Tag Archives: art

A Leg to Stand On: Prosthetics, Art and Robots @ UoB Arts and Science Festival

Given the title of the event, you could be forgiven for thinking how on earth could all these separate entities be tied together into one coherent, in-depth discussion on social acceptance and norms of human identity. But after an hour of detailed debate even I was beginning to see a link between each of these themes.


As one of the first events I would be attending of the week-long University of Birmingham Arts & Science Festival, I was a bit anxious as to what was to come from two of the institution’s lecturers, Dr Camilla Smith and Dr Nick Hawes. Initially it felt like a standard course lecture, given the layout in a teaching room of the Learning Centre. The way in which it was delivered, with a series of power-point slides, did not help this first impression either. However, it was the conversational manner in which it was given that made me deeply intrigued by the content of the talk. This certainly was no algebra or physics lesson.

The talk itself was separated into three main chunks; art and identity, robots and how they have become more human-like and the final piece, prosthetic limbs and how robotics and art have defined how we socially accept prosthetics. The history of art and this theme of self-identity proved to be an interesting segment but it was the discussion on robots I  could not help being absolutely mesmerised by. From the simple industrial models to the delicate, moving mannequins imitating humans was a thrilling, yet chilling, experience. A YouTube search for ‘uncanny valley’ will give you a fair idea of the sensation they incited within the audience. It was also a much welcome light-hearted break from the prior art masterclass that may have been a bit too heavy for such an occasion.


Two actual prosthetic limbs were presented for the discussion; I can’t help but feel they were slightly neglected and perhaps more emphasis should have been placed on audience engagement with such contraptions. This might have been down to time constraints, however, as the event did overrun slightly. Overall, it was an enjoyable hour that left me asking, why do we accept Paralympian athletes with visible prosthetics but make it necessary for ordinary patients with missing limbs to perhaps feel obliged to cover up?

By Princeton Lancaster


Art and Writing – The City @ Birmingham Book Festival

In Birmingham, the second biggest city in the UK, defining the concept of ‘the city’ is understandably relevant. It is little wonder, therefore, that the Barber Institute has interpreted it also. The institute has been called ‘a haven of tranquility in a bustling metropolis’; procuring the status as a perfect island in which literary fans can gather and act the flâneur; observing the city through the eyes and mouths of storytellers.
‘Art and Writing: The City’ was presented on Thursday 11th October by Andrew Killeen, the resident writer at the Barber Institute; guiding listeners through the ‘concrete jungle’. This main event, he explained, was preceded by a series of creative writing workshops that aimed to provoke ideas about cities and our relationship to them. Yet, he emphasised writers did not simply sit in front of art and write. They met and discussed themes together, later reconvening to share and critique each other’s work. The finished products were then brought to the final workshop. Killeen was pleased to note that the experience had been ‘inspiring’, and that works had been chosen this evening to demonstrate the ‘breadth of ideas’ throughout the project.
Certainly, the stories brought some interesting interpretations to the fore. Cities were popularly situated alongside the countryside; most storytellers portrayed the country as backwards and boring, a ‘void’ where ‘a computer [became] a rare gift’. This rendered ‘the city’ a glamorous finale to a journey of escapism. This notion, however, was often dispelled by portrayals of multiple cities.

Jenefer Heap’s modern London was ‘rendered sterile from a safe distance’ for tourists. She superimposed this image upon a city so that the character of ‘Lu’ could walk with her younger self ‘Lulu’, confronting distasteful elements of her past.  Aaron Jackson portrayed a dark and bloody underworld to his initially attractive Tokyo and poet Jessica Holloway Swift held Oxford up against London, stating that ‘Oxford was the city of the king, London the city of the usurper.’
Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, Swift’s London smog was innovatively replaced with the presence of Puritans that apparently ‘polluted the soul’. In each, the ‘seductive’ city became sordid, the ‘nonchalant’ city became ‘violent’ and the ‘instinctively chic’ city became morally ambiguous. Death also permanently pervaded its horizon like ‘a weight of bloodied metal’. The word ‘survival’ echoed throughout; it seems that the workshops had stimulated an urban anxiety.
This was especially evident in Killeen’s short story, Hardcore, where a country dweller’s attempts to remove a traveller’s family from his local ‘green belt’ made evident fears about the spread of suburbia. Killeen claimed in his introduction that the city has ‘burst out of the walls’ that once defined it; rural/urban boundaries are being swallowed by a suburban landscape. Killeen asked, ‘How do we know who to include and exclude?’ His protagonist certainly does not want to include travellers, whom he sees as destroying his ‘way of life’. The implication, however, is that his bigoted views are influenced by his fear that ‘Eventually our green and pleasant land will become one big ugly dirty city’; his enemies are developing and changing a field into an (albeit basic) built-up area.
Combatting this aesthetic of unease were the readings that punctuated the workshop’s storytellers. Lecturers from the university brought a fresh and positive attitude to the project; a love for the city, that has been explored by English writers in times past. We heard the hustle and bustle of Virginia Woolf’s London that leads Mrs Dalloway to proclaim that this ‘was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.’ Hugh Adlington performed a more serene London in William Wordsworth’s Composed Upon Westminster Bridge where ‘the very houses seem asleep/And all that mighty heart is lying still’. This poem seemed particularly appropriate as Wordsworth’s stolen moment of ‘calm, in the midst of Mrs Dalloway’s London, mirrored that of the audience’s in the Barber Institute’s intimate lecture theatre.
In the course of the evening, it became clear that the city has many faces, and that art has the capacity to capture each of them, including the people living within them. The relationship between urbanites and the metropolis is a complex one, and Killeen’s project displayed urban love and hate in a wonderfully widespread and indeed inspiring fashion.

Becca Inglis

What is Art?

‘Art is the pinnacle of nature.’ Gavin Wade.

On an extremely cold, Friday 13th evening I ventured into Digbeth to find St Basils Church and a discussion entitled ‘What is Art?’ Coming from a creative writing background with an interest in art but no real knowledge on the subject, I was surprised to have a conversation with the IKON gallery curator Tyler Cann about his short lived career as a potter in a small town in Japan; this was only the beginning of a very interesting evening.

‘What is Art?’ was organised by West Bromwich artist and maths teacher, Kartar Uppal as a fundraiser based in St Basils Church. The Kartar Uppal charity works with young homeless people, offering accommodation and support services around Birmingham. The event hosted an expert panel gathered around the front stage, consisting of IKON gallery curator Tyler Cann, director of artist-run public gallery Eastside Projects Gavin Wade, and local artist and lecturer Kathy Wade.

The venue itself was fitting for such a discussion with an impressive gold mural at the back of the church. Around twenty people, including local artists and teachers, braved the weather to witness the event. Kartar Uppal kicked off the discussion in theoretical style, with talk of Wittgenstein, Saussure, language games, and trees, basing his argument that art is another form of a language game. Each of the panelists gave their interpretations as to this theory; Gavin Wade retold a story about a conversation with a Glaswegian taxi driver who believed that Henrik Larsson, then a Celtic footballer, to be the greatest artist ever. This emphasized the idea that art is created within the viewer, whether it be a Scottish cabbie or the artist themselves, rather than the actual object itself.

After a discussion between all four panelists about the authority of art, Tyler Cann, who openly admitted to not having considered this question, quoted the American poet Robert Frost, ‘If you are not educated in metaphor, then you are not fit to be let loose on the world’. They went on to say that for art to exist some knowledge has to be known by the viewer before seeing the object. Gavin Wade gave the example that viewing a Jackson Pollock painting for the first time without any knowledge of his work could lead the viewer to think that this is uncomplicated and perhaps even childlike. However with knowledge about Pollack’s career and that he was the first to practice his particular style of painting helps in the understanding and appreciation of his art. However, Kathy Wade made an important interjection that with the advent of the internet and social media, the notion of an artist is being disintegrated with anyone who owns a handheld camera being able to become a published ‘artist’. This could then be dangerous for the integrity of art.

The discussion was by no means exhaustive, and the panelists could have talked into the small hours of the morning but Karthar brought the event to a close. Despite the best efforts of the panel no concrete answer was found to ‘What is Art?’ but all in all the night was a great success. The event shone a spotlight on the vibrant and diverse Birmingham art scene, of which there is certainly more to experience than walking past the IKON gallery and buying another Starbucks cappuccino.

Words by Sam Murphy
13th Jan 2012