Thursday, 17 December 2015

Connections, collaboration, and communication: what I learnt from the LAHP Languages and Policy Workshop

On Monday 7 December 2015, I attended a workshop on languages and policy hosted by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership. Having worked for The Policy Institute at King’s while completing my PhD on literature and cultural policy in Venezuela, I was very keen to learn more about how languages – or, more broadly, language-based area studies – interact with policy. This thought-provoking workshop highlighted three areas of interest: how policy affects the study of languages, the intersection of languages and policy outside of academia, and how aspects of language-based academic research can link to policy. For me, the workshop can be summarized in three linked key terms: connections, collaboration, and communication.

From Jocelyn Wyburd’s facts and figures about the crisis in languages education, particularly the deficit of secondary school language teachers, it was clear to me that we need to work together across the languages to lobby the government and encourage the study of languages. To do this, we must also reach out to other disciplines, such as neuroscience to show the cognitive benefits of language learning, or social scientists to discuss multilingualism and social cohesion. Philip Cavendish from the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at UCL gave an example of a department which combines traditional language-related research (study of a language and its related culture) with subjects including politics and international relations, while also working with institutions beyond the university (the FCO, Open Democracy, the Calvert Foundation). I found it a shame, however, that there is not much communication between SSEES and other languages departments. I strongly believe that scholars in different languages have a lot to gain from working together; not only the traditionally taught European languages, but also the Asian and African languages which are often limited to specialist institutions such as SOAS.

In the second session, Chris Murray (Institute for Public Policy Research), Helen Laker (Southwark Council), Carolina Gottardo (Latin American Women’s Rights Service) and Lucila Granada (Coalition of Latin Americans) all demonstrated the interplay between languages and policy in the real world, in sectors such as education, health care, housing and employment. What struck me most was that all four depend on volunteers. While it was suggested that volunteering could be considered as an internship for PhD students, I thought that as undergraduate students often complain that they do not get enough speaking practice, why not put them in contact with associations or charities? I would like to explore further how to integrate this useful language practice into the undergraduate degree.

The final session stressed the importance of putting yourself out there, meeting people, making connections and being prepared to go beyond your comfort zone. I noted that Hilary Footitt called her work on the language policies of NGOs ‘a strange project to have arrived at’, and I paraphrased Ben Schofield with ‘If someone offers you something weird and wonderful, go for it’. The panel encouraged us to think creatively about links between our research of obscure literature (in both Ben’s and my case at least!) and wider policy implications. They suggested going to conferences on subjects outside of our own to find links, as Hilary did, both with other disciplines and other institutions. From lobbyist Zacahary Bishop, I learnt to develop my USP/‘elevator pitch’, so that if I’m ever in a room with policy-makers they can tell straight away if there is an opportunity for collaboration. Finally, Ben (who is something of a Twitter personality: @haben_und_soll), reminded us that social media is a useful tool: we should let the world know what we’re doing so people can find us!

Given the focus on connections, communication and collaboration, it was great to have not only speakers but other attendees from a wide range of disciplines, including sign language, education and medical humanities. We definitely learnt a lot from each other, and left inspired to build more connections beyond our own disciplines.

For more information about the LAHP, visit

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Fabrication: KCL Arts & Humanities Festival 2015

Given that I started my PhD writing about the KCL Arts and Humanities Festival, it seems only fitting that I end in the same way. This year's theme is Fabrication. As usual, it's a broad theme, ambiguous enough to allow King's staff and students to shoehorn in their wide range of interests, but - to the joy of my inner five year old - staff from the Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies department took it literally and got us engaging in arts and crafts.

Fabricating Across the Atlantic

My beloved supervisors, Professor Catherine Boyle and Dr Elisa Sampson Vera Tudela, decided to celebrate the Andean tradition of making arpilleras, small tapestries sewn onto sacks, which have been used for decades as a form of protest or a way to share life stories. Chilean Human Rights advocate and researcher Roberta Bacic curated an exhibition of arpilleras from Chile, Argentina and Peru, with narratives of dictatorship, strikes, or making a stand against domestic abuse. Also on display was an arpillera created by Chilean exiles in Sheffield and South Yorkshire, telling the story of how they had started a new life.

Catherine and Elisa wanted to take the festival as an opportunity not only to display arpilleras but to consider how they can be understood in and adapted to our own context. They asked: 'What does it mean to tell our own stories of here and now in a city of movement and transition like London, through a creative form borrowed from elsewhere?'

To answer that question, they turned the Council Room of KCL into an arpillera workshop, led by artist Linda Adams who, inspired by the Andean example, explores political themes through tapestry. Armed with thread, fabrics, paper templates and PVA glue, we were challenged to make a collective tapestry narrating our own experience of London. Naturally, I made myself dancing.

The day ended in a dramatised reading of Tres Marias y una Rosa, a Chilean play by David Benavente and Taller de Investigación Teatral depicting an arpillera workshop. The four women of the title discuss their financial and marital struggles as they make arpilleras for export, the only way for them to support themselves and their families. Catherine had worked with the Head For Heights Theatre Company in a mixture of translation and devising to make the play work and resonate in an English context. While we had been busy cutting and sticking, Catherine, director Karen Morash and four very brave actresses spent the afternoon locked away rehearsing. After only a matter of hours with the play, they put on an incredibly engaging performance. I was surprised to learn that the original play had been written in 1979 as the frank discussions between the women and their struggles to support their families through economic crisis are just as relevant today.

Translation games: weaving translation into a poetic collage

I've been a fan of Translation Games since it launched in 2013, to the point where I invited the organiser Dr Ricarda Vidal to introduce her fascinating project at the Migrating Texts colloquium last year. Translation Games plays with translation across not only different languages but different media in a ‘public-facing programme of ludic workshops’. The project employs the arts to make languages interesting for the general public, while at the same time trying to discover whether there is an ‘essence’ of a text which carries through different media.

As Ricarda explained, Translation Games began with a project called What We Made in which a short narrative text commissioned from the American Colleen Becker was translated in a sort of telephone game from English to French to Italian and so on. Each translator only had access to the previous step, although the text was also translated back into English at every stage. At the same time, the text was translated from writing to film to ceramics to an audiovisual piece and finally to choreography, and simultaneously from text to textile. Translation Games has since run further projects, including translation from poetry to scents, and a challenge for students and artists to translate a photographic version of a poem by the Serbian Vasko Popa into an English poem.

My favourite Spaniard Dr Maria-José Blanco has now joined Ricarda and thanks to an AHRC grant the pair organised a translation train beginning with the poem Still by Denise Riley, through 12 artists, each using a medium of their choice. They then set a competition to translate the final image back into poetry. The original poem, 12 images and the winning poetry translation can be seen here. One of the artists, Sarah Sparkes (whose playful musings on death and the afterlife I was first introduced to at the launch of Ricarda and Maria-José's book The Power of Death), also teaches classes at the Tate on paper engineering, and so it was decided that participants at the Fabrication event would be challenged to translate one of the poems or the images into a paper structure.

After practising different cuts and folds, I chose the last image in the chain by Domingo Martinez to translate into paper. Although I had a great time cutting, sticking and drawing with ink, I did also reflect seriously on what were the key aspects of the image which gave it its meaning: the colours, the contrast between dark and light, the layering and the image of one hand grasping another.

At the end of the day, all the translations were sewn to canvas to be displayed in KCL. As you can see below, we each had very different ideas, which demonstrates the impact of the personality and interests of the translator on their output, but we still found elements in each of them which convey the meaning of the original poem.

This is just a tiny part of a packed two weeks of festival. For the highlights, check out King's Arts and Humanities' Storify.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

A Playlist for the Pelican

As my favourite model and sister Zoe has just launched a fantastic fashion blog, The Pelican in Briefs, I've been thinking about songs focused around items of clothing. I could have gone with Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, but thankfully some of my all-time favourite songs are sartorially themed. Please comment with your fashion favourites. 

Bob Dylan - Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
'You know it balances on your head just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine, your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat'.

Leonard Cohen - Famous Blue Raincoat
'Ah, the last time we saw you you looked so much older, your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder'.

Velvet Underground & Nico - All Tomorrow's Parties
'A blackened shroud, a hand-me-down gown of rags and silks, a costume fit for one who sits and cries, for all tomorrow's parties' 

The National - Fashion Coat
'In a fashion coat I float down my city. Don't you think I look pretty any more?'

I have a very depressing taste in music, so perhaps it's best to end on a happy note. I caught these guys supporting Augustines twice in a week last December. This song is so ridiculously catchy that by the second gig I was singing along.

Arkells - Leather Jacket
'I pulled on up and with a southern accent I offered you my dad's leather jacket'.

Monday, 23 February 2015

New Arts Centre at University of Bath

When I joined the University of Bath as an undergraduate in 2007, the demands for a new arts centre had already been bubbling away for some time. Over my four years there, reporting on the arts for the student radio station, and later attending regular student representative meetings, the fabled arts centre - supposedly 'in progress' - began to feel increasingly utopic. So it was with delight that on my most recent visit to Bath this Tuesday I visited The Edge, which houses not only a theatre and rehearsal space, but arts studios, music practice rooms and a dance studio. The most pleasant surprise for me, though, were the three galleries run by the ICIA (Institute of Contemporary Interdisciplinary Arts), ensuring that free contemporary art would be a permanent feature of the new student experience.

Passage - Miranda Whall

A perfect fit for the inaugural exhibition at the ICIA, interdisciplinary artist Miranda Whall has created a multi-screen and surround-sound installation, charting her physical passage through Europe, Mexico and Thailand and the simultaneous artistic passage through her recent projects developed in each place. A Turkish dancer twirls from screen to screen, later a solitary goldfish swims the same path. Vibrant flashes of fruit flying through the jungle and smashing against a tree juxtapose the stillness of an old woman at rest. Singing in French and Spanish, bird calls, music, and muddled underwater whispers combine with the images to create an immersive and hypnotic experience.

0º00 Navigation (Part II) - Simon Faithfull

Equally interdisciplinary artist Simon Faithfull brings together a video, a slide show, a globe, and a range of postcards reproducing line drawings and diary extracts, to represent his 'obsessive and deranged journey exactly along the Greenwich Meridian'. Part I charted his journey through England, while in this second part, we travel from the top of France to the bottom of Africa. The slide show is particularly striking: rapidly progressing from verdant French countryside to barren Burkina Faso, with the coordinates at which each photograph was taken in the bottom left corner, it forces the viewer to confront the common usage of 'West'. The written extracts, meanwhile, predominantly from the African leg of the journey, give fascinating glimpses of a part of the world rarely present in travel literature.

Find out more about the new centre and what's on at