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Welcome from the Dean of Arts

Welcome to Arts Week 2016! Spring has sprung in Bloomsbury, and I’m delighted to invite you once again to share in our annual celebration of the arts at Birkbeck, and taste the particular flavour of our research and teaching. Whatever the topic, art form or period, our work is contemporary, in the sense that it explores issues of the moment and showcases new research. But what is the contemporary? In a ‘pop-up’ museum of the contemporary, Birkbeck postgraduate students explore its meanings through a rich mixture of art, photography and dramatic performance. We discuss, here and elsewhere in our programme, how the arts can most effectively engage with the concerns that dominate today’s world.  A session on ‘Digital Us’ asks, for example, are we ‘together’ in a networked culture? Are we getting closer or moving apart from each other? What are the consequences of longing to belong in contemporary society? Such questions are urgently present and often have a complex and moving history that the creative arts can help to articulate. A workshop on creative writing and the refugee, with the suggestive title ‘Moving People’, maps how geographic and cultural displacement changes what we can say and write, and asks is there a poetics of displacement?

The mobility of the refugee is not a matter of choice, of course, but driven by the necessity to seek asylum. By contrast the explorer is motivated by a desire for travel, adventure and discovery. One of the themes of this year’s festival is exploration. This takes many forms in our calendar of events, including an interdisciplinary panel on ‘Writing Arctic Disaster’, an evening of visual exploration probing the photographic experience of space, and an event with award-winning journalists to launch Birkbeck’s exciting new MA in Investigative Journalism. You will also have an opportunity to do some exploring on location yourself if you join one of the various themed local walks we have organised, including tours of Covent Garden Piazza, picturing its first two hundred years, of London’s West End as a lens into the media in city life and its environments, and of Modernist Bloomsbury. These tours are all led by experts in the history and architecture of the area.  Writer and academic Vybarr Cregan-Reid steps up the pace when he leads a discussion around running, the topic of his latest book Footnotes: How Running Makes us Human, a literary and philosophical study of running and modern life.

Some of our events celebrate the discoveries of more local, and less dangerous, forms of exploration than voyaging to the Arctic. Join Anthony Bale and Isabel Davis to hear about the recent rediscovery of the small manuscript and rare medieval books collection in Birkbeck’s own library, and what their story of loss and rediscovery tells us about the practice of keeping and studying early books. Archiving and curating are the subject of a number of fascinating sessions this year, from the memorialisation of the Holocaust to the archiving of sexuality. Three Birkbeck academics, Gabriel Koureas, Anthony Bale and Lynda Nead think about the curating of ‘difficult’, controversial objects for exhibitions they have recently worked on, in which the objects on show were controversial or uncomfortable: terrorism; blood within Judaic religion and culture; and sexualities and emotions in Victorian literature and culture. Colleagues from the National Portrait Gallery, Guildhall Art Gallery, the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, and the Salvation Army Archive, who host prestigious internships with the Birkbeck MA in Victorian Studies, discuss the joys and challenges of collecting, curating, preserving and researching the Victorians. And shifting from the objects to the spaces of display, Birkbeck’s Fiona Candlin and Leslie Topp, joined by Swati Chattopadhyay of the University of California, Santa Barbara, consider questions of power and knowledge from the vantage point of micromuseums, bookshelves and cells, and ask how do studies of museums, art and architecture change if we start with small spaces?

As always at Birkbeck we aim to showcase the nexus of criticism, theory and practice, and the generic and historical range of the work we do. And so you will have an opportunity to learn about film as research, and about the practice of film-making, from indigenous film-making in Colombia to the experience of writing for television in Britain and Ireland. Birkbeck’s Colin Teevan and David Eldridge talk about their scripting of, respectively, Rebellion an acclaimed five-part television drama set against the events of the 1916 Rising in Dublin, and The Scandalous Lady W, a BBC dramatisation of the story of Lady Seymour Worsley. Theatre and performance, past and present, architecture, photography, portraiture, poetry and fiction, all have a prominent place in this year’s programme. And don’t forget that throughout Arts Week you can experience a participatory exhibition by RELAPSE collective on the concept of identity as constructed and performed through social rituals in the Peltz Gallery.

As you see, it’s a fantastic programme – and there’s much more too! I look forward to seeing you in Gordon Square in May.

Hilary Fraser
Dean of Arts