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.