Archive | February 2012

Not so amateur

Am just back from a fantastic event organised by some of the Info Comms staff at MMU – the first ever “ADMP Showcase“, which screens and celebrates the best short films produced by students from the Advanced Digital Media Production course, overseen by Dr Dee Hynes and her colleagues. I have to admit, I don’t know how Dee managed to choose a winner because all four of the films shown were amazingly professional, entertaining and informative, covering a diversity of subjects that ranged from the role of toys in childhood (and adulthood) to the historical, aesthetic, and personal politics that influence how young women of African/African-Caribbean origin style their hair.

All the short films were projected onto the atrium walls

Well done to all the students and to the event organisers – I think it’s safe to say everyone was very impressed! At a time when skill development and study in a University setting is going to become an even more difficult challenge for many young people, it’s great to see their talents and hard work rightly put into the spotlight. 🙂 In a teaching-dominated University like MMU, Undergraduates are as much the lifeblood of the campus as any PGs, academic or support staff; possibly even more so!

DJ Goodness

When you feel that craving for an assortment of loud, intense, excellent tracks, you can do a lot worse than go down to the Sandbar to hear what their Saturday-night DJs are up to. I’ve not been in a while and last night was exactly what I needed! Ana Miller and Jack Carolan treated us to an expertly chosen mixture of funk, rock ‘n’ roll, psychedelic and garage that got everyone up and dancing; in fact, Ana’s funk collection goes down so well with the crowd that she sometimes struggles to get a break! For me, hearing some old classics (like The Ramones, The Ronettes, or The Specials’ “Ghost Town“) is always cool. And what can I say? I love vinyl. You just can’t beat the way it sounds or even the way it looks spinning around on the turntable. Sandbar is usually good fun; but when the tunes are just right, a happy buzz permeates the whole place to the point where both the bar staff and customers morph into a kind of big extended family. Everyone seems to be on the same wavelength.

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Being a bit of a geek and sitting watching the DJs provided me with an excellent vantage point for some sneaky photography, although I did end up dancing in the end! 😀


I don’t know much about ornithology or birdwatching (although strangely I do remember carrying around a Bill Oddie birdspotting/colouring book at some point during my childhood and consequently being able to startle bored classmates with my knowledge of Oystercatchers on school trips to the coast). Anyway, who wouldn’t be cheered up on a cold, misty day at the sight of two lovely grey and black geese (you can blame Bill if I have misidentified!) chasing two others aggressively down the street for no apparent reason other than fun? Maybe they’re the neds of the geese world.

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These pictures were taken last weekend at a very atmospheric Salford Quays (sadly the two victims had made their terrified exit by the time I got my camera ready; this pair are the cheeky aggressors). In the third shot, you can see just how high the lift bridge – designed by prolific Spanish bridge architect Carlos Fernández Casado, she even has a little-known sister in Plentzia – goes in around three minutes. The 95m long bridge reaches its full 18 metres almost silently and apparently it’s unusual to see it raised at all at this time of year. I’m not sure why it went so high since the boats passing by certainly didn’t need that much room. Maybe it was some sort of a test? Anyway, everyone down below in the mist was excited to see it and I wasn’t the only one taking photos. The pedestrians who walk over the bridge when it’s just a wee bit lower down were more than happy to wait for it!

Playing at Theatre

This weekend, I went to the Manchester Opera House for the first time, keen to see its last performance of Zach Braff’s debut play All New People, which has been getting some very good reviews (and a few not so good). Braff is of course best known as awkward but loveable JD from the recently-departed US TV comedy Scrubs, however being a super-fan of “The Braffster” wasn’t a requirement for entry! It was a good event to go along to with my Mum (who was visiting this weekend) and I was interested in how and if Braff would make something theatrical from the same sort of semi-serious musings that we saw in Garden State, his first (and only) feature film as writer/director.

Opera has rarely been performed here...

I’ve never really studied theatre so I certainly can’t claim to be an advocate of any particular approach or tradition! But I’ve read and seen enough plays to at least know the kind of experience that I expect from theatre as opposed to other artforms. All New People didn’t really fit with those expectations – and not because it was radical. The set was beautifully composed and the dialogue witty, but its characters and plot never took on more weight than you’d find in an entertaining adult sitcom. Okay, there were references thrown in to the fury of an Old Testament God; to rape, depression, and The Merchant of Venice – but these moments got scattered and lost. The rag-tag trio of kooks who assemble around Braff’s own character Charlie, offer him (and in turn us) little to engage with at first beyond their repartee or sex appeal. He is a suicidal former air traffic controller toying with the idea of hanging himself in a wintry beach house and, interrupted by the property’s letting agent, has a drink and drug-fuelled pity party/analysis session thrust upon him instead. Not exactly what he expected! Charlie and the other characters are of course meant to be post-modern, fractured, hiding under or behind facile personas. The trouble is that neither those personas nor the sketchy revelations about what lies beneath them are particularly significant or intriguing. Maybe that’s the point too in a way?

All New People’s televisuality is heightened by the fact that whenever Braff and director Peter DuBois want to reveal something “deeper” and more truthful about the reality of characters who are otherwise evasive, elusive, or just 2-dimensional, extra-large television screens drop down in front of the curtain to show us “flashbacks” while the actors “freeze frame” behind them. Rather than constituting a brave multimedia theatre experiment,  these incongruous inserts revealed where Braff learned his approach to writing and characterisation; and where they really do fit best. For me, a lot of the energy generated by the cast’s dynamic was dissolved by those screens. When you’re sitting too far back or high up to see the actors’ faces on stage in any detail, it’s hard to recognise at first that it’s actually them! A minor point but this does add to the sense of sudden disengagement.

An audience expectant

Impressive performances were definitely a highlight of the evening; whoever put together the Manchester cast did a really good job – working well as a four-piece, each one had perfect timing. I particularly liked the light comedic touch of Susannah Fielding, whose ditzy call-girl Kim combined elements of Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar in Some Like It Hot (complete with ukulele), Kaley Cuoco’s Penny in The Big Bang Theory, and Kim Cattrall’s Samatha from Sex and the CityQuite impressive considering how out-of-date and clichéd her character actually was in most regards! As for the others: Eve Myles’s Emma could have slipped unnoticed into the cast of Absolutely Fabulous, becoming a sort of wilder sister to Saffy; and Paul Hilton’s Myron would most definitely be somebody or other in 2 and a Half Men. Well, these are rough guides…and my knowledge of TV comedy characters is just about exhausted. So I have to say that Charlie…well…he is basically Zach Braff, who else? The writer watches on in amusement as he dabbles with the role of someone who may or may not be genuinely suicidal. There were definitely shades of Garden State here – but with less resonance.

Overall, All New People was enjoyable to watch and quite good fun – it just wasn’t as good as I’d hoped for. Even as a piece of television it was quite conventional and predictable when you consider what’s been achieved by a series like the always spellbinding Mad Men! Well, maybe Zach Braff was in Scrubs for too long? It’ll be interesting to see what his next play does, and if he gets a little bolder; more confident with the nature of theatre. I can only hope this review won’t get me any angry letters from Bill Lawrence! 😀

Letters from the Atmosphere

We nearly made it through the winter without any snow…but suddenly with a drop in temperature it’s been descending in lovely soft flakes all day, insistently refusing to melt. This reminds me that (for some forgotten reason) I was reading recently about a man nicknamed “Snowflake Bentley” – a self-taught farmer from Vermont who invented one of the earliest methods of microphotography; using a bellows camera and microscope, he eventually managed to document thousands of snowflakes (or, snow crystals), catching them against black velvet before they were lost forever.

Snow crystals may not really be "letters from heaven"

Although there have been musings on snowflakes since at least the time of Johannes Kepler, who figured out a lot about their mathematics, it’s thanks to Bentley that we know no two snowflakes are alike. It’s also thanks to him that modern-day residents of his hometown in Jericho are able to make some extra money selling a variety of snowflake themed merchandise. I wonder if an enthusiastic amateur would be able these days to make such an immense contribution to Science (and to art – because surely that’s what these photographs can be considered)?

...but that makes them no less amazing.

A later, more  traditional snowflake researcher – if such a thing exists – was Ukichiro Nakaya, a physicist who developed a classification system for snowflakes using images highly influenced by Bentley’s work. In 1936, Nakaya created the first ever artificial snow in his Low Temperature Science Laboratory at Hokkaido University. A museum in his name now displays a range of historic and modern exhibits while involving visitors of all ages in snow-related activities and competitions. The best part – or the geekiest depending on your point of view – is that the museum building is shaped hexagonally to reflect the structure of snowflakes. 🙂

Odd to say that my own camera isn’t as powerful as those ones from a century ago; but anyway I’ve tried to evoke some of the gorgeous white views outside with these photos. In some kind of Christmas-card re-enactment I even saw a robin sitting on the fencepost by my window. He flew away too fast for me to capture him.

A Cordial Installation

Some of Manchester School of Art’s final year students are showing how creative they can be when it comes to raising money for their forthcoming Degree Shows. Taking over the Holden Gallery, they have turned part of its space into a modern and stylised approximation of an Edwardian tea room – a “pop-up installation” which offers an impressive range of homemade cakes, sandwiches, coffees, and various flavours of tea served on a tray, at your table, and in delicate gold-rimmed china. Looking at the menu you might find yourself thinking that while a Victoria sponge is one thing, spicy Moroccan soup is hardly in keeping with 1901; but that’s partly the point. Mixing up influences, interacting with customers and clearly having a great time, the staff (sorry, students) are providing a far more relaxed and less mannered atmosphere than you would find in an old English tea room!

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Further signs of the “other-worldly” and hybrid nature of the installation include waitresses in classic white aprons and hats who operate a modern till to take your payment; a floor model record player which doesn’t actually play the old-fashioned music drifting through the gallery; one or two flat-screen TVs peppering the walls; and a can of “skooshy” cream that’s used to top some of the cakes. This is what makes the space so much fun. It’s great to see students playfully subverting the “university spin-off” notion by practising something commercial in a way that’s primarily designed to gain their artwork a public airing. The only point of ambivalence for me is the old-fashioned aviary which sits in the centre of the tea room. I’m not a fan of caged birds, and while I can’t deny that the pair of black and yellow budgies are eye-catching and of course beautiful, it’s always a little sad watching their thwarted attempts to fly. Original framed prints and pictures crowd the fresh white walls and provide something less problematic to enjoy, cheerfully reminding you what it is that your money is going towards.

Back in the more traditional gallery space and the current touring exhibition, Outrageous Fortune, offers another modern interpretation of something traditional – this time a unique take on the classic “Ancien Tarot de Marseille”, which dates all the way back to 1760.