Saturday, December 25, 2010

Homemade Christmas Presents: spoiler alert!

Due to being an Associate lecturer at MMU, I only found out that I was getting my contract for teaching renewed about a week before Xmas. With the possibility of beginning 2011 completely penniless, I decided to handmake my presents. I used mainly mixed recycled papers, drawings, glue and my watercolour paint set to make a massive A1 size collage inspired by my sister's fantastic photos of tree bark (see images)and my general love of trees. I didn't want to just use natural colours though as I think that vibrant pallettes which use both combining and contrasting colours are both appealing and spirit raising. I started off the collage with a section where I  tried to mimic the shapes and the gist of the colours of some bark but then I got carried away and began to work with the shapes I had already laid down, mimicking and echoing those. Then I worked with a more imaginative flow to see where the transpiring shapes and colours took me. Sometimes the trees turned into roots or mountains. I guess I just worked with the general nature theme.

I bought a triple frame in the Asda sale for my mum and chose parts in particularly vibrant and warm colours as she likes them!

Afterwards, I bought loads of 50p A6 clip frames (and a few 150p wooden frames for an extra special touch!) and cut pieces of the collage up to fit the frames. The result is that each picture is a random section of an already fairly random piece of work. It's liked I collaged (and indeed bricolaged) stuff together and then de-collaged it. I chose a piece for each person according to what I know about them, such as the colours and types of scenery they like, whether they're dreamy or decisive, whether they're into figuration or abstraction. If I tell the truth, I had certain people in mind as I collaged particular parts of the surface. It was a rewarding experience as it made me feel connected with friends and family when they weren't there. I hope they get some enjoyment out of the final part of the process - looking at it. At the end of the day, if they throw it in the bin, at least it didn't cost me the earth to make and I didn't waste my December as usual wandering around souless department stalls, playing the consumerist game. I'd much rather play games with soggy tissue paper and imaginary scenery.
BTW - if you want one then let me know - these were the leftovers - I made so many! Have a peaceful Christmas filled with magical realism...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What I learnt from 2010


I'm seriously considering writing a self help book but I'd make an effort to make it down to earth, not patronising or prescriptive and not full of personality type categories. It would be called You Don't Need Help.

Anyhow, 2010 has been a challenging year and a half and it's made me wonder whether every year gets more challenging as you get older. It's also helped me to feel stronger; stronger than I was when I had less to deal with.  It's hard to talk about this stuff without risking sounding like a self help guru but it's time to try. Here is a list of three of the challenges faced this year and what I took away from them.

1. My sister's cancer resulting in two operations, a course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, her sickness, pain and hair loss.

She was braver than I could have imagined she ever would be. When people are brave themselves it helps others around them to keep it together, creating a cycle of mutual togetherness. Cancer doesn't have to take over everything - as much as it tries to. It can be incidental when fun or frivolity is the focus of the moment. Each moment is what counts and we don't know how many moments we'll have. I'm embracing them with mindfulness.

I have added admiration for my sister and I'm thankful that she's making a recovery.

2. A year of applying for permanent lecturing and other positions ranging from administrative posts to selling mobile phones in Tescos and receiving rejections or no replies.

I always said that applying for jobs is time wasting if you end up not getting them. Filling in the forms bites into your free time at the weekends and you give up those moments which you could be spending with friends. But spending time writing about all your qualities and rewarding work experiences is not a bad thing to do. And you can do it whilst listening to your favourite tunes. Each time I fill out an application form or go for a job interview I'm reenacting and reaffirming my previous achievements. Then if I don't get the job and I feel disappointment I realise just what it is I'm fighting for. I'm not sure there's such a thing as rejection. Not getting a job after an interview means that you haven't been accepted for that post but it's possible that the employer wanted to employ you as well! It's also possible that in the fullness of time, you would have been the better option.

Every time I don't get a job, I use the time I would have spent polishing my shoes and commuting to the office doing something creative. And I do it with the acquired knowledge of my new experiences, whether they be positive or negative. I write, draw, collage and add to the order of things. Don't negate, create! And bear in mind there's a recession on. 

3. Identity and other thefts.

I got my yahoo account hacked into and they erased all the addresses in my address book and deactivated my facebook account after they'd sent a message to my friends saying that I was stranded in Spain with lost luggage and I needed them to transfer money into my account. A few weeks later I got my handbag (with house keys, phone, cards, etc) stolen at my local cafe by two professional, middle aged thieves who distracted me by asking for the time. I sent a message to all my friends explaining that I'd had my bag stolen and so I had no phone. Some of them thought it was the email hackers again. This was pretty funny and we got a few jokes out of it. It coincided with me teaching Criminology for the first time ever - a subject which I previously knew little about. I was able to use my own experiences to discuss issues of identity theft, petty crime and internet crime with my new students!

I'm more cautious of strangers now, which maybe isn't a good thing. But I'm also more aware of my friends' qualities. Most of them are savvy and they didn't believe the hackers for a moment. Some of them are a little naive and they did but went out of their way to contact me and offer support. Others saw hilarity in the situation and I had at least one night's spontaneous wine drinking fun from it as a bit of post identity theft relief.

I'm stopping at these three because they're the things which come to mind so they must be the most poignant in my consciousness. Except for falling flat on my back in the ice yesterday - that's quite raw. Today I'm using my aches and pains as an excuse to relax which can only be a good thing. There's been lots of other mini traumas and inconveniences in 2010 - some too obscure to describe and I've learnt that a minor inconvenience can take a snowballing effect and a lot of time to resolve. I no longer expect things to happen quickly. I know to put more time aside to minimise the stress.

I'm looking forward to 2011 because I'm facing it with more wisdom, resourcefulness and balls!

What did you learn/gain?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Boundaries of the Body ?

Margolles, 'Aire,'

It has become both fashionable and necessary to talk about the body - its capacities and its limitations. The study of material culture debates the possible symbolism of the tattoo, biochemistry examines cancer cell growth under a microscope, or psychological studies measure and try to comprehend instances of anorexia. We can view the body as a vehicle, both physically and mentally, towards understanding the way we interact to create meanings in relation to issues of life and death. Teresa Margolles' art works focus
more on death, but in doing this, she makes the viewer more aware of what comes before it - life. During a weekend trip to Bristol I stumbled upon an exhibition at the Arnolfini gallery called 'What next for the body?' and Margolles' installations left a residue. 

There were no actual bodies present in the gallery spaces used by Margolles, just markers that deaths had occurred, leaving our imaginations to wonder how and why - or what these bodies may have looked like. In 'Aire' Margolles uses a whole room of the gallery to install two humidifier machines filled with disinfected water which was used to wash bodies before autopsy. Once inside the room the viewer feels and breathes in the vapour and through this kinaesthesia, becomes aware of their own sentient present state and of the absence of former lives. There is no 'piece of art' in formal or formalist terms here but the action and subsequent reaction of the viewer constitutes a uniquely evocative experience. We are forced to engage with death. I thought I could smell something putrid or unfamiliar but I wasn't sure if it was the disinfectant or something incidental. What was most disturbing was not knowing either way. Arguably, art works which work with dead people cross boundaries which need to be explained and justified. But the explanations in the accompanying leaflets were kept to a minimum. It is possible that in doing this Margolles was gesturing to the ambiguities of death itself and of how our understanding of death cannot be confined by language systems. It felt like she was trying to shock.

The ethics of using dead bodies for the purpose of art works seems to be a blurry issue. In '37 Cuerpos', Margolles uses another room of the gallery to hang a long line of 37 different pieces of string which have been tied together. Each piece of thread had been used to sew up a corpse after autopsy but in this case it was highlighted that these bodies had suffered violent deaths. The threads appeared to be blood stained if you looked closely but without the accompanying text you wouldn't know their origin. No confirmation was provided that the relatives of the deceased had given their permission to use these threads and, needless to say, the deceased themselves could not have granted it as their dying wish (as they could if they had been terminally ill). Again, this adds to the shock factor of the art work. The body's boundaries are explored in multiple ways: the physical parameters in terms of the whole body and its associated or dismembered substances, the separation of the physical and the mental including the memory of the dead in the minds of the living and the ethical concerns around preserving these memories and of human sanctity. Margolles appears to ask whether there is such a thing and she asks it coldly and almost silently, reinforcing the chilling nature of the exhibits and their possible
meaninglessness. This is her artistic style. It is Conceptual because as well as considering the body's boundaries she also challenges art's boundaries. Some visitors would rather she didn't. I wasn't impressed at the time but I discussed it at length with a material culture scholar this week. This must mean that there's a place for it and the questions it raises for contemporary culture. Art used to be sacred. But this was only allowed via the bodies or icons depicted within it. Art in the 21C gives all art forms and all bodies a chance.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Wizard of Dr Tom: Review of Being Erica Season 3 episode 12 - Erica, Interrupted

Being Erica promo for the USA's soapnet. Well it looks a bit like the yellow brick road, huh?

[warning: spoilers if you're behind - which I was and the spoilers really did spoil it for me a little]

I am not sure if 'Erica, Interrupted' was the final or penultimate episode of season three but, either way, there is definitely a Christmas special next week - which makes me glad I'm watching it online as I snuggle on the sofa by the advent calender in a woolly hooded top - rather than waiting for it to (possibly) come to British screens on a sweaty summer's night.

In 'Erica, Interrupted' Erica was interrupted by a coma - from which she awoke only to find herself in a different world to the one which she had grown accustomed since the day she first met her time-traveller therapist, Dr Tom. This forced her to consider whether the quantum reality she had believed all along was true had in fact just been a dream, meaning that the positive steps she had taken in that dream had led her to what would now constitute a false future. She woke into the past she thought she had left behind to find the people of this past peering at her from a rather pedestrian present. Her family and friends were the family and friends whom she had always known but those she had met since the day she entered therapy were completely different characters. Dr Tom the therapist is Dr Tom the neurologist, Dave the barista is Dave the porter and Julianne the publisher is Julianne the nurse (do these jobs equate to each other in the hierarchy of jobworthiness?) It was almost macabre to watch as they appeared clueless to her plight. They recognised her and she recognised them but the lenses through which they identified each other were skewed. A panicked Erica asks Dr Tom the neurologist why he is testing her like this and he just calls up her parents and asks some guys to restrain her. She has to ask herself whether she is actually going insane. In this sense the title of the episode alludes to the film about some women whose natural, 'normal' course of life is interrupted by mental illness, 'Girl ,Interrupted' - which turns out to be one of writer Jana Sinyor's favourite films (Jana Sinyor interviewed). As the audience, we have to ask ourselves: is Erica really concussed and she has been heavily dreaming/fantasising? Or is she suffering from mental illness? Or is this just another time travelling trip to one of her past regrets and there's something she should be changing in it? The shocking shift in narrative direction in this episode is that Dr Tom does not seem to know her in the capacity he always has - over the three seasons. We can't be sure whether he is playing a trick on Erica or whether the writers are playing a trick on us.

Both were true. The major shift in format happened for a reason and it wasn't just the authors dabbling in postmodern narrative non-conventions. Dr Tom was testing Erica in a way quite like never before because finally Erica was being given the chance to become a Dr herself. She passed. She is now a Dr. She passed the test which was not just realising that it was a test but realising that, whether it was a test or not, she was strong enough to deal with it and to move on from dealing with it. She references one of Dr Tom's earliest quotes to her, taken from Albert Einstein - 'in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.' This is significant considering that she herself is becoming Dr. Credit to the writers who have always held that they had planned the whole plot direction of the seasons from the start. It was a clever episode and I revelled in the way that it felt almost inter-textual in its possible references to other seminal movies and TV programmes which play with temporary parallel realities and parallel characters, such as Life on Mars, It's a Wonderful Life and, perhaps most pertinently and surprisingly, the Wizard of Oz. It left me nearly satisfied considering the negativity of my opinions of season 3 - which I gave in my last review. It didn't answer any of the questions I was asking last week in relation to the unresolved issues of many of the main characters - including Dr Tom's. But it almost made the necessity to ask those questions obsolete.

We are happy that Erica has found doctorhood and has a new office which she can fill with the things she desires just by imagining them. We are pleased that Dr Tom now addresses her as an equal and that he shook her hand causing the first intentional act of physical contact between them - something which was previously so lacking that you had to ask yourself whether his body was solid or ethereal. Some of us are pleased that her romance with Adam continues whilst others of us (the more gritty realistic types) are happy that it is still not perfect due to the fact that Adam himself failed the doctorate test and so they are not really equals. There was also the sub plot around Julianne and Brett's bizarre friend/colleague/enemy/love relationship and the suggestion that they are moving on in some way, together. All these things are positive for Being Erica's development but I can't quite forget the shortcomings of the other 11 episodes of this season. However, it's possible that there'll be a season 4 and that some of the more absent storylines will be picked back up and headed towards resolution. We need to twitter and blog about Being Erica if we want to keep it on CBC's radar and this is all the more necessary considering that it has been acknowledged that the majority of Being Erica's audience comes via downloads.

There needs to be a season 4 because in order to feel fulfilled as her trusted viewers we need to witness Erica in her ultimate prime, as a Dr. We need to know what her office will look like when she's finished decorating it. We need to see more of Dr Tom, Dr Nadia and Dr Arthur and how they relate to Dr Erica. And we also need to know who Erica's first patient will be. Hands up?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Seeing Erica again: Review of Being Erica Season 3

'Bear Breasts' episode screen shot from left to right: Cassidy, Erica, Dave, Ivan, Julianne

Being a Being Erica fan can be tricky. You'll see from my previous review of seasons 1 and 2 that I was full of praise and awe for the show - Seeing Erica. There is lots to like about it: it reaches out to an under delivered demographic (unmarried, unkidded 30 somethings), it finds a nice balance between comedy and drama, it interweaves fantasy with reality effectively, the actors have the likability as well as the actorbility factor and it's not set in New York, LA or London. Season 2 wasn't afraid to challenge its boundaries in terms of the programme's format and its characterisation - and it did this effortlessly. Season 3 has continued to reinvent itself by introducing major new characters and changes to the way Erica experiences her daily travels, including phase two of her therapy which she is told will lead her to phase three - becoming a doctor of time-travel. However, I'm not convinced it works this time, or even if it does, I just don't seem to be enjoying Being Erica as much as I used to. Whilst acknowledging that there's still two episodes of season 3 to go, I'm going to give my reasons for why I think Erica's charm has dwindled. I wonder if others agree?

Not Being Erica

Well the programme used to be about a woman named Erica but now it seems to focus on a guy called Adam. There's nothing wrong with introducing new characters; season 2 brought in Kai - Erica's first time travelling buddy - and whilst he has appeared in season 3, he has not featured heavily despite the fact that his love affair with Erica has not really been resolved. According to twitter, Kai is popular, so why introduce yet another love interest to Erica's life in the form of Adam? I can see that the format of revisiting Erica's past every week was starting to run dry, but then why not revisit more of Kai's past, or the time-travelling doctors' regrets or even some of the other characters'? I always thought it would be interesting if one of Erica's family members or friends entered into time-travel therapy too, perhaps without Erica knowing but creating the anticipation that she might find out.

But too many stories

Erica already had several friends, a therapist, some colleagues and a few family members. Season 3 has continued to follow the terrestial lives of many of these, including her sister, her parents, her friends Judith and Jenny, colleagues Julianne and Brett and (Dr) Tom. Some of the storylines are really relevant and poignant, in particular Erica's mother's battle with breast cancer, Judith's possible extra-marital affair, Brett's mixed feelings of jealousy and revenge and Dr Tom's journey to violence-free sobriety and his difficult reunification with his daughter. It seemed that there was more than enough simultaneous storylines to be going along with here, but in addition to this, there is the new added aspect of group (time-travelling) therapy, not to mention the gay relationship (I will go back to this later) between Dave and Ivan, the owners of the coffee shop which Erica frequents. It's difficult to do all these stories justice in a 13 episode 45 minute drama and many stories were left behind for weeks at a time. I was particularly disappointed by the portrayal of a family who has a member with cancer, as, after Barbara, the mother, told her daughters her diagnosis it was barely mentioned again until (the much later episode when) she was told she was cancer-free. OK, so they needn't have broached the illness quite so painfully transparently and tenaciously as they did with kitty's lymphoma in Brothers and Sisters last year but there could have been a little more thought on how it would affect Erica - our protagonist's - daily life. But then Erica has been putting ALL her attention into how to get to Adam, emotionally and carnally. This could be interesting if it was an avoidance tactic but it clearly wasn't.

I love therefore I am ?

Perhaps it is simply because I am not a fan of romance fiction or heavily romanced narratives as a whole that explains why I am entirely disinterested in the Erica-Adam storyline. However, there are a number of sub-points I would like to make in relation to this storyline's shortcomings. Firstly, as mentioned above, what was wrong with the Erica-Kai chemical/cerebral romance (other from the fact that he was from her future - but hey - does that even figure in a time travelling show?), secondly, as also addressed above, hasn't Erica got better things to think about, such as her mother's illness or the fact that she seems to be time travelling her way to doctorhood? Thirdly, and as conveyed effectively by Kat Angus in her blog here, wouldn't it be more interesting if Erica had fallen for Adam and he had rejected her because he actually really didn't see her in that way - not because he is in fact suppressing his true feelings? One of the charms of Being Erica is the fact that she deals from week to week with life's daily mishaps, misfortunes and misgivings, and rejection is something that most people have to face at some point in their lives, however attractive they may be (another related point - how realistic is it that a man who sells juice at her local gym would try and bed her after one conversation?) Lastly, this kind of romance is age-old and typically Mills n Boon/Austen in format - where a man and a woman meet, get off to a bad start, have misunderstood yet sexually fuelled arguments about the sort of people they are, then get to see each other from slightly different perspectives, realise they have been quelling their feelings for each other and that they are more similar than they think e.g. both hot-headed: they fall madly in love. I would have liked to have seen some more unpredictable romance at least. How about if Erica had one day realised she really liked the geeky guy from group therapy or if Julianne and Ivan really had have fallen in love.

In the episode 'Bear Breasts', Ivan - who later becomes engaged to Dave - decided he wanted a go of Julianne's breasts and they explored the fact that gay people can get straight crushes. The whole episode was set during Toronto Gay Pride and also Erica's old gay friend, Cassidy, from season 1 (who had a crush on Erica) returned. This is the only episode of Being Erica that hasn't involved time travel - which I kind of missed - but also it felt like the episode was trying too hard to be gay. Everything about it was gay, from the feather boas to the giant ice penis sculpture on the bar counter. It's as though the writers went out of their way to portray non-hetero love but it came across as forced and its forcefulness could be viewed as a kind of inverted bigotry. It's difficult to judge whether it worked inside of Canada (talking from a British perspective) as it's possible that Canadian TV has never really explicitly addressed gay relationships, a subject which found 'visibility' on British TV in the 1980s and 1990s. If I was to watch Queer as Folk in 2010 it may appear dated; a desperate attempt to make everyday life as a gay person normative when prior to this it had not been viewed as such. Now, no one questions people's sexuality in the same way; it's something which just isn't a 'thing' anymore. With Ivan and Dave, it seems that there isn't much to their storylines which isn't about the fact that they are gay. In a way, this also adds to my whole critique of Being Erica season 3's romance focus.

Time, space and what goes in between

Until now, I've avoided discussing in any detail the new group therapy format. Does it work? Firstly, does it work in the sense that only the pasts of Erica and Adam are visited with any purpose; what about the other three group members? If their stories are not relevant then why are they there (other than to give Erica an opening to a new time-travelling romance)? Secondly, how do they see what is going on in each other's lives before they are summoned to the group session room by Dr Tom? There are scenes of them entering the room in their pyjamas because someone is about to do something pivotal like sleep with the wrong person. When they get there, they know straight off why they are there. Do they all have crystal balls where they can spy on each other? I don't think I am being petty in asking this as with Erica we often have access, as viewers, to the private places of her kitchen or her bedroom and the sorts of thought processes which she occupies in those spaces, so it makes sense that if she had a crystal ball we would see it, right? I don't think she has a crystal ball. I just think that we are not supposed to think about this particular aspect of time travel. Is this satisfactory? You could say that we don't question how the doctors know everything about their patients and that that doesn't matter but I think that we don't search for answers with these characters because they have always been presented to us as mysterious people with mysterious powers. They are doctors of time travel; only they know how they do it. Erica is still just Erica who cannot control when or how she travels through time so how come she can see other people before they are about to do it?

Doctor who?

And what about those doctors? If there's one thing I find fascinating about season 3, it's the addition of a new doctor to the quantum hierarchy - the somewhat boho looking Dr Arthur. It makes you wonder how many more doctors there are. And what is their ultimate goal? Well these questions haven't been answered and I'm hoping that they will be in the last two episodes or in season 4 - if the programme's renewed. Wouldn't you just love to see what the composed, calm, collected and slightly smug Dr Nadia was like before she found her therapy? We've watched Dr Tom lose his cool a little in all three of the seasons and the episode which revolved around him this time - 'Physician Heal Thyself,' was eye-wateringly gripping throughout and beautifully understated towards its end. Whilst Erica is the clear protagonist, Dr Tom comes a close second as a male protagonist counter-part - or at least he did until Adam entered the equation. In the episodes which have focused on Dr Tom we start to see snippets of his past life such as the house where he lived, his once wife and the bars where he frequented. As viewers we are offered this insight into his past in the same way in which we always have been with Erica. Yet, whilst we see a large piece of the patchwork of Erica's current life - and now too Adam's - we are only invited to see the same square patch of Tom's - with square being a relevant word here. Surely, by the end of three seasons of Dr Tomisms, we are allowed to know at least where he lives? Perhaps he sleeps on those inner city pavement benches where Erica often seems to bump into him late at night as he looks pensively into the equidistance before summarising the meaning of her day - not his. This is my final criticism of season three and in a way the lack of Dr Tom-ness is highlighted by the presence of some of my other niggles. Anyway, I can't completely criticise the season because it hasn't finished yet and even when it has, there may be another one to come where some of these issues will be worked through. As I've always loved Being Erica, I sense that writing this may become one of my regrets. Maybe I'll learn something about another part of my life when I come back to it and re-read it a later date.

Dr Tom in binman guise- screenshot

Sunday, December 5, 2010


What makes a good blog? What makes a readable blog? What makes a popular blog? Are the three the same thing?

I think not. When I read the blogs of others, some of the most futile, contentless and poorly written are streaming with visitors and followers. Some really thought-provoking ones (on niche subjects or not) are barely viewed. Sometimes the thoughtful ones are also overflowing with visitors and comments, sometimes not.  There are loads of tips around the internet on how to increase traffic. I've tried some of them and not only do they not really work, I have to ask myself if I want more traffic around me. I would rather have a few devoted followers who like what I have to say. At one stage I even decided that my blog was just for me; a regular record of my thoughts on things. I made the settings private for a while. I've opened it up to all of sundry again. But all of sundry is not really listening.

Why do I want people to read my blog? Do I think people can learn something necessary and unique from it? Or perhaps they'll just relate to something in it and feel reassured. Is it narcissism? A craving for fame? A general fear of death finding me before I've left a mark somewhere on the earth's surface? I'm not sure whether it's a little of all these things. It definitely makes me feel better that others are doing it too. Not just bloggers but artists, actors, musicians, scientists. They're putting their oeuvres out there with the hope that they'll hatch into something bigger and further reaching. Have we all got something unique to say to the world? Well, maybe not the whole world as it's quite a big place but there's bound to be spaces somewhere where our words will fit. 

"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind."

— Dr. Seuss  

Saturday, November 27, 2010

a list about reality-fantasy-hybrid stories

I'm about to make a list. I'm not really a list person. I'm not sure I'm geeky enough on the whole. Incidentally, there was a recent discussion on geekiness at Madlab called Geeks Talk Sexy (and this link contains a list too); (Madlab's where I'm currently working on an arts project). The general consensus was, so I hear, that geeks are no longer considered to be the same thing as nerds or anoraks and that a geek is really just someone who is passionate/obsessive about certain, chosen things (but I guess not trainspotting) and who is not afraid to display that passion. So maybe I am a geek. I'm really passionate about a few select things and I don't mind showing it. The list I am about to write is not about my top ten favourite things though. It's a list of my top ten favourite reality-fantasy-hybrid texts - text meaning that it could be in  the format of TV, film, book or any other medium. This follows on directly from my last blog post where I discussed how I like stories which combine the realistic, earthling world with fleeting fantasy elements.

Of course, there is a problem with my definition reality-fantasy-hybrids. If something is set in the 'real world' but then fantastical things start to filter into the story, then it is no longer realistic and so it is actually fantasy, right? It can't be like a hybrid bike which just takes elements from two different designs and combines them side by side because in the case of a story these elements fuse and transmogrify the story itself into a new kind of experience. A bike is a bike is a bike. You get racers and you get mountain bikes and you get hybrids. But a hybrid bike is still a bike - upon which you sit and move forwards as you pedal it along. If you switch from a mountain to a racer you may find your head may be slightly closer to the handlebars but you're still using the bike to go in the same direction. Reality fiction and fantasy fiction or sci-fi are different enough to take you in completely opposing directions. If you want interpretations of possible (rather than impossible) everyday, routine material life then you might watch Eastenders or a Mike Leigh film (not that I'm saying they're entirely realistic but they're def not surrealistic). If you want to be transported to an impossible place or find the characters in supra-mundane circumstances, then this is an entirely different narrative experience. You can't really compare hybrid stories to hybrid vehicles because their frameworks are so different and the faculties we use to access them work differently. Thinking and processing is more fluid, three dimensional and it's infinitely variable. Physically sitting (on a mass of solid particles) is more grounded and predictable. So if you can't compare a hybrid bike to a hybrid narrative because of the trans-structural complexities of the latter, does this mean you can't have hybrid fiction?

Well, in Cultural Studies, hybrid culture - and I'm talking here about inter-cultural experiences - takes on its own essence of in-betweenness as well as incorporating the features of two or more cultures. It's like if Jews had never settled in America, we wouldn't have New York bagels or Woody Allen's humour. The fusion of elements creates a whole new experience. Perhaps this more indeterminate definition can work for the addressal of (potentially) hybrid stories too. My argument is that there are just some types of fiction which use fantastical devices to add texture to otherwise realistic plots, characters and themes. These stories are hybrid because they are not essentially one genre or the other but between genres, or without genres. So here's the list and I'm not sure how common its listiness is.

1. Being Erica (series 1 and 2)
2. True Blood
3. Choky
4. Walking on Glass
5. The Day of the Triffids
6. Harry Potter (shock)
7. Misfits
8. Doctor Who (the old ones)
9. The Worst Witch
10. The Wizard of Oz

Oh god, lists are so confining. I want to go on but I've got to keep my boundaries. That's why I'm not a list person.

One more thing to add - there's a bit of fantasy in all our stories always (so what is fantasy?)

Friday, November 26, 2010

When fantasy gives reality a helping hand (or wand)?

Reality/Fantasy Hybrids?
I have always been in two minds about sci-fi and fantasy fiction; I like it but only when there's two realms which meet within the same story - a real world/fantasy world hybrid. I just can't get into the story if it's entirely dunked in some shiny space age cosmos or hurdygurdy, hobgoblin habitat. I first have to relate to the characters before I can enter into their adventures with them. It's easier to relate to characters who find themselves in familiar, or at least, plausible situations - ones which could happen in our own day to day lives. If, from the start, they have hoofed feet and live in a hole, it's harder to engage with the more testing situations in which they find themselves further down the line. Call me unimaginative but, actually, I do love fantasy when it comes face to face with reality; with the reality to which I am already gripped. I can suspend belief and revel in doing so when I already understand the trials and tribulations of the characters on our side of the parallel universe. Particularly, if their daily trials are ultra ordinary or hyper grim. A great example of this is the current UK series Misfits where the protagonists are ultimate anti-heros, chavtacularly cheeky young offenders doing probation work, who find themselves with superpowers.

Bill and Sookie, True Blood
Is sci-fi an easy way out and is the gothic cheesy?
I'm not trained in how to dissect narrative nuances in 'the novel' or 'the film' or 'the tv' but I like to think about the ways stories develop in all three of these mediums. I guess this questioning of secondary-living constitutes an inevitable part of our everyday lives. I once posed a couple of questions to two literature PhD students/lecturers - is the gothic cheesy and is sci-fi an easy way out of normative, narrative niggles? The latter issue struck me when I think I was watching A Scanner Darkly - wham-bam at the cinema - but I can't remember the specific context exactly. The gist was that, in sci-fi, if people have superpowers then they can sense things which are beyond the usual human's grasp (e.g. whether it be via time travel or special kinaesthetic traits) and therefore they just know things. We know already, as the audience, that they know these things and therefore the storyliner/writer doesn't have to go on a pedantic and pedestrian (un-wild) goosechase trying to sub-slot into the main plot how the characters find stuff out. For example, Superman has x-ray vision so he can see when an enemy is plotting against him behind a closed door and act upon it more quickly, thus moving the chain of events along at a more entertaining and action inducing pace. However, as the English lit scholars pointed out, this can make things more complex in other ways. The usual possibilities or inevitabilities are both tightened in terms of specific sci-lexicy and widenened in the sense that anything can happen and so when it does happen it is then open to a greater, further number of ramifications. There's also the empathy thing from the writer's perspective. It's harder to imagine how the characters may react to something which is impossible. So sci-fi is what it is - it's its own science of fiction, with its own methods of measuring and testing narrative which open up different, niche readings and interpretations. And the same goes for gothic fiction.

Yet with recurring tales of gothic castles containing gothic creatures over the past few centuries - vampires in particular - reaching back as far as (arguably it's further) Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764), gothic fantasy fiction requires a particularly anticipated preferred reader. The reader has to be versed with the gothic story so that they have preconceptions of certain aspects of gothic narrative and gothic characterisation. The vampire doesn't die easily or go out in the day and they may be rather pale yet the non-vampires seem to find them alluring, hence the inevitable blood loss. If there's a full moon, the normal guy will change into a werewolf - a half-moon simply won't cut it even if the timing's more convenient because it won't clash with his suitor's ball - we get this. And so on. I mean if it's a sci-fi series then the same rules of learnt preconception may apply but, as it stands, the robot is relatively versatile. Robots may or may not be killer robots. Vampires always want human blood even if some of the more contemporary ones try to fight it  - such as Bill in True Blood and Edward in Twilight. So if gothic fiction is more predictable than sci-fi, does it make it any less literarily valid and are both types of fiction less worthy than the literary novel of Booker prize pedigree? Well, it depends on the way they're executed (no pun intended) and also on the intentions of the author. And this is a big question which I'm not qualified to answer. An easier question to consider may be: are sci-fi/fantasy/gothic stories any more 'literarily worthy' than other types of commercial, genre fiction?

Gothic and Sci-fi Symbolism
Well, whilst commerical fiction tends to be genre-able (which is not nec a bad thing), 'genre' fiction may not always be written in a way which responds to its potential sellability. Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black and John Fowle's The Magus come to mind as they could be and possibly have been at times genred as supernatiral fiction but they're seen to be written by literary authors. Like with Henry James's Turn of the Screw, they do something interesting with their use of supernatural characteristics. They use them symbolically to refer to broader unresolved and unresolvable social issues, such as (and arguably) male promiscuity and the dilemmas of freewill (in The Magus), the witch as witch-hunted in a world which favours superficial beauty (Beyond Black) and female psycho-pathology and sexual repression (Turn of the Screw). It is often argued that the vampire in Bram Stoker's Dracula represented the underrepresented, misunderstood and oppressed homo/bisexual element in draconian Victorian society. The violent and erotic act of drawing blood thus becomes a replacement metaphor for the exchange of bodily fluids during 'normal' intercourse but it also becomes a way of symbolically getting back at 'normal' society. There's also the notion of fin de siecle tension in gothic fiction; the fear of the unknown in terms of what the next century will or won't bring including armageddon. It's argued that authors such as Stoker and James picked up on these tensions and both addressed and utilised the zeitgest of fear via their gothic narratives. Similar critical analyses were made at the end of the 20th century when there seemed to be a spate of horrors and spoof-horrors and increased interest in supernatural beings with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer which had a devout cult and not-so-cult following. (Incidentally, I have a humourous tale relating to Buffy. My friend was given a lifesize cardboard cut-out Buffy as a present even though he wasn't a big fan. When his flatmates had a party they did a twist on 'stick the tale on the Donkey.' It was called 'stick the muff on buff'.) Anyhow, the point is, is that if writers are aware of the more covert and complex ways in which they are using narrative - does that make it more literary? An added issue with gothic fiction is that it is also often seen to be self-parodying. This means that however cheesy/corny/cliched it seems, it can be argued to be self-referentially comedic - or post-modern (even if it's just actually a bad, American daytime supernatural tv movie.) I don't think that the use of sci-fi narrative devices provide a get out clause for processing plot problems either. As I mentioned above, they can create new plot directions.This is currently particularly apparent in two of my favourite - where fantasy meets reality - TV shows; Being Erica and Misfits.

The Charms of Being Erica and Misfits
Being Erica, discussed in an earlier post, follows the life of a thirty something, likeable but 'underachieved' woman who ponders her life regrets and tries to fix them via time travel. When she returns to her past and changes something, the event has then changed for all the people involved - but the narrative never really focuses on this. It just focuses on it enough to avoid contradictions. At least in the main. Erica meets another time-traveller and potential lover, Kai, only he's from the future and trying to fix his past regrets too, so they share similar experiences of the time-space continuum. However, near the end of season two, Kai manages to alter his biggest regret which involves singing the correct, heartfelt and meaningful song at a gig - he's a future rockstar you see. After his performance it seems that he's managed to change the course of his past for the benefit of his future and in doing this, parts of his recent future are erased. Because these parts involved Erica, he no longer knows who she is when she congratulates him on his performance. She understands (and because this part of his past is her present, her past with him is still her past). This complexity in the sci-fi part of Being Erica's narrative worked here and it worked with poignancy. However, if one of Erica's friends had been standing next to her, it wouldn't have. They would have said, "huh, why doesn't Kai recognise you any more?" It's a problem for potential sub-plot developments when it's only the protagonists who time travel. Sometimes I think this weakens the use of fantastical narrative devices but sometimes I believe that their complexities stretch the writer's thinking processes and, as a consequence, help to weave an impressively super-golden thread of texture to the story.

It is difficult to tell if the tools of fantasy/sci-fi fiction give the scaffolding of reality fiction a helping hand because if the writers have chosen to mix the two then we don't know how the story would have turned out had it been one thing or the other. Being Erica may have turned out to be pure, chic lit Bridgett Jones-esque TV drama and Misits may have been a probation sit-com, a bit like Porridge only grittier and with reference to ASBOs. They could have been more entertaining and they could have been more naturalistically nuanced but they may have been less distinctive or textured. Fantasy worlds are fun because we can escape into them but when they get too obscure, too far removed to relate to, there's always the safety-net of realism to bounce back into. At least there is with real world/fantasy world hybrid fiction.

Erica and Kai, Being Erica

Monday, August 23, 2010

Experiences of North Korea?

Thinking about North Korea

North Korea (or DPRK) has one of the worst human rights records in the world, whilst it is impossible to leave the country or access information (legally) from the countries outside its parameters. Further to this, the North Koreans have suffered from famine for more than ten years because of their difficult terrain and because the Communist government refuses to distribute rice and grain effectively to its people. In the past, North Korea has been somewhat overlooked by the British press although recently alleged nuclear threats seem to have put DPRK on our newsroom radar. We have all (rightly) heard about children in Ethopia suffering from kwashiorkor (swollen belly) but not those who live in the small country north of the prosperous South Korea. If you read papers in the USA and Australia, there are more reports on the tragedies of DPRK, as well as more NGOs and charities who raise money and awareness for the nation. I think this is partly due to geographical location - Australia and America are nearer or bordering on to the Asia Pacific rim (definitions vary). It may also be because of our post colonial histories. The British Empire occupied several African countries, taking valuable minerals before decolonising, so now feels a responsibility to offer some relief / aid. The USA intervened heavily in the Korean war and its consequential South Korean military government and surrounding cold war hysteria.  Arguably, the USA contributed to the country's division and North Korea's subsequent hardships and alienation. Britain have had little to do with Korea historically other than sending some troops out to help in the Korean war. 

Amnesty International is one of the global organisations which reports on the issues taking place in North Korea. For example, the recent article on the Crumbling Health System in North Korea. There are also a number of Christian, refugee and other charities, often located in the USA. and see charities and NGOS re North Korea

One of the projects on which I'm currently working concerns the pursuit of North Korean refugee artists or people who are making art about their experiences. It is difficult to locate refugees as they are often in hiding and live anonymous existences for fear that they will be found out and that their families back home will face execution or concentration camps. As well as the horrific side of everyday life in DPRK, our project also wants to document the more mundane experiences of every day life - without the sensationalism (e.g. the documentaries recently shown on BBC2 & 3 or Kim Jong Il's portrayal in Team America!)

If anyone has any knowledge of North Korea or if you are a North Korean yourself who wishes to remain anonymous and you would like to take part in a project, please contact me. As it is early days I don't want to display publically the current rationale behind the project. I just need to hear a few voices on the subject. And they need to be heard.

what happened to a scanner daily?

There were several reasons why I stopped a scanner daily. There was a rationale behind its end, it wasn't just that I couldn't be bothered to open the lid of my scanner every day. Here it is:

1) In the same week I was asked to co-curate an exhibion, write a piece for another exhibition and put in an application for research funding with my ex PhD-supervisor. I suddenly had some purpose to my present and future everday life. And something to put my energies into which a range of other people may notice (rather than just my 3 loyal blog readers).

2) I wanted to begin seriously re-drafting my novel.

3) I showed my blog at Madlab's Interesting Mondays because they were short of speakers and I wanted feedback. It was interpreted as a 365 project - of which there are thousands online. It made a scanner daily seem mundane.

4) I felt like I was spending too much time blogging to myself, rather than communicating my ideas more productively and healthily.

5) I was sick of opening the lid of the scanner every day and waiting for the information to travel from it to my senile laptop.

I changed the look of my blog but I think it is for the worse so I made it private for a while. Now I'm not sure what to do. Any ideas re the design and title of the blog?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Scanner Daily: 11

Three elastic bands, scanned

Yesterday I attended Madlab's Interesting Monday where people give talks about whatever takes their fancy and other people listen. I gave an extremely cringeworthy last minute, hangover heady talk (I'm still hungover even today from Saturday's tea party, hence the small daily) about this blog which was definitely the least interesting part of the evening. More interesting were the talk on ants - apparently they are eusocial - they interact with consideration a bit like humans do, a Korean game a bit like blackjacks called Kunghe and how practising magic can aid digital design. Magician, Stuart Nolan, talked generously and intensely about sleight of hand (I always want to say slight of hand) and manipulation. One of his tricks which he showed us in the pub involved elastic bands. He donated these to me for A Scanner Daily. They look extraordinary striking and almost hyperreal for three run of the mill, beige coloured elastic bands. Perhaps it is magic but I'm still not entirely sure what magic is.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Scanner Daily: 10

Art deco, hand painted sandwich plate, circa 1930s, scanned

I chose this, one of my favourite plates because this weekend we are having a tea party for my sister's birthday. I need to go there and help bake cupcakes tomorrow so I probably won't scan again until Monday. We want to have a special celebration as my sister's had a very bad year as she's been ill and she's still undergoing treatment in the form of radiotherapy - I wonder if she feels like she's a scanned object. She says it's not as bad as the chemo though. One of the reasons why I started writing The Gaps Between the Branches was because it felt so cathartic during a time of numbed anguish. It seemed like the most natural and productive thing to do when everything else seemed inaccessible and  unnecessary (I've been meaning to do a post on this for a while). However, I've noticed there are lots of sick people in my novel. This would have happened anyway as one of the protagonists is a psychic healer. I worry that there is more than the average amount of  sick, dead and dying people in my story. But surrounding the time I wrote it, people I knew saw close loved ones pass. It happens as we get older I suppose. I don't see why writers should avoid these narratives. They're not glamorous but they can be told philosophically and we can focus on the aliveness of the dead. I suppose ghosts are glamorous though and there's a few of those in my novel.

During writing a PhD many people lose family and friends to illnesses or accidental deaths. It's eerie how many. A PhD overseer at MMU said that life doesn't put itself on hold just because someone's doing a PhD. Especially as it takes at least three years. If this blog entry can be some small eulogy to those that have passed or been ill during the writing of my thesis and anti-thesis, then it shall. I hope you find some peace and some colour, like the flowers on this plate.  

Again, as the plate is 3D (more so than we'd think), it has lost some of its clarity. The painted scene is blurry in places. Some of the contours of the plate seem to disintegrate into smoky air like ghostly residues. But the colours shine through the scan.

Have a lovely birthday Anna. xxx

A Scanner Daily: 9

ceramic morph bookend, scanned

Today I wrote, swam, played with my niece then went for a slap-up meal (whatever that means) and drinks which were free because my friend was writing an advertorial for the place. It is called Electrik and it's in Chorlton. We decided that the decor was half seventies, half alpine hut bar. There was lots of wood laminate which almost looked like wood but appeared a bit more like Formica. They had those tall lamps with the light shades covered in some sort of woven, sack-like material which looks like the fabric they used to make pin boards out of. My friend found it comforting because it reminded her of visiting her grandparent's house as a child. The place hints at nostalgia but doesn't rub it in your face. The food reminded me of the potato, meat and gravyish meals my mum used to give me as a child. As soon as I discovered pasta and tomatoes I pretty much switched my daily staple cuisine from English to Italian. Today I compromised and chose a tomato crumble from the menu. It was tasty and it seemed to have all of my five a day in it. Anyhow, I'm not going to write an advertorial.

I chose morph because of the nostalgia thing, although he's more eighties than seventies. You have to ask yourself, when you visit these retro clad bars, to whose nostalgia is it appealing? A generation who were kids in the seventies and eighties. So that's the whipper snappers whom I teach at university out then. But I guess that our nostalgia became their retro and now their retro is also their nostalgia, so it's doubly nostalgic. Is it post post-modern?

Morph didn't scan well because he's a very 3D object so the scanner's lid wouldn't go down past him and the glass pane which captures the image only got his surface points clearly - his hands. The rest of his body looks dark and hazy and out of reach like if it had been caught on camera, it would have been at dusk, without a flash and with an inappropriately fast shutter speed. His body appears to morph into the lid on top of him. If the lid represents time closing in on us, morph could represent ourselves in the present, whilst the scanner is our memories, capturing our blur of existence. This is a bullshit metaphor.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Scanner Daily: 8

plastic bag, scanned

Yesterday I had some meetings in the Northern Quarter so I decided to look around the shops which I used to depend on as a teenager. I hadn't been in the Vinyl Exchange for about ten years. It was like walking back into my DMs and patchwork trousers again. I remember when music was so essential to my life. That was before I had to pay bills, attend weddings and be concerned with trying to become a professional - whatever that is. I bought some DVDs as cheap birthday presents. They didn't have the DVD section when I used to go.

This bag scans really well. I think it's the best yet. The beam of the scanner has captured the shadows and light in the creases effectively and the hole where the handle goes is void like. It's one hell of a sexy bag.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Scanner Daily: 7

Some Sunday Sketches in the garden in Timperley, fountain pen on notepad

Still finding it hard to get definition with a thick clotting fountain pen. I was attracted to the bark on the tree - the more I looked at it the crustier and crazier it appeared. I couldn't face drawing all the leaves though. My cat, Chomsky, wouldn't sit still and I followed him round the garden all day but I could never get a good, prolonged eyeful. On the bottom right picture I had to make up his eyes and his left one looks human as a consequence. The jeans on the line caught my eye as they looked a bit comical, the left pair being my Dad's and the right pair - more pear shaped, being my own, but I couldn't get the shading right with the pen. I was hoping a bird would land on the washing line but it didn't. Bird outlines are cool at the moment and I have a necklace with a generic bird-shaped bird on it in maroon PVC, sitting on a silver twig.

I had other plans for Sunday. I wasn't very productive but at least I did something.