The Beauty of Dead Animals

‘Unknown Pose by Snowy Owl’ (2016)

This article by Hilda Bouma originally appeared (in Dutch) in Het Financieele Dagblad on 15 April, 2017. It has been translated and reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and the paper. The copyright for this article is reserved by Het Financieele Dagblad, and it should not be reproduced without express written permission. To read the original article, click here.

The Dutch duo Jaap Sinke (1973) and Ferry van Tongeren (1969) have taken taxidermy to a new level. Their work is on display in a museum for the first time. Does it have a message? No, say Jaap and Ferry, of the duo Darwin, Sinke & Van Tongeren (DS&vT). Their taxidermied creations are not, for instance, a statement on the loss of biodiversity.

‘That’s not the artist’s responsibility’, says Ferry.

‘Our job is to make beautiful things’, Jaap adds.

‘Our job is to create an emotional effect’, suggests Ferry. ‘That’s the message: that it can also be beautiful. We polish up the truth’.

Rarely has there been such great contrast between creators and their work. These two bearded Haarlemmers are dry as dust. ‘We don’t really do “art talk”’, says Jaap. But the animals they stuff are exotic, posed, and stylised. They are mounted onto antique objects that have nothing to do with their original habitats. In terms of composition they evoke famous paintings rather than nature. When DS&vT photograph their work, they also drape the animals in an ‘unfamiliar pose’. Essentially, they throw all of taxidermy’s rules overboard.

‘Snake Heraldry’ (2015) is a composition of the world’s seven deadliest snakes. It was lent to the exhibition by Damien Hirst.

DS&vT does things differently in other ways as well. They never use a pre-formed mould, kneading and shaping a new body for every animal. They don’t use a spray, but always a brush, painting on layer after layer until the beak or hoof shines. This is more than the conservation of dead animals. It is ‘fine taxidermy’.

After all, it’s not for nothing that their work is sold at Jamb, a posh antiques shop in London, and on the website 1stDibs.com—in Jaap’s words, ‘the marketplace for million dollar decorators’. Both Jaap and Ferry are former advertisers, who have worked together for twenty years: Ferry sold his business in 2000 to become a taxidermist, and Jaap followed him. They have identified their market well. When their first collection went on sale at a London gallery in 2015, it was bought up in its entirety by artist Damien Hirst, for his own personal collection. This is now memorialised on every website where DS&vT display their work.

‘Enraged Vari according to d’Hondecoeter’ (2016) was inspired by Melchior d’Hondecoeter’s animal paintings (1636-1695).

For the first time their creations are now in a museum: the 18th-century estate of Museum Oud Amelisweerd (MOA), where Armando’s art has also found a home. ‘It all came together so well here’, says Ferry, almost surprised, as though he hadn’t expected it after a year and a half of preparation. Besides a piece of chimney featuring seven deadly snakes, lent from Damien Hirst, all the other taxidermied pieces were made specially for these spaces. Ferry is right—the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts. The exhibition is a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk of country house, animals, and painting. DS&vT’s iridescent peacock seems made to stand with Armando’s shimmering, blue-green landscape, against a backdrop of 18th-century bird wallpaper.

In the bird room, the peacock from ‘Turaco’s after Aert Schouman’ (2017) stands in front of Armando’s ‘Waldig’ (2013).

DS&vT’s work functions as a wonderful link between Armando’s paintings and the house itself. The Amelisweerd estate was built at a time when people were excited to classify and catalogue the nature around them: the wonder of God. From the walls to the wall hangings, the whole estate is a hymn to nature, which man can bend to his will. Armando has a very different perspective. For him nature is unapproachable and unforgiving. The landscape itself is guilty—for instance, in the case of a concentration camp. There is no point in resisting it.

The pieces DS&vT have created fit precisely in between. On the one hand, they romanticise life on earth. Though gathered together in the Pheasant Room, the crown pigeon, red ibis, rhea, and Reeves’s pheasant have never ‘met’ in real life. They lived in completely different parts of the world. On the other hand, these artists certainly don’t idealise nature. Their depictions are full of cruel twists. On the Chinese wallpaper we see humans hunting a snow leopard. In DS&vT’s installation, which hangs in the same room, the roles have been reversed: their tiger crushes a starling under its claws. When you look into the eyes of this giant stuffed cat, chills run down your spine.

Taxidermy is trendy in the interior decorating world. A shop chock-full of stuffed beasts and natural history curios even  opened recently in Amsterdam. Jaap Sinke and Ferry van Tongeren take things a step further. Both are art academy graduates, and their pieces form an ode to the work of 17th-century painters like Rubens, Melchior d’Hondecoeter, and Jan Weenix. Their work ‘elevates taxidermy to a higher plane’, as the British Telegraph concluded.

‘I think that we do have a signature style’, says Ferry cautiously. ‘But that thought is also scary. A style is a set of walls you have to work between, and we left advertising in the first place to be liberated’.

Darwin, Sinke & van Tongeren only work with animals that have died a natural death, and which come from European zoos, shelters, or breeding programmes. All the animals are legal, and DS&vT hold the relevant paperwork.

You can visit DS&vT ‘s exhibition at Museum Oud Amelisweerd until 10 September, 2017. For more information (in Dutch), click here.

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.

‘I’m just a guy on the internet’: An Interview with Kevin J. Weir

'Princess Juliana' © Kevin J, Weir
‘Princess Juliana’ © Kevin J. Weir

On this blog I’ve previously written about Travis Louie and Dan Hillier, two fine artists whose work I’ve been researching. I also wrote a post for the Victorianist on Colin Batty, who paints monsters onto old Victorian cabinet cards. A fourth artist whose work I’m writing about is Kevin J. Weir, though he wouldn’t necessarily consider himself under that label.

Weir works full-time in advertising, but is perhaps best known for his Tumblr account The Flux Machine. For this project, which started out as a way to practice his Photoshop skills, he takes images from the Library of Congress’s online archive and turns them into ghoulish gifs.

Despite including very little paratextual material or source information, Weir’s work is still very much story-based, and can be considered as a kind of historical fiction. Though gifs represent a relatively new field in the world of art, in many respects they are essentially short, silent films on a continuous loop. In Weir’s words, they are the ‘shortest of stories’. Weir’s brand of historical fiction is the most ghoulish of the four, and arguably the most affecting, but is also the least transformative. All he does is combine existing images and animate them – and in some cases he simply animates the background of a single image. Nevertheless, early on the animations took around a week to build. Weir would draw 80 to 100 frames in Photoshop, ‘cutting things out into layers, moving them a little bit, making a new layer, moving that a little bit’ until the moving image could be compiled.

'Peekskill' © Kevin J. Weir
‘Peekskill’ © Kevin J. Weir

What Weir particularly likes about the format is how ‘it allows you both to use suspense and to freeze one moment’. At first blush the idea of suspense runs counter to the looped nature of the gif, which repeats the same series of images over and over again. By adjusting the length of time at the end of each loop, however, Weir creates a moment of calm in the image, in which everything returns to normal. This pause between loops sometimes extends to eight seconds. These images also gesture towards a sense of historical repetition more generally. Before every loop of the gif exists a moment where the viewer wonders whether things might turn out differently. As interviewer Paula Cocozza notes, however, ‘it is just a moment of illogical hope’. The cycle cannot be changed.

Consider ‘Peekskill’, ‘Doberitz’, or ‘Decoy Howitzer’. These images are already ominous, not only because they are old and uncannily familiar, but because in our minds we presume to know know what comes after the events photographed. Those pictured have died, and in many cases were murdered or killed on the battlefield. They already represent something grim to us. What Weir is actually doing, then, is diffusing the horror of war through popular Gothic, which in part exists to make horror manageable. His animations paradoxically make these images less terrible, by making them horrific. By forcing its viewers to experience past horrors through the lens of popular Gothic, it both re-enacts past horrors and layers on contemporary ones, all without using a single ‘original’ image.

'Decoy Howitzer' © Kevin J. Weir
‘Decoy Howitzer’ © Kevin J. Weir

I’ve been in touch with Kevin Weir about his work, and he was kind enough to give me a brief interview. You can find an edited version below:

Have you ever considered yourself as mashup artist, or as an author of historical fiction?

Both sound pretty apt in describing the flux machine project. On a personal level, I think that I’m just someone who makes a lot of stuff. This is just one project. I have another project where I make GIFs of birds being sassy, using nature documentary footage (sassybirds.tumblr.com) and I wouldn’t consider myself a bird artist.

Have you ever sold prints of your work?

I’ve never sold physical copies of my work, but I have been commissioned to create GIFs for the occasional brand or film. Tumblr has a program called ‘Creatrs’ where they pair up clients with artists on their platform, and I’ve been lucky enough to get a bunch of those opportunities. Other times, people will reach our directly. I’ve also created GIFs for digitally-savvy authors who want to promote their book online.

Some of the monsters and creatures you add to your art don’t look like they come from archive material. Do you draw them in yourself? If not, where do they come from?

Everything is either built from little bits of other things I find or created from scratch. Some pixels from here, other pixels from there, some videos filmed in my apartment, etc. Every GIF is a mishmash of a hundred different bits.

'Doberitz' © Kevin J. Weir
‘Doberitz’ © Kevin J. Weir

Are there specific kinds of monsters and horror that particularly inspire your gifs?

Surrealist humor, fantasy and sci fi books, video games etc. Specific inspirations would be Lovecraft, Tolkien, Terry Gilliam, Cyriak (incredible animator) and Miyazaki.

Would you call your work nostalgic?

I’m not sure. I think that the work I create lives in more of a science fiction, fantasy or horror fiction world. In my mind, these are modern musings on past events. Or reimaginings of old worlds and explorations of alternate histories. The flux machine project (which draws from the library of congress archives) started out as rather playful, but has certainly gotten a little dark as I’ve grown more interested in the actual history of the photos I’m using.

'Krupp Von Bohlen' © Kevin J. Weir
‘Krupp Von Bohlen’ © Kevin J. Weir

You use images in your art that are out of copyright, but that depict real events and people. What would your response be if someone were to ask you about the ethics of using these people’s likenesses in your art?

These photos are very very old, which is part of what draws me to them. They’re representative of a history that feels almost unknowable. So I guess the factor of age and history makes me feel like I don’t have all that much to worry about in terms of likenesses or ethics. I don’t think I’m profaning history. And even if I am, the internet is a culture of remixing. Everything’s up for grabs. It’s what you do with what you dig up that matters. If someone were to come to me with a sincere concern about something I made that is a hurtful affront to their family history or something, then I’d probably respect that. Hasn’t happened yet though.

Do you see yourself as a full-time or part-time artist?

I’ve never thought about that. I never really set out, with flux machine, for it to be an art project, or an outlet for me as an artist. I guess, as someone who is always making stuff on the internet, that I am a full-time artist? I don’t know. I always considered my dad, who has an art studio in his backyard and paints with oils, an “artist.” I’m just a guy on the internet. Maybe that means we’re all artists?

Penny Dreadful Reads The Picture of Dorian Gray

dorian-gray-penny-dreadful-36904602-2400-3263This post contains minor plot details from seasons 1-3 of Penny Dreadful. Read on at your own discretion.

You may recall that I spent the first part of the year reviewing the last season of Penny Dreadful for the Victorianist blog. In my final post, I talked a bit about the show’s intertextual relationships with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). ‘Perpetual Night’ (episode 8) wraps up Victor Frankenstein’s story, and ‘The Blessed Dark’ (episode 9) presents the final showdown with Dracula, the season’s main antagonist. This week I discovered that Benjamin Poore – author of Heritage, Nostalgia and Modern British Theatre: Staging the Victorians (Palgrave, 2012) and the recent article ‘The Transformed Beast: Penny Dreadful, Adaptation, and the Gothic’ – has cited my reviews in his own blog post with the Journal of Victorian Culture.

Referencing my reading of the show’s ending through Frankenstein and Dracula, Poore adds his own analysis of Penny Dreadful and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)Like Wilde’s novel, and like Dorian Gray himself, Penny Dreadful is destined to be forever trapped in fin de siècle London:

The paradox of The Picture is that the portrait is painted in the contemporary London of Wilde’s time, but as time passes and Dorian looks no older, we don’t move forward into the first half of the twentieth century (well, we do in the Oliver Parker film adaptation, but that’s another story).[8] In the novel, Dorian never ages, but London never really stops being 1890s London either. How could it be otherwise, when Wilde barely survived the end of the century himself? So it is with Penny Dreadful. To mangle the words of Vincent Starrett, in Penny Dreadful it’s always 1892.[9] The series is crowded with figures seemingly queuing up to escape the nineteenth century, but who cannot do so; they’re stuck in a fin de siècle moment.

Eva Green as Vanessa Ives and Samuel Barnett as Renfield in Penny Dreadful (season 3, episode 7). - Photo: Patrick Redmond/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: PennyDreadful_307_0478
Eva Green as Vanessa Ives and Samuel Barnett as Renfield in Penny Dreadful (season 3, episode 7). Photo: Patrick Redmond/SHOWTIME

Poore also draws on Frank Kermode’s theories about the function of endings in narrative, highlighting the infinite possibilities Penny Dreadful creates for the exploration and expansion of this eternal London. Dorian serves as a powerful metaphor here as well:

Kermode also remarks of novel reading in The Sense of an Ending, that ‘in every plot there is an escape from chronicity’.[11] He discusses the distinction between chronos, that is, passing time, and kairos, the ‘divine plot’ referring to ‘historical moments of intemporal significance’.[12] It strikes me that Penny Dreadful has a lot of kairos ­– a series of divine prophecies being fulfilled – and not a lot of chronos. Dorian has escaped from chronicity, and so have many of the supporting characters. That’s why, even if official television sequels are not forthcoming, the world of Penny Dreadful provides almost limitless scope for fan works and reinterpretations.

‘You’ll be back’, says Dorian in the series’ final episode, ‘And I’ll be waiting. I’ll always be waiting’.

You can read the full post at the link.

Now all that remains is an analysis of Penny Dreadful against Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). The addition of Dr. Jekyll in season three, and his relationship with Victor Frankenstein, felt exciting but unfinished. Perhaps we will see the good doctor in his own spinoff series – or perhaps we should leave that to the many other television adaptations of Stevenson’s novel in recent years. Poore also has a fascinating post on Charlie Higson’s current Jekyll and Hyde adaptation for ITV, for those interested in reading more about the novel’s contemporary reincarnations.

The Feminist Politics of Star Wars

This week started off with some exciting news: I get to draft a chapter for Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, a collection of academic essays on the franchise edited by Dan Hassler-Forest and Sean Guynes. This collection is scheduled for publication in 2017, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the first film release.

every-jedi-ever-a-video-timeline

 

The Project

In forty years a lot has changed for Star Wars, and my chapter focuses on the franchise’s feminist politics.

A recent YouTube video cut together all the lines spoken by women in the original Star Wars film trilogy, apart from Princess Leia. The total runtime was just over a minute. Women have been well represented among the ranks of Lucasfilm and LucasArts, but historically the franchise is not known for its groundbreaking portrayal of female characters on-screen. Even so, women have made up a significant and vocal portion of the franchise’s fanbase from early on. Though Princess Leia’s example is a powerful one, what else draws women to Star Wars, and how has the franchise adapted itself to tap into this market?

rendering-r2kt
R2-KT, the pink astromech droid. First created for a little girl with cancer, later honoured with a place in Star Wars canon – to the chagrin of some uninformed fans.

As you can read in the original call for papers, the focus of the collection is on transmedia revision both in and outside of the films:

The chapters in this collection will ultimately demonstrate that Star Wars laid the foundations for the forms of convergence culture that rule the media industries today. As a commercial entertainment property and meaningful platform for audience participation, Star Wars created lifelong fans (and consumers) by continuing to develop characters and plots beyond the original text and by spreading that storyworld across as many media platforms as possible.

Ashley Eckstein, the voice of Ahsoka Tano and founder of HerUniverse.
Ashley Eckstein: Star Wars fan, voice of Ahsoka Tano, and founder of the clothing line HerUniverse.

From the myriad female-led stories in the Star Wars ‘Legends’ (Expanded Universe) novels, to the casting of stars Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson in The Phantom Menace, to the popular success of female characters like Ahsoka Tano in The Clone Wars and Rey in The Force Awakens, the first half of my chapter will provide a survey of the tactics used to quietly cater to an imagined female audience, from the earliest days of Star Wars’ transmedia empire. This is a complex subject, and I won’t be able to cover everything in the 5,000 words I’m allotted, but I’ll be doing my best to highlight key examples.

'Encounter on Dathomir' © wraithdt on DeviantArt
‘Encounter on Dathomir’ © wraithdt on DeviantArt

In the second part of the chapter, I plan to tie things together by using the matriarchal planet of Dathomir – first depicted in the bonkers (and bestselling) ‘Legends’ novel The Courtship of Princess Leia (1994) and later re-imagined for the canonical Clone Wars animated series (2008-2014) – as an illustration of the franchise’s own evolving relationship with feminist discourse.

How You Can Help

While I have the wealth of the internet and my own experiences to draw on, as well as the invaluable research of people like Michael Kaminski, J.W. Rinzler, and Will Brooker, ideally I want to take this research further. The information available online about Star Wars‘ marketing and mythmaking is pretty sparse before 1995 – no surprise, given that the internet wasn’t really a big thing until then – and there’s no way I can buy up all the paper fanzines, adverts, articles, and reports I would like for this project on a PhD student’s salary.

2471_l

So. Here’s where you come in. Do you remember reading anything that described Star Wars as a boys’ club, or recall seeing an appeal to female audiences either in storytelling or in marketing? What kinds characters, stories, or merchandise has the franchise marketed with a clear idea of ‘men’ or ‘women’ in mind? What are some of the ways (good, bad, and hilarious) in which the Star Wars franchise has tried to appeal to women over the years? What kinds of things have been perceived by the media as gender-pandering?

screen-shot-2015-12-14-at-11-42-24-am

I’m particularly interested in concrete examples from before the prequels (so 1977-1999), and am prioritising officially sanctioned attempts to sell Star Wars to women over grassroots projects, but would welcome anything you can send my way.

Now obviously, on the surface this description seems to ignore all the queer Star Wars fans out there. Please don’t think you’re not also important! Your fandom is a vital part of this research, especially because you’ve long been ignored by marketers. As the previous paragraph states, what I’m looking at here is the perceived audiences for canonical Star Wars products, not the actual ones. I will be on the lookout for slippage between these two groups. I’m also interested in the way the franchise queers itself over time – allowing for multiple readings of the same characters and stories – in order to adjust to changing ideas about gender.

The Paper Time Machine

grid-cell-27443-1475225552-7In a previous blog post, I mentioned the Ellis Island immigrant portraiture of Augustus F. Sherman. I wrote:

Sherman was an amateur photographer working as Chief Registry Clerk at New York’s Ellis Island station from 1892 until 1925, and he photographed some of the twelve million immigrants to pass into the USA before the station closed in 1954. Many are photographed in their native dress, which Sherman appears to have encouraged, but which also seems logical given the nature of the passage these people had just completed. If you couldn’t carry it with you, you had to leave it behind. Though Sherman’s photographs are clearly staged rather than candid, unlike some of Lewis W. Hine’s work, there is a certain sense directness or frankness to the images that lends them an air of historical authenticity. These portraits are only accompanied by a date, and the subject’s country of origin.

Recently, Wolfgang Wild, the creator and curator of the Retronaut website, and Jordan Lloyd, the director of the colour reconstruction team at Dynamichrome, have teamed up to create The Paper Time Machine. This book, which they are currently crowdfunding over at Unbound, takes famous black-and-white photographs (including Sherman’s) and renders them in full colour. The project description promises both historical accuracy and a tantalising level of historical engagement:

Each element in the monochrome images has been researched and colour checked for historical authenticity. As the layers of colour build up, the effect is disorientatingly real and the decades and centuries just fall away. It is as though we are standing at the original photographer’s elbow.

You can judge for yourself whether they’ve achieved this goal – both the crowdfunding page and this recent BuzzFeed article let you view a selection of the images side-by side.

In the gallery below, you can also view some of the black-and-white images I displayed in my original post in all their full-colour glory:

The book describes itself as ‘a collection of historical “remixes” that exist alongside the original photographs but draw out qualities, textures and details that have hitherto remained hidden’. Wild and the team at Dynamichrome have also added their own annotations to the photographs, explaining the rationale for selecting these particular images and offering some insights into material features like clothing or architecture. Where the colorisation process brings the images to life for contemporary audiences visually, these descriptions add a sense of touch, as well as the occasional sound or smell.

Check out The Paper Time Machine (and score yourself a crowdfunding copy) over at the project page.

Left-Wing Populism and the Arts

© Ben Stainton
© Ben Stainton

All art is political. As Toni Morrison put it in a 2008 interview with Poets and Writers (issue 36.6):

All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS […] What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’ We’ve just dirtied the word ‘politics,’ made it sound like it’s unpatriotic or something.

If this is true (and I believe that it is), what kind of politics does the historical monster mashup represent, and how does this play out in the texts themselves? To help me answer this question, I’ve been reading up on contemporary political theory. Today’s selected readings were on populism – specifically Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy (2008), edited by Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell, and Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy? (2012), edited by Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. At first glance you might be wondering what the historical monster mashup could possibly have to do with populism or populist art. Surely it’s impossible for the realm of art, as a space of ‘free speech’, to conform to a populist aesthetic.

Populism in Europe and the Americas is specifically interested in whether populism should be seen as a good thing for democracy (and all its associated rights) or bad thing. First, though, it is tasked with actually defining  populism and democracy, which have both been approached from a wide number of directions. The introduction by Mudde and Kaltwasser ultimately concludes that populism can be minimally defined as an ideology

that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) or the people […]. This means that populism is in essence a form of moral politics, as the distinction between ‘the elite’ and ‘the people’ is first and foremost moral (i.e. pure versus corrupt), not situational (e.g. position of power), sociocultural (e.g. ethnicity, religion), or socio-economic (e.g. class). Moreover, both categories are to a certain extent ’empty signifiers’ (Laclau 1977), as it is the populists who construct the exact meanings of ‘the elite’ and ‘the people’ [pp. 8-9, emphasis modified]

In other words, depending on the context and culture populism can potentially be found everywhere – among all social classes and backgrounds, and in both left-wing and right-wing politics.

Kolsyrefabriken

Twenty-First-Century Populism likewise opens by pointing out the frequent abuse of the term ‘populism’ in contemporary politics:

Much like Dylan Thomas’ definition of an alcoholic as ‘someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you’, the epithet ‘populist’ is often used in public debate to denigrate statements and measures  by parties and politicians which commentators or other politicians oppose. When an adversary promises to crack down on crime or lower taxes and yet increase spending on public services, it is ‘populist’. When one’s own side does so, it is dealing with the country’s problems [p. 2]

Before we can go about deciding what populism means, then, Albertazzi and McDonnell argue that we first need to account for the term’s negative connotations in politics and popular culture.

After an extensive definition of democracy (and its different facets and levels), Mudde and Kaltwasser conclude that populism is generally beneficial to a democracy when it opposes it from the outside [p.25], serving to critique the system and keep its power in check. Populism becomes most harmful to democracy when emerges from within the government, subverting the system’s own ‘checks and balances’ [p. 24] in the name of the popular majority to undermine minority rights, or for personal gain.

Neither of these books comments in any depth on the function of art in populist politics (though Twenty-First-Century Populism does contain a chapter by Gianpietro Mazzoleni on the role of the media in promoting and exploiting populist figureheads). Could historical monster mashup be categorised as populist? That will have to be a future blog post, but at the moment I’m just enjoying learning about a subject area I had never really engaged with. This week’s reading should come especially handy in the light of the American presidential elections.

ITV’s Victoria is Neo-Victorian Fiction at its Purest

‘I’m afraid the truth is vastly overrated’ – Lord Melbourne, ‘Doll 123’ (Victoria, episode 1)

Image © ITV Plc

After a busy summer, I’ve spent the last few weeks catching up on all the reading and viewing I had on hold. Last week, a scathing review by James Delingpole sent ITV’s Victoria to the top of my must-watch list. The show, he wrote, is ‘silly, facile and irresponsible’, and its popularity is all down to the ‘feminisation of culture’. Delingpole may well be right, but not for the reasons – or with the effects – that he imagines.

Rampant sexism of the article aside (it’s essentially clickbait), Delingpole does make one point worth commenting on. It deals with the question of historical accuracy, and the responsibility entertainers have to what he calls ‘the known biographical facts’:

Taking the odd liberty is one thing but doing so with such brazen shamelessness feels to me like one giant upraised middle finger to all those of us — we’re a minority but we do exist — who value history and who want to be informed at least as much as we want to be entertained.

From ITV VICTORIA Embargoed until 16.30 11th August 2016 Pictured: JENNA COLEMAN as Victoriaand TOM HUGHES as Albert. This photograph is (C) ITV Plc and can only be reproduced for editorial purposes directly in connection with the programme or event mentioned above. Once made available by ITV plc Picture Desk, this photograph can be reproduced once only up until the transmission [TX] date and no reproduction fee will be charged. Any subsequent usage may incur a fee. This photograph must not be manipulated [excluding basic cropping] in a manner which alters the visual appearance of the person photographed deemed detrimental or inappropriate by ITV plc Picture Desk. This photograph must not be syndicated to any other company, publication or website, or permanently archived, without the express written permission of ITV Plc Picture Desk. Full Terms and conditions are available on the website www.itvpictures.com For further information please contact: Patrick.smith@itv.com 0207 1573044
Image © ITV Plc
With ‘brazen shamelessness’, Delingpole seems to be referring to Victoria‘s tendency to sexualise and sensationalise its characters. The show is indeed guilty of both, and we’ve only had five of the promised eight episodes. While the historical Queen Victoria, Lord Melbourne, and Prince Albert could all have been described as comely in their time, they were no match for actors Jenna Coleman, Rufus Sewell, and Tom Hughes. The passion virtually oozes from every garment, glance, and camera angle, with frequent cuts between faces and eroticised body parts – hand, neck, lips – all designed to emphasise the physical as well as emotional attachments between characters. The scene that concludes the third episode (‘Brocket Hall’) is particularly evocative (talk to Daný van Dam about the sexual connotations of the piano in neo-Victorian fiction), not to mention the royal wedding night. Episode four even contains a quote that I will absolutely be using at next year’s BAVS conference, ‘Victorians Unbound’. Stopping Victoria from retying her hair after their forest romp (with all the sexual tension, but none of the sex), Albert tells her: ‘I like to see you unbound. You are not so much a queen.’

Sexiness aside, if we stick to bare facts Victoria is no more or less informative or historically accurate than the highly acclaimed biopic Lincoln (2012). But because the latter is ‘dignified’ in its emotion rather than giddy or indulgent, it is deemed superior. Why should it enrage viewers like Delingpole if a piece of historical fiction chooses to view its object from a sexual and emotional perspective, rather than a cerebral or rational one? The answer, of course, is that these perspectives are not assigned equal levels of value in contemporary culture. The rational is privileged above the emotional, just as other traditionally masculine traits are still praised over traditionally feminine ones. By focusing on sex and sentiment rather than traditionally interpreted historical evidence, the show doesn’t just turn off male viewers, Delingpole argues, it also betrays the objective truth of history, which is based not on sentiment but on cold, hard facts.

This is not a new way of looking at history. It’s not a view held by many contemporary historians, however. Though the historian has a certain level of responsibility to ‘the facts’, reassembling these facts into a coherent picture of the past always involves some measure of narrativisation. Take historian Robert Rosenstone, who has argued that ‘the history film […] helps return us to a kind of ground zero, a sense that we can never really know the past, but can only continually play with it, reconfigure, and try to make meaning out of the traces it has left behind’ (p. 163-4). The absolutist (or ‘rationalist’) view of history is also one that many neo-Victorian authors (male and female) have built their success on challenging.

Image © ITV Plc
Image © ITV Plc

In a recent blog post, Victorianist Barbara Franchi reflects on the symmetry between Victoria‘s title character and its subject matter:

With its intertextual references to literary classics, its serialised form and its self-reflexive tones on the epoch taking its name from the series’ protagonist, Victoria is a feast of nineteenth-century literature and culture brought to our screens. One could hardly find a more apt place to reflect on the contemporary fascination for the nineteenth-century past than the fictionalised story of the woman who, with her name alone, has made consuming the Victorians possible.

Victoria is neo-Victorian fiction at its purest, engaging with and under-writing our perception of the era’s most recognisable figure, who has already been sold to us in a thousand forms. It even employs all the stereotypical tools of the neo-Victorian novel to do so. Franchi argues that Victoria uses this narrative vocabulary to comment on contemporary society as much as on the historical Victorians.

If Victoria is interested in contemporary politics as well as nineteenth-century ones, what exactly is it trying to tell us through this particular retelling of history? The show manages to remain about as politically neutral as its main character (i.e. not very – nobody wants to align themselves with slavery, after all), though it also manages to avoid siding firmly for or against Tory conservatives, past and present. It can do so mainly because the party it does support, the Whigs, has itself faded into history, and the show makes little effort to give it a contemporary parallel in the Labour Party. The show does an interesting dance with the subject of immigration, given how much of Victoria’s family could not strictly be considered ‘British’, but it remains to be seen how the issue will ultimately be handled. Will Albert adapt to England through integration, or will the court and country learn to accept him in his difference?

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Image © ITV Plc

Exoticised foreigners? Check. Erotic corset-lacing scenes? Check. Obligatory prostitute with a Heart of GoldCheck. The show is thus firmly neo-Victorian, bringing us emotionally close to Victorian characters and issues without necessarily replicating the period worldview. This second type of distance is very important. In an insightful post that also reflects on the recent ‘BAVS 2016: Consuming (the) Victorians’ conference, Birmingham-based lecturer Serena Trowbridge explains why emotional engagement must be tempered not just by fact, but by temporal detachment. The past, she reiterates, can never be fully recaptured:

[E]motions such as love, anger, jealousy etc might have been the staple diet of literature for hundreds of years, but the way in which we express them, and indeed the way in which we feel them, is subject to change dependent on the society in which we live. But because we want to understand the Victorians, we make them more like us, and this means that we have to fictionalise, turning Victoria into a consumer item neatly packaged for 21st century audiences who probably don’t know much about her.

Image © ITV Plc
Image © ITV Plc

In conclusion, Trowbridge raises several of her own concerns about Victoria’s sexualised portrayal of the young queen:

As a woman in power, and one who clearly enjoyed the exercise of that power, both Victoria and [Theresa] May provide subjects for debate; we haven’t had many queens, and even fewer female Prime Ministers. The series is timely for raising this question of how a woman can rule, and one suspects the general confidence in Victoria as queen was only slightly lower than that in May as Prime Minister (based on her gender, not views of her politics). ‘Victoria’ suggests that naturally she was a good queen: she might have been impulsive, scared of rats and prone to falling for her Prime Minister, but she was pretty, soft-hearted and prepared to defy those who want to control her. In many ways I think Victoria was a fairly good queen, but ‘Victoria’ is setting her up to be effective only because she has gendered traits which make her recognisable and likeable to modern viewers.”

Trowbridge raises an important issue here, though it will be necessary to see how the rest of the series plays out before coming to a more definitive conclusion. In addition, to dismiss Victoria as frivolous and sentimental just because its heroine often is – something Trowbridge herself never does – would be to miss the point. The young queen, perhaps like many modern viewers, is somewhat ignorant of the politics of her time. As a ruler, Victoria has a great deal of power, but most of the men in her life still look down on her (literally and metaphorically). She is currently no more in charge of the era that will be named for her than the viewer is. She is also still a human being, with human desires and appetites. Victoria embodies traditionally female virtues and vices in the ITV series, but the same could also be said of its male heroes. Lord Melbourne is every inch the feminine, Byronic type so praised by the Romantics, and Albert’s quiet sensitivity and devotion to Victoria (and Victoria alone) stands in contrast to his brother Earnest’s confident, womanising, and traditionally masculine ways.

I’ll be most interested to see how the show develops as an analogy for contemporary gender politics. Will Victoria succeed in balancing her public and private lives, and will the male characters on the show be held to the same standard? How will ITV’s Albert come to terms with being the husband of the most powerful woman on Earth, and (more interestingly) what will it tell us about the roles of men and women in the twenty-first-century workplace?

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Image © ITV Plc

Lauren Porter, who curated a Windsor Castle exhibition from the Royal Archives in 2014, comments that a love letter from Albert to Victoria (quoted in ITV’s Victoria), ‘provides a fascinating personal insight into the depth of Prince Albert’s thoughts and feelings for his bride-to-be. Such a heartfelt expression of love and devotion is particularly striking as it sits in contrast to the popular idea of the Victorian era being a period of emotional restraint.’ If nothing else, Victoria makes a valiant (and very neo-Victorian) effort to ensure that the stereotype of the austere and supremely rational Victorian does not persist into the twenty-first century.

These days we could all use a bit more Victorian love, and a bit less Victorian austerity.

The Musical Monsters of Steampunk

A few weeks ago I introduced you to ‘Lady Got Bustle’, a steampunk rendering of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s 1992 hit ‘Baby Got Back’. This video was just a bit of fan-made fun, but steampunk is a musical genre in its own right. Happily for my research, it’s chock full of monsters and strange creatures.

a0848551422_10There’s actually not as much ‘punk’ in steampunk music as you might expect, though a few bands fit the bill. I’m currently writing about a band called The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing. Their name comes from the graffiti chalked near the scene of one of the Jack the Ripper murders, and they describe their own music as ‘Crusty punk meets cockney sing-songs meets grindcore in the 1880s’. The subjects they sing about are your typical anti-establishment fare (take ‘Doing it for the Whigs’ or ‘Not Your Typical Victorian’), but they’ve also got a number of songs about the supernatural and the fantastical.

One of my favourites is ‘Victoria’s Secret’, which describes how the widowed Queen Victoria tried to resurrect Prince Albert. Naturally, it all goes very badly:

Victoria’s secret, she couldn’t let go
When death came a-calling

For Albert, her beau
All manner of Voodoo
Or Witchcraft she tried
To bring back her Albert
To be by her side
Now Albert is back
But Albert has changed!
Albert is hungry for commoner’s brains!

Zombie Albert!
Zombie Albert!
Zombie Albert!

You can listen to the full track on Bandcamp.

There are also plenty of steampunk bands making other kinds of music, even within the genre of historical monster mashup. Steam Powered Giraffe, an American band, performs a variety of different musical styles on the basis that they are 100-year-old automata. Initially pressed into service as war robots, they quickly gave up violence for a life on the stage. They do folk, pop, rock, and vaudeville, all in their own version of close harmony.

One of their best-known songs is ‘Honeybee’:

You can see that, as with much of the subculture, story and costuming play very important roles in steampunk music.

Last but not least, there’s also a specific subgenre of steampunk called ‘chap hop’, which is essentially hip hop done in an RP accent. Chap hop focuses on stereotypically British subjects like tea and cricket, and includes artists like Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer, Poplock Holmes & DJ WattsOn, and Sir Reginald Pikedevant, Esquire. My personal favourite is Professor Elemental. He, too, makes an appearance in my PhD thesis.

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In all his glory.
There are many monsters and fantastical creatures in Professor Elemental’s universe, from zombies to dinosaurs to Jeffrey the orang-utan butler. He has also invented an eclectic collection of augmented trousers with various functions, including (most notably) fighting and time travel. His songs (see ‘Fighting Trousers’) verge on parody – as, to be honest, does most of chap hop – but can also be unexpectedly sensible at times (‘Don’t Feed The Trolls’).

I’ll leave you with the video for ‘Sir, You Are Being Hunted’, in which Professor Elemental’s Inter-dimensional Trousers have malfunctioned, trapping him and the viewer in a monster-infested forest that looks suspiciously like the some back wood in Brighton:

 

All Penny Dreadful Season Three Reviews Now Online

Image © InsomniaTSO on DeviantArt
Image © InsomniaTSO on DeviantArt

In case you missed my original post on the subject, I’ve been writing regular recaps of Penny Dreadful for the Victorianist, a researcher blog with the British Association for Victorian Studies. After each episode, I talked readers through what we’d seen, reflected on what previous episodes and seasons had brought, and speculated on what was to come – sometimes with the help of various academic theories. This week, the last instalment (covering the two-part season three finale) went online.

You can find links to all of the posts (which obviously contain spoilers for the series) below:
Season Premiere: ‘The Day Tennyson Died’
Episode Two: ‘Predators Far and Near’
Episode Three: ‘Good and Evil Braided Be’
Episode Four: ‘A Blade of Grass’
Episode Five: ‘This World Is Our Hell’
Episode Six: ‘No Beast So Fierce’
Episode Seven: ‘Ebb Tide’
Two-Part Season Finale: ‘Perpetual Night’ and ‘The Blessed Dark’

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Image © aquiles-soir on DeviantArt

Here’s a (largely) spoiler-free excerpt from my final post, to give you a taste of the review series as a whole:

For me, Penny Dreadful’s greatest success this season was the way it captured a sense of religious dread. With this I don’t mean the way it used religious figures or Christian iconography to signal a supernatural evil, though it does so in many cases. Instead, I’m talking about the way it explores themes of existential angst, and lets its viewers experience both the desire for salvation and the fear of damnation.

John Logan argued that Penny Dreadful ‘has always been about a woman grappling with God and faith’, but never did I expect this journey to be played out so literally. In previous seasons, even when it manifested itself more physically, viewers have always been allowed to read Vanessa’s faith and possession metaphorically, as a way for her to cope with the mental issues that have plagued her since her youth. We were never quite certain if Vanessa was possessed by a demon, or if she was her own demon.

Happy reading – and let me know what you thought of the show in the comments!