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.
As we finished our morning interview, Wanderer showed me the exit with a smile. “The time just flew in, didn’t it?” she remarked. Despite the unusually early start, I felt a renewed sense of enthusiasm. My bag now had a folder and an mp3 recorder full of original information; I left the building in agreement. The session hadn’t dragged at all. Wonderful. Back at my desk, an email from Ian arrived. “Not as scary as I expected!” she confided. I had to laugh at the thought of our discussion having instilled any foreboding. Isn’t research meant to be enjoyable? Speaking with Ian, Wanderer and others about their fields of research, their organisational cultures, and their views on new media, I’m fairly sure that’s something we all agree on. Regardless of discipline!
I’m now halfway through my pilot data gathering activities and have met with 4 out of 8 participants via 2 “paired interview” sessions – 1 along the road at Manchester University and 1 here at MMU. Preparing materials for what seems an eternity, I am very happy to report that both sessions were extremely informative and genuinely thought-provoking. So far, my interviewees have seemed to find them worthwhile too.1
Getting your “subjects” to take part enthusiastically rather than having them keep one eye on the clock (hey, that’s my job!) is vital to obtaining quality data. That’s why I’ve chosen and devised a combination of discussions, semi-structured interviews, writing activities, and Semantic Differential exercises. Conversations and dialogues are far better than simplistic closed question formats. And of course, timing, flow, and sequencing are everything. It’s too early to conclude but my instinct tells me my data gathering instruments are pretty successful.2 Transcribing the audio and comparing terminologies, anecdotes and insights is already proving fascinating. Hopefully the next 2 are just as illuminating!
It’s important to take part in aspects of University life that aren’t directly related to your subject area. This is something I’m becoming ever more convinced of as I read and write about academic subject and discourse communities, inter-disciplinary work, shifting contexts of idea formation and reception, and the dialogues (or conversations) between tradition, innovation, and diverse schools of thought. All this to say that I’ve been going along to the Philosophy Department’s Friday morning Michel Foucault reading group! Actually, I have been using some of Foucault’s ideas in my work – the historical a priori, the political structures of truth, technologies of self and so on…but mainly, attending this group is a chance for me to hear what’s going on outside the wonderful world of Info Comms. It’s excellent to be challenged by a way of thinking and studying that’s not second-nature – and to realise that actually, it has plenty to reveal that’s relevant to my discipline. Hearing a new vocabulary and learning about a whole new bag of concepts is really rewarding. In my view, inter-disciplinary mash-ups are possibly one of MMU’s real strengths. 🙂
The text we’ve been reading from is The Courage of Truth: The Government of Self and Others II; a lovely volume comprising transcripts of his last ever set of lectures (1984) at the Collège de France. It’s fascinating to try and follow Foucault’s logic as he leaps from idea, to example, to observation, to sweeping and bold statement, usually referring to a variety of well known and obscure (for me anyway) sources and willing the reader/listener to keep pace. Apparently he used to get a little lonely and frustrated that after so much effort, the audience would often not engage with his ideas; not offer a challenge or analysis. What a shame. I can’t help but wonder what he would have had to say about blogs or websites and the ways in which they encourage participation. If Michel blogged, the servers would doubtless crash!
There is one place in the book which really amused me. It’s a wonderful example of the truly “disruptive” effects of new technology. I have reproduced the footnote that appears on Page 14 of the Palgrave Macmillan edition. This is Foucault’s 1 February 1984 lecture: First hour. Warming up to his argument about different modes of truth-telling, he informs his audience about the professional techniques of the Ancient rhetoricians. So popular were his lectures that the theatre would be packed to the rafters; people could hardly breathe, so keen were they to hear him speak. Students would record bootlegs on their little portable cassette machines, eager to be able to replay and share with friends after the fact. And so the following…
Michel Foucault is interrupted at this point by pop music from one of the cassette recorders. We hear a member of the audience rush to their machine. M.F.: “I think you are mistaken. It is at least Michael Jackson? Too bad”.
It’s sad in a way, that the more you get used to a place, the less inclined you are to look around yourself. The walk home from MMU has now become so familiar that I’m sure someone’s been switching me on to autopilot. I barely realise I’m moving until – suddenly – half-way there! Navigating my way through most local supermarket aisles without missing a beat is similarly easy. Chocolate: Aisle 2 on the left. Red Wine: right at the back, pushing itself forward. The solution to this stultifying effect of habituation is to vary my route from time to time. After all, now that I’m a student again, what’s the big rush? 😉
The key is not being afraid to take the odd wrong turn. Getting ever-so-slightly lost now and then is as vital to staying connected with the world as becoming an expert at something is. Perhaps even more so.
Getting back to work on my thesis, I thought it might be time to be brave and
share some of my more academic musings with you. I am currently combining preparations for initial data gathering with exploration of the literature and an elucidation of my framework. I’ll not post anything on the data gathering for now. Clearly this brief extract is part of a work in progress; which makes comments especially welcome!1 🙂
Organised by “artsmethods@manchester” – a newly formed group for academics and practitioners in the Arts and Humanities – tonight’s event for this emerging network took place in the modest but historic “Engine House” of Chorlton Mill which is now the home of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.
(Why) do the Arts matter to society?
This was the provocative question posed by the “Arts Ambassadors” who set up artsmethods. Their intention is to bring together an informal cross-institution and (potentially) cross-sector community of academics and others interested in the future and value of A&H research and practise. Value means the kind made tangible both inside and – perhaps more importantly – outside the walls of Manchester’s Universities. Staff and researchers at the event came from Manchester Metropolitan University, the Royal Northern College of Music, the University of Manchester, and Salford University. At least one part-time documentary maker was in attendance, as well as the manager of a local radio station optimistic that she would find more exciting programming ideas here than the ubiquitous “antiques and cookery shows”.
After everyone introduced themselves, the discussion centred mostly on modes of public “engagement”, communication, and what might be called “community outreach”. One woman pointed out that this really shouldn’t be construed as a one-way process. At the same time as thinking about how academia and scholarship “impact upon” the public, we should listen to what the public have to say to us: establishing a dialogue or a conversation with them and allowing for a flow of ideas which isn’t in thrall to outmoded boundaries and hierarchies. In other words: equality of access and participation.
It’s strange – perplexing even – that we should have to worry about what exactly Arts, Histories, Languages, Linguistics, Humanities, and Cultural Studies bring to society that is valuable enough to justify their continued funding. Would even the most “rational” minded and stereotypical “hard” Scientist ask if the Arts have relevance? My best guess is a resounding no! In many ways these disciplinary lines are increasingly showing themselves to be somewhat artificial. An idea which Professor Sharon Ruston, who I met at the event, could tell us something about in relation to literature and medicine. The trouble is, of course, that many people in a position to influence government policy don’t want to acknowledge this right now. Arts are considered an easy target – they can be sidelined then revived in happier times. A cactus, in the desert, that will always flower, proudly. Maybe this tells us about a (rightly) perceived resistance and durability – and one of the true strengths of the Arts and Humanities within society and culture? A positive property becomes, sadly, the justification for deprivation.
Visual anthropologist and filmmaker Dr Amanda Ravetz pointed out that it can be hard to articulate exactly how A&H makes a contribution to the greater good when so much of these subjects’ understandings are based on legacy, intuition, and a tacit (but no less real) knowledge, rather than on simple demonstrable facts. Regardless of whatever new goals, targets, and systems of assessment are put in place, A&H has always and will always make an “impact” on and enrich society. But how do we measure that? Can we? Is the right response to these pressures to demonstrate the value of the academic an identification of and reliance on memorable “personalities” popular with mainstream broadcast and print media? Is there a risk that complex arguments and theories not suitable for a general audience will become “invisible” – or will be repackaged, simplified, and categorised under some basic label like “grand ideas”? A&H may need to reach a “wider audience” but it shouldn’t have to compromise its values or its methods. Isn’t knowledge any longer an end in itself?
Across the board there is a tension between the uninspired presentation of “dry” facts in opposition to the glamour, subliminality, and inter-textuality of other (perhaps digital) forms of communication. There were some very interesting (though not uncontroversial) presentations about how to address that. As well as continuing to explore how learning, technology, entertainment, and play can combine, is there a way to take A&H research out onto the streets? To locate it in engaging ways within public spaces? Maintaining visibility is easier (in theory) for those whose subjects have a place on the floors, walls and screens of the cultural heritage sector. What about philosophers, or linguists? Is there some way they can position their work within the wider environment to say “Look! This is why we’re relevant! Come and take part” ? Somebody pointed out that a certain amount of opportunism might be involved in doing that – as well as clever and timely strategising – but it could also encourage A&H scholars to explore innovative and engaging approaches.
Art, creativity, metaphor, imagination and expression – these will survive regardless of conditions of government. The reason for Café Arts posing its questions right now may in part be a backdrop of worry, frustration and fear; still, people with a passion for ideas and the exploration of truth are generally galvanised by a challenge. Something I was reminded of on my way to the IABF “Water Closet” – before which sits a modest little display case housing a collection of Anthony Burgess’s old typewriters.