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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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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Picturing the Family: Media, Narrative, Memory

This post was written by Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine, Senior Lecturer in Memory and Cultural Studies in Birkbeck’s Department of European Languages and Cultures. There will be a conference held at Birkbeck on 10-11 July on ‘Picturing the Family: Media, Narrative, Memory‘; and an exhibition in the Peltz Gallery from 3-25 July, entitled ‘Family Ties: Reframing Memory‘.

© Rosy Martin 'In Situ' - from the forthcoming Family Ties Exhibition at the Peltz Gallery

© Rosy Martin ‘In Situ’ will be on display at the forthcoming Family Ties Exhibition at the Peltz Gallery

The family is seen as a privileged site of memory transmission both in terms of the stories which are told and passed down the generations as communicative memory, but also in terms of the unspoken and unspeakable memories which are acted out in families and passed on to children without ever being acknowledged. Marianne Hirsch has introduced the concept of ‘postmemory’, something that Abraham and Torok describe as ‘transgenerational haunting’, the ‘phantom effects’ that haunt the children of parents who have lived through unprocessed traumatic events or repressed and shameful secrets. The concept of ‘transgenerational haunting’ is not simply extended to or replicated on a collective level when the history of the nation is seen through the paradigm of the family: shared phantoms can be externalised and become inscribed in cultural practices in an attempt to ‘relieve the unconscious by placing the effects of the phantom in the social realm’ (Abraham 1994: 176) – phantoms which were never restricted to individuals to begin with but only ever existed in an interpersonal and intergenerational dynamic.

In contemporary commemoration culture the family has become the central trope through which national history is framed. Around the centenary of the First World War we are faced with a remembrance culture which relies in all its scripted rituals, TV programming and exhibition planning on the input of the public who is made to feel that they are provided with a forum for their stories, their family’s personal memories, rather than a top-down version of events. A pan-European website, Europeana 1914-1918, promises untold stories alongside official histories of WW1 and includes digitized documents and film material from libraries and archives but also 90,000 personal papers and memorabilia of some 7,000 people involved in the war, held by their families and digitised at special events – so-called ‘crowdsourcing’ –  in 12 countries. It provides access to ‘memories and memorabilia from families throughout Europe’ and users are encouraged to ‘contribute [their] own family history’. That the trope of the family is used to naturalise national alliances is not particularly new, variations on the concepts of ‘fatherland’ or ‘motherland’ can be found in many different languages and cultures, and the institutions of the family and the nation are reaffirmed and reaffirm each other in that process. However, the unpredictability of family stories can also provide an unsettling element and when current European heads of state are given the ‘Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC 1, 2004-) treatment, the results can be difficult to incorporate into an official narrative.

Roughly a year ago the German media reported that German chancellor Angela Merkel’s grandfather, Ludwig Kasner (Kazmierczak), who had been of Polish origin but was drafted into the German Army in 1915, had – after becoming a prisoner of war – joined the Blue Army, a unit that fought for Polish independence on the side of the Entente Powers which meant that he probably took part in fighting against Germany. But rather than using this information against Merkel, the image conscious German press celebrated the fact that this made her the most favored foreign politician in Poland. Merkel’s Polish colleague Donald Tusk also had a ‘grandfather affair’ of his own and knows all to well about the pitfalls of the wrong family history when it comes to the conflicts of the twentieth century. During the national elections of 2005, surveys showed him clearly in the lead, but when it was revealed that his grandfather had fought in the German Wehrmacht he lost to the National-conservative party of Lech Kaczynski.

These examples show that ‘picturing the family’ is an activity that is clearly fraught with unexpected dangers and while it can be used as a conservative and stabilizing force it can also lead to a defamiliarisation of the past and ask uncomfortable questions about the ways we define our identities in ‘imagined communities’ (Benedikt Anderson).

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