25 May 2020
Invoking the Dunkirk Spirit: Thames to Dunkirk 1940 to 2020
The eightieth anniversary of Dunkirk falls in May 2020 while here in Britain we are still living through the coronavirus pandemic. My artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk is the largest book in the British Library’s Contemporary British collection, and curators at the British Library had been planning some events with me to mark the moment, but since it became clear that no public events would be possible, I’ve been working with Jeremy Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications, to make an artists’ film of my artists' book Thames to Dunkirk (below). Under lockdown conditions we have assembled the elements of the soundtrack - on which the soldier-poet Basil Bonallack is voiced by his grandson Christopher Peters, and Virginia Woolf’s questioning lines from The Waves by me Liz Mathews - over my own photography of the book, and the film was edited by Jeremy Jenkins.
Front cover of Thames to Dunkirk
Thames to Dunkirk, an artists' book by Liz Mathews, on film.
I made Thames to Dunkirk in 2009, and it’s been in the Library’s collection for a decade, a surreally large book to echo the extraordinary nature of an event shared by over 300,000 people, each with their own individual experience and their own story to tell. It’s made from twenty-four sheets of the largest handmade paper in the world, each 1 metre high and 1.4 metres wide - and it opens out to a free-standing paper sculpture 17 metres long and a metre high.
Looking at Thames to Dunkirk again now, as its maker I’m both reminded of my original aim, and struck by the many parallels with our current situation. Hearing Dunkirk 1940 invoked so often during the lockdown - exemplifying British ingenuity, courage and adaptability in a desperate crisis - has brought that long ago time vividly to mind. So what is it about Dunkirk that speaks so urgently to our times? Who could read the following accounts in these days without recognising the ‘absolute mayhem’, the fear and anxiety, the ‘public catastrophe’, the ‘terrible suspense’?
‘The Dunkirk crisis was unbelievable. A lot of people coming back had jettisoned their guns and vehicles, they just got there as fast as they could. There were lots of refugees coming in - it was absolute mayhem. Dunkirk had been bombed. We knew that a lot of troops were sheltering along the shore. We had no idea they were going to be rescued - it seemed the whole army was going to be captured. I was extremely upset, because it never occurred to me that we would survive. I though we were defeated, that we would surrender and sue for peace.’ (Corporal Elizabeth Quale, WAAF liaison officer, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices of the Second World War, Ebury Press / IWM 2004)
Thames to Dunkirk, p.21.
On May 26th 1940 the rescue began, an event of such enormity that it has become one of our most potent national myths. The British army fighting in France and Belgium had been outflanked and surrounded by the invading army of Nazi Germany, and ‘there was nothing for it but to fall back, made almost impossible by the multitudes of refugees on the roads. Our men could only crawl back, while the enemy raced to cut them off from the sea.’ (John Masefield, The Nine Days Wonder Heinemann, 1940).
By 26th May a solid mass of men had already gathered on the beaches and in the dunes near the town, and thousands more were still struggling to get there. Churchill’s government had a plan for the Royal Navy to rescue them, with the help of a makeshift armada of ‘little ships’, privately owned boats, yachts, lifeboats and small ships from England’s south coast and the Thames, to ferry the men out from the beaches to the waiting Naval ships.
Thames to Dunkirk, p.10
But ‘when Operation Dynamo began it was thought that only a few thousand could be saved. The next day the situation was so much worse that we had to be prepared for a desperate scramble to pick up survivors from a great disaster.’ (JM, ibid)
Meanwhile at home, Leonard and Virginia Woolf were among the millions waiting for news: ‘In Rodmell Dunkirk was a harrowing business. There was not merely the public catastrophe, the terrible suspense with Britain on the razor’s edge of complete disaster; in the village we were domestically on the beaches. For Percy, and Jim and Dick and Chris, whom I had known as small boys in the village school and watched grow up onto farm workers and tractor drivers were now, one knew, retreating, driven back to the Dunkirk beaches. There they presumably were waiting, and we in Rodmell waited.’ (Leonard Woolf The Journey not the Arrival Matters The Hogarth Press, 1969)
And from Virginia Woolf’s diary: ‘Louie comes agog. [Her brother] Harry come back on Monday. It pours out - how he hadn’t boots off for 3 days; the beach at Dunkirk - the bombers as low as trees - the bullets like moth holes in his coat… He looted a Belgian shop & stuffed his pockets with rings which fell out in the sea; but 2 watches pinned to his coat survived… He was talking to a chap, who showed him a silk handkerchief bought for his joy lady. That moment a bomb killed him. Harry took the handkerchief. He saw his cousin dead on the beach; & another man from the street. Harry swam off, a boat neared. Say chum can you row? Yes, he said, hauled in, rowed for 5 hours, saw England, landed - didn’t know if it were day or night or what town - didn’t ask - couldn’t write to his mother - was despatched to his regiment.’ (Virginia Woolf, Diary Volume Five, ed. Anne Olivier Bell The Hogarth Press, 1984)
Virginia Woolf’s story about Harry West set me on a path of discovering first-hand accounts of that time, and gave me the idea of making Thames to Dunkirk. Along both sides of the huge book’s length are juxtaposed four significant lines: first, soldier-poet BG Bonallack’s eye-witness account of Dunkirk 1940 from his poem The Retreat; second, Virginia Woolf’s introspective questioning lines from The Waves flowing beneath as an undercurrent; and then on one side a watercolour map of the Thames from source to sea, lettered with the names of most of the little ships that went to the rescue; and on the other a 17m long watercolour of the great stretch of Dunkirk beaches and dunes, with the names of many people who were there during those nine days in 1940.
Thames to Dunkirk, p.18.
There’s Alexander Graham King, ‘the mad hatter’ who played his accordion to entertain the queues of waiting soldiers for seven days, and Captain NC Strother-Smith, who could spare a thought for the refugees on the roads ‘machine-gunned and attacked by Bombers and fighters’ in this impossible situation. There’s Philip Newman, the army surgeon who treated wounded men by the thousands in ‘the Chateau’, remained behind with men too badly wounded to be moved, was captured and spent the rest of the war in a German prison camp as a POW. And there’s Louie’s brother Harry - his name lettered in a queue out into the sea; I see him with the water up to his armpits, worrying about his looted watches getting wet.
Marking Thames to Dunkirk book with a wooden clothes peg
Each person whose story I found is there in the crowd on the book; the letters of their names stand as individuals in the mass, marked with a wooden clothes peg, an incongruous domestic tool to reference a background of home for each person. The little ships’ names, too, are set along the watercolour map of the Thames in paint mixed with Thames water, the words lettered with a Thames driftwood stick, to draw the material presence of the river into the book, to bring in the stories not only of the gallant boats but of all those across Britain doing what they could to help, volunteering, nursing the wounded, waiting for news.
Card for the Dunkirk Project
As for my aims: I wanted Thames to Dunkirk to represent all the voices of Dunkirk, not a simplified impersonal official version; to catch the event in all its diversity and complexity. Once it was made, it became the central thread of The Dunkirk Project, an online installation that collects and shared hidden or forgotten stories from Dunkirk. Presented in the form of daily news from 26th May to 4th June, this River of Stories made up of many voices, many different perspectives, shows how this multi-layered event defies simplistic reduction but still has important truths for today.
The voices of Thames to Dunkirk speak to our uncertain times at an apt moment. It’s more important than ever to acknowledge the European, multi-national nature of Britain’s wartime struggle against fascism, as exemplified at Dunkirk, and to recognise how we, the inheritors of the world that was made then, are still living with the consequences of our past. In June 1940 when the Dunkirk evacuation had brought most of the army home again, the threat of invasion was at its most acute - and Britain was still at war for a further four years. The parallels for our wounded world are all too clear: while we’ve been struggling with Brexit and the pandemic, the Climate Emergency has not gone away.
Thames to Dunkirk, p.20-1
Now, coronavirus has forced us to re-examine our priorities. Another clear correspondence with Dunkirk 1940 is that amidst the devastation and the suffering there have been some positives: the many heroes we’ve met - Captain/Sir Tom Moore, every NHS doctor and nurse, three-quarters of a million volunteers, our bus drivers, our care workers and Andrea our local pharmacist, to name just a few - have outnumbered the villains, and we’ve found a renewed compassionate empathy and awareness of community.
Captain Tom Moore post-mark
British engineers and fashion designers are falling over themselves to adapt factories to make essential personal protective equipment and ventilators; universities and research institutions are vying to produce tests, vaccine, antibodies; our theatres, online arts and the BBC are keeping us sane - in short, the real maverick Dunkirk spirit is alive and well in Britain today. Now is a good time to look again at this parallel crisis in our nation’s past, in order to understand the present better, and prepare for the future.
26 April 2019
The Book of Hours
a guest blog by Lucy English, spoken word poet and Reader in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. She has two collection published by Burning Eye Press. The most recent, The Book of Hours, is the poetry from the online poetry film project. The project was completed in 2018 and was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize in 2019.
Screenshot from is 'From This Train' by Kathryn Darnell
The Book of Hours is an online poetry film project which contains forty eight poetry films made in collaboration with 27 film-makers. Through the process of creation I have explored how to bring the immediacy and vibrancy of spoken word into the delicate poetry film form, which is a growing but niche area of poetry. I have created a project which is experimental in its use of spoken word in poetry film, and also innovative in its approach to creating a themed collection of poetry films.
Inspired by the medieval Books of Hours, I wanted to create a contemporary compendium of images and text which could evoke contemplation and thought. In our modern world we may that God constantly rewards or punishes our behaviour, but we still have a need for quiet moments, reflection and emotional awareness often associated with religiosity. Poetry continues to be a medium through which we can experience this, so the text in The Book of Hours is in poetic form, rather than prose, and because I am a spoken word poet most of this poetry is presented as voice-over rather than text on screen.
Screenshot from 'Sheltering from the Rain in a Country Church' (after Larkin) by James Norton
A medieval Book of Hours was a collection of religious readings and accompanying images. By the fourteenth century these had become highly decorative works of art and many were produced by craftsmen for wealthy patrons. They were created so that those outside of the religious orders could follow the monastic life. The book began with a calendar illustrated by images of activities connected to each month, such as sowing crops, harvest and feasting. The subsequent texts were divided into sections and one of these sections was the ‘Hours’, a series of prayers and readings spanning a complete day and night and changing with the religious season. This reflected the Hours of the Divine Office, a code of religious behaviour adopted by St. Benedict in his sixth century guide to monastic life. Each ‘hour’ was roughly three hours apart, and was the time for prayer and reflection. The first was Vigil, at midnight, followed by Lauds, then Prime first thing in the morning, then Terce, then Sext at approximately lunchtime. After this was None followed by Vespers and finally Compline, after which the monks went to bed. The ‘Hours’ were therefore a template for religious devotion, spirituality, reflection and connection to God.
There were variations in the format of a Book of Hours but a typical collection contained: a calendar and The Hours, (as described above); a selection of penitential psalms, expressing sorrow for the committing of sins; The Office for the Dead, (a prayer cycle for the repose of the soul of a deceased person); and the Litany of Saints, which were prayers for the intersession of the Virgin Mary and the martyrs and saints. Books of Hours represented a layperson’s handbook to Christian devotion and were created in a portable size so they could be carried by the owner and referred to on a daily basis. They reveal a glimpse into the medieval relationship between humanity and God and are important compendiums of religious reflection.
In the modern secular society of the U.K we can underestimate the importance of the Christian calendar in medieval times. This was an unwavering structure in an uncertain world where the progression from Christmas to Easter to Ascension would be embedded in the minds and habits of everyone. The monastic life was seen as the epitome of proper behaviour and for an ordinary person to possess access to the religious life, in book form, was highly desirable. It was common in medieval art, and also in the pages of the Books of Hours, for the patrons to be depicted in religious scenes, such as witnessing the birth of Christ or worshiping at the feet of the Virgin, thus placing themselves directly into the holy narrative. In the medieval mind, saints could be ‘talked to’ through prayer and requests to God, Jesus and Mary were as common as our ‘wish lists’ of shopping needs.
A Book of Hours can also be seen as an interactive text as these books were not intended to be read chronologically. The reader chose which readings to refer to according to time of day, season and spiritual mood. The most noted example of a Book of Hours created for a wealthy patron is the Tres Riches Heures commissioned by John the Duke of Berry between 1412-1416 and illustrated by the brothers Limbourg. This is currently held in the Musee Conde in Chantilly, France.
The Duke of Berry was a passionate collector of books and his library contained more than fifteen Books of Hours. In Tres Riches Heures the illuminated pages are exquisitely illustrated; they depict a calendar of the month, the signs of the Zodiac and scenes from life, according to the seasons. In the page for October a white clad horse pulls a harrow and a farmer sows seeds over which crows and magpies are already fighting. In the background is a magnificent white castle. The pages of this book offer a detailed insight into the lives of the various strata of medieval society, from aristocratic hunters to peasants in rags. This keen depiction of everyday detail is also a feature of other Books of Hours, where scenes from the Bible are set against a backdrop of recognizable scenes of medieval life.
Screenshot from 'Mr Sky' by Sarah Tremlett
What I learned from my understanding of the medieval Books of Hours and what I felt I could translate into my project were the following aspects: the text, (in my case the poems) would be an embarking point for reflection. This reflection would not be a religious one but a contemplative one, offering responses to the modern world. It would be presented in a calendar format, following the months of the year, times of day and the seasons. It would contain a linear structure (a calendar year) but the reader/viewer could choose when and where they accessed the films. My final aim was to somehow replicate the everyday quality of the medieval Books of Hours, and to depict the ‘illustrations in the margins.’ By creating a digital project which utilizes our accessibility to screens and downloads, I could also replicate the portability of the medieval books. I wanted the colours and sounds of the films to compliment the total experience just as the illustrated pages in the medieval manuscripts compliment the texts in the book. The themes which link the whole collection are reflections on the passage of time; reflections on the impact of urban lifestyles on rural landscapes and the transience of memory.
Each poetry film was created ‘in conversation’ with the film-maker rather than me ‘giving’ them a poem to adapt. Sometimes we started with an idea, sometimes we started with a sound track, or static or moving images. So all the poetry films in The Book of Hours have been created in collaboration with other artists.
Individual films from this project have been screened at many short film and poetry film festivals: ‘Things I found in the Hedge’ won first prize in the Atticus Review Videopoetry competition. and ‘Que Es El Amor’ won second prize.
All screenshots reproduced with the kind permission of the creator.
25 September 2014
Tim Etchells on the Forced Entertainment collection
Guided by Artistic Director Tim Etchells, Sheffield-based theatre company Forced Entertainment celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year. Since its formation in 1984 the company has continually striven to find new performance and theatre forms with which to describe contemporary urban life, devising work through long months of improvisation and discussion.
The Forced Entertainment collection at the British Library contains more than 300 videos of performances and rehearsals. These were originally on analogue formats such as VHS but have since been digitized by the Library.
In anticipation of the company's anniversary year, the Library employed performance art graduate Coral Davies on a four-month paid internship to enhance existing catalogue entries, create new ones, digitize and re-digitize material, and generally give the collection a good tidy.
More recently, Tim Etchells was kind enough to consent to a new video interview in which he gives his thoughts on the Forced Entertainment collection and on archives more generally.
Forced Entertainment has a number of shows coming up, both in this country and abroad. Please see the company's official website for further details.
08 September 2014
The International Workshop Festival Collection (1988 - 2001)
A guest post by Dr Dick McCaw, Senior Lecturer in Drama and Theatre.
Department of Drama and Theatre, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Let me introduce you to the materials in the archive of an organization with which I had the pleasure of working between 1989 and 2001. It was called the International Workshop Festival and the name describes pretty much what it was – a festival consisting of talks, workshops and demonstrations given by internationally recognised figures in the performing arts. These workshops were designed to offer professionals opportunities to find out about new developments in the performing arts, to reconnect with their training method, or to explore new approaches to training or composition. Some of the workshop leaders were professional teachers; others were eminent directors, actors, dancers and puppeteers, who would share their insights or questions about their respective art forms.
The archive has recently been donated to the British Library. The collection should give you an idea of what used to happen in each year (in the first few years it took place in April but after 1990 it was concentrated on the month of September).
So what does it consist of?
- Videos of workshops
- Videos of talks
- Audio recordings of talks
- Photographs from 1995 to 2001
- Programmes and publicity for each festival
- Articles, reports and other materials (including two T-shirts)
I joined the festival in 1989, one year into its existence, though I was already very aware of it since I knew the founder and Artistic Director, Nigel Jamieson, and a close friend had taken part in one of the workshops in April 1988.
Dick McCaw and Nigel Jamieson, 1994. Photograph © Simon Richardson
Nigel left to live in Australia in 1992 and since I had been managing the festival for three years, I was invited to become its second Artistic Director. One of my first decisions was to document some of the workshops, and in 1993 I met Peter Hulton of the Arts Documentation Unit with whom I was to work from then until the time of writing (September 2014).
The festival would begin with two weeks in London, after which we would undertake projects in a number of cities in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We worked in Belfast, Bristol, Coventry, Derry/Londonderry, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds and Nottingham. The London leg would typically consist of 10 week-long workshops and the same number of weekend workshops. We therefore needed a venue with plenty of studios and up until 1999 this was provided by the London Studio Centre. The 2000 festival was in the Jerwood Space and 2001 was at the Battersea Arts Centre. With five simultaneous workshops there is no way that all of them could be documented. Occasionally we would have a second person behind the camera but we probably only recorded about 15% of the workshops in any one festival. Peter did not record all the talks, and we would only sometimes remember to bring in a tape-recorder. So this archive offers a selective snapshot of some of our past activities.
In 1997 we received funding from the Arts Council of England to buy digital cameras and authoring equipment for what were then called CD-ROMs. The multimedia format of the CD-ROM offered Peter and me the opportunity to create a different kind of documentation. In addition to the video footage we could include photos and written commentaries. Our first DVD-ROM appeared in 2001 and the seventh and last was produced in 2006. All of our CD/DVD-ROM documentations are in the British Library archive.
Dominique Dupuy, Greenwich Dance Agency, 1996. Photograph © Simon Richardson
IWF was not unique as an organiser of training opportunities: in Wales there was the Centre for Performance Research in Aberystwyth (formerly Cardiff Arts Lab), and based in Manchester there was the Physical State International. But we were the only festival and I found it important to foster its existence as a unique gathering for professionals at all stages in their careers. IWF was more than just an in-service training provider; it was also a social event. But now there is no organization dedicated to continuing professional development or training. Already IWF and these other organisations are a historical phenomenon.
The festival day was packed: before the workshops there were warm-ups, first with the singer Helen Chadwick, and after them there were wind-downs, most often taking the form of a Feldenkrais lesson with Scott Clark. After a pause for a beer we would then have an evening programme of talks. It was a 12-hour day, from 9.30 in the morning to 9.30 in the evening.
‘Archive’ is a grand-sounding word but often it consists of all the materials that have survived, quite often to be found under the bed or stuffed in a cupboard. This archive is no different. After I left IWF I lost contact with the festival management, and six years later it was no more. I have no idea of the whereabouts of the photographs taken by Simon Annand between 1988 and 1994, nor of any written documentations. Luckily, Peter Hulton had kept copies of video recordings between 1994 and 2001. I had some recordings of the talks, but this represents probably about 10% of the total programme. None of the projects after 2001 was recorded.
The photographs in this archive all date from 1995 when we were joined by the photographer Simon Richardson who would travel with us to every project. They are ‘seconds’ that he had kept in his studio. The prints might not be to the quality that Simon would display in an exhibition but they are the only surviving record that exists'.
Gojo Nasanosuke, London Studio Centre, 1998. Photograph © Simon Richardson
Just before I took all the printed material to the British Library, I laid it out on my bedroom floor so that I could easily make an inventory of it all. While away on a weekend break there was a water escapement from the flat above and my bedroom was flooded. The paper documents were badly damaged but thanks to the Library’s conservators all were salvaged, though the colour is washed out and they probably still smell a bit. As I say, an archive is what, by chance, has survived.
Apart from the printed documents there are Word documents which contain reports by Nigel or myself on each festival. There is a certain amount of correspondence, and funding applications. Nigel’s festival reports offered a fine-grained description and analysis of the year’s activities, and I followed him in producing these each year. I have never re-read these reports (some of which were really long) but remember writing them with some pleasure. They were an account of everything I had learned in that year. Someone keen on studying the management of a festival like IWF might want to dip into these files.
If you are interested in professional training and development, if you want a snapshot of what was happening at the more experimental end of the performing arts spectrum in the 1990s, you might want to spend a few hours browsing through these materials. I hope you have an interesting journey!
NB. The collection is listed on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue under the collection number C1526.
27 June 2014
Performance Archives: SIBMAS TLA 2014 - New York City
I have recently returned from the biennial SIBMAS TLA conference, which took place in New York City, 10-13 June. SIBMAS stands for Société Internationale des Bibliothèques et des Musées des Arts du Spectacle (International Association of Libraries, Museums, Archives and Documentation Centres of the Performing Arts). TLA is the Theatre Library Association, USA.
SIBMAS connects professionals from thirty five countries around the world working on institutional and independent performing arts collections of all genres. The theme for this conference was Body, Mind, Artifact: Reimagining Collections, with a special focus on dance archives.
Most dance and performance archives hold a substantial amount of video and audio recordings. The collections are ongoing and are frequently accessed by performers, companies, researchers and enthusiasts. For this reason they are often credited as living archives or artist-driven archives. Capturing and documenting the creative process, working with artists and re-purposing legacy materials are core tasks for these archives.
At the SIBMAS conference, keynote speaker Marvin Taylor, Director of the Fales Library and Special Collections, made the following bold statement: ‘Stop making the digitization of paper a priority. Most of the paper from the last forty years will be OK in ten years. Video, audio, and digital files will not’.
Preserving video is a challenge for all archives. The main components of this challenge and how these compare with those for other media formats is what I am going to briefly highlight here.
Access to video and audio recordings requires machines to play a wide variety of formats. Playback machines quickly become obsolete and disappear from the market. Once this happens, finding spare parts for existing machines becomes the only option to keep them working. To palliate the shortage of machinery and spare parts eyes and hopes are now on 3D printing technologies, but this has not yet been implemented in an archival habitat and it wouldn’t solve the problem of obsolete electronics.
Hence, access and preservation needs make it mandatory that recordings are transferred into digital formats. Digitization resources are generally not extensive enough for the ideal purposes of most archives.
Archival standards regarding the transfer of analogue video and the archiving of born-digital video are in dispute and therefore inconclusive. For example, the short history of digital video has already generated a plethora of diverse file formats, and although there are principles, there is no formal agreement on which codec ought to be used.
So far archivists have narrowed codec choices to four compressed for long-term archiving and one for uncompressed. That is out of the three hundred plus available out there. Also, every manufacturer produces its own codec and format.
Intrinsic to all born-digital video archiving procedure is the question of storage. HD formats contain five times more data than standard definition videos and those proportions multiply by four when considering files on 4K (cinema and Ultra High Definition TV standard) resolution.
I thought Marvin Taylor’s statement pointing out what we are up against with video collections deserved attention. In his words once more: ‘If we do not act now, we will lose the ‘incunable’ period of born-digital and electronic media’.
The conference also coincided with the 60th anniversary of SIBMAS and to mark such a special occasion TLA New York hosts opened the doors to some of the most renowned performance collections of the city. It was very hard to choose which institutions to visit from a list composed of Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Mark Morris Dance Group, MoMa Archives, Museum of the City of New York, New York Philharmonic Archives, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, New York University Fales Library, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Roundabout Theatre Archive, and the Shubert Archive.
I visited the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the MoMa Archives. Both were very impressive, but I am sure that would have been the case for all the archives mentioned above.
Curators and archivists from the NYPL Performing Arts division had prepared a special display for delegates, which included drawings, prints, a scale model of the set of the Broadway show Cabaret, photographs, 3D paper objects, an actual Tony and an Oscar awards.
We also learnt that the NYPL Performing Arts has over 24,000 dance films and tapes which are currently being digitized. Due to copyright, the majority of the collection is accessible on the premises only. Please see here for more information.
The icing on the cake for me was the Library’s jaw-dropping video tool, which allows researchers to compare several videos at the same time and create a link to share the results with others. NYPL’s Digital Curator Doug Reside explained how they have developed this and other tools in the NYPL Labs. More about the Labs here.
At the MoMa archives we talked to Milan Hughston, Chief of Library and Museum Archives, and Michelle Elligott, Museum Archivist and regular contributor to Esopus Magazine. Their Department of Media and Performance Art houses, among others, the Fluxus collection, which came to the Museum from a private collector. The Museum Archive provides researchers access by appointment; they have an onsite database of the collections and over 30.000 electronic images from MoMa exhibitions. Most of their collection materials are yet to be digitized.
The papers from the conference will eventually be published. For more information about the conference programme, publications and useful performance arts links please visit SIBMAS website. That’s all from now, to be continued at the next SIBMAS conference: ‘Freeze! Challenge the Hierarchy: Researcher, Artist, User!’, which will take place in Copenhagen 2016.
With thanks to SIBMAS TLA and to my colleague Andrew Pearson, our video expert here at the British Library.
20 January 2014
Recording the Future of Theatre
In 2005 the British Library began videoing shows at Battersea Arts Centre as part of the Library’s live theatre recording programme. So far we have documented more than a hundred and fifty performances at the venue.
For those of you who don’t know, Battersea Arts Centre is a monumental Grade II listed Victorian building at the top of Lavender Hill SW11, which celebrated its 120th anniversary last November.
It opened as Battersea Town Hall in 1893, became a community arts centre in 1974, and was established as an independent theatre in 1980.
According to Artistic Director David Jubb, ‘the organisation’s mission is to invent the future of theatre’. It does so by:
- Producing and showcasing new work from scratch to final product.
- Providing rehearsal space and accommodation to non-London based companies.
- Inviting theatre-makers from across the UK and abroad.
The results currently manifest themselves in a diverse programme of all sorts of experimental shows and performances run simultaneously through a trinity of strands or seasons called ‘Cook-up’, ‘Tuck in’ and ‘Take out’.
The flexibility of the venue allows the staging of challenging projects often involving audience interaction with performers and other forms of participation.
For example in a 2012 show by Unfinished Business, Only Wolves and Lions, the company invited the audience to bring raw ingredients to the show, plan a menu, and cook and eat together.
Shows can take place at the Council Chamber, the Grand Hall, the Committee Room, the Assembly Room or any other chosen space in the 80-room building.
Besides the shows, BAC offers a unique architectural experience, full of atmospheric corners, often lighted with candles, with vintage armchairs, temporary installations in the common areas and a bohemian looking bar.
You can find out more about BAC’s 120th anniversary, the ongoing development of the building and all the community engagement that takes place in it here. In addition you can check their newly born digital archive online. And last, but not least, if you fancy something new, unpredictable, perhaps adventurous, and above all affordable, their new season of shows is about to start.
As I mentioned in a previous post the Library’s videos are shot with a single digital camera and are made available for viewing by appointment at the Library’s Reading Rooms. For details of the productions see the Library’s online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. Type C1179 (which is the BAC collection number) into the search box.
To finish up I leave you with some images of the shows recorded. If you would like to see other collections featured in this blog please leave a comment or contact us on Twitter.
Alice Bell by Lone Twin Theatre, 2006
Once and For All We Are Going To Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen by Ontroerend Goed, 2008
Handbag by Geraldine Pilgrim, 2009
Dash, Dash, Dash: The Onmibus by David Gale, 2010
The Red Shoes by Kneehigh Theatre, 2011
Etudes: Amsterdam by John Moran, 2012
23 July 2013
What's the longest play in the world anyway (anyone)?
In my recent blog post on Ken Campbell I mentioned his 24-hour long production of Neil Oram's The Warp at the ICA in 1979, once decreed the world's longest play by the Guinness Book of Records.
I say 'once decreed' because the current Guinness World Records web site lists a production by the 27 O'Clock Players (of Belmar, New Jersey) of Ionesco's absurdist 'anti-play' The Bald Soprano (aka The Bald Prima Donna) as the world's longest 'continuous dramatic performance', at 23 hours 33 minutes 54 seconds.
Maybe The Warp wasn't quite 24 hours long after all, or perhaps the word continuous is key here, with the The Warp's intervals removed from the equation in the interest of accurate durational performance measurement.
The Bald Soprano, incidentally, is actually a short one-act play but - thanks to the stage direction 'repeat of start of first scene' - it can be looped indefinitely.
In any case, it would seem that Forced Entertainment's 24-hour edition of their show Quizoola! at the Barbican, London, earlier this year, offers stiff competition in the durational stakes, running as it did from 11.59 pm 12 April to 11.59 pm 13 April, with no audience breaks.
Forced Entertainment's Tim Etchells gives a fascinating account of the thought behind the making of the company's durational pieces here.
The British Library has enjoyed a long association with Forced Entertainment - our collection includes more than 300 of the company's performance and rehearsal videos, together with many audio recordings of talks and discussions - so we were delighted when the company offered to donate to the collection Hugo Glendinning's digital video documentation of the complete 24-hour Quizoola!.
Previously accessible only as a live webcast, the Quizoola! documentation is now available to view free of charge at the Library. Please note: you will need to acquire a reader pass if you don't already have one, and book an appointment (or several appointments if you wish to view the complete thing).
For an appointment or further information, please contact the Listening and Viewing Service via +44 (0)20 7412 7418 or email@example.com quoting British Library item number C802/398.
Some screenshots from the Quizoola! video (copyright © Forced Entertainment 2013) are reproduced below.
04 July 2013
Ken Campbell is alive and you are dead
On 31 August 2013 it will be five years since the death of writer, performer, director and general one-off theatre legend Ken Campbell.
In the Guardian's obituary, theatre critic Michael Coveney described Campbell as 'a perennial reminder of the rough-house origins of the best of British theatre, from Shakespeare, music hall and Joan Littlewood to the fringe before it became fashionable, tame and subsidized.'
The multifarious products of Ken Campbell's profoundly anarchistic theatrical imagination included his 24-hour long production of Neil Oram's The Warp at the ICA in 1979 - decreed by no less an authority than the Guinness Book of Records to be the world's longest play - and his production of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - performed inside a hovercraft - also at the ICA, later that same year. In the later part of his career he was perhaps best-known for his solo shows of fantastical monologues detailing all manner of odd experiences and arcane knowledge.
In 1977, the opening attraction of the National Theatre's new Cottesloe space was the full-cast stage adaptation by the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool - co-founded by Campbell with Chris Langham the previous year - of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's Illuminatus! trilogy. The British Library made an audio recording of the full 9-hour show and continued, throughout the 1980s and 90s to record Campbell's (usually solo) shows at the National. These included Furtive Nudist, Pigspurt, Jamais Vu, Violin Time, The Pidgin Macbeth and The History of Comedy: Part One: Ventriloquism.
Campbell was happy to have his shows recorded for posterity, his only stipulation being that he was not informed of the date the recording would be happening.
As well as unique live recordings, the Library has tried to acquire any commercially circulated recordings of Campbell: from the CD 'Wol Wantok' (King Mob, 1999), in which Campbell advanced the case for Pidgin English as a new world language, to the DVD edition of G. F. Newman's TV series Law and Order, in which Campbell had a rare straight acting role, as a crooked lawyer. He later described his performance in Law and Order as an example of 'tie-acting' (the actor tucks in his chin and mumbles into his tie).
The Library does not have any unique audio documentation of The Warp but it does have a copy of the video version (on six videotapes) purchased from writer Neil Oram a few years back. This is still available to purchase from Neil here, now in DVD format.
If you would like to hear (or view) any of the material mentioned in this blog post you can do so free of charge at the British Library. You will need a British Library Reader's Card however and you may need to book an appointment.
Listen to Ken Campbell introducing his Pidgin Macbeth in 1998 (excerpt)
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