Tag Archive | Books

Experts and experiments: focusing on the future

It’s been a long time now since I blogged on here. Life has been busy, not least due to a new full time role at the University of Manchester Library, working in market research and data analysis. For a little insight into just one of the many projects I am involved in there, here is a guest blog I wrote for the fascinating Books Right Here Right Now project.

A scholarly guinea pig...

A scholarly guinea pig takes a break from study to consider the future of reading. 

Hopefully I’ll find time to write more again here soon. If only I can finish the PhD at long last…

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Burning Bright

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.

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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.

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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.

Liquidity Crisis

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.”

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In control? Hmm.

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?

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A coment on my typos?

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:

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Often out of focus

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.

Narrative building blocks

Students of architecture and urban planning know all about “reading” buildings – how their design and utility are matters not just of bricks and mortar but of time, space, place and communities. For me, not being schooled in those theories, buildings are anyway a source of fascination. I love to take pictures of whatever notable architecture I stumble across, finding it as interesting to photograph as people. Looking through a lens, you get a sense of what a structure represents at the same time as you interpret it subjectively. A combination of physical, elemental, and human properties affect how a building and its surrounding spaces are created, adapted, imagined, and used; these embed it within real and fictional narratives, which metamorphosise and mutate over time.

Carefully composed – but mutable

There are countless examples in literature of buildings given a (usually symbolic) life of their own – Miss Havisham’s Satis House, Kafka’s Schloß, Henry James’s “Bly”, and (a personal favourite) Castle Dracula, to name a few. Certainly the deeper characters of buildings are most obvious in Gothic literature and in ghost stories, murder mysteries and historical novels, where the locations, often dripping with mediaevalism, are full of trapdoors, tunnels, mirrors, secret passages and crypts: clear metaphors for human behaviours, psychologies, and the mystical. In 1987, Will Eisner, author and illustrator of the first graphic novel, published “The Building”. Evocative black pen and ink drawings accompany a story about the life of a building in New York city, interwoven with the ghostly tales of 4 of its diverse inhabitants. In its foreword he writes:

After many years of living in a big city, one gradually develops a sense of wonder, because so much that happens there is unexplained and seems magical. When I was growing up in the turbulence of city life, it required only a surface alertness in order to deal with the welter of changes and experiences that sped by. There was little time to reflect on the rapid replacement of people and buildings. I took these things for granted. As I grew older and I accumulated memories, I came to feel more keenly about the disappearance of people and landmarks…I felt that, somehow, they had a kind of soul. I know now that these structures, barnacled with laughter and stained by tears, are more than lifeless edifices. It cannot be that having been part of life, they did not somehow absorb the radiation from human interaction. And I wonder what is left behind when a building is torn down.

In The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories , Edward Hollis details the histories of buildings that range from the Notre Dame de Paris and the Berlin Wall to Manchester’s very own Hulme Crescents (where apparently, “the prophecies of the future are fulfilled”). Sadly I can’t check out their London-inspired curves – the crescents, shoddily built, leaky, rife with cockroaches, mice, and crime were torn down in 1992, just 20 years after completion.

The wind blows through and weeds grow all around…

You might go down into the depths of a beautiful Roman Catholic or Norman Cathedral and be provided with reams of information about former inhabitants; in these spaces, the sense of history and meaning is palpable. But what about the more modest or easily overlooked spaces that fill so much of our environment, used and then forgotten? Everything we build or leave behind is full of stories and unknown memories.Wandering through the Old Quadrangle at Manchester University I was impressed with the buildings. Back home, I decided to photograph the little hut that sits in the over-grown back-garden. Probably nothing particularly interesting has ever happened in there; but for some reason its presence is one that I like, as I look out my bedroom window.

Backwards into the future

A six part series of photogravures by Tacita Dean titled Fernsehturm is currently featured in the Whitworth Gallery’s Building on Things exhibition. Originally film stills, they show the changing light and atmosphere of a rotating restaurant located inside Berlin’s famous East-side TV Tower. Shot as the sun set, Dean’s images offer a delicate visual comment on how, even when a regime crumbles, its iconography and monuments may remain to be used in new ways. “As you sit up there at your table…and with your back to the turn of the restaurant, you are no longer static in the present, but moving with the rotation of the earth, backwards into the future”. Focusing on depictions of ruin and regeneration, Building on Things is the main reason I went along to the Whitworth today. However – keeping with the directional theme – their major exhibition at the moment is We Face Forward, part of a Manchester-wide West African art festival, so naturally I took a look at that too. The source for their title is a comment by Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana, who wryly reminded the major players of the Cold War that his country faced neither East or West.

Wandering around the galleries, these two exhibitions spill almost into each other. Indeed, Francois-Xavier Gbré’s stunning shots of abandoned, crumbling, or mid-restoration buildings act as something of a bridge between them. Educated at Ecole Supérieure des Métiers Artistiques, Gbré is of French/Ivorian descent, and although trained in fashion and design, his focus here is on identity, architecture and urbanism. Tracks comprises a series of elegantly composed photographs which are imbued with coolly subtle commentaries on the “absurd” ostentation of both French and British colonialism. His locations are not just West African; alongside Mali are ruins in Lyon, Israel and beyond. As he puts it: “Between memory and future, time seems suspended. These silent voids are loaded with a thousand wrongs, impregnated with the living being. I reveal what time has left us, secretly, timidly. Forgotten areas filled with memories, with possibilities, with History.”

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Serious points are being made in much of We Face Forward; the ecological and geo-political pressures upon West Africa; the strange gaze of the white man and the harshness of urbanity. Barthélémy Toguo’s long almost scroll-like watercolour, Purification, (113cm x 10m) suggests how slavery, violence, and the denial of nationality affects the bodies and minds of those oppressed in a supposedly “global” world. His figures are half sillhoute, half flayed; powerfully evocative and somehow pulsing with mysteries and life. There is plenty also which is playful, light, and optimistic. Georges Adéagbo’s The Becoming of the Human Being “illuminates and traces relationships between Manchester and Cotonou, via the wider context of the UK, France, America and Africa”. Described as “museological”, archival and archaeological in its layout, this installation is full of strange juxtapositions made within a fantastically careful yet vibrant assemblage of papers, posters, records, political and musical ephemera and poetic jottings on the nature both of destiny and Nicolas Sarkozy. These highly personal artefacts relate both to the artist’s own life and those of friends and relatives; at the same time they say something about broader West African sociocultural and geographic connections. An essay in one of the books on offer in the exhibition’s reading area – Kobena Mercer’s “Black Art and The Burden of Representation” – stimulated further thoughts along these lines.

How much can art reveal about the condition of a whole region? About the lives of millions of people spread across more countries than most of us could name? Does an exhibition curator have some responsibility to make a definitive statement, present a coherent political view, in the works that are chosen? Clearly it is not possible to fix and define any diverse population of people; and creativity will always leave space for the illusory, the momentary, the subjective and the unknowable. Victoria Udondian plays beautifully with these ideas in 6 x 7m of glorious woven textiles. Aso Ikele (1948) is made entirely of second-hand fabric and – despite the title – it was actually created this year. I couldn’t help smiling to myself as I read the little leaflet provided to accompany the piece. Inside, Udondian embeds a fiction of Aso Ikele within a historically plausible narrative, rooting her work in a variety of facts about Nigerian weaving, the patterns of the European clothing trade, German anthropologists; she even cites books on the subject. And as well as playing with notions of provenance, origin and historical fact, Aso Ikele is (you’ll just have to trust me) the warmest and most wonderful smelling artwork that I’ve ever been close to!

Back at Building on Things, and Liverpudlian printmaker Ann Desmet’s Roof Shattered was one of my own favourites. Although not as grand and attention grabbing as her cyclical Babel Flower collages, and not globally focused like the works in We Face Forward, this deceptively simple work manages all the same to say something about cultural renewal and the fragmentation of memory. Made from six pieces of a broken mirror found amidst the ruins of Manchester’s still-to-be-restored Victoria public Baths, Desmet has overlaid each piece with cut outs from one of her linocut prints, giving them a patterned appearance. But, encased within a little glass box, the pieces are destined to never quite be reassembled.

Differentiating the difference

Showing why a linear narrative of technological progression is not enough if we want to fully understand New Media, Jussi Parikka’s latest book promotes and outlines the compelling “Media Archaeological” approach which he is helping to advance and define (in the tradition of theorists such as Laurent Mannoni, Siegfried Zalinkski, Lev Manovich, and of course Michel Foucault, all of whom are discussed in the text). Parikka, Erkki Huhtamo, and others in this emerging field embrace an understanding of media predicated upon a recognition of the heterogeneous and historical conditions of technological development, usage, implication, and cultural assimilation.

A range of theories and disciplines are naturally relevant: Parikka uses source material from philosophy, cinema studies, art history and computing science to show that the imaginaries of the subconscious – as well as the social and political conditions which “maintain our subject-object relations” (p46) – are deeply relevant to theoretical and artistic “regimes of memory and creative practices in media culture” (p3). Layered patterns of desire and perception are as informative of meaning and use as are technical specifications. Many new technologies seem to demand fresh conceptualisations of the relationships between sense and reality (page 20); further, the traditional A&H tools of interpretation, understanding and critique may need to make way for use, perversion and modulation (p163).

This awareness of multiplicity and mutating contexts resonates within my own research, which draws on literature from several fields of study to examine how academics across and within disciplines perceive and use New Media. Beginning to analyse the results of my pilot data gathering work, I find that there is no simple way to interpret the data. Using bipolar numeric scales (Semantic Differentials), I asked 8 academics from 4 different fields to indicate where they would position their understanding of “New Media” in relation to adjective pairs connoting concepts derived from multiple discourses; hence some terms are political, others abstract, others related to function and so on. Comparing the numbers with the terms and ideas expressed in interviews and discussions, I find that the “results” can be viewed from many different angles. A few examples are below:1

Some academics feel that New Media is as open as it is closed, or that it is far less inclusive than exclusive. But where do these stated positions stem from? From an individual’s empirical “rationalist” mindset? From their observations? Or from their personal desire that New Media be one thing instead of another? This can be illuminated by digging into the revelations made during an interview/conversation. While subtle distinctions in attitude can, I think, be related to the field in which someone works (their training, their background, their vocabularies and their instincts), difference of attitude/approach are nevertheless more nuanced than a discipline-based arrangement might imply.

My dataset is only a small one, but in it I see some evidence of the bridging/constructive effects of New Media within the academy – even as tensions and problems around implementation, policy, or definition are brought to light. Certainly I don’t think it is contentious to argue that using New Media within their work is giving academics a chance to engage with a greater diversity of concepts and theories than would traditionally be associated with their specific field. A computer scientist is most likely aware of philosophical and political concerns about the medium, while artists become more au fait with web technologies and programming languages. New skills, techniques and methods are learned and developed at the same time as political and critical perspectives.

Jussi Parikka talks about the praxis of media archaeology and provides examples of computer/art assemblages which “beg the question: do we have to become engineers to say and do anything interesting and accurate about current media culture?” Happily, he concludes that “the ways to engage effectively and critically…are not that narrowly defined” (p155): however, both the writing about AND the instantiation of Media archaeology require more than text-centrism. Certainly, developing a set of theories, tools, and techniques for the analysis and teaching of Media/New Media studies is a key challenge not just within this emerging field, but within Information Science more generally.

1For presentational clarity, the first term in each pair is represented by -3 and the second by 3. The actual exercises did not include negative numbers.

The Pen is still mightier

Last night I went along with some friends to a poetry recital at the Nexus Arts Cafe in the Northern Quarter. The event was called “Big Writing for a Small World” and was the showcase for work produced as a result of a creative writing workshop led by professional writer John Siddique and funded via English PEN. The authors were diverse in terms of nationality and also in terms of style, coming from Iran, Zimbabwe, China, England and Rwanda and reading work on a variety of themes – some light-hearted, others poignant and deep. Many of the authors are refugees or recent immigrants to the UK. As Mr Siddique pointed out in his introduction, sometimes being “milked for their stories” seems to be the entry fee for admission into Britain. His workshop was therefore about inspiring the writers to find and express them selves rather than creating something directly derived from whatever conflict or trauma they may have borne witness to.

Heaps of creativity...and sandwiches

All of the writing was very impressive, particularly the work of Elmi Ali, who is just 20 years old but whose poems have the wisdom and sensitivity of someone far older. Having grown up surrounded by sisters his instinctive poetic voice is, he says, a very female one. It’s an interesting challenge then to try and write from a “masculine” perspective – at the same time as embracing what he learned from his female relatives. Mahboobeh Rajabi‘s “My Maria”, a tribute to her sister, was genuinely touching, and Yinka Akintayo‘s “The Bag” (using the imagined voice of an over-stuffed handbag) had everyone laughing out loud. This morning, reading the anthology produced to celebrate the work of all “Big Writing” participants nationwide, I’ve found many more gems. If you want to discover them for yourself then you’re in luck – English PEN have uploaded the full collection to Scribd! 🙂