Star Wars: The Last Jedi Roundtable on HenryJenkins.org

Last month I participated in an online roundtable discussion of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) on ‘Confessions of an Aca-Fan’ (the official weblog of Professor Henry Jenkins). Other participants included Dr William Proctor (who convened the roundtable), Dr Rebecca Harrison, Dr Suzanne Scott, Dr Mar Guerrero-Pico, and Professor Will Brooker. The first instalment can be found here.

Professor Jenkins introduced the roundtable as follows:

Over the weekend, Warwick Davis, noted for his performances in various Lucas-directed films, weighed in on current controversies around The Last Jedi: “It’s a piece of entertainment, it’s not about making political statements. It’s just there for people to enjoy. You go in there and are supposed to lose yourself in the world the director has created. Star Wars has always been a great example of that – it’s pure escapism and you can forget the 21st century for a couple of hours. That was George Lucas’s philosophy with Star Wars– to make a fun adventure.” This is characteristic of a Hollywood move which seeks to distance itself from politics and thus absolve itself from critical discussion: “Get a life! It’s only a television series.” The reality is that Star Wars has always been about politics — if nothing else, Lucas’s choice to base the stormtroopers on, well, stormtroopers or to tap the aesthetics of Triumph of the Willfor the final moments of A New Hopemeans that he was tapping certain political narratives to give the story much of its punch.

So, the question is not whether one group or another is “politicizing” Star Warsbut whether what kind of politics seems “natural” within the context of a Hollywood blockbuster franchise and whose politics seems intrusive, whose politics gets read as, well, “political.” The discussions around The Last Jedi allow us to take certain soundings about where our culture is at in terms of embracing an ethos of diversity and inclusion, in terms of rethinking old genre formulas to encompass people whose stories have not been told in that term before.

This is an important part of the story of The Last Jedi‘s reception, but it is ONLY one part of the story. There are also questions about how we define notions of quality in a transmedia era — and what notions of quality are appropriate when factoring in somewhat different and still emerging narrative expectations, ie. what information needs to be contained in the film, what we may legitimately access from other sources, what expectations we have about closure or plot development as the unified Hero’s Journey narrative whichStar Wars helped to popularize in Hollywood gives way to what Jeff Gomez has called “the collective journey” structure.

And there are also issues around how fandom gets represented in the media, how we break through what is often a monolithic conception of Star Wars fans in the hand of journalists, and how we deal with a legacy of gender politics which still breaks fandom down into male and female binaries despite efforts towards greater fluidity.

[…]

The resulting exchange is lively and thoughtful. I don’t necessarily agree with every perspective represented — I am personally pretty enthusiastic about The Last Jedi(not necessarily as the best of all possible Star War Movies but as a step forward for the franchise) — but I have learned something from all of the participants here.

There are moments of tension in the discussion, but the participants are able to work through their disagreements with some degree of mutual respect and with some openness to each other’s arguments. You will get four installments of this discussion. And the discussion will continue further as, coming soon, we launch a new podcast, How Do You Like It So Far?, which I am developing with Colin MacClay from the Annenberg Innovation Lab and which will take up The Last Jedi as our first extended case study. Watch for more soon.

Read more here.

Studying the Force: A Star Wars Symposium

Next month I’ll be speaking at a Star Wars symposium in Portsmouth, hosted by the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries and organised by Dr Lincoln Geraghty.

Celebrating Star Wars Day (4 May 2018) through discussion and debate, this symposium will offer us the opportunity to interrogate why the franchise has been so successful and how much it has impacted on popular culture.

Dr William Proctor (Bournemouth University) will talk about the global research project on Star Wars after Disney’s acquisition, discussing changes and shifts in the franchise seen since The Force Awakens, and then turn to consider The Last Jedi as site of struggle between
fan “tribes”.

Dr Matthew Freeman (Bath Spa University) and I will analyse the multimedia storytelling of the franchise, both historical and contemporary. Dr Freeman will discussing Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and the 1970s culture of transmedia contingency. I’ll be looking at Forces of Destiny, plastic representation, and transmedia story strategies in Disney’s Star Wars

There will be a special screening in the afternoon, introduced by staff from the School of Media and Performing Arts, followed by a Star Wars-themed quiz with prizes.

The day will begin at 9.30am in ELW 1.09, and will end at 6.00pm.

Registration is free though Eventbrite, and a full schedule of events can be found here.

Historical Feminists (and Feminism) in Modern Television

Our lady Jane (Austen)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the mythologisation of great women writers, artists, and other historical figures.

As feminist scholar Christine Battersby points out, writing against the postmodern impulse to declare the author or great genius ‘dead’:

The concept of genius is too deeply embedded in our conceptual scheme for us to solve our aesthetic problems by simply amputating all talk of genius, or by refusing to evaluate individual authors and artists. Before we can fundamentally revalue old aesthetic values, the concept of genius has to be appropriated by feminists, and made to work for us. [Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics, 1989, p. 15]

In other words, Battersby frames the mythologisation and popularisation of female historical figures as inherently good, and feminist. In her book this is a convincing argument, and I believe representation is a very necessary part of equality. Naturally things are usually more complicated in practice than they are in theory, though.

Screenshot from Harlots (2017)

Dr. Rosanne Welch has written (/podcasted?) about some of the recent depictions of historical feminists in popular television, and raises related concerns:

Recently, in watching television shows and films set in the past I’ve begun noticing a proliferation of female feminists who are eventually aided by male feminist characters in the quest to be treated equally and I can’t decide if I like this new trend…. or not.

Screenshot from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012-2015)

So as a feminist and as a writer, you’d think I’d love to see the kinds of feminists that are popping up on several new historical fiction shows I’ve found on Netflix recently — women detectives like:

Phryne Fisher and Dorothy Williams in 1929 Australia on Miss Fisher’s Mysteries or female medical doctors like Julia Ogden and Emily Grace in 1898 Toronto on Murdoch Mysteries or Samantha Stewart in 1940s London on Foyle’s War — or perhaps the most famous recent historical fiction feminist on television — Sybil Crawley in 1912 England on the wildly popular Downton Abbey.

Those last 2 shows I found thanks to PBS, which was our only window into international television before the advent of Netflix so I wanted to make sure and give credit where credit is due. The other thing that sparked my mind about this idea of ‘fake frequent feminists’ was an interview with Alan Rickman [on] a film he directed and co-wrote (with Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan ) called A Little Chaos. Apparently, it’s set in the court of Louis XIV and involves two landscape architects involved in designing the gardens — one male (who existed in real life) landscape artist André Le Notre, and one female — who is entirely fictional.

Publicity still from Downton Abbey (2010-2015)

 

In an interview with Variety Rickman said he enjoyed the historical inaccuracy of the story:

“But there was something unmistakable about the dialogue and the fact she’d created a leading female character who couldn’t possibly have existed then — it’s a complete fantasy. But that’s what the movies can do, you can take a period of history that’s incredibly male dominated and you can inject into it a very modern independent woman and make a point about feminism through a prism of history. So if anyone says the story’s implausible, you just say: Well, yes.”

Rickman gave us one of the many reasons for the many feminist characters we are encountering these days. Another is that post-Buffy (which I discussed a couple of shows ago) women want to see empowered women, rather than victims — and the networks and studios know this. Also, writers know that characters need to be active to be interesting, not passive. They also know that stories need to focus on unique and dramatic events, not boring average everyday living. So what’s the problem with that?

I fear all these feminists in the past are giving young girls the idea that it’s always been easy to demand and receive our rights in various countries around the world, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

You can read the rest of Welch’s piece (which contains a few more examples and some suggested solutions) over on Medium.

Publicity image from the forthcoming Mary Shelley biopic.

Steampunk, Disability, and World Building

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The Steampunk Professor Xavier Wheelchair by Daniel Valdez.

Last week I posted about disability in the Victorian age. This week, by some brilliant stroke of coincidence, I came across the following article on Steampunk Journal:

In 2014, Mina was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. One of the significant symptoms is a weakness of the muscles which meant she required living aids to assist her with raising her son. “I went into the local mobility shops and was dismayed to see that the limited range of aids were all fashioned towards elderly people or people with little appreciation of the more alternative ways of fashion,” said Mina. “My main issue came when I was invited to a wedding. I had a great outfit but my living aids make it look so ghastly! So I had to go without and suffered, leaving the event early.” It was then that she struck on the idea of modifying them herself. She did the same thing with her wrist and knee supports.

Mina, who runs a Steampunk accessories shop on Etsy, adapted her subculture’s aesthetic to her living aids. The idea took off quickly. After seeing Mina’s own living aids, one of Mina’s customers asked if she could craft a set of steampunk ear and eye protectors, so the customer could enjoy going out to clubs with friends. ‘In the near future she’s looking to customise back braces, adult neckerchiefs, joint supports, ring pens and walking aids’, the article concludes.

© Gothianna and Steampunk Journal
© Gothianna and Steampunk Journal

In the light of last week’s post, which described Victorian attitudes towards the disabled as ‘a combination of fear, pity, discomfort and an idea of divine judgement’, it was encouraging to see that the neo-Victorian update doesn’t share these feelings in any way, shape, or form. The steampunk subculture’s love of crafting has effectively turned disability—often a marker reserved for evil or monstrous characters in popular culture—into a superpower.

It turns out that this topic (like many topics) has been on the steampunk community’s collective mind for a while. Steampunk Tourist talks about why this subculture is a better fit with disability than others:

When it comes to Steampunk […] one isn’t restricted to that sort of rigid rule set. Rather than being a predetermined cast of characters, Steampunk is an artistic style. While it can stand alone, it can also be added to other things to make them Steampunk. You don’t have to be someone else; you can create your own character. What that means to a person with a physical disability who relies on a device is that their device – be it a wheelchair, cane, oxygen tank, leg braces, or even glasses – can be dressed up and blended into a costume, or even made the centerpiece of it. […] Within the world of Steampunk, those things don’t make them stand out as “others”; they’re merely smart, fashionable accessories. And one can easily imagine that were someone brave enough to dress up a prosthetic limb with Steampunk flare, they would most likely find themselves the belle of the ball at any event, and for all the right reasons.

The Steampunk Professor Xavier Wheelchair by Daniel Valdez
The Steampunk Professor Xavier Wheelchair by Daniel Valdez

Talking about a peg-legged character in one of her steampunk novels, Rebecca Diem likewise writes:

Steampunk literature is a disruption of the historical narrative. When I’m creating a universe for my characters, I treat history like the icing on the cake. Or, sometimes, the rosettes. I am creating a world with airships, sky pirates, auto-baubles and appropriated Victorian aesthetics. I pick and choose which parts I borrow from our history and which parts to embellish.

[…]

So, in a steampunk setting, what does accessibility look like?

In the Tales of the Captain Duke, Professor Sewell is the morally-ambiguous Tony Stark figure. She becomes one of the first students at Lovelace University, a school founded by Mary Somerville and funded by the heirs of Ada Lovelace. She pioneers the field of biomechanical engineering with her incredible prosthetics and reshapes the Victorian understanding of disability. The classic image of the crippled, impoverished veteran pushing himself on a scooter is undone, reshaped into a foreman supervising work at a factory on eight-foot legs.  The Professor disrupts society with her inventions, and challenges her peers’ understanding of the possible.

Do you have an example of how steampunk approaches disability? I would love to hear about it!

 

Stereophotography: The Victorians in 3D

A cabinet card depicting a Victorian couple with their stereoscope.
A cabinet card depicting a Victorian couple with their stereoscope.

One of the joys (and sorrows) of research is all the interesting information you find on one topic while doing research on something completely different. While researching spirit photography, for instance, I came across this fascinating account of the Victorian stereoscope in the art book for National Museums Scotland’s exhibition ‘Photography: A Victorian Sensation’.*

If you think the 3D film craze is a new thing, think again. The stereoscope is one of its many historical predecessors. Essentially a pair of fancy spectacles, the device allowed you to view two nearly identical images side-by-side in a way that would make them appear three-dimensional. Alison Morrison-Low describes how enthusiastically the Victorians took to the technology:

Hundreds of thousands of stereoscopic images were sold […] in a major craze which reached every middle-class Victorian drawing-room. The demand appeared insatiable. In 1854, George Swan Nottage (1823-85) set up the London Stereoscopic Company. ‘No home without a stereoscope’ was its slogan. It sold a wide range of stereoscopes, costing from 2s 6d to £20 (about £10 and £1550 today), and became the largest photographic publishing company in the world. [p. 63]

A Victorian stereoscope from the collection of the NCC Photographic Archives
A Victorian stereoscope from the collection of the NCC Photographic Archives

The vast numbers of stereo photographs can be divided into four main categories: travel, news, social scenes and comedy. By far the largest group was that of travel. […] The beauty of the English, Welsh or Irish countryside was frequently illustrated, as well as that of Scotland. Rural poverty and derelict cottages were seldom shown, as a Romantic portrayal of scenery prevailed. [p. 67]

 Stereocard depicting market women in Welsh costume, by Francis Bedford, 1863 - 1884. IL.2003.44.6.6.296 © Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland
Stereocard depicting market women in Welsh costume, by Francis Bedford, 1863 – 1884. IL.2003.44.6.6.296 © Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland

And speaking of the Romantics…

Charles Breese (1819-75) of Birmingham and Sydenham sold his highly thought-of quality slides at 5 shillings (£20 today) each. Entitled ‘Breaking Waves’, 1870s-80s, it comes with a quote from Lord Byron: ‘Sea with rocks and a half moon / the deep blue moon of night, Lit by an orb / Which looks like a spirit or a spirit’s world’. [p. 76]

Photograph of 'Breaking Waves' by Charles Breese & Co., from Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland
Photograph of ‘Breaking Waves’ by Charles Breese & Co., from Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland

*All page citations refer to Alison Morrison-Low, Photography: A Victorian Sensation (Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2015).

Star Wars and Political Discourse

7d7This post represents a section of my chapter for Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling that was cut for the sake of space. It looks at some of the ways Star Wars has explicitly engaged with political discourse over the years. 

Star Wars has always been a deeply political franchise. Not just in its themes, which include war, totalitarianism, multiculturalism, and civil disobedience, but also through its use in political debates and activism. George Lucas has consistently claimed that the first Star Wars film was an analogy for the Vietnam war, and that the villainous Emperor Palpatine had a specific real-life counterpart: “Richard M. Nixon was his name. He subverted the senate and finally took over and became an imperial guy and he was really evil. But he pretended to be a really nice guy.”[1] The franchise is also steeped in historical references which, while not directly political, certainly contribute to its politicisation by various groups. The Stormtroopers and other, visual parallels between the Empire and Nazi Germany are just one example.

© Billy Ludwig
© Billy Ludwig

The franchise has also frequently been read as making a specific political statement, as in Ep III, where Anakin Skywalker tells Obi-Wan “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.” This caused many US conservatives to protest that the film caricatured former President George Bush’s post-9/11 assertion that “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”[2] Ronald Reagan’s 1983 anti-missile defense initiative was dubbed “Star Wars”: a move that irked Reagan, but was shrewdly deemed good publicity by assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle, who reasoned: “It’s a good movie. Besides, the good guys won.”[3]

In a 2012 article, Jonathan Gray wrote about how fans used a scene from Ep V, in which a Rebel snowspeeder takes down an Imperial Walker with a grappling hook, as a metaphor to protest Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill in 2011. One man played the scene on a loop using his iPad, chanting “The Rebels brought down Walkers. So can we!”[4] Others carried Star Wars slogans on signs, or dressed up as the vehicles from the films. The Star Wars references served as an important point of “morale and community building” among the protestors.[5] In another article, Andreas Jungherr describes how Darth Vader was used by the SPD (a German political party) to discredit Angela Merkel in the 2009 German federal election.[6]

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Stay tuned for the full article, on Star Wars and popular feminism, later this year!

[1] Christopher Klein, ‘The Real History That Inspired “Star Wars”’, History.com, 2015, para. 4 <http://www.history.com/news/the-real-history-that-inspired-star-wars> [accessed 24 February 2017].

[2] Derek R. Sweet, Star Wars in the Public Square: The Clone Wars as Political Dialogue (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), p. 10.

[3] Frances FitzGerald, Way Out There In the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War (Simon and Schuster, 2001), p. 39.

[4] Jonathan Gray, ‘Of Snowspeeders and Imperial Walkers: Fannish Play at the Wisconsin Protests’, Transformative Works and Cultures, 10 (2012), para. 1.2.

[5] Gray, para. 3.2.

[6] Andreas Jungherr, ‘The German Federal Election of 2009: The Challenge of Participatory Cultures in Political Campaigns’, Transformative Works and Cultures, 10.0 (2011), para. 5.6 <http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/310> [accessed 10 February 2017].

The 7 Worst Academics in Popular Culture

Screenshot 2017-03-01 22.43.47A recent article on the Times Higher Education website marked the release of Barbara Tobolowsky’s new edited collection, Anti-intellectual Representations of American Colleges and Universities: Fictional Higher Education, by doing a short piece on how popular culture portrayals ‘devalue academia’, and the real work students and academics are actually doing.

Since I’m deep in piles of academic work at the moment (teaching, articles, conference planning, thesis deadlines, you name it), I thought I would gift myself a lighter week and give you some of my top picks for the absolute worst depictions of academics and academic life in contemporary popular culture.

7. Victor Frankenstein (every Frankenstein adaptation ever since 1818)

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Why he’s the worst: Ok, so technically Frankenstein isn’t actually a doctor. Nowhere in Shelley’s novel is he awarded a PhD or MD—technically he’s just a ‘natural philosopher’. Still, this mad, Romantic genius is one of the classic bad academics, he’s been giving scientists a bad name for nearly 200 years. Trying to monopolise the entire experiment, not listening to the advice of colleagues, robbing graves. That’s just bad scientific practice.

6. Edward Alcott (Loser, 2000)

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Why he’s the worst: This literature professor knows everything better, and puts down curious students at virtually every opportunity. Plus, he’s sleeping with (and emotionally abusing) one of his young students. While he may sadly not be completely fictional, he’s definitely not someone who belongs in academia, or who will have a place there for much longer.

5. Indiana Jones (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984)

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Why he’s the worst: This guy launched 1,000 PhDs in archaeology, but when they finally got there they discovered that no, as an academic you don’t generally get to explore booby-trapped temples, fight natives, or casually destroy priceless artefacts. When you do get to the fun part out in the field, it’s mainly brushing, measuring, and meticulously cataloguing. And unlike Indiana, you certainly don’t get endless months of teaching leave and funding with which to do it.

4. Ted Mosby (How I Met Your Mother, 2005)

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Why he’s the worst: Does ‘Professor Mosby’ actually have a PhD in archeology? Does he even have an MA? Does he…does he even actually know what he’s talking about? The show doesn’t really care, since his teaching is just a funny thing he sometimes does to break up the monotony of drinking at MacLaren’s, having an awesome time with his friends, and getting into and out of terrible relationships.

Also, no way he could pay for that Manhattan apartment on an adjunct’s salary.

3. Daniel Jackson (Stargate SG-1, 1997)

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Why he’s the worst: Egyptologist Daniel Jackson is the ultimate Gary Stu. He’s not taken seriously by any of his academic colleagues, because he’s basically a crazy conspiracy theorist. Then, all his theories are validated because it turns out aliens actually did build the pyramids, so he becomes a chief advisor to the U.S. Air Force. He speaks a bajillion languages and knows everything about science, mythology, and whatever the show needs him to know. Because that’s apparently part of what egyptologists learn in grad school. Also, hot women are constantly and unexpectedly attracted to him.

2. Robert Langdon (The Da Vinci Code, 2003)

Image © djinn-world on Deviantart
Image © djinn-world on Deviantart

Why he’s the worst: I take it back—Robert Langdon, ‘Harvard University professor of religious iconology and symbology’, is the real Gary Stu. All Dan Brown’s books have an awesome hero who looks vaguely like Harrison Ford, and this guy is ‘Harrison Ford in Harris tweed’. He is a genius and brilliant and has an eidetic memory, but doesn’t speak Italian or know anything useful outside of what he needs to solve all the mysteries in the story. From the novels we can deduce that what he does all day at work is talk cryptically about things and try to look smart.

Also, fake academic discipline is fake.

1. Clayton Danvers (Bitten, 2014)

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Why he’s the worst: This guy, man. I know technically that asking him to be realistic in any way is missing the point, since his real role in this show is to be eye candy, and also to mope around and tell us how awesome Elena is. It wasn’t enough for him to be sexy and loyal, though. Clay is the Man Who Has it All. Seriously, this is the end of his character biography on SyFy.com: ‘Now a Professor of Anthropology, Clay divides his time between his scholastic research and enforcing the pack code while keeping errant Mutts in line.’

From his melodramatic anthropology lectures about ‘deep desires’, ‘the beasts within us’, and ‘the mask behind which we hide’, his students must think he’s Batman or something—and they wouldn’t be too far off. Clay is supported in ridiculous luxury by his pack family, has a fabulous office filled with a treasure trove of ancient artefacts, and a prestigious job that isn’t so demanding he can’t constantly drop everything to romp around the forest with his wolf bros. He can’t even be bothered to type up his own research notes, which is how he actually meets Elena in the first place. There is this, though:

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Who do you think is the worst academic in pop culture? Did I miss someone great (i.e. awful) from Victorian popular culture? Who are your favourite on-screen academics? Let me know! I would love to make a follow-up list or two in the future.

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.