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The Secret Agent poster, Young Vic
Criticism now, led by Professor Mark Turner, Professor of Nineteenth & Twentieth-Century Literature, and Professor Andrew O’Hagan, a Creative Writing Fellow in the Department of English, sought to interrogate the nature of cultural criticism in the present day.
They found that, on the one hand, there is a thriving, if predictably unchallenging, ‘review culture’ which drives the arts pages of the mainstream press. On the other, there are increasing numbers of blogs and other forms in which opinions get expressed. What may be lacking, however, is a more considered forum for interrogating culture more extensively based on different kinds of engagement with institutions and their performances/exhibitions.
The landscape of mainstream cultural criticism has changed dramatically in recent years. With the rise of the internet and related new media forms (blogs, tweets, and other forms of self-publishing), it is a commonplace to assert that ‘everyone is a critic'. To some extent, innovative forms of cultural, critical engagement can meaningfully take their place alongside more traditional print and broadcast forms.
The project sought to place within institutions a writer in residence, who became familiar with all aspects of a production or exhibition, from development through to delivery. The idea was to embed a writer (importantly not a conventional reviewer or similar, and not a specialist in the art form), with the curiosity to want to learn more about the work of the institution and the desire to communicate their ideas through critical engagement and expression. The project relied on developing medium- to long-term relationships with institutions, building trust and dialogue in ways that are often not present in how criticism is understood.
Some of the project’s key questions were:
A Season in the Congo poster, Young Vic
In the interest of opening up meaningful dialogue, debate and cultural encounter, Criticism now placed a writer in residence, Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, at the Young Vic. The project also placed Dr Ruth Padel as a writer in residence at the Royal Opera House, and the Mahogany Opera Group at King's.
For his residency, Gus worked on two productions presented at the Young Vic in 2014 – A Season in the Congo and The Secret Agent – which helped him become familiar with all aspects of the production.
The Secret Agent at the Young Vic. Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey
A Season in the Congo is a play by renowned poet and political activist Aime Cšaire that recounts the tragic death of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Congo Republic and an African nationalist hero. It follows Lumumba's efforts to free the Congolese from Belgian rule and the political struggles that led to his assassination in 1961. The Secret Agent was done in collaboration between the Young Vic and theatre O and is based on the novel by Joseph Conrad, published in 1907, It is set in London in 1886 and at the heart of the tale is a woman fighting to protect her young brother from exploitation and violence.
During his residency at the Young Vic, Gus explored the ways in which a deeper knowledge of any given performance might produce a different kind of critical response. Gus followed the development of the plays from their initiation, through their development and to their presentations. He acted as a soundingboard for the actors and production teams, and then wrote about his experiences as a way to share his thoughts and knowledge with the Young Vic. Both productions relied upon Gus' historical knowledge and cultural perspectives, and he became an integral part of the team rather just than an observer.
A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic. Photograph: Alastair Muir
For A Season in the Congo, Gus offered historical context, gave the company copies of his book, Lost Kingdoms of Africa, to help their research. He advised on the set and on historical details, as well as mentored and encouraged the actors when asked. On The Secret Agent, Theatre O relied upon Gus for historical context and his thoughts on improvisations. By the end of the process, Gus was asked to write the introduction to the published script.
Students from King’s were also involved in a series of sessions aimed at discussing the tools of cultural criticism, using these with tools to review The Secret Agent and reflecting on the importance of good criticism.
Dr Gus Casely-Hayford is an art historian who writes, lectures and broadcasts widely on African culture. He gained a PhD in African History from the School of Oriental and African Studies.
He is best known for his major BBC TV series The Lost Kingdoms of Africa, using new archaeological and anthropological research to explore the pre-colonial history of some of Africa’s most important kingdoms. Former Executive Director of Arts Strategy, Arts Council England, and previously Director of the Institute of International Visual Art, he has advised the United Nations and the Canadian, Dutch and Norwegian Arts Councils and Tate. He initiated and became the Director of Africa 05, the largest African arts season ever hosted in Britain, when over 150 venues collaborated to host more than 1000 events.
Recently, he has co-written and edited the book West Africa: word, symbol and song, and has published many articles including in the popular press. He is a Research Associate at SOAS and recently chaired the development and delivery team on the British Library’s biggest ever exhibition to focus upon African intellectual tradition, Africa: word, symbol song, whilst advising Tate Britain on a major exhibition, Artist and Empire. Gus is also a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, a Caine Prize Council Member and an Ambassador for Sense International.
The film reviews the aims and scope of the Criticism now project, describes the collaboration between academics and cultural sector practitioners, and presents some findings and recommendations for future working.
Read Gus' reports here
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