The museum says no!

Two related articles in the art press this month prompted reflection and cast light on the direction my dissertation project might take. The first was the opening of an exhibition in the Irish Museum of Modern Art of the Irish artist Duncan Campbell which runs from 8th November to 29th March and includes the artist’s film It for Others (2013) originally commissioned by The Common Guild for Scotland + Venice 2013 (the Scottish representation at the at the 55th Venice biennale) for which Campbell was awarded the Turner Prize 2014. It for Others is a response to Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s 1953 documentary, Les statues mourient aussi (Statues also die) that, as is characteristic of Campell’s practice, combines archive material with his own footage. The two films have been shown in tandem with Les statues mourient aussi presented as a ‘found film’ with an English transcript available.

Resnais and Marker’s ‘essay-film’ was commissioned by the journal, Présence Africane, associated with the ‘negritude’ movement. Such was their critique of French colonialism in Africa that the film was not shown in France for fifteen years as Resnais refused to accept the French censor’s cut. One celebrated sequence, made with the help and expert advice of the British curator, was filmed in the vaults of the British Museum; a parade of Benin Bronzes glitter in Eisenstien-like high contrast and float out of the dark as the voice over intones:

An object dies when the living glance trained upon it disappears. And when we disappear, our objects will be confined to the place where we send black things: to the museum.

However Campbell, seeking to revisit these ideas about the commercialisation and commodification of African art, found it difficult to have permission granted to film the same objects; access, if not denied outright was not facilitated either. The strategy he adopted in the end was to film using ‘approximate replicas’ of traditional West African sculptures. In fact, from my point of view, the decision only serves to reinforce the point – the systems of exchange, histories of collection and practices of display that have determined their value as artworks in western museums can be linked to their ‘death of purpose’, detached from their religious and social contexts. In an excerpt used in the Tateshots profile of the artist below, we can see the critical effect of the reversal of the principle of the spectator gaze, ‘seeing not being seen’: the camera is placed behind the eyes of the masks looking out.

All this brings me to my main area of research interest – the issue of the repatriation of cultural artefacts– and to the second art-related announcement of note: the British Museum’s loan of a Parthenon sculpture of the river-god Ilissos to the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. In the words of the British Museum’s director, Niel McGregor, the artwork

…embodies the belief in the supreme value of rational debate among free citizens. There can be no better celebration of the Enlightenment ideals which the British Museum and the Hermitage have shared for 250 years.

McGregor has perhaps been the most eloquent in defense of the concept and mission of the ‘universal museum’ in the face of post-colonial critiques, emphasising the ‘pre-imperial’ foundation of the British Museum and the cosmopolitanism of its address to publics. The ‘Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums’ (2002) sets out the official line:

The objects and monumental works that were installed decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America were acquired under conditions that are not comparable with current ones. Over time, objects so acquired – whether by purchase, gift, or partage – have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension, part of the heritage of the nations which house them.

The Pergamon Museum in Berlin, while not a ‘sister museum’ like the Hermitage, is also a fellow signatury to the declaration. Negotiations with the Dutch artists Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan (whose work I discuss below) were not protracted, they were simply denied permission to film the Pergamon altar or access to archives, stating they had no interest in stiring debate about repatriation. So much for ‘rational debate among free citizens’! The artists had proposed ‘to produce a film work, which reflects upon the contemporary condition of displacement from a historical perspective’. That would include the monument’s own layered history, transported to the Berlin, capital of the German State from Bergamon in modern day Turkey in the late 19th century, taken to Moscow as war booty and then returned after the death of Stalin.
Monument to Another Man’s Fatherland (2008-12) was commissioned by the Project Art Centre and shown in Dublin in 2009. The installation consisted of two parts: the first, a 35mm film, Revolt of the Giants – Reconstructed from Reproductions (2008 -2009), the second, a 16mm film Revolt of the Giants – recited by prospective Germans (2008). From the film, below, of the Project’s visual art curator, Tessa Giblin, introducing the work, one can get a sense of the imposing size and sound of the film projector in the centre of the room.

In the essay Follow the Hybrid, the artists set out their thinking and process. Firstly, they recreated the altar from over 100 print reproductions culled from art historical and archeological texts and guide books found in libraries, street markets and even the museum’s gift shop. As the 35mm film slowly pans the sculptural frieze, one is aware of the various photographic forms in which it has been inscribed in since the 1880s, ‘with their diverse grids, qualities and illumination … and formal qualities, such as contrast, printing technique and texture’.

Secondly, in a move to counter or make visible the exclusionary position of the museum, the 16mm film shows, in a screen test format, students on a language proficiency and intergration class (required for all aspiring Turkish migrants to Germany) in the Goethe-Institut in Istanbul. They read, in German, art historical descriptions of the frieze, grappling with difficult pronunciation and unfamillar terms. Maeve Connoly’s review in Artforum, describes how, in contrast, to

the methodical, relentless progression of the camera across the surface of the monument in the larger projection, the static cinematography in the second film reveals smaller and more hesitant movements, the facial gestures of the readers who attempt to decode the words shown them.

The effect is open-ended and nuanced but points to language as a form of ‘symbolic violence’ that underpinns the appropriation of cultural heritage and in particular the German value of Bildung, the individual internalisation of high culture.

So from negritude to Bildung, what does it add up to? Well, having prepared an outline proposal for a digital art project, the viability of which depends in large part on the degree of access granted to me by a national instituion to its archives and storerooms and phyical holdings, I’m heartened to see the creative possibilities, solutions and critical strategies of artists working within beauracracy or around refusal. Sometimes it’s more interesting when they say no!

Rekindling The Oral Narrative

Hi, Everyone,

Words are like footprints, they lead you on a journey. Sometimes the journey is linear but more often than not there are the dreaded twists and turns. Journeys can be scary because they are often a step into uncharted territory, and coming back to college was like that for me.

I have always had an interest in stories, whether it be Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Revised), old Celtic tales, or the stories of peoples’ lives. Words have meanings and they weave the stories of our lives. Often stories have been heard from the perspectives of Kings and Queens but I like the stories of the ordinary man and woman. I have spent many years listening to other peoples’ stories, whether it be around a camp-fire, in a writer’s group, women’s group, or support group. My background is in community work and was centred on rehabilitative pedagogy. My last position was with Inishowen Women’s Outreach, an intimate spousal violence agency in Co. Donegal. I heard many stories, often dark and thorny, but some that danced with hope. However, I have parked that in a meadow, it is the distant past and I am now strolling towards different pastures. However, my rucksack is packed with stories. After my time in Carndonagh I went to NUI Maynooth, where I took a masters in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism. I have found memories there. In the hidden nooks and crannies of people’s lives we find creativity, and behind each face there’s a hidden inner landscape, and truth lies buried beneath the surface. I would like to use digital technologies to explore oral narrative. I am unsure if I want to focus on a particular group yet. One idea is to focus on the Wild Women of Cork. My path still has some boulders to overcome and that is mainly the tech stuff. My interest is knowledge which would not be considered academic because it would be tagged unfairly as mythic-rational.  I am looking forward to exploring it and looking forward to seeing what, if anything I discover.

Building diversity, equality, and representation into large media production

gender

There is a growing awareness that representation, both in staffing and in final product, has a profound impact on social and business outcomes. Media and gaming companies like Facebook, Blizzard Entertainment, and Bioware, among others, are making efforts – with varying degrees of success – to increase the inclusion of women in influential roles. Their dedication to increasing representation of minorities, people of colour, and members of the LGBTQIA communities is not as clear, nor is their interest in accurate depictions of world cultures.

Increased monetary value, as well as intangibles like customer and fan base loyalty, from accurate and diverse representation is a known fact. Convincing large corporations to use this knowledge and build it into their business plans from the start is a different question. As so many aspects of a large scale production are already broken down into formulae for use by production managers and producers, it would seem that having a clear outline for a diversity blueprint is the next logical step.

Organizations like the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Mediaare already doing work to make easy, equality-based decisions in filmmaking the norm. Using this data as a starting point to address the gender balance of the film production community, as well as gender balance of characters in films, here in Ireland is the first part of this thesis. Expansion into other markets (Europe and North America to start), as well as other platforms (video gaming, television, and related licensing and marketing) will be the subject of further research, most likely for a PhD.

For further reading here is a recent post on why the video game industry needs to take the initiative in gender equality.

“The best muscle an athlete has is the one between their ears.”

James Moroney, Inniscarra, County Cork, Ireland

James Moroney at the National Rowing Centre, Inniscarra, County Cork, Ireland

As a coach I have heard this line a hundred times, and every time the pedantic pat inside me has wanted to scream “the brain is not a muscle damn it, it’s an organ consisting of billions of neurons and synapses”. However, despite the biological inaccuracy of the above statement, it may in fact be correct when looked at from a psychological point of view. Self-Control, one of the most important psychological constructs we have, operates just like a muscle.

Self-control can be defined as the exertion of control over the self by the self, and involves overriding or inhibiting competing urges, behaviors, or desires (Muraven and Baumeister, 2000). When one overrides a behavior one depletes some of the resource that self-control draws upon. This depletion leads to a drop in performance of any subsequent task that requires self-control (Muraven, Tice and Baumeister, 1998). Eventually the resource becomes so depleted that a state of self-control failure is reached where no further volitional action can take place. In order to bring performance back up to 100% one must rest and replenish these self-control resources.

It makes sense then, that self-control is often likened to a muscle, as, similar to a muscle, it becomes fatigued when used, and just like a muscle it will eventually fail if not rested (Hagger, Wood, Stiff and Chatzisarantis, 2010). Not only that but recent research has found that the self-control muscle can be improved with training (Oaten and Cheng, 2006). So technically our coach is right when he says “the best muscle an athlete has is the one between their ears.”

The purpose of my PhD research is to examine the relationship our self-control muscle has with sports performance. This research begins with examining the different types of sporting activity that requires self-control as well as examining whether there are any differences between the depletion of self-control in training settings and competitive ones. I then examine the individual differences in self-control strength and how to help athletes with low self-control strength to get stronger. Finally I examine various different psychological tools that one can use to reduce self-control depletion and ensure that performance can continue even when depleted. I hope that with my research I will be able to provide another psychological tool that both athletes and coaches can add to their arsenal.

Chiaroscuro

The ‘image’ captured my imagination. The photograph, the filmic frame, the theatrical moment or sequence of moments… The ‘image’ forever emblazoned on my mind’s eye as a result of the careful or careless creativity of an individual or individuals. The imagination thrives in the image, dwells on its contents, its connotations, its possibilities. For whom, why, and how the ‘image’ was created intrigued me, intrigues me. Little wonder then that I embarked on a career in lighting design, and less wonder yet that for my course of post-graduate study I ventured into an exploration of the works of those who persist and persevere in presenting the image. Below are the early musings of a curious mind…

 “Daylight is not at our command. Although we can dim it, (drapes, coloured glass, etc.), we cannot control daylight itself and modify its proportions at will. We must therefore, turn to artificial light created by ourselves, i.e. stage lighting. For our eyes, this light is the simple light of day what, for our ears, the art of sounds is to shouting. It will be the aesthetic ruler of brightness – capable of modifying its vibrations”[1]

 Adolphe Appia, the late nineteenth century theorist of stage lighting and design, was a strong advocate of uniting both performer and performance in time and space, not only through the use of light but more specifically the concurrent use of light and shade. He rejected the nineteenth century use of two-dimensional sets and stage scenery in exchange for a three-dimensional scenic approach.

 “For Appia, space was a dynamic area that attracted both actor and spectator and brought about their interaction. Complementing his concept of space was his belief that lighting should be used to bring together the visual elements of the drama.”[2]

One of the first theatre designers to embrace the dramatic possibilities promised by the development of the electric light, Appia’s “experiments with the intensity, colour and movement of light provided innovative theoretical and practical approaches to the function of light in theatre as well as evocative and atmospheric designs.”[3]

The practical application of his lighting theory, (later to be systematized in the U.S by Stanley McCandless and later again utilized to great success by Jean Rosenthal), was founded upon the concept of simulating natural light as would emanate from a logical source in relation to bodies on the stage, mimicking the natural world which he himself inhabited at the time.

 In his 2005 essay ‘One Hundred years of Stage Lighting’ Arnold Aronson argues that we can no longer light for the stage as Appia did, “The images we create upon the stage are inevitably codified reflections of the world around us, and thus informed by contemporary sensibilities”[4] and given the near perpetual illumination of our sprawling urban centres, owing to burgeoning technological advancements, modern society has all but eliminated the darkness in our living world.

And so, if as Aronson suggests, we live in a society engulfed in artificial light, why then are designers such as Paul Keogan, choosing to create dramatic worlds where intense beams of light, a tight concentrated focus on facial features and accentuation of shadow juxtapose with deep saturated colour washes, conjuring images which bear no small resemblance to the compositional chiaroscuro art works of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer or indeed of the Tenebrism style as practiced by Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens.

If baroque art was intended to evoke emotion and passion instead of the calm rationality that had been prized during the Renaissance [5], has Keogan then either consciously or otherwise, invested in a language of light where his particular application of lighting fixture, focus and directionality is a paradigmatic choice such as is related to the reality to which it refers, where darkness as a form determines meaning, and as such challenges the hegemony of modern-day society, a society saturated in artifice, or artificial light as the case may be.

Keogan’s work is vivid and memorable, as much as for what is least seen as for what is most visible. A stark and intense cold light floods through seams and doorways in the set of Grange Park Opera’s ‘Dialogues des Carmélites’ by Francis Poulenc, merely grazing the Carmelite nuns as they await their fate in the wake of the French revolution, the silhouette of the all-seeing ‘Duende’ in Cork Opera House’s production of Ástor Piazzolla’s ‘Maria De Buenos Aires’ is stenciled upon a deep red cyclorama wash looming over a ‘Maria’ entirely unsuspecting of her inevitable fate, ‘Maksim’s’ brutal journey through Corcadorca’s presentation of ‘Plasticine’ by Vassily Sigarev is illuminated mostly through the use of multiple manned followspots (reputedly, a very specific choice over the first draft usage of automated VL Spot 2500 lanterns) positioned at varying heights and angles, casting carefully calculated shadows on the oppressive world of the play.

In an interview with Irish Theatre Magazine, Keogan was quoted to have said “My approach to design is very simple and quite stripped back. Certain people have said ‘Oh, it’s kind of good because you design sets that you like to light, so it’s almost that the lighting comes first and the set is the structure that works around the lighting.’ I don’t know that that is something that I consciously do, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the way that I subconsciously work.”[6]

If as an artist, Keogan initially envisions his works through the application of lighting design, i.e. that by stripping back the image on stage, by isolating the visual representation of the performer, by saturating the performance space in deep hues, is he then embarking on a process of demystification, ultimately, and similarly to the artists of the Baroque era, seeking to provoke a passionate response to a hegemonic social structure.

Roland Barthes established that myth is a culture’s way of thinking about something, a way of conceptualizing or understanding it. The myth exists before the image. “Myths mystify or obscure their origins and thus their political or social dimension. The mythologist reveals the hidden history and thus the sociopolitical works of myths by ‘de-mystifying’ them.” [7]

Through the careful selection of light ‘chiaro’ thus emphasising what is portrayed in darkness  ‘oscuro’, I propose that Paul Keogan is in fact subverting the potential for ‘codified reflections’ of the fast-paced, technologically enslaved society in which we live, subsequently illuminating the mythology of contemporary social structure in his works.

Over the course of the next twelve months, I intend to investigate sociological meaning, mythology and cultural context inherent in the lighting designs of Irish Theatre Scenographer Paul Keogan, exploring his use of darkness with regard to text, performer and performance space, expounding upon his relationships with artistic collaborators, his choice of production, technology and his artistic inspiration, stimulus and motivation.

 Lux ex Tenebris

References

[1]  Eurythmics and Light, Adolphe Appia, 1912

[2]  http://www.encyclopedia.com. “Adolphe Appia.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. accessed 23 Sept. 2014

[3]  http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/staffhome/siryan/academy/theatres/appia,%20adolphe.htm

[4]  Aronson, Arnold. Looking into the Abyss. Ann Arbour: The University of Michigan Press, 2005.

[5]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baroque_painting, para 2, accessed 20 Nov. 2014

[6]  Susan Conley, ‘A Career in Lights’, Irish Theatre Magazine, (published online 24 Feb 2011), http://www.irishtheatremagazine.ie/Features/Current/A-career-in-lights , para 7, accessed 16 Sept. 2014

[7]  Fiske, John. Introduction to Communication Studies, London: Routledge, 1990.

Web Docs, i-Docs, and whatever you’re having yourself

i-Docs is the subject area I’m interested in, interactive documentaries.

There are a variety of terms in circulation i-Docs, Web Docs, Dynamic Documentaries, Immersive Storytelling and so on, but i-Docs, it seems, has come through as the strongest of these and so it’s the expression I’m going to go with.pinepoint1I’d like to jump right in and talk about the best i-Doc I’ve seen so far which is Welcome to Pine Point (http://nfb.ca/pinepoint). The link here takes you to the Pine Point website while the YouTube video (below) is a trailer for the website (which is to say, a promotional video or advert).

Welcome to Pine Point is a website about a town which no longer exists but which once existed in the far north western territory of Canada. It was a mining town — open cast zinc mining — the town was built to house the workers, so schools, ballpark, ice-rink, town hall or meeting centre, the usual crew in 20th century Anglo-American culture.

img001Pine Point boomed in the boom times and died in the down times. The mine closed at the end of the 1980s and the town died out shortly thereafter. Totally — there’s nothing there at all now, not a building nor a lamppost standing to memorialise what was once home for thousands of people (for a cluster of generations).

work-screen-pp-v4The Welcome to Pine Point website was created by Mike Simons and Paul Shoebridge, collectively known as The Goggles, a Canadian duo. (Welcome to Pine Point is hosted by the Canadian Film Board and was launched at the Toronto Film Festival in 2012.)

The website consists of photographs, sound and video clips, interviews, music, and narration by Simons. The music (and the soundscape in general) deserves special mention because it is just so bang on, the tracks are so well related to one another and yet distinct, and so appropriate: a group called The Besnard Lakes wrote and performed the main audio tracks. The whole thing is ambient — pleasantly stonedstroketrippy ambient — interleaved with the sounds of mining machinery, kids playing baseball, a Mothers’ Union coffee morning, 1970s TV chat show chatter and the like. Not unlike, say, the KLF’s classic (1990) album Chill Out.

KLF Chill Out 3That mix of media (sound, stills, video, music, and even data), and the fact that the whole thing is web-based, these are some of the key characteristics of an i-Doc. But what’s really important, of course, is the interactivity part of it.

On each page you can hold for as long as you please and you can also delve further into each of the pages (most of them anyway), flicking through picture galleries, for example, or playing video or audio clips.

And, of course, you can ‘click’ back and recheck or reread or review something if you need to (or simply would like to do so).

static.squarespaceSome i-Docs feature explorations of what can be done with a cursor, Hollow (http://hollowdocumentary.com), for example, by Elaine Macmillion (2013), is one such. As you scroll, the documentary runs; it’s as if you had your finger in the spindle of a film projector.

And, again, the audio work in Hollow is exquisite. Hollow is about a county in West Virginia, McDowall County, a coal mining territory which is bleeding out; the population is declining by about 10,000 every decade. In the 1940s and 50s there were over a 100,000 people living in McDowall County, presently there are about 20,000 and the total is still in freefall.

screen-shot-2014-03-30-at-08-38-42But also, to some extent, one can choose the line one takes through the material. Basically, i-Docs are about presenting a database. So, you have, say, 250 video clips — in fact, let’s talk about small narrative units (SNUs) because they may not necessarily be video clips, some of your 250 items might be little galleries of photos with audio files attached, or it could be a series of pages, or a series of slides (as in a Prezi presentation) and so on. So you have your opening unit, your general intro (preceded, very probably, by a landing page), but from there different viewers may take different routes through the material.

So, for example, I could make an i-Doc about living in Skibbereen and someone could watch it who is only interested in material relating to women, or to Protestants, or business people, or immigrants, or sports people or older people or whatever.

At the present time most of the interactivity and most of the choice tends to be theoretical more than actual — which is to say, as yet, generally speaking, the choices are rather limited.

But the point is, the potential is enormous. This stuff is really only in its infancy, but very soon you’ll see i-Docs which will be made up of 600, 800, 1,200 SNUs, and you and I could watch a film about life in Amsterdam, for example, or bell-ringing in Ireland, or the music scene in Istanbul, and see quite different material.

Web docsAnd that is another aspect of the i-Doc — that it is open-ended, you can go on adding material or editing it endlessly.

But, as I say, it’s the potential they represent which has everybody buzzing (almost every film festival has an i-Doc section nowadays; and, indeed, we are beginning to see the emergence of festivals specifically concerned with i-Docs —  Sheffield in the UK, for example, also Amsterdam).

And that’s what I want to do: I want to chart the development of this new form of story-telling — examining the early development of the syntax and grammar of i-Docs, comparing and contrasting this emerging form with the early years of older forms of off-the-page story-telling and presentation, particularly viz television, radio, and cinema.

If you want to explore i-Docs for yourself there are now a number of sites which specialise in curating them, which is to say, listing them, linking to them, and rating them,§ and providing descriptions of them (including, of course, the technical and operational aspects of each [because who knows what operating requirements a particular i-Doc might need]) —

http://docubase.mit.edu/

http://www.doclab.org/

http://collabdocs.wordpress.com/

http://www.wiredmov.com/manifesto/

See also the Korsakow website: http://korsakow.org/ and http://i-docs.org/

§ On i-Doc ratings, the MIT people, for example, have a five-point scoring rubric they call VINSE, an acronym for visual design, interactivity, narrative, sound, and engagement.

Perry O’Donovan, 20 November 2014

 

Losing The Plot

 

I believe that reading, in its original essence, [is] that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.
–Marcel Proust

I’ve always loved books. I love the way they feel in your hands, the heft of them, and their quiet, perfect solidity. I love the clean, tempting smell of a new book, the whisper of magic and the promise of untold secrets, or again, the dusty, elderly tomes one finds in little-known bookshops where a surprise discovery is always guaranteed. I suppose this love of ‘real’ books, as I’ve come to call them, makes me ill-disposed to digital reading, and perhaps it’s a bias I carry with me into the research I propose to conduct. This may make for a difficult start.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m still at the ‘idea’ stage of my research, as I feel that I have not read enough to be certain of the direction that I want to take, or in fact, if this would even make for a viable research project. I feel inadequate that I haven’t, as yet, hit upon a more conclusive visualization of my research, but I believe in being honest. To this end, here’s a statement of fact: I firmly believe that our reading habits have changed dramatically since we entered the digital age. We are now more accustomed to reading on iPads, e-readers, smart-phones, and other devices than from ‘real’ books and physical documents. I believe, in fact, that we retain less information overall when we read information on a screen than if we were to read it in the traditional way. I’d like to find out what it is exactly that makes reading on screens so very different from the traditional form we know and love, and whether or not there is a specific reason behind the disparity. I have not yet thought through the methodology needed for such a study, nor the tools I might use to explore this idea further. Further reading is needed to allow me to reach those conclusions.

As I’ve already mentioned, this proposal is not absolute by any means, and I do have a contingency plan in case it rains. I am reluctant, however, to discuss this in any detail until I find out a little more about the viability of the idea, as it may turn to dust. You will, I’m sure, forgive my reticence in this matter. 🙂