Building a hive mind through immersive art

Lily Hunter Green, Birkbeck’s next Artist in Residence, discusses the project she will be undertaking during her tenure: Bee Composed Live. The residency supports collaboration between academics and artists and will culminate in May with an exhibition of Lily’s work and a symposium.

I first began my work with honey bees in 2014. At the time I was working as a Sound Artist, exploring resonant and sustained sounds within different structures and spaces. As a pianist, I was anatomising the inner workings of my piano. By chance, a bee flew inside. The sound produced was resounding and alveolated, unlike anything I had heard before. I immediately began researching the bees. I was surprised that I didn’t know more about the pollination crisis, especially given the severity of the problem.

My previous piece, Bee Composed (2014), involved transforming a piano into a working beehive in which bees dwelled while an installed audio-visual recording device captured the harmonics of their interaction with the piano strings. One of the central aims of Bee Composed was to raise awareness about the human-caused threat to the honey bees and, as a result, to us too, if we don’t do something to stop their decline. I have since begun to develop Bee Composed Live, the work that my residency at Birkbeck will be focused on: that is, a live performance piece that combines music, dance and original audio-visual compositions in a bid to explore the ways in which we can artistically and critically draw attention to our rapidly changing ecology, and our role within it.

I believe that the role of the artist is to present an alternative way of experiencing the subject. One that provokes new ways of thinking, feeling and responding. Art as a creative transformer, as a catalyst for change, if you like. My primary objective in terms of Bee Composed Live is to present audiences with an alternative way of experiencing and interacting with nature via a series of immersive creative strategies. This will include the creation of a simulacrum ‘hive mind’, a unique microcosmic space, or ‘super-organism’, that enables audience members to experience the inner dynamics and scientific happenings of the hive. The concept of the ‘collective consciousness’ or ‘hive mind’ is itself an appropriation of how the worker bees administrate the hive.

As such, Bee Composed Live is dynamic collaboration. It represents togetherness, the power of collective thinking and action, and the importance of community.

This residency provides a unique opportunity for me to develop my creative thinking and practice within a new and challenging environment. To develop Bee Composed Live, I will work closely with the Birkbeck Centre for Contemporary Theatre, a space in which theatre makers, critics and audiences gather to share knowledge, ideas and practices.  I also hope to explore collaborative opportunities with other academic departments that intersect with my work, such as the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies and Birkbeck Research in Aesthetics of Kinship and Community. As someone who usually works in isolation, I am hugely excited at the prospect of working with such a range of creative practitioners and academics.

Most of the 10-month residency will be spent within The Centre for Contemporary Theatre. During this time students will have the opportunity to engage with a range of creative activities extending from inter-disciplinary workshops, digital screenings and seminars, through to the final performance and exhibition. My ambition is to inspire students and academics of all ages and disciplines to think ‘outside of the box’ and consider new ways of working with artists and creative forms, potentially creating new opportunities and collaborations across a range of disciplines, and thereby transforming complicated, often ‘dry’ scientific fact and theory, into a more accessible, digestible and dynamic form.

Another dimension of the residency will be to involve local communities and the wider public in Bee Composed Live: whether as active participants or as passive observers. Diversity is at the heart of my creative practice. As such, I am keen to ensure that as many people as possible are able to engage with this project in some way. As a consequence, every effort will be made to create a piece of work that can eventually go out into the community, by physically in a touring capacity, and/or, via a digital platform.

Collaboration and participation will be key to the success of this residency. I hope as many people as possible will become part of this creative hive mind.

 

 

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Animating medieval manuscripts

Professor of Medieval Studies Anthony Bale discusses his work with Birkbeck’s artist in residence, animator Shay Hamias. Together, they are developing a new interface between contemporary digital animation and medieval studies.

This year Birkbeck received one of only 19 prestigious Leverhulme Trust Artist-in-Residence awards. The residency is supporting animation artist Shay Hamias to work with me in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. Hamias is an animation director, with experience working on short and feature films, advertisements, and the museum and heritage sectors. Hamias’ work creatively explores the visual possibilities of design, motion and narrative, seeking new ways to interpret the medium. Hamias had long been fascinated by the artistry of medieval manuscripts, their combination of the written word and visual effects, and their engagement with religious belief. So the Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence award provided a superb opportunity to develop a completely new interface between contemporary digital animation and medieval studies.

Hamias and I share an interest in the meanings of images and symbolism, in particular, the religious symbolism in Christianity and Judaism. Our project has sought to put modern design in conversation with medieval artefacts in a bold new way. We have tried to test that idea, proposed by many scholars of medieval culture, that the pages of medieval books are ‘alive’ and animate, full of ‘active’ visual and mnemonic effects for the reader. Can contemporary animation engage in a fruitful and stimulating encounter with the often perplexing but beautiful images we find in medieval manuscripts? In medieval manuscripts, design and illustration are provided as tools for the viewer/reader to enable them to decode biblical narratives, using a visual language that would resonate with them and locate them mentally.

In the creative process, the artist looks at a subject from a personal point of engagement with it, combined with established ways of seeing.  Animation lends itself to translating inner thought and inner states, in a creative process based on lateral approaches to thinking and the use of associative emotions and imagination. Hamias and I have been thinking about how parallels might be drawn between modern visual language and medieval visuals. Might traditional techniques be applied to modern narratives, in a creative anachronism?

Formally, medieval manuscripts have much in common with modern animation: both condense time and space, through discontinuous visual and verbal narrative; both can rapidly illustrate change over a long period and produce memorable narrative through a ‘familiar’ iconography and media in service of popularly-held or generally-endorsed views; both can reveal metamorphosis and sudden change, sudden effects which are accepted by audiences because of their familiarity with the world created by the medium.

The emphasis of the residency is on Hamias’ artistic and creative freedom to respond to medieval sources in his own distinctive way. Hamias and I have met at least weekly during the residency, sometimes in libraries and archives with medieval manuscripts in front of us. The first animation project we have produced focusses on pilgrimage and visual movement. We have taken the idea of ‘visual storytelling’ and given it a contemporary take. We feel that our methodology remains ‘medieval’: our project is constructed entirely from things we have read in medieval texts or found in medieval visual culture. Moreover, Hamias put himself in a similar position to the medieval artist, who was imagining things based largely on received stories and depictions. Our first short animated film is called ‘The Matter of Jerusalem’, after William Wey’s 1460s manuscript book which describes the journey from Venice to Jerusalem.

We now have plans to develop this film and to collaborate on an exhibition about Birkbeck’s own medieval books in summer 2018.

You can follow Anthony and Shay’s project on their Instagram page @animatedpage

 

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Verbal dynamite: how swearing differs between first and foreign language users

Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele from the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication recalls his experience of learning the strength of swear words after moving to the UK, and his research on how the use and perceived offensiveness of words differs between first and foreign users of English. 

When I arrived in the French department at Birkbeck in October 1994, after having finished my PhD on French interlanguage at the Free University of Brussels, I was well aware of a number of aspects of the English language that I was still struggling with: prepositions, the pronunciation of certain words, some verbal constructions… I was unaware of gaps in my knowledge of taboo words, appropriate communication of emotion, the distance between British speakers (one arm length, rather than half an arm’s length like on the continent) and general avoidance of physical contact with interlocutors. I picked up most of these things gradually, through the observation of my colleagues and students.  My neighbour, a librarian at Senate House, was kind enough to proofread my papers until I became more sure-footed in academic English. I realised that I would never get rid of my French-Dutch accent in English and decided that I could live with that – even if it involves answering the regular and rather tedious question ‘where are you from?’ to which I invariably answer ‘London’ and then add ‘from Belgium originally’.  My English vocabulary grew, with the exception of words that were bleeped out on radio and television or censured in the newspapers.  I had no idea what was meant with b****, b******, c***, d***, though I guessed that f*** meant ‘fuck’.

My colleagues, students and friends were too well educated to use such words in conversation, the words were unprintable and they did not figure in the English word lists at my secondary school in Bruges.  How then, I wondered, was I, a foreign language user, supposed to learn these vibrant dark words? I asked a colleague in the Applied Linguistics department, Dr Macolm Edwards, what he considered to be the worst English taboo word.  He looked at me quizzically and remained silent. I encouraged him, telling him that we were applied linguists after all and that we could deal with the dark linguistic stuff.  He straightened his back, looked at me and said: ‘I couldn’t possibly tell you but I can spell it out: c – u – n- t’.  ‘Cunt?!’ I repeated.  He jumped back as stung by a wasp. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘mighty word indeed’.

I told him that French and Dutch have cognates ‘con’ and ‘kont’ that are not nearly as powerful and wondered why some words that share the same origin become taboo whereas others don’t quite manage to join that league.  This conversation happened in the mid-2000s when I was busy working on how multilinguals used their different languages to express particular emotions. One of the striking findings was that languages learnt later in life typically felt disembodied and that emotion words in these languages lacked the emotional force of equivalent words in multilinguals’ first language(s).

I decided then to focus on specific negative emotion-laden words in one language, English, and to invite first (L1) and foreign language (LX) users to rate their offensiveness and frequency of use. The aim was to have a wide range in offensiveness, from relatively mild words such as ‘fruitcake’ and ‘idiot’ to really taboo words and expressions such as ‘fucking hell’ and ‘cunt’. There are also questions about general frequency of swearing in English with various categories of interlocutor.  More than two thousand English L1 and LX users participated in the study. English LX users reported swearing significantly less in English than L1 users, possibly because of a lack of emotional resonance of the LX or because they had other languages to swear in. High levels of Psychoticism, Extraversion and Neuroticism were linked with more swearing in English among both L1 and LX users. The level of English proficiency, the frequency of use, early onset and context of the acquisition were linked to swearing among LX users.

The analysis of differences between L1 and LX users for the 30 words and expressions yielded some unexpected findings. As expected, L1 users reported more frequent use of the highly offensive words.  However, rather than underestimating offensiveness, LX users significantly overestimated the offensiveness of 29 out of the 30 words.  The only word they underestimated was ‘cunt’ – the most offensive word in the list. I have argued that the word is so offensive that it is invisible in the press and used quite rarely by L1 users which means that LX users have few opportunities to acquire a complete semantic and conceptual representation of the word. They may therefore wrongly believe that ‘cunt’ is just another swear word, not perceiving the second red flag known to all L1 users. Use of the word was found to be linked to personality with participants scoring high on Extraversion, Neuroticism and Psychoticism reporting more frequent use of the word.

To conclude, the dark side of English is a bit like the dark side of the moon to those who are not astronauts: full of fascinating, mysterious and potentially dangerous features.

Dewaele’s most recent research into swearing – “Cunt: On the perception and handling of verbal dynamite by L1 and LX users of English” is published by Multilingua. 

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Being at Bethlem

Olivia Bladen reports on her internship at the Bethlem Hospital Museum and Archives, offered as part of Birkbeck’s MA in Victorian Studies. During her time there, she looked into ‘over-study’ as a trigger for madness.On my first day at Bethlem Museum of the Mind archivist Colin Gale gives me a tour through the stacks, beginning with an important disclaimer. When I ask about personal ephemera left behind by former patients, such as letters – a common question, I later find out – he explains that this is not the nature of the records kept by the hospital, and that medical case-notes are about as personal as they get. I realise this makes sense: it would be invasive for the hospital systematically to collect personal affects in this way. But Colin understands why I asked. The history of Bethlem psychiatric hospital – or ‘Bedlam’, as it was notoriously known, giving us the colloquialism for ‘chaos’ still in use to this day – is sprawling, and often unsavoury. It brings to mind untold cruelties and tragedies, as we imagine the lost histories of misunderstood and mistreated residents. The desire to hear their stories, from their own points of view, is one most visitors to the museum and archives will feel.

However, as Colin pulls out Victorian admissions registers and case books, I realise that although I will have to do some reading between the lines, this may be a far more rewarding endeavour than I anticipated. Already, I can see stories unfolding in spidery handwriting, emerging through snippets of just a few sentences long. I’m particularly interested in a column in the general admission registers, the first recorded contact a patient would have with Bethlem, citing their ‘supposed cause of insanity’. This was to become the basis of my independent research, after I notice the term ‘over study’ crops up repeatedly. For the next six weeks, I go through every register from 1853 to 1888, noting down the details of each patient recorded with this given ‘cause’, then selecting specific case notes to explore further. I consult the writing of Dr George Savage, chief medical officer at Bethlem within my period, and many other Victorian psychiatrists, to try and understand how the term ‘over study’ was used. I even get to meet a current doctor from the hospital, Deji, who has been researching the same topic in his own time for twelve years. We are in agreement that concept of ‘over study’ was, even in the nineteenth century, not understood as an underlying cause of mental health issues, but as a trigger.  Nevertheless, the abundance of the term in the records speaks of the anxieties that existed in the popular imagination around the time of industrial revolution and education reform.     

In addition to its paper archive, the Bethlem also boasts an impressive material collection in the museum upstairs. I find out that in its current iteration, situated in what was formerly the hospital’s administration building, it is only a few years old. In 1970, ‘Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum’, as it was then known, was housed in a much smaller structure – and, to all intents and purposes, was an archive rather than a museum, since there was so little room for display. But in 2015, it moved to its more spacious home, and in an impressive feat that rewards its ambition, was shortlisted for Museum of the Year Award the very next year.

It doesn’t take long for me to meet the team, which is very small. Colin tells me that unlike larger organisations, here everybody does a bit of everything, and no day is ever the same. Although I can see this is hard, I am drawn to this way of working. I’m fascinated by the questions and problems each and everybody fields each day. The reading room, which also serves as Colin’s office, seems to be a hub of activity.  On Tuesdays, volunteer Charlotte deals with copyright issues, phoning round for permission to show artworks either in displays or on the website. Another volunteer, Barbara, helps Colin respond to archival enquiries by locating obscure references that may or may not exist somewhere within the pages of meeting minutes or case notes. She is trained in reading eighteenth and nineteenth-century handwriting, and often helps me decipher tricky passages that look like little more than inkblots to me.  Other days, I observe Learning Officer Caroline Smith deliver some public programming: a workshop around patient consent given to students on a psychology course; and the museum’s first audio-described tour of the collection for blind and partially-sighted visitors.

I’m keen to get more involved. I’ve arrived at the end of one exhibition and in time for the installation of Scaling the Citadel: The Art of Stanley Lench, which showcases his psychedelic, stained-glass influenced images that speak of beauty and celebrity. As part of the programming around the exhibition, Bethlem are running what they call ‘Fame and Misfortune’ tours, in which volunteers will give a five-minute talk about a famous resident or person associated with Bethlem. They’re looking for someone to give a talk on Charlotte Brontë – as a Victorian scholar, I feel I ought to step in. The talk is on a Saturday, given after a short tour of the museum by Colin. I explain how it’s thought that Brontë visited Bethlem when it was located in Lambeth, on one of her jaunts to London shortly before her death – but we can’t be sure, since she did not sign her name in the visitor book.

My talk leaves me feeling better prepared for the presentation I will give on my research this July, and it also reinforces my reluctance to leave Bethlem, as I’m caught up in the atmosphere of the Saturday opening. I bump into new director Suzie Walker-Millar, who offers me the opportunity to work on a project where I consult with volunteers about frequently-asked visitor questions to help improve training. I’m also looking forward to joining them as a front-of-house volunteer as soon as I can; and developing a learning resource with Caroline. My research project is over, but I’m not ready for my experience at Bethlem to end. I came there looking for its stories – now I hope I can be one of them.

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