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Arts and Minds: Clarifying the relationship between social cognition and the arts

Turner, R. (2017) On Aesthetics Creativity and the Arts, 2. Retrieved: div10.org/newsletter/summer-2017  

Social cognition refers to the range of cognitive processes that operate in response to social phenomena; it includes constructs like empathy, theory of mind and emotion recognition.

Social cognition is of interest to researchers in developmental and clinical fields where deficits in skills such as interpreting facial cues can serve as diagnostic markers, and to those working with typical populations where they link to prosocial behaviour and the maintenance of positive interpersonal relationships (e.g. Castano, 2012; Johnson, 2012).

Social cognition has become increasingly important to researchers interested in the psychological impact of the arts. Studies have shown that social cognitive skills positively relate to various forms of arts-engagement, including reading and viewing stories (Mar et al., 2006; Mar, Tackett & Moore, 2010) and acting (Goldstein, Wu & Winner, 2009). Furthermore, it has been suggested that engaging with fiction may provide “grist for the mills” (Zunshine, 2006, p. 16) of theory of mind, a facet of social cognition that refers to the ability attribute mental states to oneself and others. Recently, the positive causal effects of reading literary (award-winning or canonical) fiction on theory of mind have received particular attention (e.g. Kidd & Castano, 2013; Pino & Mazza, 2016; see also Panero et al., 2016).

Despite a growing interest in how neurologically typical adults may develop their social cognitive skills via arts-engagement, the multidimensionality of social cognition has led to inconsistent definitions of its core constructs. This has resulted in some disparity between the dimensions that researchers claim to measure, and the tools they use for measurement. For example, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (Eyes Test; Baron-Cohen et al., 2001) is widely regarded as a reliable measure of theory of mind. Participants are asked to attribute mental state terms to photographs of the eye regions of faces, and attributions are scored for accuracy. Participants with low scores are considered to have lower theory of mind ability that those with high scores. The Eyes Test has provided the cornerstone for several papers reporting theory of mind deficits in groups with Autism spectrum disorder, and has constituted the central measure in research showing positive effects of engaging with fiction on theory of mind ability (e.g. Black & Barnes, 2013; Kidd & Castano, 2013) However, Oakley et al. (2016) point out that the Eyes Test is in fact a measure of emotion recognition rather than theory of mind per se. This, they argue, is an important distinction, because studies have shown that the abilities can dissociate: people may have trouble decoding facial expressions, but can attribute mental states accurately using alternative cues.

To complicate matters further, empathy is regularly used to refer to the ability to attribute cognitive and affective mental states, overlapping with the theory of mind construct. In a useful review of the concept, Cuff et al. (2014) defined empathy as an affective response similar to the emotional state of another agent, accompanied by recognition that the emotion is coherent with the agent’s circumstances and not one’s own. The experiential aspect therefore distinguishes empathy from theory of mind, and also from sympathy (or “empathic concern”, e.g. Davis, 1983) where emotions are experienced for rather than as another agent. Given the growing interest in the social cognitive benefits of the arts (and fiction in particular), a move towards greater consistency in defining social cognitive constructs would be of great benefit to the field.

A final challenge for research into social cognition and the arts is that many traditional social cognition tasks are prone to ceiling effects with healthy adults (e.g. false-belief tasks and basic emotion recognition tests). Consequently, more complex, multidimensional tasks have emerged, designed to probe variation in high-level abilities. Such approaches have included narrative-based film and reading tasks (e.g. Dodell-Feder et al., 2013; Dziobek et al., 2006), which can incorporate a fuller range of cues, entailing lower-level decoding and higher level mentalizing and empathic processes, more reflective of real-world social phenomena than traditional measures.

Two issues arise from these more complex approaches, (1) multidimensional tasks can enable compensatory strategies which conceal specific deficits, (2) task performance may be affected by individual differences in narrative-engagement; therefore, multidimensional tasks may be most usefully applied alongside traditional singular approaches (Turner & Felisberti, 2017). For example, the Eyes Test could be used in conjunction with a story-based test of theory of mind to facilitate a comprehensive perspective of individuals’ abilities to interpret facial cues, dialogue and contextual information in attributing mind-states. Importantly, this approach would highlight variation in social cognitive skills both within and between participants. In turn, this could help to clarify the specific and unique effects of different modes of engagement with the arts.

Arts practices are constantly evolving, and it seems plausible that different modalities may entail different social cognitive processes. To develop a more comprehensive understanding of the psychological impact of the arts, the field should work towards a more cohesive view of social cognition, its components, and the tools we use for measurement.

References

Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Hill, J., Raste, Y., & Plumb, I. (2001). The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test revised version: a study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines, 42(2), 241-251. doi: 10.1111/1469-7610.00715

Black, J., & Barnes, J. L. (2015). Fiction and Social Cognition: The Effect of Viewing Award-Winning Television Dramas on Theory of Mind. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 9(4), 355-494. doi10.1037/aca0000031

Castano, E. (2012). Anti-social behavior in individuals and groups: An empathy-focused approach. In K. Deux, & M. Snyder (Eds). The Oxford Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology (pp. 419-445). New York: Oxford University Press.

Cuff, B. M. P., Brown, S. J., Taylor, L., & Howat, D. J. (2014). Empathy: A Review of the Concept. Emotion Review, 0, 1-10. doi: 10.1016/j.newideapsych.2015.01.003

Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(1), 113-126. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.44.1.113

Dodell-Feder, D., Lincoln, S. H., Coulson, J. P., & Hooker, C. I. (2013). Using fiction to assess mental state understanding: a new task for assessing theory of mind in adults. PLoS ONE 8: e81279. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.008 1279

Dziobek, I., Fleck, S., Kalbe, E., Rogers, K., Hassenstab, J., Brand, M., et al. (2006). Introducing MASC: a movie for the assessment of social cognition. J. Autism Dev. Dis. 36, 623–636. doi: 10.1007/s10803-006-0107-0

Goldstein, T., Wu, K., and Winner, E. (2009). Actors are skilled in theory of mind but not Empathy. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 29(2), 115-133. doi: 10.2190/IC.29.2.c

Johnson, D. R. (2012). Transportation into a story increases empathy, prosocial behavior, and perceptual bias toward fearful expressions. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(2), 150-155. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2011.10.005

Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science, 342, 377-380. doi:10.1126/science.1239918

Mar, R.A., Oatley, K., Hirsch, J., dela Paz, J. & Peterson, J.B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40(5)694-712. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2005.08.002

Mar, R., Tackett, J. L., & Moore, C. (2010). Exposure to media and theory-of-mind development in preschoolers. Cognitive Development, 25, 69-78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cogdev.2009.11.002

Oakley, B. F. M., Brewer, R., Bird, G., & Catmur, C. (2016). ‘Theory of Mind’ is not Theory of Emotion: A cautionary note on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. Journal of Abnormal Psychology125(6), 818-823. oi: 10.1037/abn0000182

Panero, M. E., Weisberg, D. S., Black, J., Goldstein, T. R., Barnes, J. L., Brownell, H., & Winner, E. (2016). Does Reading a Single Passage of Literary Fiction Really Improve Theory of Mind? An Attempt at Replication. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(5), e46-e54. doi: 10.1037/pspa0000064

Pino, M. C., & Mazza, M. (2016). The Use of “Literary Fiction” to Promote Mentalizing Ability. PLoS ONE 11(8), 1-14. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0160254

Turner, R., & Felisberti, F. M. (2017). Measuring Mindreading: A Review of Behavioral Approaches to Testing Cognitive and Affective Mental State Attribution in Neurologically Typical Adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(47). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00047

Zunshine, L. (2006). Why we read fiction: theory of mind and the novel. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

A Poem, because, why not?

 

The Eyes Have It

 

Eyes to me

or we can’t know what you’re

thinking, they say.

How can we get to know you

if you look the other way?

The eyes have it.

 

Don’t you see

I, not Eye, am me.

If the eyes had it

Where would we be?

If I lose my sense

and you fade, like old ink,

what recompense? I can’t think

they’d make a film about me;

through whose lens

would the camera see?

 

Must they frame as me

this small part

When I am hand and foot

and face and mouth

and tongue and lip to start?

 

When I am rip in shirt,

folded sheet, sunken chair,

crushed snail at least.

Headless flowers,

hair-brushed cat,

licked stamp, new lamp

and knitted hat.

 

I’m seven chocolates

minus one,

five answers to a quiz,

I’m this purse of coins

half spent

on familiar mists.

I am depicted bunch of grapes

perspective quite at fault,

I’m empty glass

on rouge-stained rug,

senseless hill of salt.

Caress and curse

am I, worse still,

unpaid service charge and bill,

writing all outside the lines,

signatures,

a will.

 

The eyes have It

And It's an art

Then why not just

entrust the heart.

 

(Shortlisted for the British Psychological Society annual poetry competition)

Reading literature enhances theory of mind: Fact or fiction?

 

Theory of mind describes the ability to perceive what other people are thinking and feeling. It entails setting aside one’s own perspective to understand another’s knowledge, thoughts, beliefs, intentions or emotions. Theory of mind is important because it enables us to interpret social situations, predict people’s behaviour and maintain positive interpersonal relationships. There is limited information, however, on how we can best practise and develop this interpersonal ability.

 

A research team from the University of Toronto suggested that reading fiction allows us to imaginatively experience social interactions, and so it may help to hone our theory of mind skills. The team asked participants to select names that they recognized from a list containing fiction authors, nonfiction authors and made-up names. Points were awarded for each correct name and deducted for each incorrect false name selected. Final scores indicated people’s experience of fiction and nonfiction reading, and were analysed in relation to performance on tests of theory of mind.

 

The results showed that people who had read a lot of fiction (“bookworms”) scored higher on tests of theory of mind than people who had, conversely, read a lot of nonfiction (“nerds”). However, it remained unclear whether reading fiction improves theory of mind ability, or whether people with good theory of mind are simply drawn to fictional stories.

 

Researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano addressed this problem. In a paper for Science, they described a series of experiments that tested whether reading a passage of fiction could directly enhance theory of mind. They assigned participants to read one of a range of texts that were either nonfiction, popular fiction or literary fiction (award-winning or classical literature). The results showed that reading fiction did improved performance on tests of theory of mind, however this result was specific to literary fiction. Kidd and Castano proposed that literary fiction forces readers to use their theory of mind capacity, because it typically contains more complex characters and scenarios than popular fiction.

 

The findings, which could pave the way for literature-based theory of mind training, were widely publicised. However, recently, other researchers have attempted to replicate the study with mixed results. In a paper for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Panero and colleagues presented the results of three independent research laboratories that did not produce the same findings as Kidd and Castano, even when they replicated their approach. Therefore, it remains unclear whether the original finding that literary fiction uniquely enhances theory of mind, is reliable. Panero and colleagues called for further research in the area.

 

In the original study, participants read short read passages of fiction rather than full-length stories. It could be that following full story arcs that deal with character experiences over time, may have a greater impact on theory of mind than short passages. Furthermore, Kidd and Castano suggest that theory of mind may be improved by engaging not only with literature, but with art more broadly. According to a paper in the Journal of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, watching award-winning TV dramas, for example, improves theory of mind task performance. By defining the aspects of art that may influence theory of mind, researchers will be better equipped to uncover the possibilities that exist for enhancing it.

 

This area of fiction research chimes with bibliotherapy, the practice of using books as therapeutic tools. Perhaps in the future, researchers will recommend a night in with a cup of tea, a tome or the TV, to help us enhance our social experiences.

 

References

   Black, J. & Barnes, J. L. (2015). Fiction and Social Cognition: The Effect of Viewing Award-Winning Television Dramas on Theory of Mind, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, 9(4), 423-429.

   Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. Science, 342, 377-380. doi:10.1126/science.1239918  

   Mar, R.A., Oatley, K., Hirsch, J., dela Paz, J. & Peterson, J.B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40(5), 694-712. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2005.08.002

   Panero, M. E., Weisberg, D. S., Black, J., Goldstein, T. R., Barnes, J. L., Brownell, H., & Winner, E. (2016). Does reading a single passage of literary fiction really improve theory of mind? An attempt at replication. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(5), 46-54. doi: 10.1037/pspa0000064

What we mean versus what we measure: Untangling how psychologists understand social cognition

 

Keywords: 

Social cognition, theory of mind, emotion recognition, definitions, measures, Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, false-belief test

 

 

 

“Social Cognition” is an umbrella term used to capture the range of cognitive processes that operate in response to social phenomena. It includes concepts like empathy, theory of mind and emotion recognition. Social cognitive skills are of interest to psychologists, because they are key to social experience; a lack of these abilities can result in social exclusion. Furthermore, problems with some aspects of social cognition can reflect underlying clinical and developmental disorders, such as Autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia. Psychologists have developed a range of tools to assess social cognitive abilities, however there exists a disparity between the aspects of social cognition that researchers claim to measure, and the tasks they use for measurement.

 

Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues’ influential Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (Eyes Test; 2001) is widely regarded as a reliable test of theory of mind (the ability to attribute mental states to others). In the Eyes Test, participants attribute mental state terms to photographs of the eye regions of faces, and attributions are scored as accurate/inaccurate. Participants who obtain low scores on the test are considered to have lower theory of mind ability that those with high scores, and the test has provided the cornerstone for several papers reporting theory of mind deficits in groups with Autism. However, in a recent paper for the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Oakley and colleagues point out that the Eyes Test actually measures emotion recognition rather than theory of mind per se. This is an important distinction, because studies have shown that people can have problems with recognising emotions from faces, but not other theory of mind tasks and vice versa.

 

Traditionally, theory of mind was tested using false-belief tasks, which assess participants’ abilities to set aside their own knowledge in order to take the perspective of another individual. For example, a participant might be shown a cartoon featuring Sally and Tim. Sally put the cookies in cupboard and left the room. While she was out of the room, Tim moved the cookies under the table. Participants would be asked where Sally would look for the cookies when she returned to the room, and to answer successfully, they must set aside their own knowledge of where the cookies actually are, in order to understand Sally’s false belief.

 

Versions of the false-belief task have been widely used in theory of mind research, however they are not complex enough for use with typical older children and adults, who often score at or near 100%. Researchers have developed detailed and complex approaches to probe differences in ability across individuals capable of high level social cognition.

 

The MASC (Movie for the Assessment of Social Cognition) is a short film produced by Isobel Dziobek and colleagues. It features four characters interacting at a dinner party and tests participants’ abilities to understand the thoughts, feelings and intentions of all four characters, by interpreting facial expressions, voice tone, language and context. Complex tasks like the MASC better reflect the range of information available in real-world social situations. 

 

By acknowledging and testing the range of processes involved in social cognition, they highlight differences in ability within individuals, thus generating a more complete picture of participants’ social cognitive abilities. In turn, they support the development of a multifaceted perspective on social cognition.

 

References and Further Reading

       Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Hill, J., Raste, Y., & Plumb, I. (2001). The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test revised version: a study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger Syndrome or high-functioning autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 42(2), 241-251. doi: 10.1111/1469-7610.00715

       Dziobek, I., Fleck, S., Kalbe, E., Rogers, K., Hassenstab, J., Brand, M., . . . Convit, A. (2006). Introducing MASC: A movie for the assessment of social cognition. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 36(5), 623-636. doi: 10.1007/s10803-006-0107-0

     Oakley, B. F. M., Brewer, R., Bird, G., & Catmur, C. (2016). ‘Theory of mind’ is not theory of emotion: A cautionary note on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 125(6), 818-823. doi: 10.1037/abn0000182

     Turner, R. & Felisberti, F. M. (2017). Measuring Mindreading: A review of behavioral approaches to testing cognitive and affective mental state attribution in neurologically typical adults. Frontiers in Psychology. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00047 

    Wimmer, H., & Perner, J. (1983). Beliefs about beliefs: Representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children’s understanding of deception. Cognition, 13, 103-128. doi: 10.1016/0010-0277(83)90004-5

 

Scents & Sensibilities: A Very Short History of Perfumery

Scent is made up of atoms, and things smell a particular way because of their molecular vibrations[i], which are processed and interpreted by the brain. Smell is located in the part of the brain responsible for emotion, memory and creativity which is why scent can evoke strong feelings and even memory flashbacks.[ii]

 

The art of smell is older than the science of chemistry, with the oldest known perfumeries dating back to the Bronze Age.[iii] Although scent was used earlier for religious practices and ritual, Al-Kindi (born 801, Iraq) was the true father of the perfume industry, researching and experimenting with combinations of scent from crushed plants, herbs and oil. Perfumery was brought to Europe around the 14th century, with Hungary producing the first modern perfume, designed to be worn and drunk. Mmmm… a carafe of your finest Paco Rabane, if you please!

 

By the 16th century perfume was popular among the European elite. Italian noblewoman Catherine de Medici, whose personal perfumer lived in a house connected to hers by a secret passageway so that recipes couldn’t be stolen, brought perfume to France when she married the French crown prince. Meanwhile, in Tudor England, the sharpness of Elizabeth I’s sense of smell was said to be matched only by the slyness of her tongue. Under her reign all public places became scented – she couldn’t bear bad smells - and the practice of alchemy grew.

 

Helped by unsanitary conditions of the renaissance period, the perfume industry blossomed in 17th century France. Had you been there at the time, however, you might have smelled a rat, as perfume was occasionally used as a murder weapon through administration of poison absorbed via the skin. Nevertheless, perfume was popular with men and women alike and in the 18th century King Louis XV named his court ‘the perfumed court’, demanding a different fragrance every day. France remains the European centre for scent today. From the 1800’s new knowledge shifted perfume-production from alchemy to chemistry, laying the foundations for today’s fragrance industry, which is projected to be worth an eye-watering $38.8 billion by 2017.[iv] Talk about the sweet smell of success!

 

 

[i] Turin, L. (2007). The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell, New York: HarperCollins.

[ii] Proust, M. (1913-1927/2002) Remembrance of Things Past. New York: Conbray.

[iii] Morgan, T. (2005). Bronze Age perfume discovered. Retrieved from BBC (16.04.2015): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/4364469.stm

[iv] King, M. (2013). Global fragrances industry to be worth $38.8 billion by 2017. Retrieved from UK Finance (16.04.2015):  https://uk.finance.yahoo.com/news/global-fragrances-industry-worth-38-000000901.html

To self-fund or not to self-fund: Who wouldn't want to do a funded PhD?

 

So, you’ve decided to embark on the dizzying rollercoaster that is doctoral research. If you don’t have savings or other steady income, you may have no choice but to strap on a big pair of… HIKING SHOES (what else?) to begin trudging up the hill of competitive funding applications. If however, you have a nest egg, a wealthy and willing spouse, or plan to work part-time, you may have the option to self-fund. It’s still a hill of hurdles and potholes – you’ll still need the same qualifications and a decent proposal – but it’s a smaller hill. To get to the PhD start line at least. Sounds good, eh?

 

So, if you are planning a full-time PhD, why wouldn’t you go for a studentship award if there’s a chance you could get one? Surely being paid to do you research compared with paying to do your research is a no-brainer! Turns out, there are plenty of reasons you might choose to self-fund. I’m going to outline a few, based on things I’ve gleaned over the past year-and-a-half of being embroiled in the PhD journey:

 

Dosh

Studentship = money. That’s a good thing, of course. You’ll get something like £17,000 a year for a fully-funded PhD (maybe more, maybe less, depending on the funding body). Which is way more than the minus £5,000-ish you’d get paying to do one. Put another way, that’s >£50,000 to do you research project compared to -£15,000-ish. So with funding, the pressure’s off a little bit, in terms of being able to put coffee on the table. However, it is much harder to squeeze any more pennies out of your university / department / external funding bodies if you already receive funding. Why would anyone give you a bursary when dozens of self-funders are also applying?

 

If you’re funded or in receipt of a grant, you may be required to teach as part of your contract. That’s no bad thing – a lot of doctoral students want to teach because teaching experience is integral to advancing your academic career. But what if you’re funded and your contract says nothing about teaching? You may well find yourself in a disadvantaged position, where your paying colleagues have all been granted bundles of paid teaching work, and you have been overlooked because, respectively, you’re absolutely loaded. The thing is, £17,000 per year is actually not very much money at all in the context of the real world, so you’re probably feeling very un-loaded even though the department perceives you as more bling than Donald Trump. Furthermore, if you’re self-funded or part-funded, it is generally accepted that you undertake other paid work alongside your PhD. Whereas if you are fully-funded, taking on other work is something of a grey area (it will depend on your funding body and contract, though there may be a lack of clarity).  So although being funded may seem the best financial option, self-funding could actually support your access to grants and bursaries, teaching opportunities and other work opportunities outside the university. All of which can bolster post-PhD progression.

 

Stress

When you’re self-funded, pressure on your research output is a teeny tiny bit reduced. You may not feel that way of course, especially if you’re conscious of getting your thesis submitted before the next round of fees are due. Departments expect their studentship candidates to storm through the PhD (especially if the funding is departmental!) so there’s little room for mistakes, changes of plan, or taking time out to go on holiday, do other work, have babies or personal crises. There are processes in place for the more serious life events (usually up to a few months off, though funding may be suspended during that time), but it’s unlikely those will cover time needed to reacquaint yourself with friends/family/the sky.

 

If you’re funded, your supervisor probably had a part in the process – they will have helped to develop your proposal or, at the very least, put their name to it in the first place. Therefore, if you and your supervisor run into problems (it happens) they may be much harder to solve. Insurmountable supervision issues are awful for anyone, but if you’re self-funded, you can afford to have more of a ‘hey, I’m paying for this, and this isn’t good enough’ attitude. If you look for PhD support on the web, you’ll consistently run into phrases like, ‘you’re supervisory relationship is the single most important factor in PhD success’, so it’s really worth considering.

 

Feeling proper

Yes, being funded helps you to feel validated in the work you’re doing, and that’s great. And you can legitimately tell people you’re doing a research job, rather than that you’re a student which, if you care about those sorts of things, can really boost your self esteem. If, like me, you’re a little beyond respectable-student-lifestyle-age, being funded can be an important aspect of communicating who you are. Just bear in mind that a doctorate is a doctorate no matter who paid for it. Financial awards look great on an academic CV, but you may find it’s easier to get other (albeit smaller) batches of dosh if you self-fund anyway.

 

There’s no right or wrong, just do what works best for you. You may not have a choice either way round, but if you do, it’s good to know that there are different ways of doing these things, and all are equally valid for different reasons. And don’t forget that, comfortingly, you’ll be entitled to NUS discount whichever route you choose. Not to mention that your railcard will say 16-25 on it - whether you’re 16 or 76 - for at least the next three years. Which is very much fun for confusing train guards.

 

A Tribute to Brian Appiah Obeng

As soon as Brian walked into the room for our first improv class he came right over, introduced himself and started chatting immediately. We paired up for some exercises and I thought he was talented, and funny too. I remember us crying with laughter and hi-fiving about what we thought was this hilarious improvised storyline we’d created. It was something to do with buying hats – maybe you had to be there - but Brian just made everything fun, he was such a naturally playful person. Once, we were walking along the south bank and we came to a huge building surrounded by a brick wall. We stopped to look and were just pondering what was in there, when the next thing I knew, Brian was taking a running jump up and over it to find out. That’s exactly who he was: spontaneous and brave and a man who always took a running jump at every opportunity. He was an awesome actor, such a clever and talented guy. I’m gutted that we’ll miss out on seeing the many opportunities come to fruition that I know were coming his way.

 

The main thing that strikes me when I think about Brian, is his amazing warmth, friendliness, his down to earth nature and generosity of spirit. He would always lift people up when they felt down. Metaphorically I mean, though physically too sometimes! A week or two so after Brian’s death, I was at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall. I was thinking of Brian, because he introduced me to the owner there once. I met a friend for lunch and told him about Brian over a teacake. When my friend left to go back to work, I decided to stay a little while longer, just thinking. As I sat there, a man came and asked the waitress to get someone from out the back. The guy came out and the two of them stood near me so I was able to hear their conversation. The man said ‘I’m sorry to have to bring you bad news but I need to let you know that Brian has passed away’. The other guy said, ‘what, parkour Brian?’ And the first said, ‘yes.’ I listened just in disbelief as I realised that they were talking about our Brian. I haven’t been to Tea House for months, I just happened to go there that day, because the place I usually meet my friend was closed. The man had come specifically to tell the staff about Brian, in person; afterwards, he went on his way. It was made very clear to me that day, that Brian made connections with people absolutely everywhere he went. The Facebook group made by some of his close friends is testament to that. There are so many heartfelt posts from so many people. And lots of the same things coming up over and over again about how Brian inspired people, about his amazing positive energy, about how you could never feel like a stranger when he was around, and about his huge smile and his belly laugh.

 

Like everyone I was really shocked and really devastated to hear Brian had passed away, so I can’t imagine how those closer to him must be feeling – my heart goes out to you all.

I feel sad not just because I won’t get to hang out with Brian again, but also because he gave so much to so many people that it’s a loss for everyone – and I know he would have carried on inspiring people and contributing so much to the world. Someone wrote on the Facebook group that they were going to try to ‘be a bit more Brian’ and I thought – wow, that’s exactly it! Because trying to 'be a bit more Brian' means being braver and stronger, more positive, more curious, more outgoing, exploring more, taking more opportunities and making more friends – all things that will lead to a more meaningful life. So I want to finish by saying thank you to Brian for your friendship, for all the laughs, and for being the inspiration for those of us trying to be a bit more Brian.

We miss you.

 

#BeMoreBrian

 
A version of this was read out on a tribute episode of 492 Korna Klub, Galaxy 102.5 FM.

What ISN’T a PhD? – A myth-busting factsheet for friends and relatives

If you're regularly asked how your "course" is going, how fun it is to be a student again / able to do whatever you like / sit around at home all day... here's a little bit of info to set the record straight. Not because they've done anything wrong, but because everytime someone implies you're reliving first year at uni it makes you want to slam your face into your computer keyboard and close the lid on your head repeatedly whilst wailing "you don't understand me, nobody understands me"...  So, for the sake of your laptop, here's a few things you might like them to know:

 

A PhD isn’t… anything like your undergraduate dissertation. Really it isn’t. At all. Unless during your undergrad. you had to teach masters level students, produce publications in peer-reviewed journals, present at international conferences with top academics in your field, organise conferences, partner with organisations, write grants and obtain competitive funding, produce press releases about your work for print, online and TV news outlets around the world, or write 80,000 words and not pass unless your work was considered by leading academics to constitute a brand new contribution to knowledge. Yes, we have to undertake training as part of our PhD (we are trainee researchers) but it’s more like workplace training than university lectures, ok? We never go in our pyjamas.

 

A PhD isn’t… like being a student. See reasons above. Plus, we work fulltime (or part-time if we have other commitments), we don’t drink to excess (unless absolutely necessary or you’re talking about coffee) and we aren’t rebelling against a sheltered teenagedom. In fact, many of us have been fully enrolled in the working world for years.  Instead, we have a line manager (‘supervisor’) and some of us are paid for producing our PhD projects, so it’s really more like your job than it’s like your 3rd year dissertation. Please don’t say our PhDs are like your dissertation. We really need you to understand that they aren’t. BUT we do get a student discount, and our work is often based at a university, so we see undergraduates from time to time (sometimes we teach them), but we promise we don’t let them contaminate us with their carefree ways (and they won’t talk to us because we’re old geeks). NB lots of PhDs are based in industry rather than at universities.

 

A PhD isn’t… a short-term thing. A lot of people don’t know how long PhDs lasts, let alone their friend’s/partner’s/sibling’s topic. That’s totally fine – I can’t remember your birthday, your job title or your kids’ names. To set things straight, a PhD usually lasts three-to-four years fulltime minimum; funding is generally for 3 years (or four years if it includes a Masters in year 1). Part-time, a PhD usually takes 6-8 years. But some people take 25 years. 25 years I hear you cry. Yes. Because they are HARD. You know those long-term projects your organisation has ongoing? It’s like those, except crammed into 3 years, done by one person with little or no delegation and examined at the end.

 

A PhD isn’t… easy / something everyone can do.  It’s not easy to get – you need to have a strong proposal which will likely have been developed over months with a supporting academic. If you’re going for funding it’s much much harder - you'll have faced a long application process and a gruelling interview (like any other job but with much more writing upfront, and usually with far more applicants than other jobs). It’s not easy to do, either: PhD candidates need to be resilient enough to handle a lot of pressure. They are pretty much solely accountable for what they do and they have to do all of it on their own – no delegating. Depression levels are particularly high in PhD candidates.  Around 40% dropout. To succeed requires a varied skillset including presenting, writing, project management, not to mention the ability to produce original academic discoveries. Many subjects require advanced statistical abilities, advanced experimental design, advanced qualitative and quantitative methods, advanced critical review skills, computer programming and the ability to interpret things like these: p < .001; F(3,26); M, SD, r(108), rs, adj. R2, b, B, ηp2 ….. 

 

A PhD isn’t… like that distance learning project you’re doing in your spare time (although it’s great what you’re doing and we wholeheartedly support you). First of all, it isn’t something that can be done in one’s spare time. Secondly, and importantly, if you aren’t going to be a Dr on successful completion of your course, then it’s not like a PhD.

 

A PhD isn’t… something that makes people very broke. As I said, some people are fully funded (paid a salary) to do their PhD. Some are given grants to conduct the research (and fees waived), and some receive funding in return for teaching. Some do related work to earn more cash. You won’t earn a fortune by doing a PhD (you won’t earn a fortune in academia generally) but you can earn a decent living if you manage things carefully. Just as with any other job. 

 

A PhD isn’t… a safe option. It’s not the case that people do it as a post-uni safety net. Most people have a Masters before they do a PhD and/or have worked for years in the field. Minimum requirements are a strong degree in the subject area whether you’re self-funding or otherwise. Oh, and 80,000 words and a 3-hour grilling (I’ve heard of it lasting 9 hours!!)? Only the brave.

 

So what IS a PhD?

It’s a very big piece of research that the candidate is responsible for producing. Although there may be training and learning aspects, these are to ensure that the candidate is at the level required to produce the research. Doing a PhD makes you no more or less awesome than anyone else doing a different job of their choice and working hard at it. The point is, it's just like anyone else doing a job that they believe in and work hard at. Yes we think our PhD is freakin' AWESOME but we couldn't do it if we didn't. A lot of people feel that way about their jobs. In sum, a PhD is like a difficult job for which you get a specific qualification at the end. That’s it.

 

Now is it time for coffee?*

 

*Awful stereotype I know, but I really do require a lot of coffee. For the record, I know a lot of PhD candidates who run off enthusiasm and herbal teas. I'm still aspiring to that.

 

A Novel Outcome - 9th November 2016

24 years ago the Berlin wall came down. It was a time of hope and progression. Now, a candidate for the US presidency has inspired voters in part by claiming he will build a wall and the UK prime minister’s wall in Calais is in progress.

 

I saw a woman in her 90’s on the TV a few days ago, talking about how the first female president was going to be her gift from God at the end of her life. She doesn’t need stories to remind her how things used to be; she remembers. But most of the electorate – most people living – don’t remember.

 

Fictional stories allow us to explore our hypotheses about what happens when people do things. Reading stories makes us better at understanding others, because it enables us to practice taking the perspectives of other people. Reading stories trains us in empathy – the experience of putting oneself in another’s shoes and feeling what they feel. Reading stories leads us to behave in more prosocial, kind and altruistic ways in the real world. Reading stories reduces prejudice and challenges stereotypes.

 

Of course, we shouldn’t overestimate the power of fiction, but we shouldn’t underestimate it either; if all else fails, at least it provides some very welcome escapism*.

 

 

*(although I am currently reading The Road!)

 

The EU Referendum

 

Sure, I voted In. Nevertheless, the commentary appearing in my social media bubble where pretty much everyone else was In too, leaves a bad taste in the mouth: angry rants, embarrassment and fury at this country full of ‘racists’, ‘bigots’, ‘idiots’ and a ‘clueless elderly’. Of course, it’s fine to be angry about the way our lives will be affected by the choices made by others –it’s the price we pay for democracy. But the discourse of blame only serves to reaffirm the myth that Westminster is populated by an out-of-touch elite, and London with much of the same, plus a few unrealistic leftist idealists who haven’t a clue what everyone else’s lives are like. Finding out that we, and our mates here in the city, are completely unrepresentative of the rest of the population isn't something to be proud of - instead of deliriously crayoning 'ScotLond' flag designs, we should be questioning why everyone else's perspectives are so different. The fact that the majority of people in our country voted to leave the EU cannot be reduced to a singular issue of idiocy and bigotry (if I may present them as a singular issue). A complex set of circumstances has led to this result (demonization of politicians and distrust of 'experts', an opposition that has lost many traditional supporters, the persistent scapegoating of the EU, a rebellious mood among disenfranchised people and, most significantly, the ambitions of a few high profile individuals - lets not forget who called it -) and if we want to mend this rift we need to address these and other factors. We might do well to look at the media first. Studies have shown that the strongest type of long-term change to people’s beliefs happen when there is a ‘discounting cue’ – something that makes us think “er, hang on, I’m not sure I trust this message, let me think about that a bit more…” - such as a source that is dislikeable or unreliable (like certain MPs or media sources). Then, over time, that discounting cue is forgotten, or becomes disassociated from the message, and the message itself remains (‘scuse the term), becoming integrated into our ideological framework.* In this light, while the media can be made to retract untrue statements, the damage persists regardless (and I suspect the same could be said for poster-propaganda). This shows the importance of a rigorous, fact-based journalistic media. So let’s address the unpalatable aspects of each campaign, the problems of current political and media climates that led to this divisive moment, and start focusing on our shared priorities. We all have to live together, and that feels truer now than ever.

 

*Sources: Appel & Richter, 2007; Hovland & Weiss, 1951; Kumkale & Albarracin, 2004

A show for a change? How theatre can transform us

Poetry can inspire us, paintings capture moments and music alters mood. Theatre is unique in its power to synthesize these art forms via a social activity that bonds us, provides escapism, elevates and entertains. The proscenium arch is like a magnifying glass that focuses in on fragments of the human experience, and allows us to sample alternative worlds from the curiosities of Wonderland to Rooster Byron’s caravan. So what if real people don’t tango in prison? We theatre-goers willingly suspend disbelief for American Dreams and Spooky Mormon Hell Dreams alike. We are adept at distinguishing what happens on stage as ‘pretend’ and what happens in the auditorium as ‘real’, whilst retaining our ability to empathise with characters in exactly the same way as people in the real world.

Through these psychological demands and theatre’s capacity to spotlight human experience, we can emerge from a show transformed – and it has nothing to with the double G&T we had at the interval. Research shows that viewing theatre enhances our thinking, strengthens attention processes in the brain, and lifts our mood in familiar ways (I can’t be alone in skipping home through puddles to an internal Singin’ in the Rain soundtrack). Furthermore, because empathy for characters activates the brain in the same way as real people, the more we’re exposed to complex fictional characters the better we become at what psychologists call ‘social cognition’ – understanding the thoughts, feelings and perspectives of others – essential for our real-life relationships.

Not only does theatre cultivate our social abilities, it can change our beliefs too. Psychology tells us that when we become absorbed in a story, our thinking alters to match the implicit values of that story. So a rousing rendition of Do You Hear The People Sing may change your perception of rebels and revolutionaries, and the more you weep at Warhorse, the more you’ll appreciate… well, horses. Joking aside, this has significant social implications, considering that feeling empathy for people from marginalised groups improves our attitudes towards those groups. In this way, good drama can facilitate social change, and that’s something theatre-makers and performers have at their fingertips. It’s not all about the West End of course; intimate fringe shows, interactive and immersive theatre may be even more effective at enabling us to walk in the shoes of others. So whether you seek enrichment, education or just an escape from your daily grind, look no further than your local theatre. You’ll be all the better for it.

By Rose Turner for Theatre Perform, 9th May 2016: http://www.theatreperform.com/a-show-for-a-change-how-theatre-can-transform-us/

It's a very brief book review, dear

Book Review: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Acting but were afraid to ask, dear – West End Producer

 

A light, fun read, with some amusing quotes, funny anecdotes, and just the right amount of ‘dear’. There were a few good points (never discuss what kind of threat you are), and useful tips (to be a serious actor you must bring a water bottle to rehearsals), and lots of wit (drama school is where you learn how to sit in a circle). There was a little more silliness than I’d like, with quite a few pages taken up, for example, by a list of drama schools reimagined as animal puns. But then I am a vegetarian, and don't like to devour animal puns.

 

To be a bit nitpicky, there was also some repetition, which gave the impression that the editor had fallen asleep after a gift bottle or two of Dom Perignon, and forgotten they’d already read that same joke/comment/phrase in the last chapter. Reading the same thing twice, does detract from the impact a little. Reading the same thing twice does detract from the impact a little.

 

Overall I enjoyed it though, and would recommend to actors who’d like a good chuckle in rehearsals (by concealing it within their script at the first read-through). Oh and it’s gotta be Cameron, right dear?

Con-Artists: Avoiding the industry’s industrious crooks.

A certain "director" who, once upon a rainbow, failed to pay her entire cast of actors (yes I was one of them) in spite of contracts, agents and Equity involvement, is casting a production anew. It's a small industry, and an old colleague who has been cast in the new play, and knowing I had worked with her before (ta, Facebook), asked for my advice. Here it is: You have sanity to protect and children to support… Run.

 

Clearly we lack an adequate system to control for crooks, cons and fantasists, and to ensure the same mistakes can't be made twice. Contracts don’t hold unless you’re prepared to go via Small Claims Court. In which case, you will likely shell out a lot more than you were owed originally. Equity can negotiate on your behalf and put their scary letterheads on, but if the “producer/director” is so deluded about talent/funding/the industry to get this far, it probably won’t do much. Equity’s next step is to suggest you try Small Claims… see above. Instead, you can do what a fellow cast member of mine did and hire your own bailiffs, but of course bailiffs are like vampires – they can’t do a lot unless you invite them over the threshold. And remember that con-"artists" aren’t stupid, in fact they are often pretty calculating. After all, it takes forward-thinking, guts and balls, to present an 11-strong cast with cheques totaling thousands, knowing they will bounce bang on the end of the run. Sterling planning.

 

Many directors produce wonderful work. Sometimes we are paid by them. It’s not a privilege (here you go, lucky actor, have a tenner for all the fun you’ve been having); it’s a right. For doing a job. Sometimes, we might even do some work for free (the low/no pay debate is beyond the scope of this piece but it’s firey and active – go look), but in those circumstances we have chosen to weigh up the integrity of the project against our personal investment. That means that if you haven’t got a clue what you’re doing, we probably won’t work with you for zilch. But I guess you knew that, hence the pretense of funding. A good director will always be transparent, letting creatives (writers, assistants, cast and crew) know exactly what they will get out of the project, be it actual cold hard cash or payment in kind (experience, exposure, footage, wine and penguin bars).

 

Actors, check the money is there. Ask to see documents, and don’t go on stage if you haven’t been paid by the deadline. Check Equity’s Special Attention list, but beware, many false operators aren’t featured. Ask around. Don’t trust your agent to handle things for you; if the producer doesn’t pay up, it’s your problem to solve. Get contracts, but know they aren’t watertight. Ensure leverage by requesting cash instalments throughout the process (don’t accept full payment after the run unless your trust is absolutely solid). Ask your director about their experience - if it’s lacking they probably don’t have funding. Avoid self-funded passion projects by people who aren’t in the industry. They’re not invested in it (and its rulebook) like you are. Don’t get seduced by a great part, it’s not worth the bit of soul you’ll lose if it all goes pear-shaped - and the quality of the production probably won’t do you justice anyway. And even if you hope they’ve learned their lesson, seriously question the integrity of a producer/director who wants to put on a brand spanking new show when they’re still in debt to a previous cast. Is that really someone you want to have as your boss? NO I hear you cry (in your most emphatic and declamatory Shakespearean boom).

 

So approach everything you do with a healthy slice of cynicism, but don’t forget that the reason these (rare) crooks and cons want a piece of the pie, is because the pie is the best and most joyous thing EVER. It’s yours, you earned it through years of hard graft. So love and embrace it, but be sure to defend it with all your intensive (and costly) drama-schooled might.

Roofie Detecting Nail Polish: Prevention in your hands?

One in three women will be raped during her lifetime, and alcohol and drugs are involved in over half of all reported assaults - rather a bitter pill for us ladies. But it’s not just women; men are victims in 12% of drug rape cases so this issue affects everybody. Drug rape is ‘the administering of a drug against an individual's wishes, or without their knowledge, which incapacitates or disorientates the individual with the intention of carrying out a sexual assault’ (top-stoppa.co.uk).

 

Date rape drugs are administered through alcohol in over 50% of cases, with 70% of attackers being known to the victims. It’s most prevalent in bars and nightclubs - environments where booze flows and bustling bars provide opportunities for subtle spiking - a particular problem on university campuses with bars and bedrooms in close proximity.

But help is quite literally at hand, according to a group of four male students at the North Carolina State University, who have designed ‘Undercover Colours,’ a nail polish line that detects whether your drink has been spiked with drugs. Just dip your finger into your drink, they say, and if your varnish changes colour, you’ve been spiked:

 

“With our nail polish, any woman will be empowered to discreetly ensure her safety by simply stirring her drink with her finger... Through this nail polish and similar technologies, we hope to make potential perpetrators afraid to spike a woman’s drink because there’s now a risk they can get caught... we are the first fashion company empowering women to prevent sexual assault”.

Sounds good, right? Your safety is in your hands; you can now put two colourful fingers up at the guys who might try to assault you, whilst still looking glamorous as hell. Hang on, is this really the answer? And what exactly is it the answer to?

 

 

Your safety is in your hands

 

Some feminists argue that whilst innovative, roofie detecting nail polish is actually counter-productive to women’s equality. “I’m told not to go out alone at night, to watch my drink, to do all of these things. That way, rape isn’t just controlling me while I’m actually being assaulted – it controls me 24/7 because it limits my behaviour... I don’t want to f***ing test my drink when I’m at the bar. That’s not the world I want to live in,” says Rebecca Nagle of activist group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture. I take her point. There’s a risk that a well-intended product such as this could fuel victim blame: you wore a short skirt, you flirted with him, you got so leathered you forgot to twirl your finger around your Pinot, so you didn’t really do everything in your power to prevent the assault, did you? It’s only really a baby step away from ‘she asked for it’. As Tracey Vithers, the board chair of Students Active For Ending Rape puts it: “I think that anything that can help reduce sexual violence from happening is, in some ways, a really good thing. But […] we need to think critically about why we keep placing the responsibility for preventing sexual assault on young women”.

 

Undercover Colours is ‘the first fashion line to empower women to prevent sexual assault’. Thanks very much for empowering me, but doesn’t that imply us women are responsible for preventing sexual violence? It’s subtle, but it sounds to me a lot like the buck stops with us.

The designers of Undercover Colours believe that their product will make potential perpetrators afraid to spike a women’s drink because ‘there’s now a risk they can get caught’. If this product decreases instances of rape, that is certainly no bad thing. But not raping someone because you’re afraid of getting caught trying to do it doesn’t sound all that progressive to me. What about addressing the underlying issues that support a date rape culture in the first place? Alexandra Brodsky, one of the founders of Know Your IX, a survivor led gorup addressing campus sexual assault says, “I really wish that people were funnelling all of this ingenuity and funding and interest into new ways to stop people from perpetrating violence, as opposed to trying to personally avoid it so that the predator in the bar rapes someone else”. I take her point too, but let’s not go too far and blame women who are taking these precautions, as we must respect any woman’s decision to protect herself as she sees fit. However, Brodsky does raise the problem that some perpetrators might simply find someone with naked nails to pray on, use more force, or seek out somebody vulnerable, without ever considering that forcing someone to have sex, however you go about it, isn’t ok. Kinda makes you see red, doesn’t it? 

 

 

But will it work?

 

Women are often assaulted in situations where they feel comfortable, like on a date with a guy they like or with a friend they trust – situations where they might not think to wear their roofie-detecting-rouge. And even if you are wearing it, will you really remember to check each of your drinks, particularly when the booze and conversation are flowing? This brings me to another problem with Undercover Colours. Yes, it tests for drugs like Rohypnol, GHB and Ketamine, so if he’s slipping one of these into your G&T, you’ll know to phone a friend. But Undercover Colours doesn’t test for every drug and, importantly, it doesn’t test for the most common substance used to spike drinks – more alcohol.

 

Given that extra booze is the number one rape drug of choice, I think there’s a risk that your nail polish might lull you into a false sense of security – it has the potential to do more harm than good. Not only might he spike with alcohol, which your nail varnish can’t detect anyway, but after a few drinks and the added confidence that goes with them, you may well neglect to dip your finger in altogether and then… wait a minute… you’ve only got yourself to blame? Writing for the Washington Post Alexandra Petri notes, "this is all about taking total responsibility for the behaviour of others while looking as sexy as possible”. Yep, I take her point too. To my mind, an underlying problem here is the view that taking advantage of someone when they’re intoxicated isn’t really rape. If they’re not saying ‘no’ in a really really stern way, then it isn’t ‘no’, whether or not they’re so wasted their consonants and vowels have turned the wrong round.  If alcohol (the #1 date rape drug) isn’t detected by the nail varnish, that kind of implies alcohol date rape doesn’t really count as date rape at all. Imagine the Blurred Lines that could create in the court room.

 

 

So now what?

 

There are, of course, people and organisations attempting to address the attitudes facilitating a rape culture, but they’re not hitting the headlines. Maybe it’s because they’re not using the latest technology, or perhaps simple solutions with nifty taglines and a spatter of irony minimises the problem just enough that it feels nice ‘n’ solvable. I think this could be it, bearing in mind there are far more complex inventions out there. The Pd.id, for example, is a sensor about the size of a lighter that detects drugs in drinks, currently used by America’s drug enforcement agency, the DEA, and still seeking crowdfunding. It doesn’t just act as a warning signal like Undercover Colours, it also updates an online database with the substance and location, providing important in-the-field information about new drugs and drug prevalence, aiming to raise awareness of the issue (wired.co.uk). Not bad, eh? And no requirement to stick your fist in a Guinness.

 

Using the latest technology to protect women from rape is certainly valuable, though I would like to see more investment in getting the message out that sex without consent isn’t ok, it’s rape and it’s a crime and it’s very very wrong. I’ve spoken to women who see no problem with Undercover Colours and are appalled at the feminist argument against it. But if it’s nail polish, it’s aimed at girls. And if it’s something we’re expected to do that the men aren’t, it’s an issue of inequality. And if it’s an issue of inequality, it’s an issue for feminism. So I would urge women to think carefully before panning the feminist argument, because it’s standing up for you and your rights. And those rights might include a non-nailbiting safe night out. 

 

___

Note: Researching this article I came across the following notice on the website of The Roofie Foundation:

 

Unfortunately due to lack of commercial funding, and the demise of Legal Aid, from Jan 20th 2014 The Roofie Foundation has had to cease to operate. We would like to thank everyone who helped us establish the Foundation as one of Britains leading organisations that dealt with the issues and helped to support the victims of Drug Related Sexual Abuse. We would also like to thank many members of the press & media who helped to create the public awareness of the issues from 1995 onwards.

 

So it seems the coverage of Undercover Colours has just been a media storm in a teacup surrounding cool new technology and hot debate, rather than a genuine commitment to the prevention of sexual violence. And that certainly leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

 

Immersive Theatre – Where Next?

 

I was round at a friend’s mum’s place for breakfast (a fry up for them, a slice of wedding cake for me – being a vegetarian at breakfast has it’s perks, especially if you have a sweet tooth), and I noticed a bundle of familiar white masks dangling above the cups and saucers cupboard. When I went to Punchdrunk’s acclaimed production The Drowned Man, we weren’t allowed to take our masks home – at least, not that I was aware of (perhaps we’re still not, in which case your secret is safe with me, wedding cake friends).

 

The Drowned Man is a theatrical experience unlike most I’ve had, and I’m lucky to have seen some very good immersive pieces, from Secret Cinema and Secret Music to Theatre Delicatessen’s ‘Spaced’ season and dabbled in some up-close-and-personal moments as an immersive performer myself. Punchdrunk isn’t cheap at £35 upwards per ticket, but that’s still less than you pay for the West End hits (some of which are reportedly dreadful, but hey, Love Never Dies for the West End), and you get a good few hours of interactive experience and spectacle for your money. I must confess that I didn’t see it all, I spent a little too long in the bar, though it seems everyone missed something someone else saw, met new characters in the finale, or ‘didn’t even see a caravan!’ Looks like you could go again and again, and have a new experience each time, if you had the inclination and spare pocket money (don’t forget, actors, it’s tax deductible).

 

What’s special to me about the interactive and immersive theatre forms is that they rely so completely on relationships between performers and spectators, their intersubjective minds, moods and whims. I like to think about a butterfly effect where catching a different bus that morning meant time for a coffee before your meeting which meant the project got signed off sooner, which meant you left work early, which meant time for a drink before the show, which meant you were a little tiddly when you followed an actor into a tiny room missing a key plot development somewhere else in the building, which made the ending a confusingly spectacular surprise. Clever interactive theatre like Punchdrunk evolves via the polyphonous twists and turns of multiple storylines.

 

Immersive theatre offers a thrilling approach to life-as-art. A counter-argument to the misconception that ‘theatre studies isn’t a hard subject’ is that theatre represents and microcosmically reproduces life. Everything that happens in life can happen in the theatre. So long as we keep breathing, immersive theatre - and indeed all theatre - will have relevance. But audiences are fickle, preferences for art, like fashion, can change suddenly. Its staying power in the public preference will rely on inventive staging, exciting locations, talented interactive performers and imaginative writing. I get the sense that there’s no room for complacency when it comes to immersive theatre, even somewhere as epic as Temple Studios. The most thrilling aspect of immersive theatre for me is not the spectacle, but real interactions with characters, where you feel you may have impacted the story in some way. Although the feeling of being in a live museum is exciting, and spectacular, a few more intimate interactions would feel truer to the form. Perhaps as audience members we have to take responsibility for our own experience, in a way we are just becoming accustomed to in theatre, and seek the precious moments out. 

Bliss - Performing in Random Acts of Shakespeare at the Bath Literature Festival with the Salon:Collective

By Rose Turner for The Salon:Collective

 

Our director, Lawrence Carmichael, instantly creates a playful atmosphere, and we start with physical games – stealing kisses and snatching scarves stuffed down trousers. Ricardo, as Demetrius, scarves swinging from pants, legs it across the room, out to the corridor through one door, back in via the other.

 

As Helena, I’m hot on his heels. I’m reminded of chasing Lewis, the Class 2 dreamboat, around the primary school playground singing Kylie Minogue’s Tears on My Pillow as he ran away with his hands over his ears. Nice to find a use for that memory… who’s laughing now, Lewis?

 

At the final rehearsal we revisit that scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. the Salon:Collective’s Shakespeare consultant and dramaturg, Lizzie Conrad Hughes, whispers in my ear ‘Touch him, all over, as much as you can’. Right, I think, that I can do. Then she whispers something to Ricardo too. I presume she’s telling him what she just told me, warning him he’s about to get felt up. Turns out it was ‘she doesn’t wash her hands when she uses the toilet.’ I don’t find out before we start the scene, though I do register an enhanced urgency to the rejection I am met with. As a ‘voice person’ the emphasis on the physical in rehearsals is challenging for me, though I realise that deconstructing the way I speak Shakespeare is what I need to focus on. I have to pack the ‘actor toolbox’ of declamatory gestures and tactical breaths away to find those moments of truth I can see emerging between other members of the cast.

 

Gradually the show forms a flexible shape inside of which scenes and segments are unfixed, and staging decisions are alterable. It becomes clear that everything will hinge on the choices we make in the moment; it’s delightfully unsettling.

 

Friday

After a pub lunch out of the rain, the sickly among us retire for napping and the remainder put up our feet - and socks and shoes - on the radiator in Sophie’s hotel room for an hour. Conversation turns to our fast-approaching performance at the festival opening party. What will it be like? How will we make it work? Which pieces of our selection box will we do? We conclude that we have absolutely no idea. We’ll just respond in the moment! We’ll be completely dependent on the room, the atmosphere and people present to make it work. Oh, good grief!

 

Later, we saunter downstairs at the festival opening night night, humming our opening number (yes we have an opening number!), in dark 1920s attire and stage make-up that I hear one spectator describe as ‘vampiric’.This setting provides our first ever experience of fragmenting the show. The narrative no longer linear, scenes follow speeches follow sonnets. Lines are broken, repeated, spoken in new ways that feel right in the moment. I discover connections I’ve never noticed before: Mikey’s character warns a group of women about the follies of love and I offer a response with my opening line, ‘If thou remember’st not the slightest folly that ever love did make thee run into, thou hast not loved’. It’s not wistful, as I normally say it, but weary, as if Mikey’s character and mine have been having this debate for ages.

 

We plant bright red kisses on people’s cheeks, hands, collars and ties, sidle in for selfies, and dance with the brave and tippled. Couples are the most responsive. they nod knowingly, feign jealousy, and return our kisses along with the occasional memorised line of their own: well, it is a literature festival after all. As we’re leaving, one woman covertly rubs the lipstick marks off her cheeks, claiming she hasn’t received any kisses yet and demanding an extra one from all six of us. No probs, there’s enough bliss (and lippy) for everyone to have seconds!

 

Saturday

In contrast to the crowded party, Bath city centre offers a lovely big open space with a constant flow of people. So our tactics change, and we spread out, fetching people to bring (lovingly) into our scenes. I find myself explaining to a bunch of teenagers that ‘love looks not with the eyes but with the mind…’ and Sophie and I cuddle all manner of men and women as Nerissa and Portia gossiping about Bath’s eligible bachelors.

 

A balcony restaurant offers the perfect setting for Romeo and Juliet and Kim, playing Romeo, calls up to some ladies-what-lunch, ‘your line is, Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ A woman obliges, and the scene starts. Our characters, always active, whisper a sonnet to a passer-by as a comment on what’s unfolding, gaze longingly at Romeo, cheer for unsuspecting shoppers who’ve been turned into objects of desire, and hide behind onlookers’ legs to scoff at Malvolio. It’s a glorious mish-mash of mobile phone selfies, shopping bags and benches, our costumes, sonnets and social media, that reveals the timelessness of Shakespeare’s words on love. Even a few toddlers join in the fun.

 

That evening, at the Guildhall, the audience enters to find us draped over chairs, beckoning at them to sit with us, and usually kissing them for it when they do. The show is about connecting with people - each other and the audience – explaining what our characters have discovered about bliss love and when it all goes wrong. Developing a relationship with the audience is always daunting. Will they like me? Will they laugh when I want them to? Will they answer back? We’re not just being neurotic – the dynamic between performers and audience forms the fabric of each production: if a moment gets a laugh, the next line will be different than if it hadn’t.

 

But the full make-up and long black gloves prove quite freeing; I’m sure we’re braver than if there were no make-up, no big hair, no costume. If someone shies away from me when I go to kiss them, my character (not myself) receives the rejection, and I can carry that forward to, say, Helena, to energise her statement; ‘We cannot fight for love as men may do, /We should be wooed and were not made to woo’. If I approach someone and they give the ‘not me thank you very much’ look, well, all the better for Helena! Poor Helena, who has barely got her hands on Demetrius since Lizzie whispered to him in rehearsal.

 

We exit, we making sure everyone gets a final dose of Bliss via a kiss or a wink or a cuddle, and take what we have left over on our train journey back to London, to go with a bottle (or two) of bubbly, of course.

 

Pains in the Arts

 

A friend of mine (no, really…) had an audition. It wasn’t miles away, as nothing in London ever is, but it was hardly down the road - a bit of a treck on a rainy day. Off she went, umbrella in one hand, City Mapper primed in the other, and found her way to the pub venue ‘actually not near the station after all’, she told me, damply. Shaking off her brolly, she followed the signs for ‘casting, upstairs’. Arriving at the open door she heard some chatter coming from inside - somebody was doing a good job. Then, after pausing for barely a second, she….

 

TURNED AROUND, WALKED DOWN THE STAIRS AND BACK OUT INTO THE RAIN.

 

‘Why?’

‘I don’t know! I feel like such a ****.’

 

‘Don’t beat yourself up,’ I said, ‘what was it, profit share? Pub theatre? In the middle of nowhere? Sounds like a pain to get to, you’re probably better off… well… and it’s good you’re at the stage in your career where you can pick and choose-‘

 

‘No, no, it wasn’t’, she interrupted. ‘That was just where the auditions were held. Actually it was a photographic project. They got in touch with me and requested I come down to be seen because they love my look. Oh and it was extremely well paid, and having not been paid for my last job and having nothing lined up at all I actually really needed it!’

 

'Oh'.

 

Now, bear with me, I know this audition-skipper well. She’s a total pro – I’ve witnessed her kill a panto part on no sleep, watched her sex-up Shakespeare death-defyingly ill, seen her perkily lead primary school workshops the day after a bum of a break-up. This girl personifies ‘show people’ – the show always goes on. So it led me to think about something I think about from time to time: what is so different about auditions? To give context to the case at hand, she wasn’t allocated a time slot and arrived pretty late in the day, which probably set her off on the back foot. The lesson is if the day starts at 10am, rock up at 10.45, you’ll have avoided the super-keen beans and beaten the late-morning sleepers. Don’t dash in at 3.30pm when the producers need to be out by 4.

 

Moreover, the audition scenarios provided were a bit weird: ‘loose yourself in your thoughts’, ‘have an anxiety attack’, ‘show me a fit of laughter’, and the old chestnut ‘cry on cue’… you know the sort of thing… ‘Oh, but don’t act it though.’

Erm... Don’t act it? BUT I SPENT TEN THOUSAND POUNDS LEARNING HOW TO….

I digress, there’s no room for that here, back to the present matter…

Auditions are awful. They are always horrible - even the good ones – they’re awkward, anxiety-inducing, esteem-shattering, occasionally-degrading half hours of anguish wherein social and ethical norms are righteously disregarded (‘show me a panic attack but don’t act it…’, ‘let me see self-harm but make it truthful…’) that ill-reflect what we are actually capable of doing on stage in a theatre with an audience, or in film on location with a crew.

 

Knowing this, of course, was my friend’s downfall. In these instances, knowledge is not power. If you enter an audition believing it to be at worst ‘fun’ and at best, a super-duper learning experience that will likely propel you to lucrative artistically credible fame (JAZZ HANDS!), you will do a much better job. Thing is, we all have a bad one from time to time, so the converse-clad, zip-zap-boing optimism of the drama school graduate never lasts long before one too many ‘I think we’ve seen enough's’ turns you into a perpetually hungover, e-lite smoking, same-converse-you’ve-had-since-drama-school-because-you-can’t-afford-a-new-pair wearing cynic. In auditions you are you, bearing you innermost to utmost scrutiny. It’s a dangerous game that requires a down-to-earth resilience a lot of actors don’t actually have – as Anthony Sher points out in his great book The Year of the King, actors have to have some fundamental personality flaw which is precisely what makes them suited to acting, yet unsuitable for the profession. To make sure you get paid you need to ask questions, be skeptical, and a cynic, but no cynic thought it would be a good idea to risk lifetime stability for the hi-diddleedee dream.

 

So from time to time, you might not attend an audition. No need to beat yourself up, it’s not laziness (and don’t get me started the misconception of actors as ‘flaky creative types’ – in our saturated industry it takes intelligence, motivation, and damned-good project management to make it work - no one ever said ‘I couldn’t reach my dream of being an accountant so I settled for being an actor instead’…). If we walk out on an audition one day, perhaps we’ve sensed it’s a day when a bad audition might actually be counter-productive to a healthy career and well-rounded sense of self.  Thank you, Super Emotional Awareness! Actors aren’t flakes, they work constantly, and when they’re not working they’re still working, and when they’re not working or working, they’re thinking about work.

 

The trouble is precisely that the work never stops. This is practically true - there are few real holidays when you’re a freelancer; it is also mentally true – how can you stop thinking about work when it’s everywhere? When all of life is there to be reflected in a play! I’m not suggesting this is the only industry where people become consumed by their work - of course that isn’t the case. The risk with acting is not just that everything becomes about work, rather that everything becomes about drama. If, in spite of our inherently flawed personalities, too many post-show wines and showmances, we can get a grip on keeping the world the world, and work, work, we ‘ll be ok.

 

Sometimes you might just need a moment in the world, not in work. If you do, well then, you can ‘pull a sicky’ and skip that audition, course you can! (But let them know, of course, you’re no time-waster). You’re a freelancer, your own boss, you can do whatever the hell you like. And if you really feel bad, have an emergency one-to-one personal development meeting with the boss. Give yourself an official warning, apologise, graciously accept, forgive, leave early and take yourself to the pub on the company card.

 

But best avoid the one the auditions are being held in. 

Vegetarians – Not Fair Game

It usually goes something like this:

 

‘Oh, you’re a vegetarian?’

‘Yes,’

‘What, you don’t like the taste?’

‘No, I like it.’

‘Oh, so why then?’

‘It’s just a personal choice.’

 

‘Do you mind us eating meat in front of you?’

‘No, not at all.’

‘What if I get meat juice on your burger…’

‘It’d rather you didn’t’.

‘Do you eat chicken?’

‘No.’

‘Fish?’

‘Yes.’

(Knowingly) ‘Ohhhhh, I see, so you’re not a vegetarian…‘

‘I am.’

‘No, no, …you’re a PESCETARIAN’.

‘Yes.’

‘Oh well that really annoys me, you can’t call yourself a vegetarian if you eat fish’.

‘Yes I can’.

‘Do you eat lobster? And crabs? And prawns?’

‘No.’

(Even more knowingly) ‘Ohhhhh, well why not, what’s so special about them?’

‘Nothing, I’m allergic’.

 

If you’re a veg, a veggie, a vejazzle (wait, that’s something else) you’ll have endured countless conversations like this. And you’ll probably have noticed that the person you’re talking to isn’t actually interested in your answer. They’re not asking out of curiosity, oh no, they’re looking to catch you out. Why? Because if you say you’re meat-free for Moral Reasons, they think you’re questioning their moral code. To avoid conflict, many veggies find it safer to cite Reasons of Taste (there’s no accounting for it, you see), whilst secretly salivating over Greggs sausage roles.

 

To keep things friendly, I tend to describe my vegetarianism as a Personal Choice. It’s quick, it’s to-the-point, it’s designed to close the debate before it’s begun, oh and it’s ABSOLUTELY TRUE. If someone tells me they’re gay, do I demand to know why? No. If someone describes themselves as Half Irish do I ask to check with their parents? No. If someone tells me they like wearing red, do I interrogate their views on pink and purple? What if they watch Eastenders, avoid their siblings, work for a bank, eat chocolate during Lent or don’t have children… is it appropriate to ask them why? In public? OVER DINNER?!

 

Of course not. Then don’t do it to the veggie in the corner who just wants to munch their Mexican bean burger in peace. Unlike the many other personal choices people can expect to make in private, perfectly decent people seem to think vegetarians are fair game when it comes to a debate at the dinner table. Well, we’re not. Going veg a choice just like anything else is, and it’s up to the individual how they choose to define their beliefs and practices. So next time you find out someone’s a veggie, just leave it alone, and stop distracting them from the one thing on the menu they can actually eat. In return, we promise not to pester you about your sexual preferences or taste in shoes. Even if they both involve leather.

 

Hats are for Life (not just for Ascot)

 

Even in London – one of the most stylish cities in the world - there’s a noticeable aversion towards unusual fashion choices. In convention-defying Camden, funky Brick Lane, even sexed-up Soho, there are clear conformist codes, and the over-(or under-) dressed are looked on as outsiders.

 

But a good view can be very uplifting (or so the rainbow snaps plastered across positive psychology sites suggest), and views can include people. London views, after all, are made up pretty much entirely of people. So what’s wrong with bright yellow pleats, clown shoes, and quirky wigs if one so wishes? Exotic hats should be for life, not just for Ascot!

 

Check out this blog- here's a guy you won't catch in joggers and a skinny-tee: http://alioutfit.tumblr.com. Dapper Ali brings cheer to dozens daily, in fact, he's got quite the following these days, having featured in newspapers, blogs and even CNN. And that's what fashion's for, right - expression, art and enjoyment. If it were all about warmth and keeping your jangly bits tucked safely away, we'd all be clad in the cosiest cotton from Florence and Fred. 

 

So mever feel ashamed if you fancy doubling leopard print cashmere with a floral culotte. If nothing else, it makes life a little more interesting for the owner of the eyes beholding. It doesn't have to be all the time, hoodies and old jeans are integral to a work-life balance. But all work and no play makes for a little too much Hawes and Curtis. So once in a while why not pull and Ali and shake on a luminous suit, or make like Blanche Marvin, West End Producer and the Rocky Horror Show audience and theme your outfits for the event you're attending (red/kilts for Macbeth, 50s dresses for afternoon tea, flagrantly drunk for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof...). Failing that, go see PunchDrunk. They usually give our masks, and then noone will know you're wearing a 2nd hand 'Oxford University' hoodie you bought from Roman Road Market.

 

Theatre Review: 'On The Ropes' - Salon:Collective at Theatre Delicatessen, March 2014

 

There were lots of opportunities to see each production throughout the evening at Spaced 2014, but unlike the other pieces, I went to this as many times as possible, because you were guaranteed a different show each time.

 

Downstairs in a sweaty corner of Theatre Deli (which, if you haven’t been, is like the set of a zombie apocalypse, complete with derelict toilet cubicles, abandoned machinery and spooky red lighting) was the perfect location for Salon:Collective’s boxing ring. Two actors entered the ring and the MC/referee gave us the premise of their characters’ relationship: ‘brothers on a stag do’, ‘mother and daughter at Christmas and the mother’s drunk again’, ‘Couple having an affair’ were a few I remember.

 

As each scene played out, spectators could purchase slips containing long lists of instructions to choose from, like ‘get physical’, ‘kiss’, ‘do a monologue’, ‘fight’... what a clever and fair way for the show to make it’s money!  You’d chose what you wanted to happen and who you wanted it to happen to, then wave your slip in the air, and a member of the company ringside would give the MC your instruction. ‘Long haired boy get physical’, or ‘Man belittle woman’, for example. The actors would immediately incorporate your instruction to the improvisation. Sometimes outcomes were funny, sometimes sad, sometimes downright disturbing. Not only must this have been a feat of mental acrobatics on the part of the very talented actors, it was an invigorating experience as an audience member. There’s something quite disconcerting about paying for young woman to beat up her mother, but it’s a play, so its okay, and the performances were electric. If you wanted to get theoretical, you could say it raised questions of culpability, but you didn’t have to get theoretical in order to be entertained and impacted by this incredibly fast-paced, brave piece of theatre. And what a fantastically imaginative approach to interaction, and making the money required to retain and reward the artistic talent.

Do Women Really Prefer Bad Boys?

 

By Rose Turner for Pollen Associates 

(the views expressed are not necessarily those of the author)

 

From an evolutionary perspective, selecting a mate is one of the most important decisions a person can make. Sexual selection tells us that people prefer to partner with someone who will pass on great genes to their offspring and raise them to avoid wild mushrooms and hyenas. For the present-day female of the species, it’s about ensuring her mate will stick around through pregnancy and beyond to provide for her and the kids, help out with nappies and protect them from modern day problems like internet trolls and PPI reclaim telephone calls.

 

However, anecdotal evidence shows that the Good Guy – Mr Supportive, Generous, Faithfull, Nice-eyes-great-smile – doesn’t always get the girl; rather it might be the drug addicted, sex addicted unkempt guy that wins her over with his dubious charms. So what makes the Russell Brands of the world irresistible to the ladies? How did Pete Doherty pull Kate Moss? I’m going to share with you the pros and cons of the four main Guy Types, so you can see for yourself the qualities of Guyness (not Guinness – though women like that too, it’s rich in iron) that women most appreciate.

 

First, we have the Nice Guy. Also known as the Keeper, the Catch or the Take-Home-To-Your-Mum guy. He’s pleasant, respectful and polite, likely to appear with flowers when meeting his girlfriend’s family for the first time. In fact, he might appear with flowers when meeting anyone’s family for the first time, you see, The Nice Guy appreciates the value of family. And flowers. Girls can easily imagine him proposing on one knee… singing to the baby… faultlessly remembering every anniversary… hand-feeding her soup when she’s run out of teeth. What’s not to love about the Good Guy? Well, he’s nice, sure, but he’s not exactly exciting. Yes he brings flowers, but it’s never really a surprise. Probably unused to being around beautiful women, he’s blindly smitten with his new girlfriend (think Kermit the Frog) and so, making himself constantly available to her, willing to Tip-ex out any prior engagement Parker-penned into his Moleskine diary, he can come across as needy, which can smother a sister-from-another-mother.

 

Cue Russell Brand, Eminem, Hugh Grant during his speeding, baked-bean lobbing phase; this brings us to the Bad Guy. More spontaneous than Mr Nice, women don’t know what to expect from the Bad Guy. This can amount to an ‘emotional rollercoaster’ experience and certainly won’t fulfill a woman’s psychological needs; but once the fear of imminent death has passed, who doesn’t like a second go on a rollercoaster? Unlike his Good Guy cousin, the Bad Guy doesn’t change his schedule to accommodate his Mrs, which can give the impression of being a leader – and people like a Leader – even though, in reality, Mr Bad might just be busy being Bad on Friday night. Bad Guys are the guys that tend to cheat and to lie and, once these transgressions are uncovered, the relationship can never be the same. With Mr Bad, there are at least 50 shades of Guy, from a bit bad right through to downright thuggish. Some lie, others cheat, from the Wandering Eye Guy to the Can’t Help-But-Lie Guy, to the full-on Walter White Type. Although rollercoasters can be appealing for a time, most women realize that they tend to make you sick in the end.

 

The Good Guy is your trusty Border Collie whereas the Bad Guy is the Cheetah-on-the-loose. As with most species of animal, it is grounded in the female's biology to look for a guy who can, when the time comes, provide for the family, and the Bad Guy is simply too unpredictable for that. This is where the Provider comes in. A bit like the Good Guy, however, the Provider can go too far. He showers gifts on any old girl he met last Tuesday in Starbucks, paying for her skinny-latte-with-hazelnut-shot, and pretty much every melovesushi since. As with the Good Guy, the excitement can dissipate, as the woman feels she has already won him over. Women like to see their relationship progress, but the Provider can come on too strong, appearing false, or even boring. Hashtag, toomuchtoosoon.

 

Remember how the Bad Guy attracted women by appearing as though he had leadership qualities? Well, the genuine Leader possesses two key characteristics that women find attractive regardless of looks – charisma and confidence. Think Simon Cowell, Gordon Ramsay, Napoleon. Sure of himself and what he wants in life, the Leader is not easily influenced by others, which is an appealing trait of the alpha male. The risk with these alpha male Leaders is that their taking control can make women feel excluded from decision making. On balance, leadership is a pretty good trait, and when combined with Good Guy sensitivity, the Leader can be a pretty decent all-rounder.

 

So there we have it, Four Types of Guy. What does all this mean for our original question, are girls really attracted to bad guys? Well yes, sometimes, though these rocky relationships tend not to enjoy much staying power. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes no sense that girls should actually prefer rollercoaster relationships with bad boy potential mates and so, after a spin or two, they are likely to find the qualities of a Good Guy Leader or Provider, preferable. Alton Towers is fun for a day or two, right, but you wouldn’t have a baby with it. 

 

Review: Chelsea BA Fine Art Show Review 2009

By Rose Turner for ArtArtArt Magazine 2009

 

Dancers equipped with a boom box on Chelsea’s open quad entertain the many people arriving in the middle of it all, required to join a long queue for the exhibition that forms around a series of Billy Kerry’s mixed-media sculptures twisted into curiously abstract yet grotesquely human contortions.  These works seem absurd, humorous almost. His pieces inside the building are smaller and appear more like individual body parts, phallic, deformed 

 

Susannah Pal’s sculptures also explore embodiment, with the tagline ‘cliterally speaking your life is boring’ rather heavily signposting the postfeminist ideology of the ‘Noughties. The juxtaposition between the live presence of the artist and the distorted representations of the artist’s head and torso, however, generates a palpable sense of conflict in the assemblage of internal and external female sexual identities.  

 

JiYoung Kim also places herself within her workin her photograph Memoria. In the installation component, however, her body is replaced by cotton wool and fabric, a tangibly cloud-like formThe work betrays transience, permeating the boundaries between presence and absence and illuminating the ephemeral moment at which the art becomes made.  

 

Other exhibits point towards the porosity of familiar dichotomies – old and new, past and present, presence and absence. Sophie Turner’s solemn room seems to tell a story whose protagonist is a melancholic shadow that moves across a film of the room shown on an old-fashioned television screen. The work is presented like a collection of artefacts: preserved, not to be touched, unsettlingly ghostly; the suggestion of death signifies the temporality of the human body, and the remaining objects become relics of its brief interactions.  

 

The exhibition layout does not denote a particular journey; rooms seem characterised more by medium than by theme, for example through the grouping together of potentially interactive pieces. Among these are Karen Wilkinson’s paper stalagmites and stalactites; the denting caused by people meandering through them is a reminder of the disposability of artNearby, a woman turns the handle of a wind-up bird – one of Flaminia Veronesi’s hat designs – whose wings flap slowly. Shortly, the woman stops winding and establishes eye contact with the young woman modelling the headgear. She moves her hand purposefully and the young woman follows it with her gaze. I wonder if such interaction is anticipated – the performers (it seems appropriate to use that term) move slowly through the space as if to invite it. Subtle though it is, this interactiobegins to conceive characters in a way that blurs the distinction between installation and performance art.

 

The exhibits vary aestheticallyfrom room-sized installations to single canvases, sculptures and video. Despite the size of the cohort, some works stand out as poignantly atmospheric; I particularly like Harry Scoging Beer’s oil paintings, where warm colour beams through gaps in what appear to be walls to another world. The prominent works as I see them here share the incarnation of alternative dimensions in time and space, the merging of old and new stories, through the imagination of an interactive viewer or by signposting the ephemeral act of art-making.  

 

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