Picturing the family: media, narrative, memory

Dr Silke Arnold-De Simine, Reader in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, discusses family photographs and cultural memory – the subject matter of her new book, co-edited with Dr Joanne Leal.

In the summer of 2005, during a Visiting Fellowship at the ANU in Canberra, I came across a rather eerie notice in a display cabinet of a small campus exhibition only to see it again and again in the following weeks at the beginning of television programmes and cinema screenings. It advised spectators to ‘use caution viewing these photographs/films, as they may contain images or voices of dead persons’. At first I was puzzled but then I came to understand that in aboriginal society, where people traditionally live in extended family groups, it is considered a taboo to refer to a dead person by name or to look at photographs or film footage of the deceased, partly out of respect but also to avoid painful memories.

As a scholar I was of course reminded of Roland Barthes’s iconic winter garden photograph of his late mother as a young girl, which he famously describes but refuses to share with his readers, and of W.G. Sebald’s omissions in his books, in which family photographs – some reproduced as actual images, some only described – conjure up a mournful mood. What makes photographically captured moments so powerful that they stay with us as a form of ‘afterimage’ even if they have been evoked in another medium such as language? It made me think about what difference it makes if we remember through language, through images, both still or moving, or a combination of mimetic and non-mimetic representations. While it draws out questions around mediated memory, the affective power of photography and the related tropes of death, loss and mourning, my Australian experience was also a stark reminder of the historical and cultural specificity of our encounters with photographs.

The contexts in which we peruse family photographs can be marked as a sad occasion (for example after the death of a family member) or a joyous moment in life (celebrations, birthdays or anniversaries). The viewing experience will not only be influenced by what is depicted and by the occasion that triggers a re-viewing, but also by the formats in which these images are available to us. Are they carefully collected and even annotated in a family album, stored away in shoeboxes or (half-)forgotten in attics? Or are these records of cherished or important moments at our fingertips on camera phones to be shown to a wide circle of acquaintances? Are they framed and on display in homes or in (semi-)public spaces such as social media or archived and exhibited in museums? Do they circulate across different media? Have they gone through a period of being lost, together with the identity of those depicted, to resurface in archives, junk shops or eBay auctions?

If the photographs or photo albums have been displaced and the oral forms of communication which accrue around them have been lost, if they themselves have no annotations or captions, they can be full of mysteries and invite imaginative investment: not only the questions of who and what the photograph shows, but also why, how, where and when it was taken are open to speculation. Who is behind the camera lens? Who do these people in the photograph look at, smile at, frown at? Once they have forfeited their function as family memento, family photographs can lead a complicated after-life in which they become decontextualised and recontextualised, triggering and shaping memories, inviting storytelling, helping us negotiate the past and the future, deconstructing and reconstructing notions of family, kinship and community, and helping us cope with ruptures and (re)establish connections and elective affinities in empathic encounters.

It is important to remember that we perform our identities in relation to the cultural contexts that shape who we are. How we practice intimacy and share our lives with others is determined by the very specific family dynamics in which we grew up, just as much as it depends on the media technologies that are at our fingertips, but it is also historically and culturally contingent. The boundaries between what is considered private and what can be shared with a wider public have experienced a seismic shift over the last few decades: from chat shows and reality TV to social media, blogs and YouTube, ‘sharing’ has become part of how we define our identity as connected beings. We are encouraged to connect to ‘Others’ through empathy, a feeling of relatability that is very much modelled on the notion of kinship and just as often limited by it.

With the increased mobility of people across the globe and the encounters resulting from this, it becomes more and more necessary to question what we mean by ‘family’, ‘home’ and ‘belonging’, to reconceive these concepts so that they enable us to understand and come to terms with the complex realities that we will have to face and to enable us to build alternative modes of social belonging and new forms of community.

These are some of the themes that are explored in this collection of essays (edited by myself and Joanne Leal) that introduces a dialogue between academic, creative and practice-based approaches. From the act of revisiting and reworking old, personal photographs to the sale of family albums through internet auction, each of the twelve chapters presents a case study to understand how these visual representations of the family perform memory and identity.

Picturing the Family is available from Bloomsbury. 

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Who knows wins: the validity of employee selection methods

Duncan Jackson, Chris Dewberry, Jarka Gallagher and Liam Close discuss the effectiveness of different candidate selection methods for businesses.

Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash.com

In our recent article published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, we were interested in how HR practitioners perceived the validity of employee selection procedures, and how their perceptions aligned with validity estimates published in academic literature.

We summarised the discrepancies between published validity evidence and the perceptions of those who reported holding:

  1. CIPD (Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development) qualifications
  2. HRM (Human Resource Management) qualifications
  3. OP (Occupational Psychology) qualifications
  4. and laypeople, who do not hold formal HR qualifications.

Our findings suggest that the responses of those with CIPD- and HRM-related qualifications did not differ significantly or substantially from the responses of laypeople.  However, those with OP-related training tended to respond in a manner significantly and substantially more aligned with findings reported in the research literature. What do these findings imply?

They could imply that those trained in OP have a better awareness of the research literature regarding employee selection than the other groups sampled.  This is consistent with the fact that research in this area is predominantly published in journals that are psychology-oriented.  Our findings might also imply that those with CIPD- and HRM-related training do not tend to access – or perhaps do not have access to – contemporary, high-quality research related to the validity of candidate selection methods.

Dr Chris Dewberry from the Department of Organizational Psychology and a co-author on this paper states:

‘For organisations, selecting the best job candidates is very important. To achieve this, familiarity with the results of high-quality scientific research on the effectiveness of different selection methods is vital. The results of the research presented in this article clearly indicate that practitioners without a background in organisational psychology are at a disadvantage here. The implication is clear: initiatives to familiarise practitioners with an HR background about the results of scientific research on personnel selection are urgently needed.

As a community of applied researchers and practitioners, perhaps we need to do more to make research findings available and to communicate those findings.  For example, occupational psychologists could work in conjunction with the CIPD to ensure that findings published in occupational psychology-related journals are shared in an appropriate format with HRM practitioners.

If practitioners do not hold an awareness of the latest and greatest vis-à-vis employee selection research, then they might not be using candidate selection methods optimally.  This could, in turn, affect the careers of individuals and the optimal function of organisations.  Dr Scott Highhouse from Bowling Green State University offers a related explanation and suggests that practitioners might not see selection research as being relevant to their practice.  This perspective suggests that it is important to educate about the importance of validity in selection and how it impacts on practice.  A clear example of where selection applies to the bottom line for an organisation is seen in utility analysis – a function which shows how validity relates to monetary gains for organisations on the basis of using valid selection procedures.

Practitioners should consider the following actions:

  • Ensure that the choice of selection method is guided by validity evidence as published in high quality, peer-reviewed sources
  • Understand that knowledge of validity is power in employee selection: practitioners need to take the time to familiarise themselves with the literature on the validity of selection methods
  • Know that the degree of validity makes a difference to the quality of selection decisions and to the bottom line for organisations

Further information:

  • For the original, peer-reviewed article, see:
    Jackson, D. J. R., Dewberry, C., Gallagher, J., & Close, L. K. (in press). A comparative study of practitioner perceptions of selection methods in the United Kingdom. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. doi: 10.111/joop.12187
  • About the authors: Duncan Jackson, Chris Dewberry and Liam Close are members of Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology. Jarka Gallagher works for Arctic Shores Ltd, where Liam Close also works.
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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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