New film explores the link between Kew Gardens collections and the Amazon

This article was written by Dr Luciana Martins from Birkbeck’s Department of Cultures and Languages

boatKew Gardens holds fascinating artefacts collected by the botanist and explorer Richard Spruce, who travelled in South America in the nineteenth century. I am about to embark on a 10-day workshop with indigenous peoples in the Amazon based on this collection,  and so decided to seize this opportunity to take up the camera  and produce my first research-led film.

The purpose of filming was twofold. First I wanted to explore the potential of film to elicit memories and stories of the indigenous peoples participating in the workshop about specific artefacts of Kew’s collection. The second was to tell the story of one of these artefacts in a way that she could convey cinematically the contrasting environments of the object’s life.

Now, in collaboration with the Derek Jarman Lab (DJL), a research and film-making hub based at Birkbeck, I have released The Many Lives of a Shield, a short film that follows the story of one of these artefacts.

I participated in a DJL filming workshop with Bartek Dziadosz and Bea Moyes, which demystified the process of filmmaking, giving me confidence to go ahead with my project. The partnership with Bea worked really well, and the whole film-making experience opened-up a new way of working, seeing and thinking, which I’m still getting to terms with.

I am currently organizing a roundtable during Arts Week entitled ‘Telling object stories: film, peoples and plants in the Amazon,’ in which I will discuss with Bea Moyes and Bartek Dziadosz the potential of film to produce new insights into arts and humanities research – watch this space!

Watch The Many Lives of a Shield

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Speculative Aesthetics: Freeports as the Art Caves of High Finance

This article was written by Neil Fitzgerald, winner of the inaugural Verso Prize for Cultural and Critical Studies. Speculative Aesthetics: Freeports as the Art Caves of High Finance is a selection from the winning dissertation and was originally published on the Verso Books blog.


Fig. 1. Cave art from Lascaux

In a lecture given on January 18, 1955 in Orléans, the French writer and anthropologist Georges Bataille suggested that the paintings discovered at the Lascaux caves in France in 1940 announce the presence of man on earth –  man ‘appeared on earth with art’. The paintings are figurative – ibex, bison, mammoth rhinos, often in the process of being hunted by arrows (Fig. 1) – and Bataille suggests they reveal a magic-oriented desire for ‘assuring miraculous hunts’. He acknowledges the irony of how this discovery of ‘our birth’ is being made at a time when ‘the notion of our death appears to us’ in the guise of atomic experiments in the atolls of the Pacific.

What Bataille repeatedly stresses in this lecture is the relation of these prehistoric artworks to a form of ‘wealth’. One problematic he addresses is the inability of the contemporary visitor to discover these primitive artworks without the ‘present-day world’ following the viewer into the ancient cave. He highlights the parallels between the cave entrance at Lascaux and a Paris subway station, complete with admission tickets, bookstore and postcards. Bataille retraces the moment three 15-year-old boys re-discovered the cave network and art in September 1940.  He quotes one of the boys describing their discovery in terms of discovering treasure – ‘a casket of diamonds or a cascade of precious gems’; they thought that their fortune had been made. Bataille continues: ‘If we suddenly enter this world, the oldest one that man has created, we are seized by a feeling of fabulous wealth’. Their translation of this stupefying event into this language, Bataille argues, is because the feeling of personal wealth is the strongest feeling a human can have: ‘Lascaux is…rich to the point of dazzling us.’ In contrast to such riches is the poverty of his contemporaneous world, wherein everything is submitted to the control of profitability with one exception: ‘the engineering and materials of destruction, works that today threaten to exterminate the species.’ Bataille suggests that if we see ourselves in the beings who created the cave art, it is because they offer us this feeling of wealth, a feeling undermined by the poverty of the present-day which accompanies the latter-day visitor. Linking the marvellous with material wealth, Bataille posits the connection between art and economics lies in the fact that a work of art requires labour to be produced: ‘the work of art is wealth expended without utility.’ ‘The feeling of richness’ and the fact of ‘being dazzled’ are symbiotically entangled.

Since Bataille’s lecture, the interrelationship between art and ‘feelings of wealth’ has taken on a substantively different meaning. In 2012, global sales of art were estimated at more than £40 billion. The richness of this symbiosis is usefully demonstrated by the rise of the Freeport (Fig. 2), secure warehouse complexes which are said to house millions of works of art, although the confidentiality afforded by these locations means precise numbers and their value are impossible to come by.


Fig. 2. Le Freeport, Luxembourg

Freeports have garnered a reputation as ‘fortresses of art’ and ‘bunkers of the super-rich’ which operate as speculative safe-houses and galleries for the wealthy to shop in. It is noticeable how a martial figurative language is used to describe them as protection against potential attack. The website of Le FREEPORT in Luxembourg suggests clients choose their warehouse complex ‘to best preserve goods from theft, depredations, and climatic aggressions’. It is telling, however, that the locations of these warehouse complexes – Geneva, Luxembourg – are all in financial tax havens, suggesting that what they really offer protection against is an attack by the taxman. The key here is that the goods are technically in transit, and as such, are exempt from a raft of customs duties. The ‘port’ location ensures confidentiality, ‘not much scrutiny, the ability to hide behind nominees, and an array of tax advantages’, ultimately transfiguring these zones of transit into ‘permanent homes of accumulated wealth’. Tony Reynard, the chairman of a freeport in Singapore, believes the 2008 financial crash triggered a demand for physical assets such as art. These ‘physical assets’, however, are invisible assets, artworks carefully concealed from the view of thieves and taxation in high-security environments such as Le FREEPORT. Like death and extinction, these artworks are not part of human experience. Hidden from view, entirely withdrawn as phenomena, they move into the philosophical category of ‘non-existent objects’ – something that does not exist in reality, like unicorns or Sherlock Holmes, and yet can still be spoken about. Yet they still function as tradable commodities in a shadow market whose opaque transactions are legally sanctioned. The notion of ‘cave art’ has been inverted in freeports: these highly-secure climate-controlled structures now function as ‘art caves’, as places of un-seeing.

Within the Freeport art cave, artworks become objects of financial speculation – a tax-free safety-deposit box for off-shore assets. The ‘art object’ is wholly withdrawn, its historical ‘truth’ concealed in the logics of finance. Its existence becomes purely nominal, whatever value its title and artist can create on the market. The ‘feeling of richness’ or ‘wealth’ that Bataille spoke of in relation to the Lascaux cave art here becomes an economic investment – a feeling at once buried behind bureaucratic layers of confidentiality and secrecy deep inside the art cave’s security complex, and at the same time exterior to it – abstracted as an asset, a ‘feeling of richness’ revealing itself as a row of numbers on a balance sheet in another country. As Heidegger asked at the beginning of his essay The Origin of the Work of Art (1950-60), how does a painting go from a thing to a work? As a thing it can hang on a wall or be transported like coal. It becomes a work by doing the work of alēthia, disclosing a truth for a historical people. But today works are concealed behind concrete walls in art caves so that the concealing Freeport itself does this unconcealing, revealing the thingliness of works as speculative commodities, reified by an elite as mere financial resource.

Heidegger would perhaps see this as the culmination of the objectification of the aesthetic experience, of the art-object as mere resource. The ‘work’ of the art work is now done by money on the art market and by the artist’s name. A different version of Van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes (1887) was sold at auction for $8.9 million in 2006 and now resides in a private collection. Heidegger’s pure notion of art also abstracts it from the logics of capitalism which the artist himself worked within. In 1888, Van Gogh writes about making his pictures have some ‘market value’; in 1883, he writes about not paying his taxes, demonstrating his poverty to the ‘assessors’ in his ‘four kitchen chairs’ and lack of ‘rugs, pianos, antiques’. In this conspicuous poverty, his house-cum-studio might be said to serve as a form of tax haven.

What brings the cave art and the art cave together are their susceptibility to the elements, including human observers. Both caves – prehistoric and contemporary – require a constant ambient temperature for the art to endure. Despite the vast temporal differences, the brute materiality of the art and its precariousness remain constant. Heidegger suggests that the art work creates a historical people who preserve the work and the truth it discloses in time, until it is displaced by a new disclosure. But now we find that later historical people are preserving earlier artworks. For example, the Chauvet cave art has been reconstructed using concrete-resin walls to preserve the originals from being damaged through human body temperatures disturbing the cave’s micro-climate. The simulacrum uses 3D scans, sculptures, and photos projected onto the rocks. Even the cool subterranean temperature of the original is replicated, as these atmospheric factors – darkness, humidity – are seen as integral to the ‘feeling of emotion’ generated by the original art.  The website boasts that visitors entering the replica cavern ‘will discover the world as it appeared to men and women 36 000 years ago’. Thus, in spite of Heidegger’s critique of the aesthetic experience of artworks, it is this very quality which engenders the preserving of the cave art. How such simulacra, be it the replica cave, Werner Herzog’s documentary film, or photographs, transfigure the original work of art, is an important question. The German Critical Theorist Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ or Jean Baudrillard’s work on simulacra could provide intriguing frameworks for answering such questions.

In Heidegger’s essay, the earth is seen as the ontological horizon of all human being, which is now being threatened by the worlding of Late Capitalism, a system which benefits from concealing the truth of its destruction of its foundational earth. The Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek has suggested humanity’s ‘collective ideology’ is ‘mobilising mechanisms of dissimulation and self-deception’ rather than facing up to the climate catastrophe at hand and the necessary economic shift needed to counter it.[1] Are these freeports, then, one such mechanism of dissimulation and self-deception, seeking to conceal rather than unconceal the increasingly uneven strife between earth and world?


[1] Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (Verso, 2011), p. 327.

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Discover our Research: Meet the academics

As part of Birkbeck’s Discover our research activity, Dr Suzannah Biernoff, senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Visual Culture in the Department of History of Art writes about her current research activity.

Dr Suzannah Biernoff

Dr Suzannah Biernoff

Hi Suzannah. What was your route to Birkbeck?

I moved to London from Sydney in 1998, after finishing my PhD. Before taking up a lectureship at Birkbeck in 2007 I taught on the Visual Culture programme at Middlesex University and at Chelsea College of Art and Design.

What’s your current topic of research?

My most recent publications have examined attitudes towards disability and disfigurement during and after the First World War. My book, Portraits of Violence: War and the Aesthetics of Disfigurement, is due out with the University of Michigan Press early next year. Wellcome funding has made it possible to publish open access articles in journals including Social History of Medicine, Visual Culture in Britain and Photographies.

I wanted to use visual sources as much as possible – from medical photographs and life drawings to prosthetic masks, photo albums and images in the illustrated press – sources that complicate and at times contradict the written record. As a historian of visual culture I am also interested in how people viewed the disfigured face. Cultural prohibitions against staring, expressions of pity or disgust, and later in the century the visual thrill of the horror movie: all of these ‘ways of seeing’ are part of the story, as much as the material evidence of injury, masking and repair.

I have recently been awarded a Birkbeck Wellcome Trust ISSF mid-career fellowship to begin a new project on images of facial difference within European and North American popular culture, film and visual art in the 20th and 21st centuries. I am interested in how people have responded to unusual or extraordinary faces; the cultural mechanisms of normalisation; and strategies of defiance and re-interpretation (for example, where the damaged face is re-imagined as beautiful, or where artists use disfigurement as a creative or symbolic device). As well as artistic representations of the face, my sources include public health images, advertisements, medical photographs, coffee table books, film and fashion photography.

Why did you choose this topic? What inspired you?

In autumn 2002 I went to the Strang Print Room at UCL to see a small exhibition of Henry Tonks’ drawings of WWI servicemen with facial injuries. In western art, the face is a primary marker of identity and humanity, and its violation or absence often represents the limits of the human. Tonks’ portraits are almost unbearably intimate studies. They record men before and after reconstructive surgery: almost certainly in pain, physically and emotionally exposed, but stoical. A surgeon himself, as well as a professor of anatomy and drawing at the Slade School of Art, Tonks managed to reveal something new about the depths of the human face and the ways in which images – and institutions – can shape the way we see. He once wrote that he wondered what the body must look like to someone without his knowledge of anatomy. I wonder if his ability to look without horror or embarrassment at the men he drew allows us to see them differently as well.

What excites you about this topic?

I’ve always liked the idea that the things we take most for granted, the things that feel inevitable and personal – our bodies, emotions or sensations – have a history. My current project focuses on the human face, which has tended to be overlooked in histories of the body.

Each chapter of Portraits of Violence revolves around a particular image or set of images:

  • Nina Berman’s 2006 World Press Photo winning portrait Marine Wedding is discussed alongside Stuart Griffiths’ photographs of British veterans of the Iraq War;
  • Henry Tonks’ drawings of WWI facial casualties are compared to the medical photographs of the same men in the Gillies Archives; the production of portrait masks for the severely disfigured is approached through the lens of documentary film and photography;
  • and in the final chapter the haunting image of one of Tonks’ patients at the Queen’s Hospital reappears in the first-person shooter game BioShock, provoking an exchange on a players’ discussion forum about the ethical limits of realism.

What is challenging about the research?

Photograph of Henry Tonks in his room at the Queen's Hospital, Sidcup, 1917

Photograph of Henry Tonks in his room at the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, 1917

Like most researchers working on issues of stigma and appearance within the humanities, my approach is informed by a social model of disability, according to which beauty, normality, acceptability and ugliness are in the eye (and cultural imagination) of the beholder. One of the strange things about disfigurement as a topic is that people (both experts and popular writers) have tended to assume that the object of study is self-evident. We think we know what we’re talking about when we refer to disfigurement. In fact there are no sources – historical or contemporary – that define this problematic term. The sociologist Heather Laine Talley observes in her book Disfigurement and the Politics of Appearance that the concept of disfigurement has ‘no static intelligibility, no objective point of reference, no stable shared meaning’ (2014, p. 14).

This problem with definitions presents a challenge for historians. If we understand ‘disfigurement’ – and stigma generally – as negotiated and context specific, then the idea of a history of disfigurement is a bit misleading. Really, one would need to ask why and how facial or bodily difference becomes disfigurement within particular social interactions and cultural contexts. In the early twentieth century – the period I’ve looked most closely at – these contexts include the fear and censorship of facial war injuries, and the lingering stigma of syphilis, but the symbiotic relationship between war and medicine had a role to play as well. Thanks to the large number of facial casualties returning home from the battlefields of WWI, plastic surgery – described by the pioneering surgeon Harold Gilles as a ‘strange new art’ – became a recognized medical specialism, and disfigurement a treatable condition.

What are the potential impacts of your research on everyday life?

Appearance plays a crucial role within social hierarchies. Like gender, class and race, the way we look is a powerful determinant of social mobility and physical capital. In this respect, there are clear parallels between the civil rights and feminist movements, and more recent developments in disability rights and ‘face equality’.

Despite the inclusion of serious disfigurement in the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in 1995, there is a widespread perception among disability scholars and campaigners that the norms of acceptability are becoming narrower: that society (at least in the developed and increasingly globalised world) is becoming less tolerant of people who look different from a prevailing idea of normality.

Although disfigurement is not an illness – or even, in most cases, a functional impairment – it is widely perceived as having and requiring a medical solution. Understanding the social, political and historical contexts of ‘disfigurement’ is important both from the perspective of the medical humanities, and for scholars, artists, activists and policy makers working in the field of disability studies and advocacy.

What kind of a research environment is Birkbeck to work in?

One of the things I love about working at Birkbeck is that I teach students with such diverse interests and backgrounds. Each year I run an MA option called Exhibiting the Body, on medical museums and the historical intersections between art and medicine. Over the years my students have included nurses, GPs, painters and performance artists, a game developer, a medical photographer, and the curator of Barts Pathology Museum. There have been some memorable debates along the way on topics ranging from 19th-century freak shows to the ethics of displaying human remains.

As a teacher, being able to draw on a wide spectrum of personal and professional perspectives makes for an incredibly rich classroom experience. In the humanities we talk a lot about the value of interdisciplinarity at the level of research, but often overlook the benefits of teaching students in a multidisciplinary environment.

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Birkbeck’s Published Alumni Series: Nadim Safdar

This post was contributed by Valeria Melchioretto. This summer the Birkbeck Creative Writing department launched its new website The Mechanics’ Institute Review Online. This year marks a huge success for the Creative Writing MA as ten alumni have novels coming out this year.

To celebrate these achievements we are profiling a selection of the authors and extracts from their upcoming novels will appear on MIROnline. Here, Valeria speaks with alumnus Nadim Safdar, about his debut novel, Akram’s War (Atlantic, May 2016)

Read an extract of the book at MIROnline

VM: Firstly, congratulations on your debut novel Akram’s War which has just been published by Atlantic and thanks for taking part in this interview. We are keen to learn about your career so far. If you had to pick the most significant learning experience from your entire MA, what would it be?

NS: I feel fortunate that I come from a scientific background in which what we were taught was empirical and fact. It is not so different in the Creative Arts – the idea of form, structure, characterization and whether or not a situation or scene or phrase has been earned – these things I had to be taught. I listened carefully and writing the book, I built a shed in the rear of the garden and having sacrificed the day-job, I thought of little else for over four years. My day would begin around 10 at night when (my now wife) would go to bed and I’d work through.

Image credit: Sahar Afzal

Image credit: Sahar Afzal

Debut novels are famously thought to be, at least in parts, autobiographical. How much inspiration have you drawn from firsthand experience and how much is down to research or fiction?

It is surprising how you live within the character and indeed, how much of your character(s) live in you. There are two main characters in the book, Akram and Grace and during the four years of writing them, I often found myself (in real life) at a point of decision-making and wondered – what would Akram or Grace have done?

It won’t come as a surprise to me that readers’ might ask what I have in common with Akram (a Pakistani male). We men think we know how to fight but there are some battles we are not equipped for.

I therefore had to find the character Grace – and through her express the story of someone at the mercy of a system she is not equipped to deal with. I had to make the story of losing one’s child (or even the ever-present day-to-day threat of that loss) acceptable to the reader and for that to be believable it could only be expressed through the eyes of a woman.

We all have lived experience: have loved, fought, wounded others and scarred ourselves. You might want to but you can’t just blurt it out – writing is about finding a form in which to put it.

Your book has a strong message about the radicalisation of British Muslims. Over the last couple of years the topic has become ever more pressing, with the rise of ISIS etc. Could you see it coming?

Although no one could see it coming, I don’t think anyone could say, in retrospect, that the unfolding events weren’t inevitable.

The first Muslim has been sworn in as London’s new Mayor. Do you think he might be a role model for young British Muslims and could this event mark a turning point for radicalisation? Or what do you think it all means?

I think it means that the majority of Londoner’s are relatively poor and prefer the socialist candidate.

There is a whole genre of novels based on politically and socially urgent topics. I am sure you are familiar with the work of Lionel Shriver and so on. There is often talk about writers having an obligation to make social comments. How important is it for a writer to pick a relevant subject that features in the media or do you think that topics pick their writers and it’s about following one’s hunch whatever the subject matter?

Lionel Shriver talks about writing about people who ‘are hard to love,’ and with a protagonist who is something of a loner and an outsider there is much more to explore and say. To me, such people are far more interesting. In terms of social commentary, why would a writer like myself want to be between two intractably opposed sides murdering each other with any means at their disposal. The book is a complete work of fiction and has to exist all by itself.

Nadim Safdar (Image credit: Sahar Afzal)

Nadim Safdar (Image credit: Sahar Afzal)

How do you know when you are onto something big? Moreover, when do you know the novel you are writing is finished?

I wrote down one single phrase, printed it out large and posted it to the wall. After that, I had to invent the character and somehow, through 80,000 or so words, make him earn that phrase. It might sound arrogant but knew I had it in that first phrase.

The end point was more prosaic, the character Akram had simply run his course and had nothing more meaningful to say.

Was there much more work that needed to be done on the novel after finding an agent?

I was fortunate in finding an excellent agent and publisher who really seemed to understand what I was getting at, but also and importantly, they represented the reader. Through their direction the published book is far better than the one I originally submitted. For me, from first submission to an acceptable draft took about a year.

The opening sentence of chapter one is an absolute classic and has the sharp directness that instantly engages a reader. Given that your book has such a serious content how did you find the right form for it?

The opening phrase that I posted on my wall was set in the present. To earn it I had to take my protagonist right back to childhood and, through twenty or so years of his life, work back up to it. Although the past was told in a sort of flashback narrative, those scenes originally started as a series of short story’s linked through inter-connected characters. Once I had those, I had to find a form or framework and so I set the entire novel over one night and discovered Grace, someone my protagonist could tell his story to.

Getting a book deal is any MA student’s ultimate dream. Do you now write on a full-time basis?

You don’t get paid enough to write on a full-time basis – or at least I don’t! Indeed, writing on a full-time basis almost drove me mad. A writer needs something else, whether it’s travel or family or teaching or a part time job. You need also to be out in the world.

Rumours have it that you are already working on your next novel The Journeyman which is about a boxer. Could you tell us a bit more about it?  

A journeyman is a boxer who’s prone to losing and fights weekly for a living wage. A journeyman can’t afford to getting knocked out or injured as he then has to lay off for a month or more. So a journeyman is a master in defense and evasion and if he is that good, what does it take for him to win?

Barely a quarter through the new book, I already feel like I’m sitting at the bar at the Hailstone in Rowley Regis with my characters and for that feeling, a sort of writers-magic that signals I’m on to something, I’m very grateful.

Akram’s War by Nadim Safdar (Atlantic) is available now for £ 12.99

Nadim Safdar was born to Pakistani parents and grew up in the Black Country. He is married with three young children and lives in London. His first novel, AKRAM’S WAR, was published by Atlantic in May 2016.

Valeria Melchioretto

Valeria Melchioretto

Valeria Melchioretto is the author of Podding Peas and The End of Limbo. She received a bursary from the Arts Council. In 2012 she represented Switzerland at the Poetry Olympics at the South Bank and won the ‘New Writing Ventures’. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck and a MA in Fine Art.

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