David Bowie is crossing the border.

Neon Creations, “David Bowie is crossing the border”, commissioned by The Hub Ltd for the David Bowie is exhibition at the V&A.

All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings. | David Bowie, 1995

The singer, songwriter, painter and actor David Bowie, aka David Jones, died today aged 69. I woke to the ominous red “breaking news” banner on BBC Breakfast News, and was so shocked that I shouted out loud, something inarticulate: my partner assumed something terrible had happened to me, and it had.

I was introduced to Bowie’s music by an ex boyfriend who had exemplary taste (obviously, he was dating me *implied winky face here*). I’d always had a vague understanding that Bowie was someone quite important, but here, in the early 2000s, my love of him was born. I’ve been listening to BBC Radio 6 Music for most of the afternoon and have been close to tears on several occasions: The Man Who Sold The World, Starman, Ashes to Ashes. They are songs that still resonate: still remind me of the shy young girl I was at the age of 20, sitting in our little house with the cats and the CD player and the candles and the wood burning stove, waiting for my boyfriend to finish work, with the world howling in the darkness outside. I’m crying again listening to Guy Garvey, the lead singer of Elbow, who is himself close to tears, talking about what Bowie meant to him. They’re playing an Elbow cover of The Bewley Brothers now.

David Bowie was the internet before the internet…a sort of clearing house for ideas. | BBC Radio 6 Music

I have recently been reading The Panizzi Lectures: Bibliography & the Sociology of Texts, by D F McKenzie. In that lecture, McKenzie talked about the poet Milton’s use of the word “violl” and the “idea of the book as a sacred but expressive form, one whose medium gives transparent access to the essential meaning…there is a tradition in which print-inclined authors assume this.” [McKenzie, p.24]. The phial, or the text in this interpretation, is “less than sacred text, the destabilised, the indeterminate, or the broken…” [p.27]

It seems to me that Bowie was an artist for whom culture was a feast for him to partake of. As the opening quote to this post shows, he saw that art was changed by each interpretation: that there could be no definitive, ultimate version of anything, and that perhaps, therefore, each new incarnation was just as important as that which came before it. Bowie’s work was rare amongst popular artists, in that you can create your own interpretations of his songs: often his lyrics were ambiguous, meaning that you could, perhaps, break the phial, desecrate the sacred, and make something new of it, a new reading that could be personal to the listener. It seems appropriate to use this analogy, too, because of course:

Milton’s spelling of the word, in addition, reminds us of the viola, and contains therefore “a typical Milton pun: it is as if, in reading a book, we should also be moved by the harmony of the work, what Shakespeare called ‘the concord of sweet sounds’. [McKenzie, p.24]

I don’t believe Bowie was overawed by the canonical: he seems to have held a reverence for it, but reinterpretation was more important to him than the preservation of the perceived sanctity of a piece of art. This is represented quite profoundly in the V&A exhibition David Bowie is, which is currently on a worldwide tour. In it, Bowie’s history seems to embody the essence of the digital humanities: music with its roots in jazz, punk, Euro-disco and electronic German art-rock; “mixed media, cinema, mime, Tibetan Buddhism, acting and love” [About David Bowie]: science fiction, Brechtian theatricality, Surrealism, William Burroughs; Andy Warhol, murder, technology, the outsider: he was also responsible for the first ever song distributed through the internet (1996’s Telling Lies). 

Bowie has come not just to represent his innovations but to symbolize modern rock as an idiom in which literacy, art, fashion, style, sexual exploration and social commentary can be rolled into one. | Rolling Stone Magazine.

In addition to all that, he painted the face of masculinity: twisting the “traditional” norms related to gender and sexuality, encompassing the “spaces in between” that Norbert Wiener so eloquently talks about when describing the essence of the digital humanities. That may seem like a tenuous analogy, but it is the reason I wrote this blog post: Bowie existed in those spaces, applied technology in new and fascinating ways, took what was traditional and created something new. He broke open the phial and released the sweet sounds within.

Who were Lou Reed, Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop? And what of Cherry Vanilla, Wayne/Jayne County, and Leee Black Childers? And why was it so important to read On The Road, see this film A Clockwork Orange, or hear Kraftwerk, Anthony Newley and Mott the Hoople? It turned out discovering David Bowie came with a reading list to immerse oneself in and retrace the steps he’d walked in, to perhaps decrypt this strange news from another star… | James Gent, Happy Birthday Starman: A Tribute to the genius of David Bowie.

My friend James Gent has written a far more fitting tribute to the Thin White Duke, albeit a week before Bowie’s death: it can be found here and shows Mr Gent at his eloquent and emotive best, describing Bowie as the person who “freed all us suburban outcasts” [@jamesgent76].

We must continue to turn and face the strange in his absence.



Anthropomorphism & British Weather

“What’s your name” Coraline asked the cat. ‘Look, I’m Coraline. Okay?”
“Cats don’t have names,” it said.
“No?” said Coraline.
“No,” said the cat. “Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.” [Neil Gaiman, Coraline]

My brother and sister-in-law were recently driving me to my local train station after a brief trip home to South Wales over the Christmas period. I was idly checking the rail app on my phone to determine whether or not any of the services I hoped to access that day had been cancelled: Storm Frank was hitting the UK in a big way, particularly the North of England, putting areas like Cumbria under siege from torrential rain and winds, and flooding. “Some weather we’ve been having recently, isn’t it?” My brother said, as I half-tuned in to the conversation. “I’d swear it’s got worse since they started giving them names.”

Later that day, as I was passing through the Welsh Marches, I read an article on The Guardian website that seemed to reiterate what my brother had put voice to a few hours earlier. In an article entitled Does a storm cause more or less pain if it has a human name? the writer laid out the history of the naming of storms.

According to the weather historian Philip Eden, the very first person to do so was an expatriate British meteorologist, Clement Wragge, who was in charge of the Queensland state meteorological department during the late 19th century and gave names to tropical cyclones to make them more memorable.

But it was not until the late 1940s that his counterparts in the US realised that names were far easier to remember than the standard convention, which simply used the year and a specific number. Giving each individual storm a name – which was made official in 1953 – made a lot of sense in a country where more than one major weather event can occur at the same time.

At first, the convention was to use female names. But from the late 1970s onwards, after protests against sexism, male names were finally added to the list.

Putting aside the innate sexism involved in only giving storms female names (women being, of course, temperamental and destructive in their worst moods) it seems a very American thing to do, to name a weather front: the Met Office, however, has begun to do the same. And so far we have had the likes of Abigail, Barney, Desmond and Frank, determinedly prosaic names, to draw our attention to them in a way which, to my mind, seems to heighten their importance whilst simultaneously suggesting that they are not important. It’s not simply another rainy day: it’s Storm Abigail, tearing up the Welsh coastline, or Storm Frank, battering the already beleaguered citizens of York.

When we name something, we attempt to exert authority over it. In America, so sayeth The Guardian article, the naming of different weather systems was so as to differentiate one from another in a country where many different weather systems proliferate. What is the reason for doing so in the UK?

I could look to Bourdieu and suggest that the naming of things like storms is simply another form of social classification: after all, as Bourdieu says:

principles of division, inextricably logical and sociological, function within and for the purposes of the struggle between social groups…What is at stake in the struggles about the meaning of the social world is power over the classificatory schemes and systems which are the basis of the representations of the groups and therefore of their mobilisation and demobilisation. [479]

Bourdieu talks about “occupational titles”, the selection of labels intended to increase social recognition. In giving the storms a name, then, we are enhancing their status as something to be considered important. Conversely, however, their labels are almost embarrassingly pedestrian. What does this suggest? That storms are meant to appeal to the bourgeoise, to the Abigails and Franks of the world; an acceptable conversational topic in a world often agonisingly on the brink of some huge conflict. Or that in giving them these conventional names we are at one and the same time implying importance and removing it. And who names the storms? Who has power over their classification?

Bourdieu said that culture is often popularised to appeal to the masses, and that cultural artefacts which stem from “pop” culture are decried as of less importance than “proper” culture. I wonder, then, in this age of fracking and increasingly bad weather inextricably linked by many to climate change, the naming of these storms is meant to undermine their importance in some way, to make us think that they’re not significant?

In Ursula Le Guin’s The Earthsea Trilogy a magician’s power comes from his knowledge of the names of things like, for example:

The true name of the falcon, to which falcon must come…for magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing. [46-47]

And the importance of naming things is not lost in the digital, either, because the correct name can mean the difference between an effective resource and an underused one. A programmer’s power is therefore no different to that of a wizard, if we say code is a variation of the Old Speech [Le Guin, 46-47].

In The Power of Names: In Culture and in MathematicsLoren Graham, a Professor of History of Science Emeritus at MIT, discusses the concept of naming in Mathematics.

The great Russian-French mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, still alive but no longer active as a mathematician, put a heavy emphasis on “naming” as a way to gain cognitive power over mathematical objects even before they have been understood. One observer of Grothendieck’s work wrote, “Grothendieck had an air for choosing striking evocative names for new concepts; indeed, he saw the act of naming mathematical objects as an integral part of their discovery, as a way to grasp them even before they have been entirely understood.” Mathematicians occasionally observe that, on the basis of intuition, they sometimes develop concepts that are at first ineffable and resist definition; these concepts must be named before they can be brought under control and properly enter the mathematical world. Naming can be the path toward that control. [p.231]

Names, then, are important things. They can mean social status, and a way of giving understanding to the ineffable. They can mean the difference between the success and failure of an endeavour (who amongst us hasn’t spend hours agonising of the title of a journal article or essay?). They can mean the difference between magic and mundanity. Sometimes, perhaps, they can even just be names.

If you were wondering, my train wasn’t cancelled.

What are Archives? Cultural & Theoretical Perspectives: A Reader, edited by Louise Craven

I am currently reading What are Archives? Cultural & Theoretical Perspectives: A Reader, edited by Louise Craven and with contributions from Michael Moss and Andrew Prescott, amongst others. The text focuses on the archive and the archivist, and their mutual roles in a digital world. Craven’s own chapter, the nattily titled From the Archivist’s Cardigan to the Very Dead Sheep: What are Archives? What are Archivists? What do They Do? focuses on “five specific areas which have experienced transformation or significant development in the past ten or so years.”

During my viva voce it became apparent that my focus on the archive as a form of internment was problematic, and probably offensive to archivists who consider their role to be one of guardianship, not prison wardenship. I saw the archive as a form of house arrest (Sian Echard’s term) because it suited my argument about the lack of access to culture and the provision of the digital as a substitute to the original. I didn’t take into account the very positive role of the archive, and of “record-keeping…as an indicator of the development of civilisation.” [Craven, p.12]: my focus was on the Derridean notion of the hierarchical structure of the archive, and how that hierarchy is used to police access: “its authority, its titles, and its genealogy, the right that it commands, the legality or the legitimacy that depends on it” [Derrida, Archive Fever: a Freudian Impression, p.10].

Craven’s chapter presents the record office as a place of custodianship, in which “theories of knowledge and ownership of knowledge have irrevocably shifted” [Craven, p.8] and archive collections have to be reconsidered within this new paradigm. She discusses how an archival document actually has many meanings, dependent upon the use that document is put to by the user. A letter, for example, “was at once the most intimate and most treacherous of all archival documents because it is open to so many interpretations” [Eagleton, 1982, pp.54-55].

That must be problematic when attempting to seek out an audience for a digitised artefact. By digitising you are fixing something into a single role, when most archival material can have many different purposes and meanings. By thereafter putting it on a website that is meant to attract genealogists, for example, you are focusing on one of its potential interpretations at the cost of all the others. The document becomes fixed, and its many potential permutations are discarded.

Currently there is little empirical evidence as to the impact of archival images available on the Internet, but the figures alone are staggering: since digitised images of documents were first made available in 2004, there have been 66 million downloads from online sources of TNA documents…The experience online is quite different. The relationship between an individual and the digitised image here seems to be more like that experienced by a person watching a film…”giving a sense of enclosure”…[Craven, pp.18-19]

We know that the digitised artefact often does not present the original as it exists in the “real world”. The light is different: things are changed in order to present the best possible image to the viewer. The danger is that the viewer fails to realise that the download they have will be quite different to the original. Furthermore, as Craven notes, the procedures employed within the physical archive often impede the use of digital resources – online catalogues, for example, “have been identified as barriers to the constructive use of digital resources” [Craven, p.21].

Another interesting element of this chapter is when Craven discusses the outward signs of importance that a manuscript has, which are removed by the digitisation process:

Paper records have a set of ‘signs’ which we absorb automatically: just as typefaces tell us things about the meaning of the words they convey, the outward form of paper records tells us about the significance and authority of the content within. A book bound in red leather says “I’m important!”, the way documents are folded in a bundle, the format of a pipe roll, the use of treasury tags…the archivist’s intervention here – putting the documents in order, describing them and producing finding aids – simply reinforces this notion of importance…signs of conservation are similarly significant…electronic records have no such signs, no way of saying “I’m important!”. [Craven, p.22]

Michael Moss describes digitisation as “undermining the fiduciary responsibility of the archivist” [Craven, p.23]. I suspect that many archivists (so too academics and traditional scholars) feel threatened by the digital, and what could be seen as the erosion of archival practice. Furthermore, Craven’s conclusion mentions the fact that archivists are being asked to “become skilled in old and new technologies and to make decisions on cultural and heritage grounds without giving them the knowledge and skills they need to do so” [Craven, p.25].

The next chapter is by Andrew Prescott, and discusses Foucault’s idea of heterotopias, a notion that I think will further support the discussion within my thesis of the places within which we do our learning. I will write further on that within the next week or so. In the meantime, my evaluation of the archivist’s trade and the rebalancing of my work to acknowledge their role as conservationists, rather than wardens, continues apace.

Re//Generate – Materiality and the Afterlives of Things in the Middle Ages

I suspect this issue of materiality and the reuse of materials is particularly prevalent in today’s digital domain, when the physicality of an item is negotiated in its replication. Can we consider digitisation as another form of reuse of materials? Interesting topic!

The University of St Andrews School of Art History in collaboration with the St Andrews Institute of Medieval Studies (SAIMS) present Re/generate: Materiality and the Afterlives of Things in the Middle Ages, 500-1500, an interdisciplinary conference on reuse and recycling in medieval Europe taking place on 6-7th May 2016.

In recent years, the discipline of Art History has been grappling with the concept of materiality, the very thingness of art. The material of medieval art, be it parchment, precious metal, gem, bone or stone, has emerged as a spearheading topic. Unsurprisingly, this “material turn” has prompted intriguing questions. To what extent does an ivory figure of the Virgin and Child embody the divine, rather than merely represent it? What exactly did pilgrims do with the holy dust or liquid which they carried away from saints’ shrines in little ampullae? It is within this context that we wish…

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Austerity is now cultural as well as financial.

I have finally, after much gnashing of teeth and wailing and rending of clothes, finished my thesis. It is printed and sits awaiting its bindings, which will be put on it tomorrow. The thesis is about cultural value and capital, and how they might be reflected in the digital domain. I think the idea that digitisation democratises knowledge is somewhat disingenuous, when you think that the items chosen for digitisation are often canonical, and picked by a intellectual elite. The work also mentions the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu believed that only those from a certain echelon of society could legitimately access culture because they were the only ones who felt comfortable doing so. This ease was a result of their introduction to culture from an early age.

Yesterday I read a BBC article in which the Head of the Museums Association confirmed that York Art Gallery was about to introduce a £7.50 entrance fee, to offset a 60% reduction in its budget. I can’t imagine how miserable an experience it must have been for York Council to determine where they could save money in the face of swingeing Government cuts to the public sector. Close the community centre and save the library? Shut down the day care centre, or charge an entrance fee to the local museum? What public services should we withdraw to save the others? As Robert Peston put it, the Government wants a “reinvention of the public sector”. What this of course means is, the services and facilities that we often take for granted and are often the heart and soul of our communities, are under threat.

Jonathan Jones, the art critic for The Guardian, suggests that we should pay for access to museums. He says:

The British – and it is distinctively British, with few equivalents elsewhere – belief that all museums should be free is a remarkable piece of idealism. It means that any of us can walk into our local gallery whenever we like and look at a Turner or even a Leonardo for nothing.

This article reduced me to such a level of rage that I had to write this blog post in order to calm down. It goes without saying that I think it’s pretty big fucking talk for a rich white man who has regular access to museums and art galleries can blithely say that we should pay for the privilege of looking at cultural artefacts. I suspect Mr Jones has never had to weigh up what he should spend his last £3 on. He is also keen to say that entrance fees should “be a supplement [to public funding], and in no way is an excuse for cuts”. But what Mr Jones seems not to realise is that culture is not high on the agenda of our present Government, and where York Museum leads, others will no doubt follow – and it will particularly be smaller museums unprotected by the Government’s promise to protect national museums and galleries (the vast majority of which, of course, are in London).

I wandered into the Birmingham Museum many years ago, because it was free and I had a spare hour and, completely and utterly by chance, having not the foggiest idea they were there, chanced upon the museum’s Pre-Raphaelite Collection and saw Beata Beatrix, by the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I had studied this painting when completing my Art History A-Level years before. I remember being fascinated by the story of Rossetti’s wife Lizzy Siddal, who had died very young and whose flame-red hair, it was said, had continued to grow even after death, so that when Rossetti dug up her coffin to retrieve the works of poetry he had, in his grief, buried with his wife (what a romantic!), the hair had filled the remaining space in the coffin, and spilled out. I was entirely shocked and awestruck to see this painting, which had only ever lived for me before in the pages of a textbook.

Had there been an entrance fee, I simply would not have gone in that day. I probably would have gone across the road and bought myself something from Pieminster, because I was starving and I certainly would not have been able to afford both entrance fee and lunch. And I would never had what became one of the most powerful experiences of my adult life. That sounds like bombast but it was a big deal for me to not only be in the presence of such a powerful, evocative piece of art (representing not just Dante’s grief at the death of Beatrice but also Rossetti’s despair at Siddal’s death from a laudanum overdose), but to have known and recognised the work in the first place.

I cried the night the exit polls came in and I realised we were in for a Tory government. I grew up in the South Wales Valleys in the 80s, and the effects of Thatcherism in that area are still being felt. I went to university having received a grant and a Student Loan. The amount of debt I racked up to complete my undergraduate degree is minimal in the extreme when compared to what future students might potentially face (up to £53,000 worth of debt for the poorest students). University would have been completely out of my reach were it not for those grants and loans.

I now work in Further Education (it’s hard sometimes not to feel like David Cameron is working some personal vendetta against me) and we are told that the sector is in crisis, with almost half the colleges in England being in deficit.

I don't know what I've done to piss this lot off, but they seem Hell-bent on wrecking my career.
I don’t know what I’ve done to piss this lot off, but they seem Hell-bent on my destruction. Taken from conservativehome.com

This is not exclusive to England. The college I am currently working at in Wales faces its own extreme financial challenges. Ironically, the much-maligned Liberal Democrats had kept the worst excesses of the Conservatives in check. A colleague of mine, who retired this year, put it most succinctly when he said: we were all hoping the Labour Party would charge in, like the cavalry, and save us pioneers from attack. But there is no cavalry. There is no hope of being saved. The result of this is that support for the most vulnerable students will disappear. This means no more hardship loans, or crisis grants, or help with purchasing books. The bus fares will go up. They won’t be able to afford to attend college. What happens then? Where do they go?

What happens to the children whose families can’t afford to take them to museums? Or pay for their bus to college so they can get some decent qualifications? What about the ones who manage to navigate themselves financially through the FE system, and are faced with the prospect of a huge debt in order to get a degree? With no access to culture, or to literature (my own field) how does one develop the ease and comfort required to access high culture?

Another place I would not have visited had there not been free entry. Natural History Museum, London: picture courtesy of National Geographic.
Another place I would not have visited had there not been free entry. Natural History Museum, London: picture courtesy of National Geographic.

To take this back to my academic work in some small way, I am concerned that the digital will become the supplement for high culture. Can’t afford to go to The Tate? No problem! We’ve digitised some of its collections for you. Only the ones we want you to see, of course: the canonical ones, the ones we think are the best.

I am not blind to the fact that my PhD thesis (research I would never have been able to write were it not for the series of grants and loans I received, from a variety of different sources, to complete my education) discusses cultural capital and that I am hideously biased because of my background, the sector within which I work, and my political orientations. I believe there is a cultural hierarchy, not just in the things we look at (back to my research, and the idea that canonical items somehow have more importance) but with the people who have access to those things. I feel nauseous that we are increasingly living in a society where our Government dictates the terms under which we can look at art. Of course, it was under Thatcher that we saw the concept of corporate sponsorship of the arts as opposed to public subsidy, a concept which is diametrically opposed to the notions of culture as a means of connecting us to our communities, and its intrinsic and instrumental effect.

In this diatribe I have conflated education and access to culture but they are both experiencing the extremely adverse effects of the battle lines that are currently being drawn. A siege mentality has been reawakened. The wealthy are pulling up pitch and removing themselves to higher ground. The idea of a financial and cultural elite, which never entirely went away, of course, is now brought into much sharper, painful focus. Austerity is something the poor suffer under, and now it is not simply financial austerity but cultural, too.

“According to Manuel Castells (1996, 1997, 1997a), the dynamic complexities of the information age are giving rise to both new forms of state organisation – ‘the network state’ – and new forms of societal organisation – ‘the network society’. In both cases, although the Internet and associated technologies are not conceived as simple causal mediums of change, they are certainly central in enabling these to emerge in this particular formation. In Castellian terms…where the older communications networks of the nation-state system were vertical, hierarchical and one-directional, the digital information industries made possible by the Net promise horizontal and inter-actional patterns of circulation and flow…the digitally democratised state will be multi-centred, networked and decentralised in form. As informationalism becomes the axial principle of the network society, the previously demarcated spheres of culture, society, technology and politics become de-differentiated when reproduced through the ‘logic of the network’ (Castells, 1996)” | Taken from Making Cultures Digital: Access, Interactivity, and Authenticity by Martin Hand/Ashgate Publishing

Is it more worrying that I understood this?

CFP: New Perspectives on Gerald of Wales: Texts and Contexts, Harvard University, 10-11 April 2015

“This conference invites papers on any aspect of Gerald’s writing, especially welcoming new approaches to his religious writings; the transmission of his work in manuscript, including the construction of stemma; his relationship to other writers of the twelfth century, whether scholastic, historical or otherwise; his relationship with the Angevins; and the legacy of his reception in vernacular languages.”


Deadline: 31 October 2014

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