About Katie Brown

Katie Brown is a Teaching Fellow in Hispanic Studies at University of Bristol, book-lover and translator.

Talking Your Language: Postgraduate Showcase

Jen Wallace and Alice Guilluy discuss film in France

Jen Wallace and Alice Guilluy discuss film in France

Having three separate language departments – Spanish and Portuguese, French, and German – as well as Comparative Literature and Film departments, is clearly a testament to the strength of the study and teaching of languages and cultures at King’s. However, one downside of this is that the obvious links between the research we carry out, beyond geographical and linguistic borders, are lost. As the value of literature, art, music and film, of storytelling and sharing culture, is an integral part of ‘being human’, we thought that this year’s Arts and Humanities Festival would be a perfect place to begin breaking down these departmental divisions and to celebrate what we share.

Leticia Blanco, Rocio Rodtjer and Alexandra Nowosiad on Spanish literature

Leticia Blanco, Rocio Rodtjer and Alexandra Nowosiad on Spanish literature

Over three hours, 10 PhD students presented their research in a very informal way, explaining what it is that inspires them. The event revealed the enormous range of subjects studied at King’s, from medieval Spanish fan-fiction to the reception of Sweet Home Alabama among French audiences. It was a real privilege to experience the passion that each student brings to the study of their subject and the reasons behind it.

Unfortunately, however, our first attempt at bringing the departments together was mainly SPLAS dominated, with a few additions from French and Film. The round-table on how to create interdepartmental connections, led by Prof Catherine Boyle (SPLAS) and Prof Patrick Ffrench (French), was therefore particularly apt. All participants recognised the need to facilitate contact between those of us with shared interests, and we hope that this will soon result in both more events and exciting collaborative research.


Ways of Seeing: John Berger and Imagometia

2012 marks the 40th anniversary of two of John Berger’s most famous works: Ways of Seeing, his seminal BBC TV series about the nature of art as property, and G, his Booker Prize winning novel. It also sees the culmination of almost two years of work by Tom Overton, cataloguing sixty years worth of documents donated by Berger to the British Library, as part of a joint PhD between that institution and King’s College London. That work has resulted in an exhibition at the Inigo Rooms in Somerset House, running until November 10.

Tom was kind enough to give us a private tour of the exhibition, which combines unseen documents with artworks related to Berger’s life to provide a unique insight into one of Britain’s greatest art commentators. Until 2009, these documents had been boxed up in a shed at Berger’s home in rural France, in old fruit crates. Tom probably gave himself lung cancer breathing in all the cigarette smoke absorbed by the documents from Berger’s chain-smoking but assures us that it was worth the sacrifice to get a deeper understanding of Berger’s way of working and correspondence with others.
According to Tom, Berger’s father was also the ‘father of modern accounting’, meaning that young John was sent from his home in Hackney to private school in Oxford, expected to become a middle-class professional. Instead, Berger went to art school and became committed to Marxist humanism, as is evident throughout his works and the correspondence on show here. The exhibition includes a painting of the late Eric Hobsbawm, one of many British Marxist intellectuals with whom Berger would meet and discuss politics, as well as a selection of Socialist Realist paintings.

One thing the archives make very clear is Berger’s penchant for cutting and pasting, from long before Microsoft Word. His notebooks are full of newspaper clippings or notes scribbled on the back of envelopes precariously sellotaped into manuscripts in progress. The archive also highlights the collaboratory nature of Berger’s work, creating projects with many artists, photographers and film-makers. One of my favourite parts of the exhibition is the documents behind I Send You This Cadmium Red, a book which brings together the years of correspondence between John Berger and John Christie that began with sending a small colour sample.
Tom is full of anecdotes about Berger’s life and work. A particular favourite is how Berger, who did not approve of literary prizes, donated half of his Booker Prize money to the Black Panthers, allowing them to acquire a building for their headquarters. However, Berger’s philanthropy backfired in an unexpected way: all the members of the group moved in together, then swiftly all slept with each other, had huge fights and the movement broke up!
To tie in with the exhibition, a performance piece was specially commissioned for the King’s Arts and Humanities Festival:  Imagometia, by Rafau Sieraczek. Inspired by Berger’s seminal work, as well as Jacques Ranciere and Guy Debord, the performance aimed to make the audience reconsider how we see things. We were split in two, one group on either side of the stage, and told not to look around, as we were shown videos and dance performances. After a while we were made to swap sides: the same music played, but the images were different, making us question whether we were seeing the same thing as those on the other side of the room. Moreover, we were provided with mirrors and blacked-out glasses, which meant we could only see behind us or out of the very corner of our eyes, again making us question the traditional way of viewing art and performance straight on. Sadly, the event seemed to lose its way after a while, descending into a parlour game: one participant, blindfolded, had to describe an object in his hands to another who had to draw it from his words – an interesting concept, but sloppy in practice. Nonetheless, we all left Imagometia wish fresh ideas about how to view art and performance – John Berger would surely approve!

Opening Panel Round-Up

Opening Panel

The 2012 King’s Arts and Humanities Festival began in earnest last night with an opening panel comprising distinguished experts from a wide range of fields, from dance to computing, representing the diversity inherent in the arts and humanities, and in the theme of Metamorphoses which runs through the fortnight’s activities. For those that could not make it, here is an overview of the fascinating opening event from King’s PhD student Katie Brown.

Max Saunders, Professor of English and Director of the Arts and Humanities Research Institute at King’s officially opened the festival, explaining the relevance of ‘Metamorphoses’ for arts and humanities today. The College’s School of Arts and Humanities itself has undergone drastic changes recently, with a 55% increase in staff over the last five years and “imaginative investment” in new buildings and resources. This is parallel to the wider metamorphosis of arts and humanities scholarship, across the UK and beyond. It is not only the subjects themselves that have changed, but (with reference to John Berger, the focus of a current exhibition at Somerset House) “ways of seeing”. It is no longer acceptable to acquire knowledge for the sake of it; instead, the key idea is knowledge exchange. What impact does our research make? How do we promote public engagement? This shift is controversial, but exciting, and leads to events like the Arts and Humanities Festival itself, which Saunders calls “knowledge exchange at its best”.

Each of the panellists spoke briefly about what ‘Metamorphoses’ means within their field.

Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing, began by suggesting that we should not ask how current technology can help us with humanities research, but rather develop technology to carry out the tasks that study of cultural artefacts requires. Describing himself as an “obsessive lover” of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, McCarty examined the changing approaches to the seminal text in scholarship. Whereas George Sandys’ 1632 translation is content to provide a description of the action in each book and a moralising commentary, modern scholarship sees Metamorphoses as an “unresolved structural puzzle”. McCarty, then, has dedicated some twenty years work to attempting to solve this puzzle with the help of computers. He created an analytical onomasticon of Metamorphoses, tagging over 60,000 terms in the book which are related to naming things, in order to find some kind of pattern. In the end, his system just wasn’t enough. “We need a tool as fast as thought to keep up with Metamorphoses”, he suggests. The next step for digital humanities is therefore to create new technologies which will allow the type of work necessary to make sense of such cultural artefacts.

Deborah Bull, who is currently the Executive Director of the King’s Cultural Institute, became famous as a performer, journalist and broadcaster, notable for her award-winning BBC2 series The Dancer’s Body. For over thirty years, she worked with the Royal Opera House, first as a dancer, then as Creative Director, trying to attract new audiences in a changing world. Bull explained that institutions can no longer rely on status, history and titles, but instead have to prove their worth in order to attract an audience. By contrast, reality TV and the National Lottery’s insistence that “It could be you” have made us believe that anyone can achieve fame and fortune, regardless of merit. She insists that we must reclaim the idea of elites, and stop ignoring the decades of training, hard-work and self-denial necessary to become truly world-class. Equally, theatre must respond to new audiences born and raised in a technological era. Brains are developing in different ways today from a generation ago, ways of consuming culture are changing and media multi-tasking is the norm. Barriers to participation are falling away and it is no longer appropriate to think of the audience as a single, silent observer. Each segment of the audience has different habits, engagement and preferences and theatres must cater their efforts to each group separately. At the same time, the shape of the artistic experience is evolving, to become more like a website with sections to explore, rather than a traditional linear narrative. This is very much a metamorphosis in progress – new works of and for a new generation.

Tristan Sharps, Artistic Director of dreamthinkspeak, is a working example of Deborah Bull’s comments. dreamthinkspeak creates live performances in buildings which aren’t theatres, inspired by architecture, film and conceptual art. Audiences are not lead or guided, but free to explore the space. While ‘site-specific’ is the term most often used, Sharps says this isn’t quite right, as his works can move room one site to another. Instead, his work subtly changes an environment, allowing audiences to see it in a different way. The architecture and original function of the space stay the same, while minor changes like removing the light from a room have an enormous impact on the audience’s perception. By staging a performance inspired by the Orpheus story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (read in Penguin English translation) in a disused office space in Somerset House, dreamthinkspeak encouraged audiences to question their own mortality and journey through life.

Finally, Paul Gilroy, King’s new Professor of American and English Literature and an expert in racism and post-imperial cultures, discussed how the defence of the humanities engendered by changes in Higher Education should be an opportunity for the “re-enchantment of the human”. It is a chance to rethink binary oppositions of race, of nation, and to consider the “disavowed presence of war” in our ever-more militarised society. While obituaries for multiculturalism abound, we must more closely examine how cultures interact in London, the “unprecedented cosmopolis”. Gilroy highlighted the “contested metamorphoses of British identity”, citing Mo Farah as an example of someone whose identity evolved from ‘migrant’ to ‘native’, from ‘denizen’ to ‘citizen’, because of his new status.

After the panellists, Professor Jan Palmowski, Head of the School of Arts and Humanities, sparked a lively debate by picking up on Deborah Bull’s idea of elites. He maintained that elitism is something which universities like King’s both fight and support: fight because we want to broaden student demographics, making Higher Education available regardless of economic background; support because we want to keep subjects like Classics, arguably only practised today by ‘elites’ (in economic terms – private school pupils for example), alive. We are at risk of losing an important part of our cultural heritage if these subjects are not regenerated through scholarship, yet only those from economically privileged backgrounds currently have the opportunities to study them. Deborah Bull replied that there is a distinction between elites and elitism. People are scared of using the term because elitism is considered discrimination, elites refers to those who are the very best at what they do, as a result of both personal (psychological, genetic) factors, and hard work – special, differentiating qualities, rather than money. It is imperative that we recognise that there are some pursuits which we cannot all achieve, and should celebrate those who can. While Professor Palmowski agreed, the problem in education today is that it is not the most skilled that get the opportunity to learn and practice subjects like Classics, but those with the financial means. Coming from a perspective outside of academia, Tristan Sparks responded that, for him, academics are “torch-bearers”, bringing academic knowledge to the wider public through mass media and culture, such as the Penguin version of Metamorphoses that he read. While only a small number of people may get to study these subjects at university, their work is vital to keep the subjects alive in the wider world. Deborah Bull suggested that one of the major benefits of the digital era is that online communities can be created which keep these subjects alive beyond the university. This is a space where anyone can be involved, regardless of barriers to traditional academia. Willard McCarty added that when an Ancient Greek dictionary was made available online, suddenly lots of amateur scholars came out of the woodwork; people who loved Ancient Greek but had gone in to other careers were then able to contribute to online scholarship. He claimed that as long as there are “smart people who care”, supposedly ‘elitist’ subjects can thrive online.

Overall, the opening panel proved just how rich the theme Metamorphoses is, setting the tone for what will surely be two weeks of thought-provoking, enlightening events.

SPLAS Showcase

As a new PhD candidate in Latin American Studies, I am sure that there is no better department to be a part of than SPLAS (Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies) at King’s College, as clichéd as that sounds. What makes the department such an inspiring place to work is the enormous variety of subjects researched. Spanning from Madrid to Mexico to Mozambique, research in our department encompasses literature, theatre, art, music, journalism, politics, and history, from the Medieval to the Twenty-first Century. While PhD research is often said to be isolating, belonging to SPLAS and taking part in the regular events it hosts connects your small, individual research areas to a truly interdisciplinary and global field. As someone who has always found it incredibly hard to narrow my interests to one subject, I really appreciate the opportunity to keep learning about music in the Brazilian favelas or punk publishing in 1980s Spain through the work of the other PhD students.

Now as part of the Arts and Humanities Festival, we have kindly been given an opportunity to share this diverse departmental activity with the public, at our showcase on Monday 22nd October (K.2.29 Council Room, Strand Campus). Running from 3pm to 7pm, the event will feature a wide range of PhD candidates – from absolute beginners like me to those about to hand in their finished dissertations – each speaking for about seven minutes. These will not be traditional conference papers, so no prior subject knowledge is needed to follow the presentations. Instead, we will just be introducing our research, sharing our passions and hopefully encouraging the audience to find out more about what we do. The presentations will be arranged around themes, including ‘Voices from the periphery’, ‘Art, Music and Theatre in Latin America’ and, fitting with the overall theme of Metamorphoses, ‘Transitions’. After each panel there will be time for questions, and then a short break for more informal chats. Then from 6.15, we will hold a round-table between staff and students, discussing research issues including how to better communicate research in the digital age; issues which are by no means limited to the SPLAS department. Finally, the evening will end with a wine reception, in true Latin style, where we will be very happy to talk more about our research and the motivations behind it.

The full schedule can be found here – take a look and pop in for whatever appeals to you. We look forward to seeing you there!