Arts Week 2018: Wrestling with Words

Louisa Ackermann, Communications Officer at Birkbeck, reports on Arts Week event Wrestling with Words, a conversation between Toby Litt and Wes Brown which explored writing, fighting and being a man. 

What do we mean when we talk about masculinity? Is it an authentic sense of self, an identity, or is it a performance, carefully crafted and skillfully executed? On Friday 18 May, Toby Litt and Wes Brown joined in conversation to discuss their lives as writers and wrestlers, and how they have questioned what it is to be a man through these dual occupations.

Both have a family background of wrestling: Wes’s father was a pro-wrestler, meaning the scripted type performed in WWE, where characters are outlandish and outcomes are predetermined; while Toby’s great-great-grandfather was William Litt, a Cumberland wrestler who reigned undefeated and took home over 200 prize belts during his nineteenth-century career.

Toby, a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck and author of Wrestliana opened the event with a reading from his book, which he was inspired to write in an effort to find out more about his ancestor and the fascinating life he led. William had written his own book, also called Wrestliana, which Toby used during his research process while learning to wrestle himself in a sports hall in Carlisle.

He recounted his thought process and his growing anxieties as he geared up for his first fight:

“All the way up, on the train, I read and reread the practical bits of Wrestliana and thought about how – in five hours, then four hours, then three – I could be riding in an ambulance.

“I knew fairly certainly which injuries I feared most. I’d constructed a sliding scale.

“At the very top, there was quadriplegia – a broken neck and me in a wheelchair, unable to hug my children, scanning websites for advances in robot exoskeletons. Then there was the fractured lower vertebra, keeping me away from my desk, perhaps forever. There was the ruptured knee ligament. In the days before, I had started to notice how many of the men I saw were limping as they walked. I started to walk with an imaginary limp myself, because I thought a knee injury the likeliest. I flashed forward to the serious painkiller addiction that would follow. Next, there was the broken collarbone and the dislocated shoulder. By the time I got this far down the list, I was staring to bargain. ‘Okay,’ I thought, ‘I’d settle for that.’ Badly strained wrist, yes, that would be fine – as long as it was the non-writing hand. Can we make it the left wrist?”

But much to his surprise, he not only emerged without injury but won the match, and was free to continue on his research journey asking questions about competition, success and modern-day masculinity. Indeed, it was clear that for both speakers wrestling had become something which both informed and was informed by their perceptions of their own masculinity. Wes described a struggle to feel sufficiently manly while growing up as a sensitive boy in a working-class community, where many of the men worked in manual jobs, and found that wrestling was a way to assert a type of manhood on his own terms.

Wes followed in his father’s footsteps by going into pro-wrestling, which he describes as a form of drag. “It’s men pretending to be men,” he said, “it’s a performance of masculinity. ‘Being a man’ can be cartoonish and amusing, but it can also be dangerous. There’s a macho hierarchy in wrestling, but it’s all made up…. it’s a way to be macho and be a man, without having to actually be macho and be a man.”

Asked whether his parallel careers of wrestling and writing had informed each other, he said that “both are a form of storytelling, but I don’t think wrestling has taught me anything about writing whatsoever. What it has done is give me something to write about.”

Wrestliana by Toby Litt is available from Galley Beggar Press.

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BBKtalks: Working in the Arts

This post was contributed by Éimear Doherty, a student on Birkbeck’s Arts Policy and Management.

BBKtalks was the result of a competition being held by the Centre for Media, Culture and Creative Practice. This three-part series of talks was organised by two MA students of Arts Policy and Management and funded by the Film, Media and Cultural Studies Department, Birkbeck. The talks took place over three weeks in February and March 2014 and introduced six Birkbeck alumni to staff and students at Birkbeck University, as well as very welcome attendees from UCL, King’s College and Goldsmiths.

The overall aim of the series was to engage with a topic which preoccupies many Film, Media and Cultural Studies postgraduates: working in the Arts.

A piece of advice offered at ‘SU Employability: Elevator pitch & Networking Guide’, a workshop organised by the Birkbeck Career Services on 5 November 2013 became the first and crucial step on the way to producing BBKtalks. The guest speaker recommended the audience to “do something every day that will bring you closer to where you wish to be”. BBKtalks aimed to be one of those steps, for all involved.

The following is a summary of the guests’ comments from across the three nights, in response to the topic at the core of BBKtalks: the challenges and potentials of working in today’s Arts sector.

The guidance referenced is a mixture of that provided by guests’ during their presentations and interviews, as well as during post-talk discourse.

1. What rules?

There are none.

Something which rang clear each week was the fact that there is no pre-established path into the Arts.

“There are no rules, officially, when it comes to the arts. London is wide open. You need to create your own rules.  Virginie Peurtolas Syn revealed to the BBKtalks attendees on 6 March. The accounts were provided by Leslie Primo and Lucy Taylor, who have forged careers from two very different directions, availing of postgraduate education at varying points in their professional lives.

However, there are some qualities which are essential. Before you decide what your rules will be, “you need to do your homework and be informed”.

2.       Do Your Homework”

Preparation is key.

The importance of staying informed is crucial. From researching key players in the Arts, to examining the key events and discussions taking place on various platforms. Without the right information, effective networking and successful interviews are not an option.

Two BBKtalks guests, Virginie Puertolas-Syn and Aser El Saqqa, began working in the Arts after over 15 years working in the business sector. Their advice to those making a career change or in the early stages of climbing their chosen ladder, was to make time to do some personal homework by considering their own skillset and finding effective ways of communicating their transferable skills.

3.       Experience, Education and Transferable skills

Practical forms of engagement need to go hand-in-hand with knowledge and information.

Both Lucy Taylor and Hannah Cross acknowledged the benefits of interning and how work placements in various institutions acted as stepping stones as well as networking tools during the early stages of their career. Experience is key. They encouraged the audience to engage with the Arts in a professional capacity as much as possible and as soon as possible. Caro also emphasised this point and found that her internship gave her the freedom to engage with the work and ask questions, without the kind of pressure you would have felt in other roles.

Caro Skyrme enrolled at Birkbeck years into a well-established and successful career. However, for her, much like Virginie, the MA gave confidence, underpinning her expertise. For Caro, the MA was a change to stand back from her working practice and consider issues she could not see or put aside time to engage with from within.

4.       Be Pro-active

If the opportunity is not presenting itself, you have to make the break for yourself.

After getting to know some artists, Caro Skyrme created her own role and became a visual arts consultant. “Just do it”. This could mean moving to a new city and leaving all that you know behind but you need to take a risk and invest in yourself before you can expect anyone else to. For Caro, the key to being pro-active lies in being able to make decisions and follow through. She advised the audience that one take consensus and be prepared to take the slack and the praise. Good planning and preparation (‘do your homework’) is also key, ensuring that solutions and alternative routes should never be far from reach.

Creativity is sometimes about making your own opportunities. Once you make a start, opportunities, offers and openings will follow. However, this “snowball effect” depends on your reputation. “People talk”, said Virginie Peurtolas Syn, making the Arts “a very transparent industry”. Lucy Taylor also emphasised one’s reputation as their most valuable commodity and reminding the audience how the London Arts scene is much smaller than it was first appear.

5.       The 30 second Pitch

It is important to know your key skills and how to make the most of them.

Something which was emphasised over the series of talks, in various ways, was the importance of being able pitch; either yourself or an idea. Ideally, according to Virginie, in less than 30 seconds. The speakers suggested that the audience ask themselves ‘what makes you different?’.

Effective pitching links back to the importance of networking and maintaining a good reputation. Human relationships are key and can determine a lot. One speaker stated how “you need to engage yourself with the sector of the arts who wish to become a part of. Go to people and introduce yourself.” Those among the guests who had experience working abroad championed London for its “flow”, explaining that unlike many other cities they had worked, London was a place where you could network with ease and build genuine contacts and working relationships.

6.       Perseverance and Passion

“People have asked me, ‘why do you do it?’”, admitted Aser to the audience on 6 March

His response? “Because I love it“.

Know what you wish to do and be prepared for the long haul. “Working in the Arts is a lifestyle choice”, remarked Hannah Cross on the second night. This is something that was also discussed by Lucy Taylor and Leslie Primo, who spoke candidly to members of the audience about how they spent their free time. Both emphasised how their work never left like ‘work’; an attitude shared by each of the BBKtalks speakers. Their passion for what they do was unmistakeable.

Finally,

Some words of advice, imparted by our generous guests.

  1.  “Don’t waste your time worrying”
  2. “Don’t be ashamed to ask for help”

It is a challenge to summarise the range of discussions which took place over the three part series of talks and the value advice provided by our six speakers was enough to fill a book.  Should anyone want more information on the talks, please contact Éimear Doherty and Stefania Donini at bbktalks@gmail.com or visit facebook.com/bbktalks2014 and @bbktalks.

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The Art of Writing; Or the Science of Writing

This post was contributed by Clare Brown, a student on Birkbeck’s MA History of Art. Clare also blogs at Renaissance Utterances.

‘Stop it with all the damn metaphors’
Kirk to ‘Bones’ McCoy in irritated exasperation 
Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

Science writing has held a peculiar interest for me this week, given my Trekkie credentials. I’ve seen the new Star Trek movie twice and have contemplated buying the original ‘Wrath of Khan’ to compare the change in writing and production styles. However for the purposes of these notes, the quote above is the perfect introduction to the Birkbeck Science and Writing Symposium, 21 May 2013.

A rare group of people – two poets, a playwright, an astronomer, a science/history/cultural academic, two actors and a cartoonist – were brought together not just to discuss the way they communicate their ideas but to actually demonstrate and showcase their skills. I’m not going to simply narrate what each person said but try to highlight themes. What I must say is, so often at academic symposia the emphasis is on the presentation of paper after paper with little or no presenter animation. No matter how interesting the topic, my eyes glaze over eventually but not here, not this time, we were off; starting with the Big Bang. Before I come on to the themes, I want to dwell a little on the poets and their poetry.

Anyone who has written poetry is aware of the painstaking care that goes into the selection of words, creation of sentences and the presentation of it on paper. Simon Barraclough is instantly ‘get-able’ with his ability to have words fall out of his subconscious. He is currently working on various projects; the first is penning a contribution to a collection of poems inspired by Light Show, the recent Hayward gallery exhibition, as well as his own Sun inspired collection. He entertained with his series of From Big Bang To Heat Death, my favourite being this one, because of the perfect combination of religion, science and cultural reference:

Our fusion
Which art in heaven
Stelliferous
From evil 

However Rosie Sheppard is a different kind of poet. With her scientific background and a fascination with DNA she uses the everyday, such as food, as a way of conveying the complex patterns and processes of nature and science. Earlier I was rereading one of the poems she recited and her astonishing images conjured by words and situations are tightly structured in a way that is suggestive of the double helix. But only because she told me it was there. Which is like telling a person who likes flowers purely for their scent that behind all the pretty smell is a complicated list of chemicals and chemical reactions. Interesting but without the specialised knowledge, some of the clever stuff goes over my head.

The themes which predominated were roughly these:

  • Science fiction is the absolute favourite way of linking writing and science. From wildly speculative space travel to the sci-fi closer to home, as demonstrated by Nick Payne with ‘Constellation’, the enduring popularity of the incorporation of science into fiction will continue. Science provides a way into a story, writers can play with it, laugh at it, imagine all possibilities and explore what would otherwise be difficult topics. As Nick said, the cosmologists he spoke to rubbished his multiverse theory but he has none-the-less produced a wondrous ‘what if’ play about death.
  • Rise in popular science and the use of accurate and clear summaries of contentious science to inform the public. Darryl Cunningham, cartoonist/graphic novelist has used the power of the image to blast bad science such as the MMR Scandal.
  • Scientists spend a lot of time writing, whether it is grant applications, reports or articles, communicating with the public, so a number of different styles are required. The Public Astronomer Marek Kukula emphasised the importance of getting precisely the right words, which was then immediately echoed by the poets. Another interesting linguistic point Marek made was the importance of foreign scientists working in English, for example, returning to home institutions and having to create new words in their own language to explain new concepts.
  • A continuing collaboration between the writers of art and science. The more theoretical and exploratory areas of science are perhaps more aligned to the arts; financially speaking they may not have a direct payoff but it’s culturally vital to have that inspiration and ‘blue sky’ understanding of our infinitely complex world. Scientists are working on imagining unimaginably abstract ideas, multiverses, esoteric maths, string theory, god particles, black holes. Some writers use art to explain science and this scientific language in turn enriches art. Science provides new metaphors. As Laura Salisbury stated, this is a hybrid language, a juxtaposition of communications ‘abraiding’ with one another.
  • An undeveloped theme was science as a new faith. For the majority of us, we live in a world in which we have to trust because we don’t understand the science behind every-day objects. Laura Salisbury in her cool articulate way outlined the importance of cultural assumptions, drawing on the ideas of French sociologist of science anthropologist Bruno Latour. Interestingly he said that we only become truly modern when we separate the rational from the irrational/superstitious. Scientists and their theories are often found to be wrong and the conservative religious right suggest this is a flaw. But all theories and ideas are incomplete and the enquiring mind is happy to uncover layers of truth.
  • Unrealistic expectation in medical science was also touched upon with examples of illness and resuscitation on television discussed. Marek says that there is no problem with fiction bending  scientific rules but when you’re on a real operating table you want it right. This takes us back to the way that hard science is communicated and the style that the doctor, scientists selects when disseminating methods, procedures etc. No art or metaphor required there.
  • There is a perception that science is dull because of the way it is taught in school and this raised some interesting points. Nick in his role as everyman said he had no clue what he was getting into with cosmology and multiverses but he spoke with people who did know. It was suggested that scientists are like dancers – they have learnt the basics and practiced and practiced – they use their knowledge, analytic thinking, and experience to put on their performance. School children are still learning; exercising at the barre, not yet ready to perform and what they need is ‘cool science’ to inspire.

The evening generated plenty of interesting discussion, each one easily a separate essay topic. There was a final note of caution from Laura on the dangers of metaphor, not just as a Star Trek character devise, but that it may cause a blurring in the precision of scientific language. But despite this, the most important feeling to take away was the acknowledgement that science and art are actually of equal importance; certainly the language of each, informs and enriches the other.

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