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Lost and Found

Not indigenous to London, I am one of those visitors who scrutinise the map pillars dotted along the capital’s street corners. I spend my time desperately looking ahead for that red and blue underground halo, so that I can escape to a subterranean network of smooth rail tracks that mechanically deliver me to my desired location.

Last time I visited London was no different. Except on this occasion, I was not looking for the obvious. I was not meandering in the perplexing hiatus between the Piccadilly underground station and Trafalgar Square to immerse myself in our national painting collection, nor pottering steadily along the Southbank, a path punctuated with its many artsy venues. This time, I was searching for somewhere a little bit more specialised. In a leafy corner of Brunswick Square, I finally found my spot. What I had been looking for all this time was The Foundling Museum, a place that celebrates the work of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity established in 1739. Built on the hospital’s original site, I was met with the view of a pleasant red-brick regency facade. Relieved that I was no longer lost, its appeal was all the greater.

The Foundling Museum

The Foundling Museum

What had drawn me to this special place was not simply an interest in learning more about the establishment as a humanitarian venture. Philanthropist Thomas Coram founded the charity as ‘a hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’, children who were struggling in London’s urban squalor.

Hogarth's Gin Lane, depicting London's ills

Hogarth’s Gin Lane, depicting London’s ills

Of course, this in itself is enough to captivate anyone, but what was particularly intriguing to me was the fundamental role of art in securing the success of Coram’s work. Instrumental to the start-up of the hospital was Coram’s collaboration with Hogarth and Handel. Hogarth donated his own work and persuaded his artist contemporaries to assist in gifts to the hospital in order to support it, and they were rewarded with governorships. Not only was this Britain’s first home for abandoned and destitute children, a hospital in the traditional sense of being a place of care, but it was also the first public art gallery in the UK. And Coram took things further. His alliance with Handel led to the donation of an organ to the chapel and beneficiary performances of his famous Messiah. For a blogger like myself who loves to explore the ways that the arts can better us and who believes that the arts should open doors for everyone, there is no better place than The Foundling Museum, triumphing what it terms the hospital’s ‘creative philanthropy’.

Thomas Coram

Thomas Coram

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel

William Hogarth

William Hogarth

As I was led up the original staircase from the boy’s wing, I enjoyed a fresco-like display of original pieces from Hogarth and friends and was shown the rococo Court Room with the original marble over-mantle by John Michael Rysbrack and William Wilton plasterwork. Small children ran past in white curly 18th century wigs, full of half-term glee at their trip back in time. As they frolicked, visually and aurally evocative of those young people for whom the hospital had originally been built, I was reminded of the museum’s first room, which comprised of real-life photographs, letters and stories of foundling children who had benefitted from the hospital’s kindness up to its closure in the 1950s. As well as the paintings, sculptures, clocks and furniture by the likes of Reynolds, Gainsborough and Hudson, the museum also displays cabinets full of foundling children’s tokens, trinkets passed from parent to child to mark their farewell and promise the chance for reunion in a better future.

A touching reminder of familial ties

A touching reminder of familial ties

This works powerfully in tandem with grander spectacle elsewhere. A stunning Hogarth painting, Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter (1746), adorns the Court Room, unveiled at a public dinner on 1 April 1747. Its messages are clear; Moses as a foundling child is given a new life, his pining mother a sorrowful presence in the background as a touching reminder of the sacrifices parents made to better their offspring.

Hogarth's Moses Brought Before Pharaoh's Daughter

Hogarth’s Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter

Having received criticism at the time for its anti-Christian encouragement of promiscuity, by offering sanctuary for illegitimate children, Coram and his associates were keen to stress the Christian legitimacy and benevolence of their mission through Biblical allegory with dazzling aesthetic effect. And that effect remains as we view the picture today. The founders of the original hospital and the curators of the museum collaborate in their efforts across time. They celebrate, then and now, the way that art heightens our sense of our own humanity and acts as a powerful social tool of beneficence.

As I walked through the rooms, the art and artefacts showcased around me of all shapes and sizes were not just a way for me to open a door on the past, but had once been a way for foundling children to open a door onto their own futures too. Although a glimpse of an opulent world that these children never would experience, the artwork that supported their hospital gave them an escape from the festering gutters of London, the chance for shelter, the chance to develop skills for a new start. The museum’s art collection acts, therefore, as an imaginative portal to another world for us in the present, and an actual portal to a new life for children in the past, and that is where its power lies.

On the top floor is the Handel room, where visitors can sit back in the so-called ‘Handel chairs’ against a backdrop of the composer’s greatest works. Close your eyes and you are in the audience of one of his beneficiary concerts; open them and you see the original copy of his will across the room leaving his assets to the hopsital. The past and present are perfectly bridged. Indeed, the Foundling Hospital lives on today in the children’s charity, Coram, named after the original figurehead himself. By visiting The Foundling Museum and engaging with its displays, we continue the imaginative and emotive connection with the plight of the foundling children that Coram, Handel and Hogarth put in place over 270 years ago in 1739. What moves me is not that it is art for art’s sake, but art for humanity’s sake.

Rococo splendour in the Court Room

Rococo splendour in the Court Room

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108 I-WE-INFINITY: Rich Mix Reviewed

Here is a sample of my review work, written in response to Gaynor O’Flynn’s Being Human 108 I-WE-INFINITY event at Rich Mix London, a celebration of cross discipline  art and creativity, which took place on 19th October 2013. I would love to review anything artsy and cultural; please get in touch via Twitter for any commissions .

 

In the red and black space of Rich Mix’s main space on the edgy strip of Bethnal Green Road, a cluster of aesthetes, culture-vultures and music-makers gathered together for what was billed to be ‘a day of music art film debate’. Cross discipline artist Gaynor O’Flynn, director of the Being Human collective, had drawn this crowd together to celebrate the launch of her latest project 108 I-WE-INFINITY, an event comprised of screenings, debates, conversations, displays and live performances from a range of media.

The venue

The venue

This was not simply an exhibition, but a thought-provoking analysis of the processes that contribute to the production of art, on both commercial and creative axes. And true to its title, everything was shaped by the number 108. The Royal Society of British Artists exhibited 108 portraits by its members, played out in a powerpoint accompanying a discussion of how art and business can work in powerful tandem. And as a gentle break following a controversial discussion on the derogatory nature of the term ‘world music’, we were spoilt with a display of 108 design samples from the East London Design Show. Hipster rucksacks, trendy desk lamps and gemstone jewellery were some of the images fading dreamily in and out on the black painted façade.

On my arrival, the dark auditorium obscured the majority of my fellow attendees faces. Only the bright stage illuminated the guest speakers, and crimson light bounced off the table-tops, filling the room with a subtle energy. This dingy anonymity was not to last for long. The buzzword resounding throughout the day was ‘collaboration’, a term not only discussed in relation to the ways in which different arts can work together, inform and improve one another, but a word resonant in the relationship between the audience and the speakers. After hearing from an expert panel, questions were extended out to those listening, creating an interactive community. And of course, the panels themselves were a collaboration of representatives from all areas of the arts.

I arrived as the room pondered the development of ‘Interactive Sound and Art’.  The discussion twisted and turned, demonstrating the intellectual worth of the day’s mission. With democratic access to the technology, the music market has become somewhat saturated, but this sense of participation is something to be celebrated if we consider music as a tool of personal expression. On the other hand, as more and more is produced, the sense of the craftedness of music diminishes, just as money loses its gleam with hyperinflation. One speaker suggested we ought to go on a sort of ‘media diet’, consuming a spoonful of data a day, an allotted amount of audio to help us appreciate once more the uniqueness of  individual compositions.  Or, as another suggested, perhaps we need not worry about the genesis of modern music, as a backlash against technology has been felt in the return to folk sounds. This to-ing and fro-ing of perspectives set the mood for the rest of the day, and it was here where O’Flynn’s event triumphed. More dynamic than an internet forum or blog, we were not just receptive to art in a passive, static position, but able to probe, question and altercate as well as spectate.

iTunes- one way that music has proliferated

iTunes- one way that music has proliferated

One fascinating, and for me, novel element of the day was the focus on the importance of the word ‘gatekeepers’ for the future of media and the arts. Perhaps a strange term to some, the talks continually stressed the role of human curators to control point of view and allow arty types with niche tastes to pursue their particular interests. Independent media magazines, such as Songlines, It’s Nice That, and Huck magazine are crucial in this field, ensuring that what people want to see is out there to be enjoyed. The premise of this particular discussion set up many interesting points about the diversification of media. Sadly however, too frequently attention was deflected from these pertinent questions, as the discussion meandered into more mainstream chat of matching content to display.

It was in one moment during the later interview with the artist Karl Hyde that the real value of Being Human’s intent shone through.  He is a synaesthetic artist, apt for an event that mixed media in a heady whirl of colour, sound, film and words. As he showcased a snippet of his film Life on the Outer Edges, Hyde stressed that there was beauty to be found in decay, art present in the outer edges of urban sprawl.  O’Flynn retorted that we seem to spend our lives rushing through to something more beautiful and that the film’s success lay in revealing the things we might overlook by giving us more time to think about what makes art art. And this, of course, was the point of the event, a chance to see things differently, to look at art more slowly and deliberately.

 

Collaborations, as Hyde argued, provide artists with reactions from others, allowing them to see themselves through someone else’s eyes. Anyone who considers themselves a lover of the arts should step into the world of Being Human. They may find themselves not only learning more about art, but about themselves as people, themselves being human.

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The Choice is Yours

Reflecting on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, many of us may have indulged in a last-minute artsy pilgrimage to taste the final dregs of whisky and catch the rounds of applause as the sprawling carnival drew to a close. My sister was one of those pilgrims. With a brochure rivalling the Yellow Pages in its dimensions, a website smattered in alluring adverts for shows and a drop-down menu of 10 different performance genres, those planning a Scottish adventure might have found themselves overwhelmed. 2013 was a record year for the world’s largest arts festival, with 2,871 different shows in 273 venues involving 24,107 performers. Of course, we should celebrate that such diversity gives lots of different artists exposure. But all this choice can soon become over-exposure for the eager visitor wading through the gargantuan catalogue.

Choice was once a word that promised freedom. When the Pill was first marketed in the 1960s, it was all about that little word ‘choice’. Able to say no to pregnancy, women’s bodies were liberated, their personal aspirations prioritised. And that kind of choice was powerful. In a world where convenience is king, fast-moving consumer goods are becoming increasingly prominent in our daily lives. You’d be forgiven for thinking that when we thoughtfully select the spice level for our Nandos chicken, we are in a position of power. We might for a moment get a heady rush of authority as we optimise every chicken-eating experience.

The right to choose

The right to choose

Yet, when the American coffee chain Starbucks first crossed the Atlantic in 1998, we were bamboozled by a menu that required expert navigation. We dithered between coffee and crème blended frappucinos, macchiatos and ristrettos in three different Italian sizes and grappled with the dilemma of drinking in or out. Such a bewildering portfolio of beverages can only be expected from America, a nation whose individuals are known to make an average of 70 choices a day. Indeed, I remember all too well a moment from a childhood visit to Florida when my mother struggled in the heat to organise a picnic lunch for a young family of five. I remember her anguished journey through the bagel creating process- did she want onion/sesame/poppy/granary/multiseed/rye or walnut bagel? Lettuce/rocket/watercress/spinach/mixed salad? Jack cheese/pepper jack/blue jack/herb jack? Far from being liberated, she’d been robbed of right to re-fuel with what was supposed to be a meal on the move. And what was then, is now. I find myself having to do mental gymnastics just to work out what qualifies in the Boots ‘meal-deal’.

bagels

A multitude of sandwich experiences

Perhaps what is most interesting is that the vast choice that businesses lay on for us can drive consumers away rather than lure them in. The famous study conducted in 1995 by Sheena Iyengar, a Professor at Colombia Business School and author of ‘The Art of Choosing’ (2010) presented shoppers with two different sample booths of Wilkins and Sons jams. Whilst more passers-by were drawn to the glistening appeal of 24 different flavours to taste, the other stall secured more sales despite being decorated with a mere 6 jars. Faced with less choice, the busy shopper was much more likely to commit. Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz tells us, ‘no longer liberates, but deliberates. It can even be said to tyrannise’. There are 216 brands of facial wash in Superdrug. This is no good to the angsty teenager combing the crammed shelves for a discreet solution. In these moments, old-fashioned soap and water become all too tempting, suddenly transformed into a luxury simply because they are easy.

Brand overload

Brand overload

Choice is suppose to set us free, but instead it leaves us shackled at the counter. We find ourselves drawn in by ‘you want it, you got it’ promises and yet more and more frequently I’m losing sight of what I originally wanted, going along with anything just to move the process forward. ‘The choice is yours’. Or is it?

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Serial Thrillers

1990s culture had lots of perks. Some of us remember the music, the rise of the Pokemon card, the questionable fashion. For me, the 90s was defined by two must-have brands, the Beanie Baby and that ever so slightly creepy, chirping bird-doll-hybrid Furby creature. We might look back on these fads with a fondly nostalgic eye, whilst being quietly grateful that we have moved on to greater things, to smoothies, to micropigs, to kindles. However, in terms of the world of fiction, there is one 90s trend that is still influencing the way we read today, and that is the serial novel.

Furby friend of the 90s

Furby friend of the 90s

In spite of its 1996 publication date, George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones, first in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, is still topping Waterstones’ Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror bestseller list. In fact, the list is dominated by other books from the series, the formulaic titles chiming together repetitively, like a meditative chant of words from another world; swords, dragons, kings, thrones. Unsurprisingly, the neat sense of continuity in the A Song of Ice and Fire collection makes it perfectly adaptable to television. Not wanting to miss out on the next link in the chain, the recent third season finale was watched by 5.4 million viewers, making it HBO’s second most-watched programme of all time. Indeed, just as we wait in a reverently carb-free limbo for the next episode of The Great British Bake-Off and relish in re-entering the parlour of Downton once more this autumn, the book-in -a-series format is a sure way to create a classic page turner that has readers suffering from a heady addiction. Let’s not forget the queues and hysteria surrounding the latest J K Rowling effort, as eager buyers grappled to get their hands on the latest contribution to story-time for the children, their Sunday night read or their lunch break.

Game_of_Thrones_title_card

The popularity of 1990s oeuvres such as the Harry Potter series, A Song of Ice and Fire and His Dark Materials heralded a new movement in the world of fiction that continues to be felt. Indeed, in cinemas recently was the first installment of the The Mortal Instruments, a series of six young adult fantasy novels no doubt following in the wake of their 1990s antecedents.  And it’s not just limited to fantasy, to a world of mythical battles and politics. The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy entranced readers with a slightly different power game. In parallel to our TV routines, as we loyally follow episode after episode of docudramas, talent shows and cookery series, the way we read has been transformed into a question of ‘what comes next?’. As we journey breathlessly through novel after novel to the imaginative parameters of the epic whole, it seems that every-day entertainment now comes in bulletin format. It’s about getting your hand on the latest, the next in line. Reading has become a bit like watching a soap opera.

And yet, delving into the past reveals that enjoying books in episodic format is something that we have a much older figure than George R R Martin to thank for.  Due to the rise of literacy and advances in print technology, as well as efficiency and improved economics of distribution, the serialisation of novels became voguish in the Victorian era. And this was all due to Charles Dickens’ 1836 serialised work The Pickwick Papers. Following that huge success, Dickens’ subsequent works were published in weekly or monthly magazines and newspapers, giving the inquisitive reader regular bulletins of another world and heightening their appetite as the latest chapter went to print. In fact, Dickens’ method of serial publication proved to enliven his readership so greatly that he developed an editorial relationship with them, modifying his stories and characters over the weeks and months in tune with their reactions.

The Pickwick Papers, the first serialised novel

The Pickwick Papers, the first serialised novel

Say the words ‘Charles Dickens’ to a reluctant reader and they might wince at the thought of a hefty, starchy tome. Yet in reality, his epic character studies were broken down into tantalizing tit-bits, each structured internally like a miniature serial novel of today, with climaxes, twists and turns but just enough of a cliff-hanger to leave us yearning for the next installment. Dickens is credited with creating the caricature, a figure whose quirks are exaggerated to a larger-than-life extent, so that we cannot help being captivated. And that is much the same in today’s serial novels. So no matter how much weird and wonderful characters like Edward Cullen have become icons of 21st century global popular culture and our obsession with serial storytelling and fantastical escapism, they are the products of a literary form rooted firmly in a tradition that is much closer to home. Perhaps when we lose ourselves in a sequence of novels, we are actually finding our way back to the beginning.

Dickens

Dickens

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The Mozart Effect

When my Aunt was pregnant with my cousin, she was every bit the conscientious first-time mother, equipped with a state of the art pram and a seemingly unending wodge of dribble cloths in a range of gender-neutral tones. However, what particularly interested me were her reports that she had been listening to classical music in an attempt to make my growing cousin more intelligent. This rather pleasantly arty hypothesis has become an internet phenomenon, guiding tentative expectant mothers to indulge in some cultural bonding with their imminent bundle.

The idea that listening to classical music can somehow increase the intelligence of a developing child is an extension of what has been simply named ‘The Mozart Effect’, a term first coined in 1991 by Alfred A. Tomatis, who claimed that Mozart’s music had the capacity to heal and encourage brain development. Later in 1993, psychologists claimed that it had been shown to improve spatial-temporal reasoning. And with the Austrian composer’s oeuvres stirring the concert-goer and the scientist in equal measure, it came as no surprise that websites were set up for eager parents to download Mozart tracks to nurture the neurones of their developing offspring. Indeed, according to the website www.babycentre.com, a Governor of Georgia, no doubt inspired by the laboratory hype, mandated that a CD of Mozart’s piano sonatas should be given to all new babies on their leaving hospital.

‘The Mozart Effect’ has since been dismissed, with mother-baby websites instead promoting Mozart’s work as merely mood music, as a means to soothe the fretful baby and introduce it to the classical canon from a young age. Nevertheless, whilst it may not manifestly increase a child’s intelligence, the intriguing scientific and psychological potential in music suggests it may have something to teach us about human nature.

This prompted me to think about the way that we listen to music today. Whilst in the past our desire for music would have been satisfied by a maiden at a harpsichord or a trip to a velvety concert hall, we can indulge our ears today with whatever tones we yearn for, whenever we yearn for them. You Tube and Spotify have opened up vast empires for auditory exploration, conquerable by a few taps on a keyboard. And this is a privilege that we must cultivate. Just in writing this blog, I have listened to a miscellany of melodies that I have accessed with minimal effort, filling my head with sounds that invariably syncopate the steady metronome of my typing. At this late hour, I find myself believing that music can stimulate the brain’s creative capabilities.

However, with such a diverse portfolio of music available to us, perhaps we are all too ready to choose music moulded to our mood, rather than letting ourselves be moulded by music’s own powers. Indeed, I recently came across the website www.stereomood.com, a site that allows you to enter your mood into a search bar and have melodies matched to your current temperament. Mood categories ranged from ‘dish washing’ to music to ‘snuggle’ to. Whilst Buddhist chanting might be requisite for yoga, the notion of mood music can surely become too dictatorial. Music is, after all, an art form and the way that we react to aestheticism is always driven by subjective impulses. Classical music of the Romantic Period was written to emote. And emotions are unpredictable, personal and private. It is our individual response to music that makes listening to it in a group or community so valuable and interesting, and is certainly a way to support public performances.

Perhaps we have something to learn from the premise of ‘The Mozart Effect’. There is some value in listening to music neutrally and experimenting with its effects, allowing people to enter the imaginative world of a piece and read it, as one would a book or poem. My ongoing study of Thomas Hardy’s elegiac poetry sequence of 1912-1913 for my dissertation drew my attention strongly to the fundamental link between music and poetry. As a keen musician himself, Hardy frequently employed ballad and hymnal forms to structure his work. Responding to the tones and textures of a piece of music is like reacting to the details of language in a poem.

I am organising an event in my College of Jazz and Blues music to brighten up the notorious work slump that is ‘Week 5 blues’ in the Cambridge term. Some of us might associate such instrumentals with chill-out hour, others with the glamour of Gatsby’s parties. Frank Zappa once said that ‘Music, in performance, is a kind of sculpture. The air is sculpted into something’. It is the diverse ways that we respond personally to music as an art form that makes it such an interesting canvas on which to learn about humanity, whether in the whitewash of the laboratory or the plush comfort of the theatre row.

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