Raqib Shaw‘s latest exhibition has brought new life and colour to the Manchester Art Gallery – both inside and out. Having draped their railings with flowers, foliage, and the twisted branches of Willows, the museum invites you inside to find Kashmiri-born/London-based Raqib’s work scattered and displayed in various locations. Vivid, fantastical scenes combine real and fictional creatures within sparkling fairytale landscapes both Indian and European in influence; together these conjure up a mythology that feels familiar – like a childhood memory – and highly original – bold and shocking. Surveying his beautiful (and at times slightly macabre) menagerie you can almost hear the sound of wild animals. Of course it’s always nice to look at the more traditional pieces in the Gallery’s collection, but finding one of Shaw’s pieces next to say, George Stubbs, or Charles-August Mengin, makes for an enjoyably startling contrast.
Although given a vast amount of space in the Patron’s Gallery, I’d say that it’s more stimulating finding Shaw’s works amongst pieces from the Victorian era. Seeing them all at once threatens to generate a certain loss of impact that comes from being over-awed by his use of jewels, gold, and enamel. Similarly, Susie MacMurray‘s Widow – a stunning and meditative dress made using black leather and 100,000 adamantine silver pins – is equally helped by being positioned among pieces dealing with life and death in the 17th century. New observations and ideas arise at these intersections. MacMurray’s dress says something about mortality as flawlessly as any of the masters behind her.
Something I also really like about the Gallery is the space that is devoted to activities for kids/big kids in the Clore Interactive Gallery. Technical problems aside (sadly many machines were out-of-order when I visited) it’s great to find a play space where you can let your imagination wander and your creative side express itself after soaking up all the “proper” artworks. Of course, participation is a big thing in museums and cultural institutions these days and it’s not always done well. Sometimes the best you can hope for is a pile of hastily gathered crayons and a few “give us your comments” cards; not exactly inspiring! For me, the Manchester Gallery has got it spot on. Somehow they manage to offer a range of activities that are as stimulating for adults as they are for children. In fact, I’m fairly sure it was exclusively adults who were “interacting” with the objects in the Clore room on Sunday! By letting visitors climb into a giant rotating “kaleidoscope”, invent their own “free form” still life compositions, or activate a 3-D spinning model of a painting (Marion Adnams’ Lost Infant), artworks are brought to life in a way that encourages collaboration.
Raqib Shaw’s exotic monkeys – and the lovely staff who let people wander around taking as many photographs as they like! – demonstrate in quite different ways that going to a gallery is definitely not all about tradition, reverence, and intimidating curation. Creativity is, after all, all about a certain freedom.
After months of hard work and planning, we have finally finalised the schedule for our Digital Transformers Symposium, happening on Thursday the 23rd of May, at MMU. Working in academia – and in particular on a PhD – it’s easy to get caught up in stress and uncertainty of various kinds. So it really is great to be able to pour energy into a community-based event like this, which everyone seems to be looking forward to. All of the workshops and papers sound amazing and Jo and myself really couldn’t be more pleased at the quality and scope of submissions.
There aren’t any places left for the Symposium now (we only have room for 40): but tickets are still available for our Open Access Debate which opens to a wider audience later in the day. Hope to see some of you there!
It’s about time that I posted something on a very impressive exhibition which I went to see last weekend at the Cornerhouse Gallery – Rosa Barba’s Subject to Constant Change. Dealing with many of the themes currently preoccupying me as I delve into explorations of technology, Barba’s work thoughtfully and coolly expresses much of what 21st century academics are busy analysing – the essence(s) of digital and “post-digital” environments. Viewing her work, we are invited to consider materiality, memory, technology, technique, the relationship between past and present and the problematic nature of linear narratives. Complex relationships between text/performance, reader/viewer, the fixed and the slippery, are all considered, for instance in Time Machine, which is part script, part novella, part invention, and which looks like a projection although really it’s a print.
In one darkened gallery space, colour films run on projectors modified so that the speed and intensity of their wheels and their light alter in ways not possible on the unmodified original equipment. A series of statements and phrases apparently detached from all context appear flickering on the wall – and as I enjoyed the playful hints of meaning evoked by their flowery italic script, I also found myself fascinated by the mechanics of the projectors themselves. How much does the technology used to display these words contribute to their possible meaning and our interpretation of them? What associations are created when new and old approaches are combined? When rhythm varies and intensity is altered? Can we appreciate the past more fully by melding it with the present? At the same time we realise how both will forever evade being cemented.
In the second gallery, a pair of projectors work together to show us the two parts of Subconscious Society. A crowd of local people dressed somehow “timelessly” appear to haunt the neglected interior of the Manchester Albert Hall, moving around it as though defiantly detached from some imagined authentic context and accompanied by a soundtrack of fleeting observations. One staff member (who was very keen to get feedback and discuss the installations with us) revealed with a little amusement that some visitors have been puzzled. “Why are you not doing it all on digital? Why are you using this old equipment? Isn’t it more difficult and expensive?” Well, yes. And there have been some problems – bulbs overheating, projectors stalling, film getting caught. Such difficulties are in themselves a thought-provoking part of the exhibition. The medium is as much a part of the message as is the content. Really. Barba’s refusal to embrace a lazy and straightforward “logical” modernity is what gives her exhibition its power.
Former configurations of society – and technology – may appear to be obsolete but the point is that their imprintings and patterns remain to resonate in our own time, reimagined, reasserted, reinterpreted. Using such techniques will be less possible for artists in the future. It’s hard to find not only the spare parts and the film – she is using some of the last of Kodak’s old stock apparently – but also the technicians able to handle and maintain them. In an era where digital technology lets amateurs do almost everything at the touch of a button (this blog is just one example!), it is nice to reflect on the highly skilled and patient operators/artists of the past who understood both the physics and the metaphysics.
For reasons unknown I have never yet visited one of Manchester’s most treasured and beloved tourist attractions – the stunning neo-Gothic John Rylands Library, part of the University of Manchester. Considering how long I’ve been here now, this is a strange omission. Not just because of the library’s ultra-convenient city centre location (it’s on Deansgate) but also because of my life long love of all things library related. On Saturday, prompted by good weather, a visit from my Mum, and the presence of an exhibition called Burning Bright, I finally went along to take a look. Burning Bright (as you might guess) focuses on William Blake – arguably the most versatile and visionary of the English Romantics; and in particular, on his book engravings and etchings.
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that to see some of Blake’s work up close is to be truly stunned by not only his craft and his technical prowess, but by the ability of deceptively simple two-dimensional scenes to conjure up a myriad of spiritual, moral, and mystical associations. A version of Edward Young’s popular poem Night Thoughts, containing over 40 specially commissioned watercolours by Blake, is one of the most memorable exhibits. Published in 1797 and a commercial failure, only 26 copies of this first part of the poem were ever produced, making it a truly significant gem in the Rylands collection.
Another exhibition called An Inventory of al-Mutanabbi Street presented a “re-assembled” imaginative “inventory” of reading material destroyed in a 2007 car bombing in Baghdad’s revered (and still under pressure) literary and cultural centre. Although a thought-provoking and original idea – the brainchild of poet Beau Bosoleil and researcher Sarah Bodman – I felt that a more modern and minimal gallery environment would have allowed the works on display here to shine far more brightly. Somehow, they did not have the power to displace the overwhelming symbolism and the hushed, spiritual atmosphere of the library itself.
John Rylands is certainly a thing of wonder, regardless of any exhibitions on display. Built in the 1890s and funded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her late husband, it’s actually pretty hard to believe that the building is so modern. With its medieval style and quiet, church-like atmosphere, you imagine it must have been here for far longer. This was of course the architectural fashion of the time but apparently Enriqueta was a rather unconventional woman and actually asked that they tone down some of the psuedo-religious features of the library. Standing at either end of the spacious but nook-filled reading room, Victoria and Albert style statues of the Rylands themselves are just a little bit self aggrandising.
On Monday night, I attended the latest in a series of thought-provoking events taking place within the Institute of Humanities and Social Science Research at MMU. As part of their Annual Research Programme, Dr David M. Berry (currently based at the University of Swansea and author of several books on digital cultures, software and code) had been invited to give a talk on the fundamental nature of Digital Humanities scholarship. Given the current changes taking place within MMU and many other universities as a result of educational technologies arriving on campus, a naturally large audience was secured.
Berry took a rather critical approach in his lecture, raising a number of issues and problems around Digital Humanities as both an academic discipline, and as a brand. Given how enthusiastic he is about DH his criticism is highly informed and cannot be said to be of the reactionary sort. And really that was his whole point: as academics we must continue to raise difficult, challenging questions about the subject areas within which we are embedded. It was refreshing to have the all-too tangible tensions between scholarly and business imperatives recognised in relation to DH. In terms of my own research, such debates are vital to understanding how academics in different fields relate to, understand, and use digital and new media.
Key philosophical questions about the nature(s) of digital environments and techniques are often overlooked by proponents of DH (although not, it must be said, by Cultural and Media theorists). Many nascent Digital Humanists are unsure what the term means – or what the core epistemic assumptions and problematics underlying their discipline are. Partly this is because Digital Humanities is an emerging and multi-disciplinary field, without clear historical traditions or organisational roots. Partly also it is because, for many Universities, “Digital Humanities” is something of a buzzword, with a surface level appeal considered enough in itself to attract new students and academics.
The danger is that Digital Humanists will become lost in computational formalisms, technologically-determinist methodologies, and the quantitative structural logic of engineers. They may lose sight of both the wider and more detailed perspectives brought about by traditional methods for illuminating truths about discourse and humanity. There is also the risk – in a target focused managerial culture – of being dazzled to the point of critical amnesia by the large public audiences that digital projects can garner when compared with audiences available for “gold standard” outputs like monographs.
Yet so long as we are careful not to sell or neglect our fundamental principles, Digital Humanities have much to offer. The Understanding Shakespeare project that Dr Berry showed to us during his afternoon workshop was one such example. Multiple German translations of Shakespeare have been scanned, OCRd and marked up, ready to be represented and queried digitally and visually. Analysing text and metadata computationally can reveal known and previously unknown correspondences and differences between editions, whether in terms of structure or content. As with many other semantic-web based tools (e.g. Gephi, Google Ngram and IBM’s Many Eyes), parameters can be set by researchers in a few easy steps and huge corpora can be explored – something almost impossible to do manually.
For me, the take home message was that the Digital Humanities – regardless of specific instantiations within individual institutions – must “extend their critique to include society, politics, the economic and the cultural.” Many researchers are already doing this and I certainly aim to do so in my own work. At the same time, Humanities scholars must not forget the “traditional” core concerns of their fields – i.e. the human subject, speculative knowledge, interpretation, and the value of focused, close readings – even as they rearticulate those concerns in exciting ways via computational methods.
Emerging, before even the turn of last century, from a handful of immigrant families and some traditional money-making laundrettes, Manchester’s Chinatown has grown to become the third largest in Europe. A half square-mile filled primarily with restaurants, supermarkets, herbalists and accountants, its growth was driven by a population explosion that began in 1984. In 1987, the erection of a beautiful Ming Dynasty Chinese arch (or Paifang) marked the fact that Chinatown and its community were most proudly and definitely here to stay.
Sometime every February then (the exact date changes according to the moon and the sun), various surrounding roads are closed off, everything becomes a great deal more colourful, and celebrations marking the start of the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year begin. Food stalls, traditional music, a Dragon and Lion dance, and a 12 minute firework display were among this year’s festivities. The weather wasn’t exactly friendly, meaning that the crowds were a little smaller than hoped – but everybody who made it seemed to be having a great time, particularly the children buying paper dragons and sweets and waving long streamers around in the cold air while the stall holders gleefully shouted out half price promotions or cooked up delicious smelling food.
According to the Chinese Zodiac, this year is the year of the Snake, the meaning of which varies by gender. According to Mary Bai at CITS:
People born in the year of the Snake often have a good temper and a skill at communicating but say little. They possess gracious morality and great wisdom. They are usually financially secure and do not have to worry about money. They are determined to accomplish their goals [and] hate to fail. Although they look calm on the surface, they are intense and passionate. They have a rich source of inspiration and understand themselves well. They are people of great perception. Women under the sign of the snake do well in housework but are irritable.
For anyone using Gmail (and that means a lot of us these days), mutated “personalised” ads are something of a constant which often you just can’t help but notice. Considering how easy it usually is to visually filter out website ads or turn them off altogether with plugins like AdBlock, getting us to linger over them at all is in itself something of an achievement. Sure, most of us have figured out how to access the “Ad Preferences Manager” and “opt out” of these sort of ads…but this is to some extent misleading. Despite confirming that I have opted out, Gmail still happily states that many of the ads I see are “based on the email that you are viewing.”
I assume they mean “based on” in the same way that Django Unchained is “based on” historical events, because many bizarrely off-kilter ads rear up daily to distract me from the important and time-critical business of
procrastination email correspondence. Is this really what they have in mind when they talk about Advertainment?
Many attempts are clearly generic “catch alls” – cheap holidays, bank loans, ancestry searches etc. Many others reveal the problem with using only a simple keyword extraction approach to determining from my mails what might interest me. If I am already undertaking a PhD at a University – something made clear from my email signature – then how likely am I really to want to start another one in Cardiff, Leeds or exotic Manchester? Others are less explicable – Learn Acting in Australia! Hawaii Beach Weddings! Plus Size Swimwear. Really? Believe it or not, these do not relate to my Google searches either. I can only assume this is where their demographic profiling shows off its flawless powers of deduction.
Never until today had an ad that might actually, truly be relevant presented itself. Best of all, it was wonderfully, knowingly ironic and self-referential. This – yes, I clicked the hyperlinked ad words! Deliberately! – was where I landed:
It pains me to admit that I am actually now thinking of buying this book. Did they finally find a way to trap me? I, so immune from the sinister world of both mass and personalised marketing? Doubtless, Google and Amazon are already working together to track whether or not I make the purchase. The hoped for path from my inbox to my letterbox, once complete, will light up their control panel in waves of ecstatic green. Ticker tape will fall from the sky. And they will add me, quietly, to their tally of “converts”. Borrowed from the now-defunct Christians, convert (in
new marketing speak) means “when someone clicks on your ad and performs a behavior on your website that you recognize as valuable, such as calling your business from a mobile phone or making a purchase on your website.” Surely Zygmunt Bauman would be proud of me for NOT buying the book? His bank manager, possibly less so.