progression, but in reality, I felt frustration that I was still far from my intellectual potential. I felt that I needed to get back to ‘core Mathematics’. It was just about finding the right programme so that I could reconcile studies and work. Finding out about Birkbeck’s MSc programmes was already a big step toward my goals. Indeed, Birkbeck offered the best opportunity to join a recognized programme taught by an outstanding faculty while working in London.  A few years later, I graduated with distinction from the MSc Applied Statistics (2013) course, and with merit from MSc Mathematics (2015).

Studying at Birkbeck by far exceeded all my expectations. It has competitive programmes with strong curriculums, an outstanding faculty, and dedicated staff. Some companies I’ve worked at have spent a lot of money persuading employees to buy into their mission. Well, at Birkbeck, it is an achieved goal. You can sense the commitment to the university’s mission at each one of your interactions either with the professors or with the staff. I have always been amazed that everybody will make that extra effort to help you thrive in your studies and achieve your goals as you are trying to balance your work life and your studies.

My story with Birkbeck did not stop at the end of my second masters. Indeed, as I expressed my interest in joining the full-time PhD programme while highlighting my financial constraints, my supervisors suggested applying to few scholarships which I eagerly did. After a few weeks, I was approved for the Winton STEM PhD Studentship, which aims to promote gender equality in STEM subjects.

The support from Winton has indeed made it possible for me to join the full-time PhD programme in Mathematics. There are no words that really capture how grateful I am to Winton for their support and for giving me the opportunity to pursue a long-term ambition which is to build a career in research in Mathematics either within the academic world or within a research firm. The subject of my PhD is about optimizing one of the advanced approximation methods (Meshfree method) in multivariate setting.  It is a cutting-edge subject with multiple applications in several fields such as engineering, machine learning and artificial intelligence. I am extremely proud to be working on this subject with my supervisors who are experts in the field.

Through my PhD, I have also had the opportunity to take part in an outreach conference jointly organised by Birkbeck and Winton. At the conference, we encouraged young women from schools in disadvantaged London boroughs to consider studying mathematics at university. It was a privilege and an amazing experience to see the impact of the conference on these girls and to see how it changed their perspective on using their mathematical talent.

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Military intelligence: former RAF gunner swaps military uniform for gown and mortar board

military-intelligence-photoFormer RAF Gunner and Southwark resident Paul Croney has swapped his military uniform for a gown and mortar board, as he celebrated his graduation today. Military life and then shifts in the police force meant that Paul, 34, didn’t have much time to think about returning to study until 12 years after finishing his A-levels.  However, his military background and experiences of conflict in the Middle East, serving alongside personnel from other nations, gave Paul a strong interest in how politics works at a global level.

When he moved into a new role in the Metropolitan Police Service in May 2012, Paul’s regular hours meant that he had evenings free. The first thing he did was to apply to the part-time Global Politics and International Relations degree at Birkbeck, University of London where the evening study meant he could continue to earn during the day, while satisfying his thirst for knowledge. He received funding through ELCAS, a MoD scheme to help veterans adjust to civilian life by funding courses and tuition fees for their new careers.

Paul says: “The best thing about evening study was I was able to carry on working in a job that I loved while learning. My evenings were being used constructively and I enjoyed the balance of work/study/life.”

While many mature students worry about fitting in at university, Birkbeck’s evening study model attracts a wide variety of different students and Paul says “I’ve made several friends for life from the course. It was great going to university as a “mature student” and, because of the diverse age and backgrounds of the students, not feeling like a granddad.”

Halfway through his degree, Paul applied for a new role in the Civil Service. During the interview he mentioned his studies at Birkbeck and was able to demonstrate his potential by working and learning at the same time. He says, “Now I have graduated, I am able to apply for further roles in the Civil Service that prefer applicants to have a degree.”

Combining full-time work with two or three evenings of lectures a week can be challenging, but a military background is the ideal preparation, providing the discipline needed to be successful. Paul’s advice for others contemplating a degree as a mature student is: “You will need to be really self-disciplined for the degree, particularly for the final two years. It is a great option for veterans, who will come from a disciplined background. I found the best way for me to study was to head to coffee shops with my books and laptop, so I had few distraction, and just made sure I did all the reading for the lectures.”

Paul graduated today at a ceremony at the University of London’s Senate House, along with 175 Birkbeck social sciences graduates.

Further information:

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