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:
- How might we engage with the material/institution/art form differently and critically in order to open up discussion?
- How can we engage expanded forms of knowledge in criticism rather than limit it to contracted expressions of mere opinion?
- How might we begin to think about what is important for a renewed form of cultural criticism?
After the two writer in residence projects with Dr Ruth Padel and Dr Gus Casely Hayford, Criticism now supported a project with the Mahogany Opera Group (MOG), which sought to explore the ways criticism might be a feature in the development of artistic works and to test ways of incorporating feedback into their own artistic practice during the development of projects. They held six workshops that incorporated feedback sessions. The sessions posed an interesting question and challenge: is criticism only something that comes at the end of process? Is it always about outcome/output?
The workshops were observed by a group of responders of between six and 20 people and examined the following operas: Gloria - A Pigtale, Lost in Thought, Paradise Watford, The Mother, Billiards and Folie a Deux. Part of this group was made up of a core group of participants who attended all six sessions and contributed towards an evaluation discussion at the end. This group included two King’s PhD students who were engaged to comment on the process. The other participants were partners, funders and other associates of the Mahogany Opera Group. The workshops built creative exchanges between artists, partner organisations and other stakeholders, leading to the creation of better researched work.
Lost in Thought workshop, photography: Carys Lavin
Following the observation of the workshops a facilitated discussion took place between the artists and the participants. The team were keen to receive feedback on the work-in-progress operas through a series of 'call and response' sessions by incorporating Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process (CRP) as a way of gathering feedback on the work. In short, CRP is a feedback system based on the principle that the best possible outcome from a response session is for the maker to want to go back to work. Using this feedback method created some relevant discussions between the MOG and workshop participants, some of which were of great benefit to the continuing development of the opera projects and the way in which we workshop new pieces. The work developed during the workshops was then presented at the MOG launch event hosted at King's.
In January 2014 in the Anatomy Museum at King's, the MOG presented Billiards: A College Opera and The Mother in collaboration with King's and Guildhall School of Music & Drama, part of the three-week Various Stages R&D Festival of new opera projects that were in various stages of development. From this project, the MOG and participants concluded that the CRP process is a valuable tool in gathering feedback and evaluating work in progress, albeit with some flexibility to tailor the process to different situations and types of work.
The Mahogany Opera Group is an award-winning company that creates new opera in new ways, drawing on a range of cultural influences, art forms and technologies, to stretch the boundaries of what opera can be and who it is for.
The company has collaborated with composers George Benjamin, Harrison Birtwistle, Jonathan Dove, Olga Neuwirth and Julian Phillips, as well as with young composers including Emily Hall, Jamie Man, Luke Bedford and Laurence Osborn. Recent highlights include the children’s opera Brundibár which involved children around the country, a British-Nordic collaboration Folie à Deux by Emily Hall; and the world’s first mindfulness opera, Lost in Thought, conceived with composer Rolf Hind.
MOG is a regular partner of King’s College London and Watford Palace Theatre and works in collaboration with a wide range of venues, performing ensembles and non-arts partners.
The film below 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.