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.