As part of the third national Being Human festival of the humanities, in November 2016 I curated, with Dr Naomi Paxton, a programme of over 20 public engagement events, exhibitions and activities at the festival’s London hub in Senate House.
The programme drew together researchers, artists and others from across the University of London colleges and academic bodies to create a ‘Ministry of Hope and Fear’. The programme played on the Being Human 2016 ‘hope and fear’ theme and also on Senate House’s history as the WWII Ministry of Information and inspiration for George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.
The London hub featured contributions from University of London Colleges and bodies including Birkbeck, UCL, Goldsmiths, Queen Mary, SOAS, the School of Advanced Study and the University of London Institute in Paris. Events included a ‘Night at the Library’ escape room in the Institute of Historical Research Library, an immersive theatre performance called No Feedback based on research into the ten stages of genocide, and an event exploring physics, philosophy and food organised in collaboration with the Institute of Physics.
The London hub was funded by a grant from the University of London’s Convocation Trust. The full programme can be viewed here.
As part of the programme, I was particularly pleased to have brought together the three thematically linked installations explored below.
Sound and Fury: listening to the Second World War
A collaboration with sound artist Aleks Kolkowski and Dr James Mansell, University of Nottingham, this project drew on un-catologued WWII recordings from the British Library’s sound archives to create an installation in two spaces in Senate House. The work was The based on Kolkowski’s tenure as Composer in Residence at the British Library and on James Mansell’s recent book The Age of Noise in Britain: Hearing Modernity.
At the top of the Ceremonial Staircase the H.G. Wells inspired ‘Babble Machine’ played a collage of WWII propaganda recordings through 1920s public address speakers salvaged from an Essex fire-station.
Meanwhile, in what is normally the Vice Chancellor’s meeting room (a room not usually accessible to the public), a 1939 radiogram set loaned from the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum played a carefully curated selection of recordings that evoked the soundscapes – including the silences – of the Second World War.
In an oak panelled room virtually untouched since Senate House’s construction in 1938, the radiogram created an eerie, time-machine like effect.
It created a hermetic bubble of time into which visitors stepped cautiously, and immersed themselves.
Down and Out in Paris and London
Working with Dr Anna-Louise Milne at the University of London Institute in Paris, this project was very much about exploring the process of collaboration. In the months leading up to the festival Anna-Louise ran a series of translation workshops working with refugees and asylum seekers in Paris – exploring their desire to come to London in relation to a series of literary texts focused on the sea and on crossing the English Channel. She kept a reflective diary of these workshops, writing them up as a record and as a literary act.
The translation workshops in Paris produced a series of materials, including written texts, maps and photographs. Anna-Louise collected these and brought them across to London on the second day of the festival.
Working with ESOL students from a London FE College and with members of the public, artist and activist Aida Wilde then led a one-day workshop which turned these raw materials into an exhibition in Senate House.
Created and hung in a single day, the exhibition workshop allowed people to create new material based on the testimonies of refugees in Paris and allowed them to reflect, collectively, on their stories.
The finished exhibition, created collaboratively in a day, looked incredible.
Opening the Book: hopes, fears and the individual
Perhaps the most subtle installation in place as part of the ‘Ministry of Hope and Fear’ was a collaboration with the Open Book project at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Open Book is a project that works with people normally excluded from higher education due to offending or addiction backgrounds, empowering them to re-enter education.For Being Human 2016 we offered the project space for and funding for an event and installation. Will Cenci, Public Engagement Manager at Goldsmiths, created the concept of this installation in the School of Advanced Study’s second floor lobby – drawing on the atmosphere of Open Book meetings, which often rely on conversations over tea, to create a subtly put together ‘reading room’ space. This featured a display of artwork and from Open Book participants responding to the Being Human ‘hope and fear’ theme.
Best of all, it also featured a beautifully designed book of responses to the ‘hope and fear’ theme, available for visitors to take away with them. This book is one of the most moving pieces of original work that I have ever seen created for a Being Human festival activity. It draws together the results of a series of workshops with the Open Book community – presenting them, unedited, alongside artwork outlining personal ‘hopes and fears’ around addiction and recovery, violence, and other issues that have affected participants.
200 copies of the Hopes and Fears book were printed and left for visitors to read and to take away with them. Now, two weeks after the festival, they are nearly all gone. It has been a real pleasure to be able to pass through the space and see people sitting and reading the books, and to see them gradually disappear.
This installation was probably one of the lighter-touch additions to the ‘Ministry of Hope and Fear’, but also one of the most important. It served as a reminder of the underlying structures of power and exclusion with which Higher Education, as a reflection of society at large, is riddled. This installation composed entirely of texts created by people who would not normally access a space like Senate House reminded me, in a humbling way, of how powerfully liberating acts of creativity can be, and how many people are prevented by circumstances beyond their control from experiencing that liberation.
It reminded me, in a gentle and but human way, of the work that initiatives like Being Human still have to do to help to remedy this.