Pierre Huyghe’s Human Mask at the Copenhagen Contemporary

© Pierre Huyghe, 2014
© Pierre Huyghe, 2014

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Copenhagen, where I visited the recently-opened Copenhagen Contemporary art museum. Before I stepped into the exhibition space to the left of the ticket desk, I was directed to a dark hall at the back of the museum, where Pierre Huyghe’s 20-minute film Untitled (Human Mask) was playing on a loop. The museum’s website introduces the film as follows:

A monkey wearing a mask of a young woman, trained as a servant, unconscious enactor of a human labour; and a drone, an unmanned camera, programmed to perform tasks, inhabit the same landscape of Fukushima, just after the natural and technological disaster.

Huyghe was partly inspired by a YouTube clip, ‘Fukuchan Monkey in wig, mask, works Restaurant!’, in which a trained monkey in a doll-like mask, wig, and server’s uniform waits tables in a restaurant. You can watch the video below:

Human Mask is dramatically different in tone and style, but features the same monkey in the same restaurant, following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. In this post-apocalyptic environment, Huyghe deployed a drone camera crew, capturing the monkey’s fitful movements through the space and creating the impression of an interior and distinctly human life. The resulting film is both supremely uncanny and surprisingly moving.

No words are spoken in Human Mask, aside from several instances of a muffled, automated voice speaking Japanese in the distance, issuing what sounds like a public service announcement. The monkey, too, is silent save for the amplified sound of its breathing behind the mask. Nevertheless, sound has a real, physical presence in the film, especially when rain begins to pound on the tin roof towards the end.

© Pierre Huyghe, 2014
© Pierre Huyghe, 2014

Frieze.com‘s Jennifer Higgie has written a brilliant review of the film, from when it was first exhibited in London back in 2014. She concludes:

Animals are indifferent to cameras and, as far as we know, to art, too. You can film them as much as you like, but there will never be any artifice to their performances – they’re anti-actors. It is impossible to know who – or what – a monkey is by imposing our values on them. This is the paradox Huyghe has set up: he has choreographed a deeply artificial scenario in order to explore something profoundly real about the assumed superiority of man over nature and about the ethics of using animals to satisfy very human needs. In all of this, Huyghe obviously implicates himself as well: his own actions demonstrate how inter-species communication is still an enigma – and that art, obviously, isn’t exempt from the problems that this poses. His film is a stark and brilliant reminder that humans are the only species who regularly practice deceit – and that the only ones we are capable of deceiving are ourselves. You can put a monkey in a mask but, however hard you try, you can’t make it believe a lie. It knows it’s a monkey. If only humans were as wise.

Click here to read the rest of Higgie’s article, and here to learn more about the exhibition, which runs until 21 May 2017.

© Pierre Huyghe, 2014
© Pierre Huyghe, 2014

How to Avoid Becoming an Unintentional Plagiarist

Screenshot 2017-02-15 22.22.04As a teacher, I deal with plagiarism all the time—usually in the sense of advising students how to avoid it in their academic essays. As an academic blogger, though, and a web editor before that, I’ve often had to deal with another form of plagiarism: the visual kind. Where most of us are clear on what constitutes textual plagiarism, some of us are less up-to-date on what visual plagiarism might entail. Which images are you allowed to use where, and when are you allowed to appropriate, manipulate, and replicate them without permission from the creator?

With kind permission from Follio.com, in this post you can find a few excerpts from their infographic on image manipulation and international copyright standards. Click here for the complete version.

Screenshot 2017-02-15 22.18.12“To find yourself in the spotlight for plagiarism would be concerning and could even be expensive, even worse when you have fallen foul of copyright laws without even knowing it. Most people have a basic level of understanding relating to copyright law but things have become a lot more complicated since we all started downloading text and images from the internet.

‘How to avoid copyright infringement’ helps to fill in the blanks and might even help you to avoid becoming an unintentional plagiarist.”

 

Again, you can find the full infographic here.

Why ‘Nineteenth Century Matters’ Mattered to Me

victorian-supperThe PhD is a strange thing. You spend three years (or four, or seven, depending on where and how you’re working) fixated on a single topic. You read lots of things you don’t need to read, and explore many avenues that will turn out to be dead ends. Your time is largely yours to spend how you choose, although there are more than enough obligations to choose from. In many ways, it represents a kind of academic freedom that you’re unlikely to ever see again.

After your PhD, potential employers seem interested in everything but your thesis. They want to know what you have published, what you have taught, and what additional impact and engagement skills you can bring to the table. The interstitial space between the PhD and the mythical academic job is feared, densely populated, and vigorously prepared for. Speaking to those who are there already, it can also be incredibly soul-crushing. Applications require a great deal of time and effort, but you are competing against hundreds of other highly qualified people, often your friends, and your chances of success are slim. The sea of tick-boxes, online forms, and buzzwords can be depressingly dehumanising.

Th graves of Jane Austen's mother and sister at Chawton House
Th gravestones of Jane Austen’s mother and sister at Chawton House

This is why I was especially glad to be able to attend the Nineteenth Century Matters training day at Chawton House Library, a public engagement event organised by Catherine Han and sponsored by BARS and BAVS on 28 January, 2017. I’m not going to give a content summary of the day—that’s already been done by a number of different reviewers. You can also check out the live tweets using the #c19Matters hashtag. I do want to comment on a couple of things I particularly enjoyed about the event, though.

Most people at the training day were what we call ECRs (Early Career Researchers), and many were in that uncertain space between the PhD and full-time employment. The first thing that became immediately clear was how much everyone cared about their research. Yes, we exchanged the usual banter about the dire state of the job market, the gruelling commutes between part-time teaching jobs, and our lack of future prospects, but the subject always turned back around to the work. Most had a clear idea of why the research they were conducting into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was still important and relevant. If the world couldn’t see that, we would find a way to show them.

Chawton House
Chawton House, in Alton

This was one important difference Mark Llewellyn, research director at the AHRC and one of the speakers, identified between scholars of his generation and ours. Where some established academics don’t see the need to make their research directly relevant to the public, ECRs tend to immediately see the benefits of getting their research out there. This willingness to get out there and do the work is partly born out of necessity, of course, but Llewellyn sees this as vital to the future of the humanities.

Llewellyn and the other speakers (full programme here) also did a great job of breaking down the meaningless buzzwords that circulate around funding and public events. What does ‘engagement’ actually mean, for instance? Addressing the neo-Victorianists in the room, Llewellyn asked whether the Victorians even mean the same thing to us as they do to the people we’re trying to engage. In the mad dash for employment we often feel it’s our job to somehow make people care about our work, but the process is much more organic than that. It requires connecting with specific people and communities, learning about their needs, and building up a relationship that is fulfilling for both parties. We need the public to engage, but they also need us to be engaged.

Sound a bit saccharine? Fortunately the tone of the day wasn’t at all patronising or abstract. Claire Wood had a few useful tips about identifying who this mystical ‘public’ actually is, and who we should really be talking to. Gillian Dow, Mary Guyatt, and Holly Furneaux all shared direct examples of the strengths and pitfalls of public engagement. The presenters also did a brilliant job of dispelling the Romantic myth of the scholar, who dispenses knowledge from an irony tower to the ignorant masses. For each speaker, engagement had impacted their own research in profound and resoundingly practical ways. It was precisely the act of doing something for and with the public, without worrying about the immediate relevance to the research, that yielded new and unexpected results.

Four of the speakers at the training day
Four of the speakers at the training day

The training day also did a remarkable job of making us, the participants, feel like human beings again—no mean feat for an event with so many big names attached. Each speaker was very approachable, and was not only excited to talk about our ideas, but also keen to offer help and advice. The staff at Chawton House were kind and very professional, and the day was organised without a hitch. Because there weren’t too many of us—several dozen in total—there was just enough opportunity to chat without making the networking feel like a chore. The location itself was also quiet and intimate, and made the whole thing feel like a relaxing retreat rather than an ideas mill.

Image © Vic Jane Clark
Image © Vic Jane Clarke

The only thing I would have liked more of were the workshops, for which we split into small groups based on our research and expertise. I’m still in the early stages of my public engagement plan, and so was matched with a group designed to generate some ideas for how to bring your research to specific groups of people. Our research was randomly paired with two categories: a target group and a type of project. Target groups included easier audiences (retired adults) and more challenging ones (youth not in education or employment), and it was interesting to think about which groups fit best with which topics. The projects also ranged the gamut from exhibitions to podcasts to board games. Everyone in my group was encouraging and full of ideas, and though we had to move quickly from project to project, many of us exchanged contact information so we could take these ideas further after the event.

Despite the renewed confidence in both academia and in public engagement this training day has given me, I remain convinced that the current state of affairs is not a good one. As Furneaux pointed out during her talk, the ability to build bridges outside of academia and engage in impact research still requires a fair amount of privilege. It is often done out of pocket or in a volunteer capacity, and not everyone has the luxury of that kind of free time or disposable income. Researchers are still required to be jacks of all trades—extroverts, scholars, teachers, self-publishers—which ignores the realities of twenty-first-century academia and the value of individuals who don’t fit this mould. Until we figure out how to build a fairer system, however, it’s good to know that people on both sides of the job divide are committed to being there for each other, and ensuring that this important research has a future.

Selfie at the training day
Selfie at the training day

The Dangers of Unity: Feminism and the Adventist Church

C3hci30VYAAl6cZ.jpg-largeWhile I’m currently an academic by day, by night (and in some of my holidays) I also do translation, editing, and other freelance work. Some of this is for the Adventist church, where my family have been members for several generations. While I’m not the most active member myself, the church and its 19-million-strong membership help out in health, education, and humanitarian aid around the world.

Though organised religion certainly has its drawbacks, I still think it can be a powerful way to mobilise people. This is why I offer my time and skills to the world church organisation, and to several local branches.

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An article I recently wrote for the Dutch national magazine Advent.

At the end of last year I wrote an article that was published in a national church magazine. You can read it here if you speak Dutch. The article gave readers a brief history of feminism. It also addressed an ongoing conflict between current world church leadership and the international communities it is meant to support. A few months after it was published in Dutch, an English version of the article was picked up by Spectrum, an independent Adventist news agency and magazine.

Below is an excerpt—you can find the full article at Spectrum‘s website, and in their quarterly magazine:

Like Christianity (or even Adventism), feminism is not a static entity, composed of people who think exactly alike and who all move in the same direction. Nor should it be—if it were, it would not be able to do the thing it aims to do: work toward equal rights for all people, regardless of their gender. In fact, the illusion of unity—unity of one group or even of the whole human race—was one of the problems feminism had to overcome along the way. Let me explain what I mean with a short history lesson.

Hillary Rodham Clinton may have been the first woman nominated to a major political party in the U.S., but she is certainly not the first woman to run for the office of president. In 1872, almost fifty years before any woman would be able to legally vote for her, Victoria Woodhull became America’s first female presidential candidate. A campaigner for women’s suffrage, she reasoned: “If Congress refuse to listen and to grant what women ask, there is but one course left to pursue. What is there left for women to do but to become the mothers of the future government?” If the government was not going to listen to women, women would just have to join the government. She lost spectacularly to Ulysses S. Grant, but her campaign drew a great deal of media attention, and she continued to campaign for women’s rights until she died at age eighty-eight—seven years after women were finally granted the right to vote.

Woodhull, and other women like her, formed what is called the “first wave” of modern feminism. The height of first-wave feminism occurred in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the suffragettes and the women’s rights movement. These feminists were largely focused on the legal aspects of equal rights: the vote, the right to be educated, the right to own property.

The “second wave,” generally marked as taking place from the 1960s through the 1990s, came up against a different set of challenges. Equipped with the legal rights won by first-wave feminists, the second wave set out to negotiate questions of identity and social justice. Women were now legally “equal,” but deep-seated cultural biases still kept them from true equality on most fronts. They had to fight for the right to be women in the workplace, and in this new environment, they were forced to reconsider what it actually meant to be a woman and what it meant for a woman to be equal to a man.

C3ctTTTVUAAU7uM.jpg-large

Undaunted by these challenges, second-wave feminists succeeded in reforming higher many elements: education, business, politics, and reproductive rights; set up organizations and legislation for the protection of battered women; raise awareness about the movement at a popular level. Second-wave feminism was loud and proud, and this is the wave we are still most likely to associate with the term “feminism.” These women also changed history in a deeper way. I work at a university, teaching and researching literary and cultural criticism.

Basically, I study how art and literature shape identity. In my field, feminism is hugely important— and not just because the feminist movement ensured my right to work in the first place.

For hundreds of years, people assumed that great art was universal. We believed that it held up a mirror to the world—that it showed us who we were as people. Then, in the middle of the twentieth century, we suddenly and shockingly realized that most of the art we had previously considered “great” was actually only reflecting a very small portion of the world, from a very specific point of view. Most of the art was made by men, specifically, well-off white men from the West. We discovered that “we” were not as united as we had thought and that our unity had only been possible because we were excluding everyone with a different perspective than ours—people who were women, who were black, who were poor or uneducated. These people did not matter in our society, and so their art could not possibly matter either. Then a group of feminist critics came along—at this point still mostly women—who, thanks to their nineteenth-century feminist forerunners, were finally allowed to participate in scientific discourse. They pointed out, in a language other scholars could understand, that actually these other perspectives were everywhere and could be very valuable indeed.

The impact this realization had on the arts (and later on the sciences as well) cannot be overstated. There were endless, conflicting worlds and perspectives out there, just waiting to be recognized. The effect was revolutionary.

Read the full article here.

Star Wars Identities

star-wars-identities-stormtrooper-posterLast month I visited the Store Wars: 40 Years of Merchandise exhibition in Hoorn, NL. It was a small, intimate affair that took a loving look at the way Star Wars has affected merchandising and fan practices. A few weeks ago, I took a trip into London for the travelling Star Wars Identities exhibition at the O2 Centre. Despite sharing a broad subject, the two could not have been more different. Identities features a number of original props, costumes, and concept art from the pre-Disney era. In practice this meant I got to see stuff from the original trilogy (1977-1983), the prequel trilogy (1999-2005), and the Clone Wars animated series (2008-2015). The Force Awakens‘ BB-8 also made an appearance.

The exhibition was, perhaps logically, much larger than the one in Hoorn. It also had quite a few more visitors. Tickets had to be booked for specific time slots, and once we arrived we were admitted in groups of 10 to 15. Although you sometimes had to wait a few moments for a path to the next costume or prop to clear, there was plenty of space and time for all of us to enjoy the exhibits—and to take lots of photographs, which almost everyone did.

Exhibits were often grouped by theme: droids, podracers, Jedi, ships. Major characters whose development was especially extensive or technical, like Yoda or Jabba the Hutt, had their own sections. I had no idea that it took so many concepts to arrive at the Yoda we know today. I’m half-relieved that Garden Gnome Yoda didn’t make the final cut, but would also love to see someone edit him into a fan version of Star Wars.

I’m not necessarily a believer in the sacredness of ‘original’ objects, and I won’t say I was paralysed with awe by Luke Skywalker’s jumpsuit, or the mural that hung behind Palpatine’s chair in Revenge of the Sith, but it was pretty amazing to be surrounded by so many objects that made up such a big part of my childhood. I’ve seen Ralph McQuarrie’s art so many times in books that it was somewhat surreal to see the pieces hanging up at an exhibition. Sort of like unexpectedly stumbling across a portrait of a distant relative at the National Portrait Gallery. There were many other great pieces of concept art as well.

The staging and lighting of the exhibits was very well done overall. I won’t lie that Darth Vader’s (or should I say, David Prowse’s?) suit, displayed in all its black glory against neon lights, gave me a little thrill. I was also excited to see the model Slave I and suit of armour belonging to its owner. As a girl I was most interested in the Jedi, but as an adult Boba Fett is my hero. The model Star Destroyer from A New Hope and the AT-AT and Snowspeeder used in the filming of The Empire Strikes Back were also personal favourites.

In addition to being visually stunning, there were a few neat technical aspects to Star Wars Identities as well. Each visitor was given a headset, which would activate when we faced certain exhibits. This let us focus on a particular video or audio clip without any distractions from other corners of the space. It also made me feel a bit like the exhibit was coming to life as I approached.

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These were our characters.

The highlight of the exhibition from an interactive standpoint, though, was definitely the ‘identities’ component. In addition to their headset, each visit received a bracelet at the start of their tour. When touched to various sensors throughout the exhibition, this bracelet would allow visitors to create their own Star Wars characters through a series of choices. After choosing things like race, appearance, and name, the exhibition takes you through your own Star Wars story—from birth, to crisis, to the ultimate choice between good and evil. At the end of the exhibition you can view the character you created, and e-mail yourself a copy of your character’s story as a memento of your visit.

The exhibition also asked visitors to think about the process of narrative and identity in general. What makes people who they are? What makes a person good or evil? What forces shape the characters of Star Wars, and what forces shape us? While at times this narrative felt a little contrived, it gave visitors of all ages something fun to do while waiting to get a peek at another exhibit.

This is not the exhibition’s first stop, nor will it be the last. Star Wars Identities is at the O2 Centre until 3 September 2017, after which it will set up shop in a new city. If you’re a Star Wars fan near London with £25 to spend (£18 at the concession rate), it’s definitely worth a visit. All in all I spent about two hours looking, reading, and listening.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

This week, I finally got a peek at the Spring syllabus for an undergraduate course I’m co-teaching. Sadly my students won’t be watching Blade Runner or reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? this year. I will be teaching a session on ‘the death of the book’, though, and science fiction plays an increasingly important part in this discussion.

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© Deep Dream

Several years ago, Google released strange, surreal pictures its neural network ‘Deep Dream’ had painted from random noise. In an article entitled ‘Yes, androids do dream of electric sheep’, The Guardian described the process as follows:

What do machines dream of? New images released by Google give us one potential answer: hypnotic landscapes of buildings, fountains and bridges merging into one.

The pictures, which veer from beautiful to terrifying, were created by the company’s image recognition neural network, which has been “taught” to identify features such as buildings, animals and objects in photographs.

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© Deep Dream

They were created by feeding a picture into the network, asking it to recognise a feature of it, and modify the picture to emphasise the feature it recognises. That modified picture is then fed back into the network, which is again tasked to recognise features and emphasise them, and so on. Eventually, the feedback loop modifies the picture beyond all recognition.

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© Deep Dream

Since then, Google has also launched Magenta, which aims to use ‘machine learning to create compelling art and music’. One of its first products was this computer-generated piano variation on ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ (drum added later by a human):

 

And let’s not forget Aaron, the AI that’s been painting since the 1970s:

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© AARON
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© AARON

Early last year, MIT Technology Review‘s Martin Gayford looked at several of these examples of robotically generated art to try and get at the question of what makes art ‘art’ in the first place:

The unresolved questions about machine art are, first, what its potential is and, second, whether—irrespective of the quality of the work produced—it can truly be described as “creative” or “imaginative.” These are problems, profound and fascinating, that take us deep into the mysteries of human art-making.

Computers have broken into the art world, then, but what about writing? There, too, AI has been making great progress. The Verge‘s Josh Dzieza delved into the strange world of computer-generated novels back in 2014, shortly after Google released its ‘Deep Dream’ images:

Narrative is one of the great challenges of artificial intelligence. Companies and researchers are working to create programs that can generate intelligible narratives, but most of them are restricted to short snippets of text. The company Narrative Science, for example, makes programs that take data from sporting events or financial reports, highlight the most significant information, and arrange it using templates pre-written by humans. It’s not the loveliest prose, but it’s fairly accurate and very fast.

Some of it, like Darius Kazemi’s ‘Teens Wander Around a House’ or Michelle Fullwood’s ‘Twide and Twejudice’ I even want to read myself.

To top it all off, you have the trend of super-realist art, or human-made art that itself looks very similar to what these machines are producing. Writing about Juan Geuer’s Water in Suspense, scientist Michael Nielsen describes how this kind of art works:

Water in Suspense reveals a hidden world. We discover a rich structure immanent in the water droplet, a structure not ordinarily accessible to our senses. In this way it’s similar to the Hubble Extreme Deep Field, which also reveals a hidden world. Both are examples of what I call Super-realist art, art which doesn’t just capture what we can see directly with our eyes or hear with our ears, but which uses new sensors and methods of visualization to reveal a world that we cannot directly perceive. It’s art being used to reveal science.

Although I’m not an artist or an art critic, I find Super-realist art fascinating. Works like the Hubble Extreme Deep Field and Water in Suspense give us concrete, vivid representations of deep space and the interior structure of a water droplet. For most of us, these are usually little more than dry abstractions, remote from our understanding. By creating vivid representations, Super-realist art provides us with a new way of thinking about such phenomena.

Regardless of whether we think machines will kill art, or take it to the next level, I’m very much looking forward to bringing these kinds of questions to my first-years.

The Political Landscape

'Matalas Mountain' by Jacob Pierneef
‘Matalas Mountain’ by Jacob Pierneef

Could there be art less political than a landscape?

Despite agreeing wholeheartedly with Toni Morrison that ‘All good art is political! There is none that isn’t’, on first viewing of Jacob Pierneef’s paintings at the British Museum’s ‘South Africa: The Art of a Nation’ exhibition I would never have guessed that they were used in the defence of apartheid.

One online biography describes Pierneef’s influences as follows:

His early works reflect the fashions of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly pointillism and the landscapes of the Dutch masters that he was exposed to when his parents moved to the Netherlands during the Anglo-Boer War. But the most patent and lasting influence on his work was his architectural studies at Hilversum. Still, he was not European, he was African-born, and was drawn to the palette of Bushmen rock painters and the pastel shades of his beloved Highveld surrounds.

So far, so neutral, right?

'Composition in Blue' by Jacobus Pierneef
‘Composition in Blue’ by Jacobus Pierneef

Even if you don’t pick up on Pierneef’s Dutch influences, you do immediately get a sense of how quiet and empty his paintings are. This is no accident—the absence of people in Pierneef’s landscapes is a central part of his nationalist message. As Jennifer Beningfield writes in The Frightened Land: Land, Landscape and Politics in South Africa in the Twentieth Century:

A member of the Broerderbond from 1919, Pierneef increasingly embraced the agenda of the Afrikaner Nationalists, referring to himself as a ‘Voortrekker’ for the arts during the 1930s and 1940s. It has been argued by the art historian N.J. Coetzee that Pierneef’s landscapes are inseparable from the contemporary political agenda n which they were produced. Coetzee maintains that Pierneef’s work offers a visual means through which the veld, and in particular the landscape of the Transvaal province, could be imagined as the fatherland of the Afrikaner.

[…]

Pierneef’s success in developing a distinctive style of landscape painting which resonated with the contemporary Afrikaner cultural and political concerns meant that his paintings were collected as status symbols by those who considered themselves to be ‘true Afrikaners’ The majority of Pierneef’s wealthy patrons lived an urban existence and the paintings became almost displaced fragments of the land itself; magical totems invoking the land in its purity and stillness. Not only were the landscapes representations of remote ‘natural’ places, desired from within the confines of the city, but also they became integrated into the narration of the past, the political ambition for the future and the construction of Afrikaner identity.

In other words, Pierneef ‘didn’t celebrate South Africa’s people, he celebrated the land itself’—land that, in his view, belonged to the white Afrikaners and not to its black, native populations. As John Peffer wrote in 2003:

In Pierneef’s painting the South African landscape is cast as God’s land, and by extension the providence of His Chosen People, the Afrikaner volk. His view of Apies River, Pretoria, is one purged of any evidence of the Ndebele and other African people who were defeated by Boer commanodoes and scattered as labor onto white farms near Pretoria after 1883. Also erased from the picturesque landscape of rolling hills and bubbling stream is any hint of the city of Pretoria itself, especially the Union Buildings, which would have been an irksome reminder of British rule. Pierneef’s landscapes represent a form of idyl more extreme even than the utopic fantasies of some of his Afrikaner Nationalist colleagues. […] For Pierneef the landscape was frozen in a state of empty apartness, perpetually ready for white settlement, and timelessly open for the prospect of white prosperity.

Pierneef’s art will be joining my repertoire of teaching texts that, while seemingly neutral, can pack an intense ideological punch.

'Thorn Tree at Dusk' by Jacob Pierneef
‘Thorn Tree at Dusk’ by Jacob Pierneef

If you’re in the London area, I highly recommend ‘South Africa: The Art of a Nation’. It runs until 26 February 2017, and features a wide selection of South African art, from a variety of cultural and political backgrounds.

Women of Star Wars

Image © Jeremy Selwyn
Image © Jeremy Selwyn

I’ve been writing a lot about Star Wars lately, and I’m afraid there will be a few more posts on the subject in the weeks to come. What can I say. When you’re working on something—especially something that was once a childhood obsession—it can hard to tear yourself away. This week I’m taking a little break from exhibitions and feminist analyses, though, to reflect on something small and unexpected and great that I discovered while doing research for my article.

There are a lot of interesting women behind Star Wars.

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I don’t just mean the characters on screen or page, though you can take your pick of those as well. Behind the scenes, women have also been a direct and important part of the Star Wars story, whether they worked on the crew of one of the films, for one of Lucasfilm’s many divisions, or in a managerial capacity. Though I already knew how important some of these women were to the universe I know and love, I’ve learnt a lot more about them over the past few months, and have discovered a few more in unexpected places. It’s been fascinating, and I would love to take the research further at some point.

Below are five ‘women of Star Wars’ you might find interesting too, whether you already know of them, or have never heard of them before. Each has impacted the franchise in her own important way, but it’s an eclectic collection. Let me know if there’s someone you think I should have included!

marcia2_thumbMarcia Lucas

While you’ll probably recognise the surname, you may not know just how much of an impact George Lucas’ ex-wife had on the first three Star Wars films. Besides editing them (she won an Oscar in 1978 for her work on A New Hope), she influenced their narratives on other levels as well. Michael Kaminski, the author of The Secret History of Star Wars (2008), wrote an extensive and illuminating article about her life and work. You can read the entire thing online, but here’s an excerpt:

Mark Hamill […] notes in 2005 how her sensibilities influenced the content and structure of [George Lucas’] films:

“You can see a huge difference in the films that he does now and the films that he did when he was married. I know for a fact that Marcia Lucas was responsible for convincing him to keep that little ‘kiss for luck’ before Carrie [Fisher] and I swing across the chasm in the first film: ‘Oh, I don’t like it, people laugh in the previews,’ and she said, ‘George, they’re laughing because it’s so sweet and unexpected’– and her influence was such that if she wanted to keep it, it was in. When the little mouse robot comes up when Harrison and I are delivering Chewbacca to the prison and he roars at it and it screams, sort of, and runs away, George wanted to cut that and Marcia insisted that he keep it.”

photoLucy Wilson

Wilson has held many roles at Lucasfilm. She started out as George Lucas’ assistant, and is said to have typed up the the script for Star Wars. She also worked as finance director in Lucasfilm’s licensing department, as head of publishing, and finally as head of the nonfiction George Lucas Books. In 2010 she retired, though if her Twitter account is any indication it looks as though she’s still keeping very busy.

Most importantly (to me, anyway), she seems to have been largely responsible for the launch and success of the Star Wars Expanded Universe books, which had a long and profitable run. In a post on the Barnes and Noble blog, Andrew Liptak explains how it all went down:

“I was trying to bring quality literature to a licensed fictional universe,” Wilson recalled. She also wanted to do something different from the typical tie-in novel. With the Star Trek novels as their main competition, Wilson knew she needed to differentiate her books. “[Star Trek was] constantly rebooting their program with new storylines. I didn’t want our plan to be like theirs, and one big difference was to make ours have one over-arching internal consistency.” Additional stipulations were that the stories had to take place after Return of the Jedi, none of the characters who were featured in the films could be killed off, and characters already dead could not be resurrected.

ken09-15_aKathleen Kennedy

If you haven’t heard of Kathleen Kennedy yet, it’s certainly only a matter of time. The heir to the Lucas empire following its sale to Disney, Kennedy has worked in Hollywood nearly her entire life, with some of its biggest names. Her production company, Kennedy/Marshall, is second only to Stephen Spielburg in terms of domestic box office receipts.

Since she took over from Lucas there have been a number of in-depth news reports on her career and her plans for the future. And though she hasn’t yet nominated a female director to helm a Star Wars movie, she has pulled together a diverse executive team.

IGN wrote:

Lucas stepped down, Kathy was named President, and now has full control over the future of the lucrative franchise. Considering their close working relationship, one can only assume that Kennedy and Lucas began discussions well before work on Lincoln began, and indeed, that the Disney deal was always a part of these discussions. The Disney/Lucas revelation rollout is still ongoing. But one thing is for certain: George Lucas has complete faith in Kathleen Kennedy.

“I don’t have to give advice to Kathy,” he said, during the most recent of his chat series with the producer. “She knows what to do. I mean, she knows better than I do.

“She has all the qualities to run a company like this. To make it great.”

We’re likely to be hearing a lot about Kennedy in the future.

kiri_hart-bab4846cc9d8Kiri Hart

Hart has been working at Lucasfilm for over 20 years in various roles, but in 2012 she became the Development lead for the company’s new Story Group. Basically, this group keeps track of the existing Star Wars continuity, and makes executive decisions about what kinds of stories will be told in the future. The Daily Dot explains it like this:

From a fandom perspective, the Story Group put itself on the map by torpedoing the Expanded Universe (EU), a vast network of tie-in materials that populated the Star Wars franchise for decades. Along with stories filling in the time between and after the movies, it introduced beloved characters like Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade Skywalker. Then in April 2014, Lucasfilm decided it was too unwieldy to link with the upcoming slate of movies. The EU was declared uncanonical, making way for a new universe encompassing episodes I-VI, the two animated series, and everything that came after April 2014. Now, everything goes through the Story Group, which provides background material and steers writers away from topics that will be covered in other corners of the franchise.

[…] The Story Group’s influence is everywhere, from the design of star maps in spinoff books to the diverse casting of the new movies—almost certainly stemming from the input of Kathleen Kennedy and Kiri Hart. The question now is how long this ecosystem can thrive. Other studios have hit serious problems trying to balance innovative creators with big-budget franchise properties. On the other hand, no other company has the same level of control as the Lucasfilm Story Group, which benefits from having an executive team full of lifelong Star Wars fans.

 

screen_shot_2015-11-23_at_15-10-28Sigurlina Ingvarsdottir

This video game developer and Senior Producer with EA DICE was responsible for 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront. Ingvarsdottir doesn’t work for Lucasfilm directly, then, but with one of their many licenses. She’s also a self-labelled Star Wars fan. While the game received mixed reviews for its price-to-content ratio, it still shipped over 13 million copies.

When Fortune magazine asked her how other people can get into the business of video games, she replied:

“I encourage people to spend time playing, to spend time prototyping and making games using all of the free engines and software available out there,” she says. “Most people have some understanding that to make games you need to be a programmer or a designer. But there are so many fields today. You can be a lawyer and work in games. You can be an economist and work in games. There are so many roles and so many ways you can be a part of making games.”

Do you know of more interesting ‘women of Star Wars’? Let me know so I can add them to my list!

Rogue One Was the Movie I Needed This Year…But It Wasn’t the One We Deserved

This post contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). If you haven’t yet seen the film, and would prefer to watch it with fresh eyes, stop reading now. As my final post of 2016, I wanted to write about something that allowed me to reflect on the year as a whole. Please note: I don’t mean to undermine anyone else’s opinion about Rogue One with this review. There are many valid understandings of what ‘good’ cinema (and good feminism) entails, and I firmly believe conflicting opinions about this subject can and should exist.

The internet is in general agreement that 2016 has been the worst year ever. It was a year that saw a seemingly never-ending stream of human suffering, war, political strife, and celebrity deaths. On social media and the news, it often seemed like there was nothing but fear, hate, and darkness in the world.

Enter Rogue One, a film Variety called ‘the most politically relevant movie of the year’. The first standalone film in Disney’s planned sequence of Star Wars tie-ins, Rogue One tells the story of the team of rebels who stole the plans to the first Death Star, revealing a small, key weakness in its construction and enabling Luke Skywalker destroy the doomsday weapon in the very first Star Wars film (Episode IV: A New Hope, 1977). The team is led by reluctant hero Jyn Erso (played by British actress Felicity Jones), the daughter of the scientist responsible for inserting the key weakness into the Death Star, and for notifying the Rebel Alliance of its existence.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) Photo by Jonathan Olley, © 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

I wrote a bit about Rogue One when the first trailer was released, and I went to see it on December 15th, the day it opened in the UK. Because I’m currently working on an academic article that explores whether or not the Star Wars franchise can be said to have a feminist agenda, I approached the film in two minds: on the one hand as an academic, and on the other as a life-long Star Wars fan. I came away from it in two minds as well. A part of me loved it, and wholeheartedly agreed with the many reviews that hail it as a victory not just for feminism, but also for diversity and subversive politics in mainstream entertainment. Another part of me remained unconvinced, and even disappointed with what I saw as a series of missed opportunities. A third and final part of me, shaken by yesterday’s news that Carrie Fisher (writer, mental health activist, and the actress who portrayed Princess Leia) had died, continues to cast about for a way to tie these conflicting emotions and opinions together.

So, here it goes.

Concept art for Rogue One
Concept art for Rogue One.

To understand why I felt the way I did about Rogue One, it’s necessary to give a bit of background about the film’s place in the franchise. In the Star Wars universe, the films have always been the firmest decider of what is ‘canon’, and tend to be the part of the franchise that will reach the widest audience. Since Disney acquired Star Wars in 2012 there have been signs that this could change, but the films have played a large part in establishing audience faith in the franchise, and in setting the mould for what Star Wars will look like in the future.

2015’s The Force Awakens broke box office records by being doggedly faithful to the things fans loved most about the films from the 1970s and ’80s. Rogue One represented Disney’s first attempt to take Star Wars in a truly new direction, and establish a series of stories and properties that fit within the Star Wars universe, but that weren’t limited by the Skywalker narrative that dominates the central films. If The Force Awakens was Disney’s opportunity to show me it could make a Star Wars movie, Rogue One was its opportunity to show me that Star Wars could do something different while still feeling like Star Wars. (Side note: for those interested in the concept, Bioware’s 2003 video game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic did a damn good job of using a familiar universe to tell new and interesting stories in new and interesting ways.)

TL;DR: Rogue One had a lot to do in just 133 minutes. And as a Star Wars fan I’m very happy with the way it did so. I found the experience visually and emotionally arresting, and thought the story was well-written, unexpectedly bold, and did a good job of balancing its enormous cast of central characters. Would I buy an extended version that takes the time to flesh out some of the characters more thoroughly? In a heartbeat, but I also felt that the film gave me more than enough subtle characterisations to help me understand and relate to each of its key characters from the get-go. The film was also chock full of references to (and cameos from) the original film trilogy, keeping my inner fan very entertained.

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A boardroom scene in Rogue One.

From a political perspective, I also admired the way the film depicted the Rebel Alliance as a collection of determined, action-oriented people who also happen to be largely made up of the marginalised in our own Western society: people of colour, women, the elderly. When Cassian Andor (played by Mexican actor Diego Luna) tells Jyn that ‘not all of us get to choose to rebel’ [not an exact quote, please do correct me], for me the implications were unmistakeable. It was a message straight to to all those out there who are fortunate enough to be able to ignore racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination that are still widespread in our culture: you may think you’re an ally, but make sure you understand what that means. Not everyone has the luxury of leaving a situation when things get bad. Jyn Erso may be a relatively privileged white woman, but she gives her mind, heart, and body to the rebel cause, even when it is no longer strictly necessary. She also knows when to move aside and give other people the chance to step up. Ultimately, she shares the same fate as the rest of her team, dying on Scarif after successfully transmitting the Death Star plans to the Rebel Alliance.

This was exactly the message I needed at the end of 2016. It was a year that left many of us feeling helpless and hopeless, and Rogue One delivered a powerful message in response, from the marginalised, outnumbered, and outgunned members of the Rebel Alliance. ‘Welcome to the real rebellion,’ it seemed to say. ‘We’ve been fighting here for decades. Now that you finally understand what it feels like, and what we’re fighting for, here’s what you can do about it’. It was a call to fight terrorism (from left and right), totalitarianism, and discrimination, even when that fight is ultimately doomed.

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The central cast of Rogue One.

So far, so good. This reading is the one most reviews have taken in the aftermath of Rogue One, and if we only look at the story itself I think this reading is a good one. For ‘the most politically relevant movie of the year’, though, I feel obligated to dig a bit deeper than that. I’ll start by explaining why I don’t really agree with the people who think Rogue One is a feminist film.

Rogue One needed to prove to me that it could be a different kind of Star Wars movie, which it did very admirably, but Disney and Lucasfilm still haven’t convinced me that they aren’t the evil Empire in this scenario. They seem to insist on maintaining the stats quo because it’s the safe bet and it’s ‘what sells’—even when the message audiences are buying directly contradicts that idea. The Rebel Alliance—clearly the good guy in Rogue One, despite some new grey areas—is racially diverse, but the film’s protagonist is white, as is the leader of the rebellion (Mon Mothma). The titular ‘Rogue One’ team may be led by a woman, but the ratio of men to women in the film (± 7.7:1) is bad even by Hollywood standards. And though Lucasfilm executive Kathleen Kennedy prides herself on the gender parity of her executive team, she has essentially stated that the Star Wars franchise is not willing to be the one to break the gender bias in big-budget directing.

The women of Lucasfilm's executive team. Image © Christopher Patey.
The women of Lucasfilm’s executive team. Image © Christopher Patey.

As Cassian makes so explicit, it’s not enough to pay lip service to rebellion. We need to get our hands dirty, and this is something Star Wars the franchise still seems unlikely to do. This is evidenced not only by Disney’s haste to distance itself from the political implications of the film, but also in Rogue One’s overwhelming lack of gender parity in both cast and crew, and even in its CGI recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin (originally played by Peter Cushing, who died in 1994) and a young Princess Leia. This last point is relatively minor, but as a fan of Peter Cushing from his work with Hammer Horror, I found it surprisingly ghoulish. I remain unconvinced by John Knoll’s argument that a CGI clone is somehow equivalent to a new actor performing in tribute.

I also can’t forget Carrie Fisher’s open letter to Princess Leia upon hearing that she would be appearing in new Star Wars films. She wrote:

[W]hile you will forever be remembered loitering in star-infested landscapes, existing endlessly in imaginations and onscreen, I putter noisily in that infamous closet of celebrity—expanding, wrinkling, stooping, and far too often, stupid with age. Here we are enacting our very own Dorian Gray configuration. You: smooth, certain, and straight-backed, forever condemned to the vast, enviable prison of intergalactic adventure. Me: struggling more and more with post-galactic stress disorder, bearing your scars, graying your eternally dark, ridiculous hair.

Here Leia appears in Rogue One, then, as young and sure as ever. The audience is not even allowed to remember the Carrie Fisher of the past. Instead, we are given another version of the eternally young Princess. We haven’t even begun to untangle the ethical issues raised by digitally resurrecting the deceased for profit—even with the permission of their estate.

A young, CGI Leia in Rogue One.
A young, CGI Leia in Rogue One.

What about feminism, then? Rogue One makes a few feminist choices in terms of narrative, but on an industry level it could have been pushed much further. To be honest, I’m baffled as to why Disney is even playing it safe. Like The Force Awakens before it, Rogue One was both lauded as feminist by mainstream media and decried as ‘Social Justice propaganda’ by so-called mens rights activists (MRA). Both perspectives would seem to indicate that Rogue One is indeed feminist. It features a female protagonist, and women seem to fill all kinds of roles throughout the film, from diplomat to pilot to rebel insurgent. In a way, Rogue One is very much a story of how sacrifice knows no boundaries—be it gender, race, or class. At a young age Jyn watches her mother die in a largely symbolic gesture, trying to stop Director Orson Krennic from forcing her husband, herself, and her young daughter to serve the Empire. By the end of the film, we have come full circle, and it is Jyn who gives up her life for a lost cause. Neither Jyn nor her mother are expected to be particularly useful or relevant against the Empire, but each builds on the sacrifices of the other in the slow battle towards freedom. In this, Jyn becomes a proud successor to Princess (later General) Leia Organa, who strangles her oppressor with the very chains he used to bind her in Return of the Jedi (1983). She refuses to give up, and when there seems to be no hope, she makes her own.

In 2016, however, an empowering story is not enough.

leia-kills-jabba-return-of-the-jedi-163055-1280x0
Leia takes out Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi.

Rogue One could have taken the opportunity, with its first ‘original’ Star Wars movie, to go all the way. It could have given us a film that showed us how Hollywood films should be, not just in terms of racial and gender diversity on-screen, but in the way it navigated the industry. It took a bold chance, but it could have taken a much bolder one. Give us a cast and crew with gender parity, that includes people of all ages and economic backgrounds, and that is racially diverse. If any franchise had the money and the opportunity to do this, it was Star Wars. I won’t even go into how this film spectacularly failed to subvert the franchise’s serial obsession with heterosexuality. As a guaranteed blockbuster, but also as a relatively safe ‘spinoff’ film, now was the time to take the big risks.

As MRA website Return of Kings concluded after actually viewing the film, ‘Rogue One shows that Hollywood is listening to our complaints about feminism in films’. The rest of the review echoes many of the things I found so disappointing, and the fact that they were able to come to this conclusion shows just how much further Disney should have gone. As a film, I don’t think Rogue One was particularly feminist, or even particularly rebellious. As Michelle Goldberg’s aptly titled article on Slate argues, 2016 was also ‘the year the feminist bubble burst […] People who are committed to gender equality will try to salvage what they can of the last 40 years of progress. They’ll try to maintain their morale, but living in total opposition to the zeitgeist is hard.’ The odds are still firmly against equality. And Star Wars still has a long way to go.

star-wars-the-force-awakens-carrie-fisher
General Leia knows what I’m talking about.

Rogue One was the movie I needed this year, both because it reminded me of all the things that still need to be done, and because its story showed us where we can start. It reminded me that we need to keep hoping and fighting. We need to do something—anything. This is also the lesson that I will take from Carrie Fisher’s story. One of her many quotes that’s currently making the rounds of the internet feels especially relevant in the light of this review:

Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.

At the time she was speaking about mental illness, but Carrie Fisher was outspoken about social justice as well. So was the Star Wars character she embodied: General Leia Organa. Both Fisher and Jyn Erso show us that suffering, loss, and even death need not be the end. They inspire us to follow their example, and to take up the fight that they have been forced to abandon.

So let’s get to it.

princess-leia-stormtroopers-high-definition-star-wars

Store Wars: 40 Years of Star Wars Merchandise

fullsizeoutput_13b3Earlier this month I paid a visit to the Museum of the 20th Century in Hoorn. Seven years living in the Netherlands wasn’t enough to get me there, but my current research on Star Wars marketing—and the opportunity to gawk at some retro toys—finally made the trip worth my while. From 19 November 2016 through 29 October 2017, the museum is hosting a special exhibition called ‘Store Wars: 40 Years of Merchandise’, focused specifically on the Star Wars franchise.

In a number of different ways, the Museum of the 20th Century feels like a place out of time—making it especially fitting, I suppose, to host merchandise from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. It’s built in a former prison, which itself is located at the edge of a peninsula on the far side of town. I arrived in Hoorn on a Sunday, when Dutch villages tend to be at their emptiest, and was also one of the first people into the museum when it opened at noon. The Star Wars exhibition was clearly the main attraction, advertised on numerous posters and banners in the walk up to the museum, and it was the first exhibit immediately visible once you made it past the ticket office. Ever the contrarian, however, I decided to take a look at the permanent exhibit upstairs before taking the more obvious route.

The museum has an imposing silhouette.
The museum has an imposing silhouette.

Essentially, the first section Museum of the 20th Century consists of a series of cordoned-off living and bedroom spaces, each decorated in the style of a different decade. Comically, most of the visitors to the museum seemed to have lived in similar spaces themselves, and much of the conversation I overheard involved one person pointing out a particular object of childhood nostalgia to another person. This portion of the museum gave way to an entire indoor village, with shop windows displaying retro products, and finally to ‘communications technology’, ‘toys’, and ‘home electronics’ sections that simply display a range of products next to each other, in chronological order.  Here I discovered some particularly horrifying devices that my own childhood in the ’90s didn’t include (1980s: did you actually ever use the electric meat-carving knife?). Overall it was a strange experience, in some ways out of time, but also very much defined by a present-day outlook on the recent past.

On the top floor of the museum I also stumbled across the first room of the Star Wars exhibition, devoted to all the franchise’s collaborations with the LEGO company. In large glass cases the museum had set up assembled versions of seemingly every single Star Wars LEGO set released since 1999. In the centre of the room were several full tubs of generic LEGO that visitors could use to make their own museum pieces. The room’s only other occupants—two children, a boy and a girl—raced each other from exhibit to exhibit to name all of the characters, ships, and locations from the Star Wars universe. Although I happen to be an amateur LEGO Star Wars collector myself, I was more interested in the older toys and merchandise, so I made my way downstairs to check out the exhibition proper.

‘Store Wars’ filled two large rooms in the museum, both decorated with life-size models clearly made by the locals, and illuminated by a dazzling, colour-shifting array of strobe lights that made me feel like I actually was back in the ’80s. Over the speakers, Star Wars theme music, lines from the films, and the audio from various advertising campaigns played continuously but unobtrusively—just enough to get me into the spirit of the exhibition. The first room was largely dominated by a low case full of the complete line of (unboxed!) Kenner action figures, originally sold between 1978 and 1985. The rest of the room was devoted to the original trilogy, and its first memorabilia. In addition to the Kenner figures, the walls were lined with some of the other early merchandise, including soap cakes, model X-Wings, and a few great examples of early Dutch-language boxes and advertising. Just off this room was a homemade replica of the Millennium Falcon bridge, with video from various Star Wars flight simulator games playing through the viewscreens.

The second room followed Star Wars merchandising into the late 1980s, and through the release of the prequel trilogy at the turn of the millennium. Highlights included Darth Vader roller skates, Chewbacca high-tops, and a few famous signatures. There were also a number of life-size figures that demanded a selfie or two—some because they were so iconic, others because they fell a bit short of the mark. Towards the end of the room I took the opportunity to see how I measured up, literally, to some of the major characters in the films, using a Star Wars height chart pasted on the wall, and the very end of the exhibition featured a children’s play area with a selection of Star Wars costumes and props to try on. Overall the exhibition had a good mix of things to look at, but also things to interact with, making it a brief but entertaining experience for the child in everyone.

There was very little from the two most recent Star Wars films (understandable given when this exhibition must have been planned and set up), but the cinema adjacent to the museum was advertising Rogue One premiere screenings, and it seemed like members of the Dutch branch of the 501st Legion—an international fan organisation—were going to be in attendance. The Dutch 501st was also present for the ‘Store Wars’ exhibition’s grand opening. The exhibition also seemed to pitch itself to male Star Wars fans. Most of the children’s costumes at the end of the exhibition were of male-coded characters, and the child’s bedroom exhibition that was part of the second room was labelled ‘A boy’s room from around 1980’. Like the franchise itself, though, it certainly wasn’t gender exclusive: while I was there I saw men and women, boys and girls pass through in equal numbers.

My only real complaint was in the gift shop, which had a range of Star Wars merchandise (mostly LEGO), but very little for the visitor on a budget. I would happily have bought some postcards, a magnet, patch, or pin, but the €40 BB-8 bomber jacket, though fabulous, was a bit above my current means. Ironic for an exhibition on a franchise that literally had a product in every market and price range, but perhaps understandable for a small museum in Hoorn.

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I would have bought this bumper sticker in a heartbeat

The verdict? ‘Store Wars: 40 Years of Merchandise’ is definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. It may be small, but it was clearly assembled with love, and is packed to the rafters with Star Wars memorabilia. Be sure to bring a native along for the ride, though—all the plaques are in Dutch!