Review: We Are All From Somewhere Else

Ruth Padel

Her eyes are pulled to a fixed point above us and she seems to find her words only there. Her voice carries, as strange and fluid as her movement: Ruth Padel is quite the performer and she is performing with an aim – she has clear messages. Her poems are enacted rather than spoken, recited not read. In fact it is so enjoyable that we are even prepared to forgive the quality of her slides (as informative and interesting as they are, the photo quality is not great – perhaps this adds to the conversational, natural atmosphere). Her stories are natural and we, the audience, are happy to meander with her trail of thought. Sometimes it gets so far you aren’t sure if she’s lost her trail, but then she comes full circle and dives into the next poem. There is a lot of movement to her: be it her meandering speaking style, the lilt to her voice or, most importantly, the migration of people and animals in her poetry. The subject of her latest volume of poetry mixed with prose, from which she was reading, is migration. The Mara Crossing draws seemingly heterogeneous strands of migration and ties them together. A descendant of Charles Darwin, she is naturally inclined to describe the social impetus to move in terms of the biological. Padel speaks of the migration path of the bar-headed geese over Mount Everest, where they treacherously fly year on year and many die. Apart from this being a literally amazing feat, the question begs to be asked: why? Why not just fly around? The answer lies first in history and then in biology: the flight path was there before the mountains and genetic (would the drive to fly for food and nesting grounds also be social?) determinism literally drives them over the same path, adapting as the years go by so that they can survive the treacherous conditions. The adaptation takes the form of the haemoglobin in these birds absorbing oxygen faster than other birds and their capillaries penetrating deeper into their muscles so that they can get more oxygen. The migration paths of the bar-headed geese pre-date the Himalayas and it seems beautifully absurd that their haemoglobin and capillaries would change, rather than their genetic programming. It is a story you can tell she loves to tell. It is the story of the need to travel; the impetus to move. Continue reading

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Medieval Sci-Fi?

Like many of those attending this roundtable on the festival’s closing day, I was mostly drawn to the Medieval Science Fiction event out of a sense of curiosity as to what this term might refer to. At a first glance, one would think that the words ‘medieval’ and ‘science fiction’ do not – and perhaps should not – mix. However, the event showed that these seemingly opposite concepts can be brought together, and that this combination may lead to interesting discussions for researchers and science fiction writers alike.

The roundtable discussion was organised as part of the ongoing Medieval Science Fiction project, and the panel consisted of three speakers.
Andy Sawyer (Science Fiction Critic and Librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection) started the discussion by highlighting that the medieval period is often underrated in terms of its contributions to science. He also argued that medieval travel tales can be seen as useful analogues to science fiction, in that these stories often discuss issues of exploration and make us wonder what kind of creatures might be found beyond the borders of the habitable world. According to Andy, some medieval writers have indeed written works that we would group under the heading of ‘science fiction’.
Edward James (Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at UCD and Chair of the Science Fiction Foundation) then asked what exactly what the term ‘science fiction’ refers to. He argued that the genre not only deals with science but also deals with visions of the future. Since the Middle Ages are part of our historical past and are often perceived as forming an earlier stage in mankind’s ‘development’, this can make things difficult for a science fiction writer – and indeed the medieval period has traditionally been seen as a more suitable setting for fantasy novels. He added that some science fiction writers create alien cultures that remind us of medieval times, which are often seen as being a little ‘backward’.
Liz Williams (Science Fiction Writer, several times nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award) argued that much of science fiction writing revolves around trying to understand that which is alien, whether on another planet or in another time period. She also gave several interesting examples of late medieval discoveries and inventions that we now view as having been ahead of their time. According to Liz, the medieval period can be an invaluable source for modern science fiction writers.

Part of the reason why such a discussion on medieval sci-fi is interesting is because it begins to challenge some of the common misconceptions about the Middle Ages and the people who were alive then. There is no record, for example, of anyone in the Middle Ages ever believing that the earth was flat – this was a myth popularised mostly by nineteenth-century historians and scientists– and yet nowadays we happily believe this to be true. It is also commonly held that the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ saw little to no scientific discovery and that people for several hundreds of years simply sat around discussing the bible and burning a witch or two (or a few thousand, depending who you talk to) – again the result of ‘propaganda’ from a later age. Also, as one of the audience members pointed out, we all know for certain that medieval people never bathed – a modern view that seems to overlook the large amount of medieval records describing available facilities for bathing, both in the private and public sphere.

This roundtable helped to highlight that much of what we think of a period such as the Middle Ages is shaped not just by our own ideas but also by the ideas of people writing in the centuries before us. The past is not a set of fixed rules or ideas, but it is always reinterpreted and reimagined by different generations who sometimes see what they want to see. As Andy Sawyer commented, “each time period has its own Bacon”, as an illustration of how some of Roger Bacon’s ideas and discoveries are nowadays interpreted as precursors of modern inventions – though we might wonder whether he himself would have seen such discoveries in the same light.

There are still some issues that could be raised when looking at medieval science fiction – Can we call medieval inventions science? Does there need to be a word for something for it to have existed? Did medieval people wonder about the future (in a non-religious sense)? Did medieval monsters gradually move to further regions to become what we now call aliens? Can we refer to the ‘medieval period’ as if it was some great homogenous being, or are there differences to be found between cultures, regions or centuries? Nevertheless, it seems that the medieval period is more compatible with modern notions of science fiction than one would first think. I, for one, am very curious about the direction of this project and I look forward to reading its forthcoming essay collection. I want to believe.

Lydia Zeldenrust (Queen Mary University of London),
on behalf of the Being Non/Human Group (http://beingnonhuman.wordpress.com/).

Ways of Seeing both ‘Aura and Information’

As John Berger: art and property now is nearing the end of its time at the Inigo Rooms in Somerset House East Wing, I gladly took up one of the last opportunities to visit a unique exhibition that holds a variety of material around the renowned writer, critic and artist. Developed by King’s Cultural Institute in partnership with the British Library, it was born from Berger deciding to donate his archive to the British Library in 2009. His rationale behind this is an important thread in the exhibition and creates space amongst the sixty years’ worth of papers to open up Berger’s own views on the value and place of his archives and lifework.

John Berger by Jean MohrAs you descend down a narrow staircase to some lower level of Somerset House there is indeed something of the sequestered archive of the long corridor and the five rooms that make up the exhibition. Each take on a different period and/or theme of John Berger’s life, with connecting portraits of the man by Jean Mohr. The rooms display his art, broadcasting work and correspondences together with his words printed on the walls to bind them into coherent narratives – on anything from Berger in the 1940s to his reaction to winning the Booker prize. The artefacts engage with each other to represent something of Berger’s life, but the focus is also on his ideology, with one room blacked out entirely to play his voice recordings (Room 4 – evoking Berger’s 1999 collaboration with director Simon McBurney and Artangel, an eerie replication of their sound installation in an unused Underground Station).

One particular room caught my attention as it seemed to me the nub of what makes this such a fascinating exhibition. I first came across Berger as many have through his book Ways of Seeing, a small volume that accompanied the TV series of the same name in the 1970s. In it, he demanded a change in the viewer’s understanding of art, and Room 2 of John Berger: art and property now also pulls the visitor into a similar theoretical debate. The room displays clips of the programme with production notes and various letters, but also alongside them his essay ‘Art and Property Now’, that claims that art is a peculiar mix of sacred ‘aura’ and market value – its ‘information’. Interestingly, the exhibition formulates these into a direct meditation on the value of Berger’s archive and on the exhibition itself; they can both be seen as similar to art as objects of cultural power and value, and so the visitor is asked directly (and slightly disconcertingly): ‘what blend of aura and information made you decide to come and see it?’

The participation of the visitor then becomes an important component of the exhibition, emphasised in an array of interactive opportunities – the public programme of free events, for instance, or life-drawing along with a Berger tape in Room 3. This chimes with Berger’s own ideas on the importance of audience collaboration, but also with a comment he made upon donating the archive to the British Library, noting he felt that uncovering what others thought was the most interesting part of his archive. It is the blend of display and debate that makes this exhibition so worthwhile a visit, as it builds and re-builds its own structure and focus: part Berger, part his friends, but also partly entirely personal to whoever visits – his work still centring on and challenging what we see.

John Berger: art and property now
Exhibition running from 6th September -10th November 2012

2012 Festival round-up

Imagometia

Over 3,000 people came to King’s this month to get involved in the 2012 Arts & Humanities Festival. Academics, high-profile authors, musicians and artists came together to discuss, exhibit and bring to life the School’s research at 50 events over two weeks. The Festival explored the theme of ‘Metamorphoses, transformations & conversions’ through art exhibitions, performances and discussions to showcase the breadth and diversity of research in the arts and humanities.

Highlights included author Will Self in conversation with Patrick Wright discussing England’s transformative presence on his work, a talk by former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo and a premiere of a new work by Silvina Milstein, Professor of Music which was performed by Lontano; King’s contemporary music ensemble in residence. The history of the Strand was brought to life through performances, songs, poetry and visual displays by the Strandlines Cabinet of Artists.

John BergerAn exhibition by artist, art critic and novelist John Berger received a four star review in the Independent and proved so enticing Berger himself was caught viewing his work at the Inigo Rooms (open until 10 November). Discussion panels explored topics as diverse as the role of religion in US politics, visual representations of political activism in the Arab Spring and philosophical and neuroscientific viewpoints on free will and decision making.

The ‘Collective Spirit’ yacht, the brainchild of Gregg Whelan (King’s Creative Fellow) and Gary Winters of Lone Twin, was unmissable in the Strand Quad for the duration of the Festival. The 30 foot sailing boat which was painstakingly crafted using donated pieces of wood arrived at King’s College after its maiden voyage as part of the Cultural Olympiad.  Lone Twin describe the yacht as a “seaworthy archive of stories and memories” and Festival Director Max Saunders remarked on its ability to “transform the Quad and initiate conversations during the Festival”.

Boat project daylight

The Festival has run in its present form since 2009 and has proved a vital platform for communicating the value and impact of the School’s research to members of the public, alumni, creative partners, staff, students and members of other academic institutions. Head of School Professor Jan Palmowski described the Festival as “an important forum through which our research could inform public debate, on topics including the US elections, how we experience change and displacement, and how English and British identities might be constituted and addressed.”

Review: Michael Morpurgo in conversation with Maggie Fergusson

Michael Morpurgo and Maggie Fergusson in conversation 2

An evening with Michael Morpurgo and Maggie Fergusson kicked off the second week of the Arts and Humanities Festival to an almost-full Great Hall. At this joint event with the Royal Society of Literature, hosted by the RSL’s Chair Anne Chisholm, those lucky enough to be in attendance were treated to an incredibly revealing conversation, which touched upon war, family break ups and grief, but also the joys of writing and reading. Continue reading

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.