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