Public Engagement Awards: Dr Sophie Hope and Jenny Richards – Manual Labours: The Building as Body

This is the fourth in a series of blogs showcasing the Birkbeck 2020 Public Engagement Awards winners and highly commended participants. This project was announced the winner of the category ‘Engaged Practice’.

Manual Labours: The Building as Body is part of the long-term project Manual Labours, which explores physical and emotional relationships to work. This particular iteration took the Nottingham Contemporary as a case study and focused on the ‘(un)complaining body’ in relation to the architecture of the workplace. Research questions included:
– How do aspects of the building (storage, lighting, air, access routes) make staff feel?
– Where is the building hurting, blocked-up, suffering, sore, seeping, neglected?
– What impact does a complaining building have on a complaining body?

Since 2013, Dr Hope and Ms Richards (Independent Artist, Curator, Researcher, Partner of the Manual Labours Project) have been exploring physical and emotional relationships to work by carrying out workshops and interviews with different workforces (including cultural workers, commuters, call centre workers and complaints workers). For this phase of the research, they were invited by workers in a public cultural organisation to deliver a workshop on working conditions. At their request, they returned to work with them over a period of two years, responding to their needs to explore their workplace in a critical way. This was an iterative process where the research was driven by the content of the workshops. This collective investigations of the building became a useful reflexive and supportive space for staff to share their experiences and identify aspects of the organisation that they wanted to change. Thus, the project provided an experimental, well-needed space to reflect on the experience of work from different perspectives. The workshop format allowed people to meet from across the organisation and share experiences of their workplace, fostering conversations that otherwise were difficult to have. One of the creative outcomes of this project, the Manual and Wandering Womb Mobile Staffroom/Kitchen remain in use by the staff, and is so popular that it has its own booking system.

Dr Hope and Ms Richards’s work with the staff of the Nottingham Contemporary has also led to practical improvements to their shared kitchen, the refurbishment of the existing small staff room for invigilators and the reformatting of the open plan office. While these were cosmetic rather than structural changes they have led to improved staff communication and wellbeing. The presentation of the Health Assessment to the Board led to staff health and wellbeing becoming a standing item on the Board’s agenda. It has also been reported that there has been a changing attitude to having embedded practice-based researchers in the organisation as this was a first for the staff, demonstrating a new way of working with artist-researchers that can be taken into future work.

Birkbeck warmly congratulates Dr Hope, Jenny Richards, and the Nottingham Contemporary on their outstanding project, which was chosen as the winner in the category ‘Engaged Practice’.

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Francisco de Vitoria in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s ‘On the Law of Nations’

Dr Fernando Gómez Herrero, Honorary Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of Cultures and Languages, explores the historical links between the U.S. and Spain, via England. This article, under the same title as this blog, is featured in its entirety in the book Norteamérica y España: una historia de encuentros y desencuentros.

An American, an Englishman, a Spaniard: birds of the same feather flying together? What binds them together? Why would a noted contemporary public intellectual and politician from the US go to an old-European legacy of the relative periphery of five centuries ago? And how does he go “there”? Are his modern languages skills good enough to do so? What about the Englishman? How does he broker a good deal across the Atlantic? What historical ghost of the Spaniard shows up five centuries after his demise in the Anglo world? The former American Senator for New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) invokes the figure of the Spanish Dominican Francisco de Vitoria (1492-1546), in his fight within and against the imperial politics during the Reagan presidency. And he does it indirectly via the satirical novella titled Scott-King’s Modern Europe (1947) by Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966). The connection is direct between this fiction with Moynihan’s social-science work titled On the Law of Nations (1990). What is going on?

This is thus about the reconstruction of the historical links between Britain (or should I say England?) and Spain, inside the early years of the Cold War. And it is also about recognising the necessity of crossing the Atlantic and “Americanising” some of these findings, hence the connection with the influential figure of US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an Irish-Catholic of Democratic leanings who collaborated with diverse administrations such as Nixon’s and Clinton’s. Moynihan’s argument for international law is Vitorian and utopian and he is exclusively following Waugh whilst quoting from Brierly. How does our good American follow our colourful English man of satirical letters dealing with the figure of Vitoria emerging from the relative marginality of Franco’s Spain, still reaching us today? Two other names of importance: the Englishman J. L. Brierly (1881-1955) and the Spaniard Camilo Barcia Trelles (1888-1977).

This article deals with the historical links between the US and Spain via England. It deals with the history of international law caught up in between English-speaking and Spanish-speaking traditions of scholarship and interpretation. We are dealing with the deemed inspirational “father” of international law in one official beginning, i.e. the Early Modern / colonial European capture of the Americas, mid-1950s in Europe and the 1980s-1990s in the US. Our man of fictional letters (Waugh) misbehaves. Our American man of social-science studies behaves somewhat. The ghost of Vitoria is invoked by the latter to try to put limits to systematic violation of international law by his own imperial country. What lessons are we to learn in our own times? There is more to Moynihan’s neo-Wilsonian visibility of Vitoria on the American side of things than meets the eye, and there is also less. There are virtues -and vices if you wish – in both men of letters. And the significance of the historical sign “Vitoria” starts to go in many directions. This critical evaluation underlines some generalisations about historical links between the Anglo-Atlantic and Spain, which are not yet left behind.

In addressing areas and studies, historiographies and ideologies, the aim is here not to celebrate but to historicise, i.e., to interrogate critically world-area demarcations directly implicated. The task is to reconstruct the ideological interests of diverse scholars and intellectuals, see how they related to each other, or failed to do so, and also cover representative groups (mis-)handling the (im-)possible global history-writing done ever since. English-language and Spanish-language materials share the discussion table and project these voices towards the imperfect future convergence of international law.

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Insiders/Outsiders: Refugees from Nazi Europe and their Contribution to British Culture

Monica Bohm-Duchen from Birkbeck’s Department of History of Art discusses the ideas that formed the start of the Insiders/Outsiders arts festival and the events taking place nationwide to document the experiences of refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British culture.

Image credit: Josef Herman, Refugees, c.1941 © Josef Herman Estate, with kind permission, Ben Uri collection.

As Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck since 2005, I’ve devised and taught a number of deliberately unsettling BA special subject courses, among them Art and War: 1914 to the Present and Art and Scandal in the Modern Period. In 2016-17, I chose to teach a course entitled The Immigrant Experience in Modern British Art, in some ways a natural if belated sequel to earlier projects I’ve been involved with – above all, the exhibition Art in Exile in Great Britain 1933-45, shown at the Camden Arts Centre in 1986.

As the child of parents who both found refuge in this country just in time, the theme of the ambitious cultural project I initiated some two years ago, a nationwide arts festival called Insiders/Outsiders: Refugees from Nazi Europe and their Contribution to British Culture, is understandably close to my heart. But I have little doubt that it was devising the new course mentioned above and realizing the level of student interest in the topic, that also prompted me to undertake this project.

From the germ of an idea, the Insiders/Outsiders Festival has grown beyond my wildest expectations to become an umbrella for approximately 100 events in a wide range of different media at venues across the UK. Clearly, the theme of the festival has struck the right note at the right time. Not only is the cultural terrain richly rewarding in its own right, and the stories of the individual protagonists fascinating and often deeply poignant; but the relevance of these émigrés’ experiences to a world in which debates around immigration are rife and racism is once again rearing its ugly head is unquestionable.

Although the festival is ultimately affirmative and celebratory, its purpose is also to alert today’s public both to these refugees’ experience of profound loss, dispossession and displacement and to the complex challenges – not to say obstacles – they encountered on arrival in Britain.

To my delight, many of my colleagues at Birkbeck have embraced the premises of the festival with enthusiasm. As many readers of this blog will know, the college has a proud history of welcoming refugees as both teachers and students, past and present. Thus, on 9 and 15 March the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) is to play host to screenings of essay films by children of refugees from Nazi Europe and Holocaust survivors.

Furthermore, over the summer there is to be an exhibition in the Peltz Gallery curated by Mike Berlin, which will focus on the pioneering photojournalistic magazine Picture Post and its coverage of key moments in the history of immigration to this country: from the Jewish child refugees who came to England in the late 1930s as part of the Kindertransport scheme to the arrival in the UK of increasing numbers of West Indian immigrants from the late 1940s onwards.

Other institutions forming part of the University of London are also participating in the festival. The Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies is running a series of public lectures on relevant topics throughout 2019; while the summer term of the Courtauld Institute’s Showcasing Art History lecture series will be devoted to topics relevant to the theme of the festival.

More academic events currently in the festival pipeline include a symposium being organised by QMUL on the topic of the émigré art historians’ incalculable influence on the discipline in this country. There are also plans for an event focussing on the early history of the Warburg Institute, closely bound up with that of the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA), which was founded in 1933 as the Academic Assistance Council expressly to help refugees from Nazi Europe – a perfect example of the intimate links between past and present that underpin the Insiders/Outsiders project.

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Photography and identity

Lorna Robertson, graduate in MA History of Art with Photography, discusses the representation of women in visual culture as explored in the Jo Spence Memorial Library.

The Jo Spence Memorial Library (JSML) holds a range of visual material that Jo Spence had collected, which includes photographs, greeting cards and cartoons. I have found the collection valuable for research into the relationship between photography and identity and also the ways that Spence used existing visual material in her work.

Much of the material in the JSML explores the representation of women in visual culture, and the collection includes photographs that Spence took of women’s magazines during Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. I was initially struck by the number of advertisements that used images of heterosexual courtship to sell products, from tights to kettles.

Other materials, such as greeting cards, highlight the way that children are represented from a young age in heterosexual gender roles.I also began to see how these magazines used photography to reinforce tradition values around the family, and with this in mind, I began to consider issues around the representation of domesticity. Here, the image of woman as sex object is joined by a domesticated image of wife and mother, both of which may be used to sell domestic products.

In these contexts, the white, affluent, heterosexual family is presented as an aspirational lifestyle, but Spence also noted the way that other adverts play on the fear of not living up to these roles in order to sell medication for anxiety and depression.

The JSML collection also holds a collection of newspaper cartoons and I found that when looking at the cartoons in conjunction with magazine images, the cartoons often undermined the ideologies of the magazines.

Issues on the visual representation of men are also addressed in the collection, for instance the materialism of advertisements is countered by the suggestion that consumerism may be a financial strain on married men.

This issue of consumerism in relation to the family also developed my sense of Spence’s engagement with class, which I explored by juxtaposing different images in the collection. For example, the advertisements for a spacious, fully equipped kitchen appears unviable and economically detached from the photograph of Spence standing in front of a small terraced house.

The collection does, however, always underscore the role that photography plays in constructing and maintaining ideologies in Western society. The material points to the frameworks behind a range of photographic practices, such as the male members of the Islington Photographic Society photographing two female models in a studio.

Or how the family album is influenced by the photographic styles of companies such as Kodak and high street photographers, who privilege posed portraits of occasions such as marriage, births and the family get together.

Other materials in the collection also indicate that Spence was concerned with image construction in relation to the wider history of photography, such as images of carte de visite and vintage advertisements for photography equipment.

Spence was clearly an accumulator of visual material and a photograph in the JSML collection gave me an idea of how Spence used the material in her work. The photograph is Spence holding a book, in which she has assembled images associated with female childhood.

Here, Spence has used a school photograph of herself as a child from 1939 (which I identified through cross-referencing with books in the JSML), and placed it alongside an advert for the Miss Pears competition and two stickers of the cartoon character Wonder Woman. However, Spence has made visible a disjuncture between these aspirational images of childhood and her actual experience growing up as a working class child in Britain during the Second World War, through a snap shot of a child standing in front of another small terraced house and the hand written text ‘I HAD A NICE TIME MOST OF THE TIME’.

The process of investigating each of the components in this photograph illustrated to me that Spence had constructed this image. Not only had she assembled the found images in the album, but Spence had also assembled the situation of herself sitting on a chair, holding the album, looking at the camera, the artificiality of which is further emphasised by the back drop of the white wall and poster, which echoes the set-up of studio portraiture. This montaging, like the JSML collection as a whole, touches on discussion presented by Spence in articles from the 1980s on the slippage between images from our personal lives, images of popular culture and the construction of our identity.

Find out more: History and Theory of Photography Research Centre

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