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The Sound Of Musicals in China

The cast of Broadway Asia’s 2016 production of Jay Chou’s “The Secret.” (Photo by Wang Xiaojing)

In this latest Guest Blog, Laura MacDonald, an Arts & Humanities Research Council funded International Placement Scheme Fellow asks “Japan and Korea have embraced and nurtured Western-style musicals. Can China be far behind?”

The blog post originally appeared in American Theatre and our sincere thanks is given to them for their kind permission to republish.

After a brief out-of-town tryout near Shanghai, the cast, crew, and creative team of the new Chinese jukebox musical The Secret journeyed north to Beijing for opening night last Dec. 23. It was a bad time to travel, as “airpocalypse”—the worst air pollution of 2016—circled the capital city, grounding hundreds of flights. With restrictions on vehicles based on license plate numbers (to reduce road traffic), trucks carrying the physical production of The Secret had to be directed to the outskirts of Beijing, then unloaded and reloaded into vehicles with the right-numbered license plates for the day, before finally arriving at the Tianqiao Performing Arts Center.

Strolling through the Temple of Heaven park opposite the thea­tre the day before opening night, Marc Acito, the show’s librettist, recalled some of the challenges of bringing a new musical from a January table read to a December opening night in a country still in the early stages of adopting such Western musical theatre staples as workshops and previews.

Working initially with Google Translate for the lyrics, Acito wove Taiwanese singer/songwriter Jay Chou’s songs into the loosely adapted narrative of the 2007 film of the same name, which Chou co-wrote, directed, and starred in. Interpolating Chou’s hit song “Nunchucks,” Acito struggled to understand the lyric dong ya bing fu, a derogatory Japanese label for Chinese people that roughly translates as “sick man of East Asia.”

“We’ve already decided we’re going to use this martial-arts song as sort of a war cry during a rugby game,” Acito explained. Working with a translator to unpack the reference, he learned that it appears in the famous scene from the classic movie Fist of Fury in which Bruce Lee smashes a board with the insulting phrase on it; Acito realized that Chou was setting out to name and break this stereotype of national weakness. “So invoking this phrase invokes both the history of being perceived to be weak and the reclamation of strength,” Acito said, marvelling, “and it is one lyric.”

The Secret is a high school romance about gifted music students with a bit of time travel thrown in—Fame meets Back to the Future. At the table read in January at a studio in Shanghai, Acito and director John Rando agreed on Chou’s song “Dream Started” for the musical’s final graduation scene. It’s a song about seizing opportunities, smiling through setbacks, and persevering to achieve one’s dreams—in other words, themes and emotions familiar from Western musical theatre.

“This is very different from what the film was,” said Rando, who directs frequently on Broadway and at U.S. resident theatres. “One of our goals was to create a very uplifting and moving finale to the story that I thought would be much more appropriate for the musical theatre version of the romance.

“Spring Awakening” at Shanghai Culture Square in 2016. (Photo by Shadow Zheng and reproduced with kind permission)

Rando could be describing musical theatre in China in 2017. It’s a forward-looking industry, with a young—albeit not huge—audience that has fallen head over heels for the form. This enthusiasm went a long way when The Secret was work-shopped in April 2016 in Shanghai, in studios above the Daning Theatre, where an English-language tour of My Fair Lady was running. While Rando and choreographer Zach Woodlee, fresh from “Grease: Live!,” worked out the staging of a dramatic ensemble number, Acito quietly typed Chou’s lyrics in Pinyin (the romanization of Chinese characters) into his libretto, so he could understand, down to the last syllable, how Chou’s Chinese lyrics and his own dialogue (translated from English), were landing in rehearsal. With a Chinese counterpart for each Broadway veteran, conversations were flying back and forth in Mandarin and English. Wencong Chen, Rando’s assistant director, felt this doubling up helped “the musical to connect to the locals and also make it feel like it’s not a translated work.”

In promoting the musical to Chinese audiences, the show’s American producer, Marc Routh, said that they are trying “to explain to audiences that this is a unique opportunity to experience a homegrown musical with the craft and experience of a truly A-list Broadway creative team.” Conceiving, developing, and producing an original Chinese jukebox musical may have been the logical next step for Routh, co-executive producer (with Simone Genatt) of Broadway Asia. Routh has watched the progress of musical theatre in China for more than 20 years, while licensing American musicals in Asia and presenting English-language tours of titles such as The Sound of Music. In a long courtship process, he pitched treatments of Chou’s catalogue to the pop star’s manager before lining up a commitment to adapt The Secret. It was then that he recruited Acito.

Many Chinese people keen to enter the musical theatre business acknowledge that the form is still relatively new here. Despite a supply of talented and well-trained performers, there is not yet a wealth of Chinese artists versed in writing, directing, or designing for Western-styled musical theatre. Assistant director Chen, who also worked on Sleep No More  in Shanghai, thinks that collaboration with foreigners is what Chinese musical theatre needs to become more commercially and artistically successful.

“Especially for the creative talents, it takes time to grow and mature,” said Chen. “There still needs to be some more international collaboration to find talents across the globe and then to train the Chinese counterpart, and hone their skills.”

To further that cross-cultural education, Richard Fei, programming director of Shanghai Culture Square —a 2,000-seat theatre on the site of a former greyhound racetrack popular with Westerners in the 1920s and 1930s—has been programming a musical theatre development symposium every spring since 2014. Inviting experts from Europe, North America, and more established musical theatre industries in nearby Japan and South Korea, Fei programs seminars on topics such as producing, casting, marketing, and ticketing musical theatre. He also programs showcases of new musical theatre, seeking to stimulate the industry’s progress as much as possible.

Fei started out in the business at Shanghai Grand Theatre , translating and operating the subtitles for tours of CatsPhantomThe Lion KingMamma Mia!HairsprayHigh School Musical, and The Sound of Music before taking on his current position. Those touring productions gradually enjoyed longer runs in Shanghai and had a major impact on developing the audience now attending foreign tours at Shanghai Culture Square, where upcoming productions include GhostWickedSister ActLegally BlondeWest Side Story, and The Producers. Fei also produces one local production per season.

“This theatre is for the young generation,” he explained. That may explain why, in 2016, Shanghai Culture Square produced Spring Awakening, already popular with amateur student musical theatre groups. In 2017, Shanghai Culture Square will produce the Mandarin-language premiere of a Korean musical, My Bucket List, adapted from the 2007 Rob Reiner film The Bucket List. The musical version, which recasts characters created by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as young men, was part of a road show of Korean musicals promoted last year during the Shanghai Performing Arts Fair.

Fei also brings in British, American, and French musical theatre stars in revue shows, and collaborates with foreign producers such as Austria’s Vereinigte Bühnen Wien to bring original productions of globally successful musicals including Elisabeth and Mozart! to China, where they are performed in German with Mandarin subtitles.

Decades after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms reoriented communist China as a market economy, musicals—with their typically aspirational narratives—may seem a natural fit for a society that has increasingly embraced capitalism. Though foreign brand names punctuate Chinese cityscapes, the screening of foreign films is highly limited by government quotas, perhaps giving live foreign musicals an edge for Chinese consumers seeking a foreign cultural experience. With ample examples of successfully imported foreign musicals being regularly (and profitably) performed in neighboring Japan and South Korea, it is no surprise that savvy Chinese producers would seek to establish a musical theatre market in China, home of the world’s largest middle class.

Since George C. White, founder of Connecticut’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, directed a Chinese cast in The Music Man in Beijing in 1987, the Western musical has been popularized in China through productions of classics such as Man of La Mancha (first in English, later translated into Mandarin), but also through productions of more contemporary shows, like a replica staging of Mamma Mia! in 2011 and a localized production of Avenue Q in 2013. While Chinese producers, actors, and fans regularly travel to sample the wares in nearby Japan and South Korea, original Korean musicals are also being presented in China. The long-running Korean musical Laundry, about working-class neighbors pursuing their dreams in Seoul, was presented in Beijing with Chinese subtitles in 2016, and will be produced in Mandarin this year. From its Shanghai office, the Korean producer CJ E&M is also testing out Korean production models in China. These range from producing Stephen Dolginoff’s edgy, small-scale 2005 Off-Broadway musical Thrill Me to bringing a large-scale, star-vehicle Jekyll & Hyde from Korea, translated into Mandarin and directed by David Swan, an American.

If many of these musicals are still directed by foreigners, producers are increasingly coming from local ranks. Ivy Yang, who learned about musical theatre at Peking University, was working as a venture capital analyst in Tokyo, and noticed that musical thea­tre tickets were on sale in convenience stores. Recognizing an opportunity to develop the market at home in China, she returned in 2011 and reconnected with a director she met at Peking University, Joseph Graves, eventually forming the production company Seven Ages with her own savings.

Their first show was to be Man of La Mancha, which had been a hit in Japan and Korea. But when Music Theatre International asked for a license fee Yang could not afford, she flew to New York to personally persuade the musical’s composer, Mitch Leigh, to give them the license at a much reduced rate. Yang went on to produce Man of La Mancha in 2012 in English with Mandarin subtitles, then in translation. Avenue Q followed, with many tweaks in the script helping young Chinese spectators relate to Princeton (renamed Tsinghua, after the Beijing university) as he struggles to find a job after graduation. Graves also directed Seven Ages’ productions of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Sound of Music.

Chinese musical theatre is dominated by women like Yang, educated at elite Chinese universities, often studying abroad for a period (in her case, at Harvard), and initially working in banking or finance. While Yang’s employees in Seven Ages’ Shanghai and Beijing offices are clearly inspired by their boss, she hesitates to call herself a role model.

“Women hold up half the sky,” she points out, citing a famous pronouncement of Chairman Mao, and suggesting that it’s simply in the nature of Chinese women to work hard. With little initial funding, Yang has relied heavily on social media platforms to market her musicals and sell tickets. Julia Yuan, the company’s marketing director, started her career as an attorney but eventually quit law to work for Seven Ages, running its new media platforms, including Douban, Weibo, and WeChat, as the company prepared the Chinese premiere of Avenue Q. Like many working in musical theatre in China, Yuan doesn’t come from a theatre background, but she’s long been a passionate fan. Her primary task: to educate potential  ticket buyers on what musicals are exactly, and how they’re different from traditional Chinese opera and spoken drama.

To achieve this marketing goal, Yuan posts synopses and production histories on social media platforms, generating enthusiasm among musical theatre fans, whose positive comments are crucial to buzz around Seven Ages musicals. Seeking to connect musicals with other pop culture entering the Chinese market, Yuan has written articles and produced lighthearted videos about stars of Marvel films who also appear in plays and musicals, and has begun to attend Comic Con gatherings in Shanghai and Beijing, hawking pins and T-shirts emblazoned with the Avenue Q song title “If You Were Gay.” Seven Ages also collaborated with a Chinese LGBTQ group, promoting Avenue Q on its WeChat and Weibo accounts. Given the musical’s central theme of post-college aimlessness, Seven Ages also reached out to Chinese college musical theatre clubs, offering lectures and previewing some of the work that went into Avenue Q. As a result, that show is now among the most popular with Chinese student musical clubs.

Social media isn’t just good for marketing—it’s also how actors find out about auditions, often via a group chat on WeChat. The small, close-knit Chinese musical thea­tre industry is divided between the capital Beijing and the cosmopolitan finance center, Shanghai, requiring actors to shuttle between the cities for auditions and rehearsals.

Jenny Ding graduated from the musical theatre program at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and was quickly cast in the Chinese company of Mamma Mia!. She went on to appear in Cats in Korea and Miss Saigon in London. Rather than waste time off between jobs, last year she opened a suburban dance studio in Shanghai, where she teaches ballet. Even on the Dragon Boat Festival public holiday, Ding was at work, in case anyone found her dance studio via reviews on the social networking site Douban and wanted to tour the facilities.

Ding starred as Wendla in Spring Awakening last fall at Shanghai Culture Square and was due to play Lucy in the upcoming Jekyll and Hyde, but left that production before rehearsals began to play Nala in The Lion King, now entering its second year at the Walt Disney Grand Theatre at Shanghai Disneyland. “Every time I audition for a European or American director, they choose me as the first leading female, but if I audition for an original Chinese musical, I never get the job,” Ding said of her casting fortunes. A charming actor who radiates joy in performance, it’s easy to see how Ding appeals to directors and audiences. But in a young industry still experimenting with longer, even open-ended runs, her experience performing eight shows a week in Korea and London sets her apart from performers with less stamina and experience.

For now, even many Chinese musical theatre fans remain skeptical of homegrown efforts. Said Yuan, “Some Chinese artists, they think they can do musicals, and they try…” she trailed off. Wencong Chen concurred, explaining, “I think a lot of musicals right now in China—they write the script and write the music all separately, then create the choreography, then bring the actors together at the end, when all is created.” This can lead to storytelling redundancy, as each element may end up repeating points that have already been made, rather than integrating elements into a forward-moving whole. But while Broadway-style integrated musical theatre storytelling takes time, in China, Routh pointed out, relatively quick fundraising means projects also move quickly. The Secret has been completed in about a year.

Michael Rubinoff, producer of the Canadian Music Theatre Project that incubated Broadway’s Come From Away, is also contributing to the development of a new musical in China called Bethune. He’s recruited Canadian writers Neil Bartram, who will write music and English lyrics, and Brian Hill, who will pen the English book and direct, as well as Chinese playwright Nick Rongjun Yu, who will write the Mandarin lyrics and book. The musical is inspired by the life of Norman Bethune, a Canadian physician who helped bring Western medicine to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930s. “The team is collaborating to create a more Mandarin version to be presented in Shanghai, and a more English version to be presented in Canada,” Rubinoff explains. The first workshop will take place at the Canadian Music Theatre Project in September, followed by a workshop at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts ­Centre in May 2018, and a Chinese premiere in Shanghai in 2019.

Back in Shanghai in December, university students wrapped up amateur mountings of Mamma Mia! and Legally Blonde. The Leopold-and-Loeb-inspired Thrill Me was in its second run, having enjoyed a successful premiere in the summer of 2016. Across town, The Sound of Music was struggling to fill the 1,000-seat People’s Theatre, and there were technical glitches: The venue’s limited technical facilities and slow cuing meant drops representing the Alps or Nonnberg Abbey had to be raised and lowered mid-song to ensure they were in place in time for subsequent scenes. Bracing for another touring season, the production also had a banner prominently displayed in the lobby to recruit additional von Trapp children. Stage moms are few and far between in family-focused, academically minded China, making for an added challenge in casting and maintaining a full complement of von Trapp types. For their part, Chinese children and their parents have shown more interest in another Austrian import, as they’ve flocked to the musical Mozart!, performed in German with Mandarin subtitles at Shanghai Culture Square.

Despite these challenges—from air pollution to imperfect venues, from linguistic and casting hurdles to inconsistent audiences—Chinese musical theatre producers, performers, and spectators remain bullish on this popular Western form’s future in China. The potential is there: Institutions such as the Beijing Dance Academy and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music are training triple-threat performers, and new venues are under construction, such as the five-theatre Dream Center in Shanghai. The private equity fund China Media Capital is backing this building project, as well as producers like Seven Ages, and they’re also investing in Broadway imports like Something Rotten! through Kevin McCollum’s Broadway Global Ventures. And this spring AC Orange International, a Chinese entertainment company that has also invested in such Broadway musicals as Waitress and Sunset Boulevard, will present 85 performances throughout China of a touring production of Wicked.

These Western tours, of course, only raise audience expectations for the quality of Chinese-authored musicals. But Wencong Chen seems confident that with enough time, Chinese producers and artists can unlock this form in a new way. “There’s a lot of hot money coming to the market,” he said. “I think we just need to have some more patience to create small-scale, medium-scale, and large-scale musicals.”

Laura MacDonald is a senior lecturer in musical theatre at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K.  Information on the AHRC International Placement Scheme for 2018 is available on the website , which also contains details of regional events.  This years scheme closes for applications on 25th January 2018.

A version of this story appears in the May/June 2017 issue of American Theatre.

The Seven Ages staging of “Avenue Q,” which opened in 2013 and continues to tour. (Photo by Sun Yuqian)

 

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Emoji, Texting and Social Media: How Do They Impact Language?

In this latest Guest Blog, Alex Loktionov, AHRC International Placement Scheme Fellow at the Library of Congress, talks Emoji’s Texting and Social Media.  Join him in his discussions with Dame Wendy Hall, during her time as Kluge Chair in Technology and Society , and  Jessica Lingel, Kluge Fellow, Assistant Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania .

This Blog Post originally appeared on the Library of Congress Blog on 15th June 2017, and our thanks is given for their kind permission to re-produce.

I’m here with Dame Wendy Hall, Kluge Chair in Technology and Society, Regius Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton and early pioneer in web protocols; with Alexandre Loktionov, AHRC Fellow at the Kluge Center and an expert on hieroglyphic and cuneiform legal texts; and with Jessica Lingel, Kluge Fellow, assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on social media.

We ventured into talking about emoji and social media during a hallway conversation and thought it would be fun to pursue this further via blog.

The text of our Google Docs conversation was edited for length and clarity.

DT: There is much to explore, but it began with emoji, so let’s start there: elevated art form or corruption of language?

AL: For me, they’re essentially hieroglyphs and so a perfectly legitimate extension of language. They’re signs which, without having a phonetic value of their own, can ‘color’ the meaning of the preceding word or phrase. In Egyptology, these are called ‘determinatives’ — as they determine how written words should be understood. The concept has been around for 5,000 years, and it’s remarkably versatile because of its efficiency. You can cut down your character count if you supplement words with pictures — and that’s useful both to Twitter users today and to Ancient Egyptians laboriously carving signs into a rock stela.

DT: How does everyone feel about using emoji to write literature? The Library of Congress acquired an emoji version of none other than “Moby Dick” just a few years ago.

AL: I think you can definitely write literature with emoji — the question is, who will be able to read it? Do we have enough standardization in sign deployment? I think a full emoji dictionary/sign list would be necessary, unless, of course, we want to create a literature with multiple strands of interpretation (in a literal sense — where people see the same signs but interpret them in different ways).

JFL: I think part of it is about a fascination with how technology may be reshaping cultural production. I’m thinking of games around Twitter and literature, for example; the Guardian ran a challenge asking authors to write a story in 140 characters or less. (There’s a long and wonderful history of literature produced through challenges/games like these; I’m thinking of Shelley and Hemingway.) At the root, I think, is an anxiety around what it means to make art and how technology is making art better or worse.

DT: I’m optimistic because I see technological innovations opening up the range of what is possible artistically — Gutenberg, and so forth. On the other hand, certain technological turns have been very specific in their application. Think of Morse code: incredibly useful in certain contexts, but unlikely that we will ever write a novel in Morse.

AL: I think that gets to the heart of it — we have to think of the purpose of the means of communication, and in the case of emoji, we as a culture need to decide what they are: do we want them to be a bona fide script with full capability, or are they just a tool reserved for very specific purposes (alongside conventional means of writing)?

JFL: I don’t know about Morse Code novels, but Morse code poetry is definitely a thing.

AL: It’s also worth thinking about canonicity — can emoji become canonical, in a way in which originally purely utilitarian hieroglyphs could after several millennia? Are we in this for the long run?

DT: Right, will there ever be an emoji dictionary? Perhaps there is already?

WH: There is a crowd-sourced emoji dictionary. It’s not very helpful at the moment, but then, neither was Wikipedia initially.

AL: Yes, exactly — I know there’s a grammar (of sorts), but not sure about a dictionary. And the trouble is, you can write a dictionary or a grammar, but it then has to gain acceptance on a wide level to actually be of any use.

WH: Absolutely, this is all about evolution. If anyone took the trouble to formalize emoji at the moment, the emoji world would have completely changed by the time any formalization was agreed on. I’m not aware of a grammar for emoji. Shows you how little I use them really.

JFL: Well, in a very literal sense there is definitely an emoji dictionary, in that for emoji to function across different devices, they need to exist in unicode, which includes definitions of what each character/image/symbol means. But these definitions have little to say about the different cultural appropriations of symbols. Part of what Wendy and Alexandre are talking about here is the way that the flexibility of emoji has allowed for their popularity.

AL: Very true — maybe computers can standardize them in a way we humans struggle to at the moment. Computers communicating among themselves one day, maybe? With all the talk of artificial intelligence.

DT: It would be constantly updated and crowdsourced, so this would be a very different, rapidly evolving way of canonizing.

AL: Absolutely, and especially because levels of preservation are probably going to be very low. We probably don’t have as many printed emoji as we have hieroglyphs, alphabetic words or whatever else. They get used, and then so often just disappear into the ether. And (traditional) dictionaries rely on being able to collate attestations. So does canon, at least in conventional form.

DT: I’m curious about use. To play into stereotypes, my sense is that men use emoji less than women. This is coming from someone who can barely use a semicolon at the end of a sentence to indicate mirth;

DT: That is about my range of emoji use. What do you think, have men embraced this form of communication, or is it still uncharted territory?

AL: I definitely haven’t. I feel like I can maybe comment on it in an academic sort of way, but personally I’m very attached to our tried-and-tested alphabetic way of doing things.

JFL: Meh. I think this is very culturally dependent. My sense is that emoji use is somewhat bimodally distributed in terms of age. My undergrad students love emoji, but so does my mom. There is definitely a cultural preoccupation with whether or not men can or should use emoji. And then, of course, there’s a longstanding set of generalizations about women being better at communication than men, or perhaps more precisely, the idea that communication is a feminine skill, as opposed to hyper-rational thinking, which is typically (in the West) coded as a feature of masculinity. (Insert skeptical comments regarding women’s preoccupation with feeding families as somehow frivolous and men’s preoccupation with sports as manly, etc.)

DT: Perhaps there is an irony here, in that emoji originated, if I’m not mistaken, out of a corporate context, with a preoccupation with marketing and brand identity. And now, social media companies are seeking to measure emoji use to quantify emotional states and produce commercially useful data.

AL: That’s essentially the notion of the “determinative,” which is a central pillar of Ancient Egyptian. A single sign determines an emotional state, but the difference is that the sign accompanies a word for that state which is spelt out. Here it’s more complex and harder to quantify, I would imagine —  there are fifty types of happy emoji or whatever, with fluid meaning, how exactly do you quantify the intensity or “type” of happiness being felt? We’re back to the challenge of operating without a dictionary or standardization — effectively just power of the crowd. I think they are also very useful to non-native speakers (I’m thinking of members of my family in Russia, who try to express themselves in English, fail, and then convert to emoji-speak to get their message across).

DT: I’ll venture emoji are still looked upon with some suspicion, as in they are best used in frivolous types of conversation. Are they simply a parallel form of language, useful in some social contexts, or with new technological developments, are we moving toward greater standardization and perhaps a more formalized use?

JFL: Arguably, this goes back to the discussion of gender. Are emoji considered frivolous because they’re used to convey emotion, and thus feminized? There are also parallels to Twitter here, where early Twitter users were characterized as pointless and frivolous, even though these records of everyday life are deeply constitutive of who we are as a society.

DT: A great point. And now Twitter drives public opinion, policy and elections.

WH: Dan — here is the reference I sent yesterday that talks about the different ways men and women do and don’t use emoji.

JFL: Also, here’s an academic study (from 2000) about men vs. women using emoticons.

AL: We could end up with parallel scripts, perhaps. That’s historically very common — in my field, Ancient Egypt, there was a period, for example, when there were three scripts in operation simultaneously — one for carving on stone, and mainly to do with death; one for high-order literature, some royal administration and other important tasks done in life (written with a brush on papyrus); and a shorthand for routine tasks, like counting cattle or whatever.

AL: And again here, it’s noteworthy that these multiple scripts are a reflection of the different material forms of writing — on a stone surface with a chisel, or with a brush or reed pen on papyrus. The material on which you write is so important — in that sense I firmly believe that it’s natural for something like a smartphone to give rise to a new script.

AL: I love the emoji grammar. The sign list is basically essential to early Egyptological textbooks developed back in the Thirties, like this one, for instance (obviously it was digitized more recently).

WH: Don’t forget how the Chinese language has developed over the years and how they are using cartoons/pictures now to escape censorship. This is developing (I believe) into quite a sophisticated language that defeats the machines (at the moment).

JFL: Absolutely. Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick have written about how teens use cultural references to hide messages from people (read: parents) who are in their social networks but can’t follow cultural references. For what it’s worth, I’ve written a paper with Aram Sinnreich about different modes of hidden communication used by people who are incarcerated and how that could inspire forms of protest among media activists.

WH: There is ongoing discussion about when machines will actually be able to “understand” the words/pictures/concepts they are manipulating. When will machines be able to understand emoji? Will the evolution of emoji make cognitive AI easier or harder to achieve?

DT: Wendy can you say a bit more about cognitive AI? What do you mean by this?

WH: It has been defined as the fourth wave of AI (the first being Turing and Minsky in the 50s and 60s — can computers think; the second being the rule-based expert systems of the 70s and 80s; the third being the machine learning/deep learning systems that we can build today because there is so much more computing power than there was when AI was first conceived). We will have cognitive AI when machines actually understand the information/concepts they are dealing with. At the moment they appear intelligent (e.g . Siri) but without actually “knowing” what they are talking about. This is years away —  it will take another radical evolution in computers to achieve.

DT: It sounds like we are all optimistic about the creative potential of emoji — and perhaps alternative forms of communication in general. What I am hearing from Alex is that we have historical precedents in ancient language. Wendy and Jessa, you are pointing out their subversive nature — how activists and others are using new forms of language to circumvent traditional authorities.

AL: From a historical perspective, we’re certainly very rich in precedent — and in that sense I always feel a little surprised when people talk about modes of communication like emoji, or text-speak for that matter, as being somehow “new.” No — the technology driving them may be new, but the phenomenon of parallel scripts or using pictures to convey emotion (pictograms/determinatives) has been around for millennia. Society is currently adjusting to a new writing medium — the phone/tablet, or indeed even just the computer. In historical terms, even the computer is incredibly new. When paper first appeared in China, or papyrus in Egypt, there was a floruit of new written expression (it being a much more versatile medium than the stone surface which preceded it). Now we’ve got another medium which is more versatile than paper and, importantly, which has the capacity for instant deletion. In that sense, of course, emoji (or indeed anything typed on a computer) can afford to be more frivolous as its creator can send it back into the ether with one hit of the backspace. You can’t do that with an inscription.

DT: Well said, Alex. Jessa, Wendy, concluding thoughts?

JFL: 💁😃😂😆😐😕😦😪💀👀👌

WH: 👏

DT: Thanks everyone. It’s been super;

The Arts and Humanities Research Council International Placement Scheme  that Alex Loktionov applied for is likely to be open for applications between Mid Nov – Mid Jan 2018.  Check our website and twitter feeds for more information. And if you follow @ahrcpress and #ahrcips on twitter, you can then tweet back, adding an emoji…

We asked Alex about the application process:

‘I’d strongly advise people to apply to this scheme – and especially if initially you think you’re not the ‘right fit’. The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library and as such I’m sure it has something to offer almost any humanities scholar.

As an Egyptologist, I was a little bit unsure whether this opportunity would be right for me, as this place is not usually connected to ancient history. However, this has turned out to be a great benefit – I’ve discovered things in the collection which nobody in my discipline has looked at before, allowing me to situate my own research on Egyptian law within a broader framework of African and Middle Eastern justice.

The setting is extremely interdisciplinary – discussing, collaborating and networking with leading scholars in fields like computing and social media has proved really uplifting. I’d never thought that my subject could actually be this ‘relevant’ to the modern world before!’ Alex Loktionov

 


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A Sestina for the Huntington

In this latest Guest Blog, Thomas Tyrrell talks about his experience of the AHRC International Placement Scheme, and ultimately, his “Sestina for the Huntington”.

On my first day at the Huntington Library, Los Angeles, I was allocated a shelf for my books beneath a bust of Lord Byron. Madly jet-lagged but wide-eyed and vibrating on American coffee, I was here on the AHRC international placement scheme, which gives British PhD students the chance to travel abroad and access collections they couldn’t reach on their own budgets.

A bust of George Gordon, Lord Byron, from the Ahrmanson Reading Room in the Munger Research Centre - Photo Credit Thomas Tyrrell

A bust of George Gordon, Lord Byron, from the Ahrmanson Reading Room in the Munger Research Centre – Photo Credit Thomas Tyrrell

After a previous fellowship at the Chawton House Library, Hampshire, I had thanked my hosts with a country house poem. Suitably inspired by Byron, I set myself the challenge of writing a poem for the Huntington. To make things difficult for myself, I chose a sestina, an unusually difficult poetic form where the same six words are repeated in new orders in every verse. That meant that these six words had to be important—they had to embody my experience. These are the six I chose.

Library. Understandably, this was where I spent most of my time. Henry Huntington, one of the richest millionaires of the Gatsby age, had inherited a railroad fortune and built a property fortune on top of it. Much of this cash had been splashed in buying up wholesale the libraries of impecunious English aristocrats, or of other book collectors. I largely spent my time on early atlases and eighteenth-century poetry, but treasures of the library included Gutenberg bibles, first editions of William Blake and a beautifully illuminated Chaucer manuscript.

The Rothenberg Reading Room in the Huntington Library. Photo Credit - Thomas Tyrrell

The Rothenberg Reading Room in the Huntington Library. Photo Credit – Thomas Tyrrell

Garden. The greatest attraction for the Huntington’s ordinary visitors, however, were the acres of botanical gardens, which showcased a vast variety of flora and landscaping techniques, from the stillness of the Chinese and Japanese gardens to the baroque labyrinth of the cacti garden. It was more than possible to go for a quick stroll after lunch and lose yourself for the rest of the afternoon.

A bridge in the Japanese garden at the Huntingdon Library. Photo Credit - Thomas Tyrrell

A bridge in the Japanese garden at the Huntington Library. Photo Credit – Thomas Tyrrell

Art. Among the various galleries of American and European art in the Huntington grounds, one could find a William Morris stained glass window, a painting by Edward Hopper that used to hang (in reproduction) above the fireplace at my parents house and even a bust of John Milton, the key author of my thesis. When I was stuck, I used to go and gaze into his eyes for insight. He had a remarkably sympathetic expression.

Mountains. Waking up in a brand new place, the peak of Mount Wilson to the north made a great impression on me. They were a constant presence through the trip, towering above the parking lots of the Huntington, a reminder of the greater wilderness in tension with the immense urban sprawl of Los Angeles.

Window. American air-conditioning took some getting used to, but I was grateful for it when the temperature hit thirty degrees in February. As I looked out over the sun-baked gardens from the cool, climate-controlled archive spaces, it felt like looking into another world, and I tried to build that sense of slightly uncanny transition into the poem.

Move. I needed a verb to effect a transition between these elements, and stop the poem from falling into an elegant stasis. Something as simple as possible—I considered ‘walk’, ‘pass’, and ‘go’, but I found ‘move’ to be the most adaptable to my purpose.

The Munger Research Centre, where I conducted my research. Photo Credit - Thomas Tyrrell

The Munger Research Centre, where I conducted my research. Photo Credit – Thomas Tyrrell

Then I sat down and wrote.

Huntington Library Sestina by Thomas Tyrrell

The city sprawls out shoreward from the mountains,
Grids grafted to the plain by strength of art:
The craftsman’s skill that makes and frames the window,
With the persistence that sustains the garden
In times of drought; the eloquence to move
A people with the vision of a library.

It’s cool and still and silent in the library,
Where books inform me of the distant mountains:
How hawks and lizards and coyote move
Over a wilderness no human art
Can tame into a farmstead or a garden.
Beneath my eye the page becomes a window.

The world is beckoning beyond the window.
So from the studious pleasures of the library
I go to seek out nature in the garden.
Sheltered in the wind-shadow of the mountains,
The shoots sprout strongly, methodised by art
Which guides their courses as they grow and move.

When down the garden’s winding paths I move
I see far-distant lands as through a window,
The world’s arboreal and floral art
Arranged to form a vast botanic library.
Raked gravel and old stones encompass mountains
And oceans in the stillness of the garden.

The noon-day sun beats down upon the garden
And sweat rolls down my forehead as I move.
Against the cloudless blue horizon, mountains
Stand stark as cut-outs. Wishing for a window
On cooler air, too restless for the library
I go to walk the galleries of art.

The mind and hand combine in making art,
More than in writing books or tending garden.
There’s nothing that could tell me in the library
Quite how a pigment-loaded brush can move
Over an empty canvas, now a window
On men and women, palaces and mountains.

Here is great art with power to awe and move,
A library with all the world its window,
A garden in the shelter of the mountains.

(c) Thomas Tyrell

Thomas Tyrrell gazing at a bust in the Huntingdon Art Gallery - Photo Credit Thomas' Mum

Thomas Tyrrell gazing at a bust in the Huntington Art Gallery – Photo Credit, Kathryn Tyrrell


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Dance, Manhood and Warfare Amongst the Acholi People of Northern Uganda.

Read this latest Blog Post by Lucy Taylor, an AHRC Kluge Fellow who worked on War and Masculinity in Uganda at the Library of Congress during 2016.

The post is re-published with kind permission from the John Kluge Centre at the Library of Congress.  They are one of the AHRC’s partner organisations who provide placements via the AHRC International Placement Scheme for AHRC fellows around the world.  Its the 4th such Blog from Kluge.

The Library of Congress holds some of the richest material concerning
African dance in the world. One of the most interesting collections−comprising
photographs, sound recordings, motion pictures, fieldwork notes and relevant
articles−was donated by Judith Hanna based on her research in Africa during the
early post-colonial period.
Dance represents a fundamental part of the Acholi people’s cultural
heritage. The Acholi, a Nilotic Lwo-speaking ethnic group, reside predominantly
in the central region of northern Uganda, an area collectively referred to as
Acholiland. Before embarking on my fellowship at the John W. Kluge Center my
efforts to access pre-colonial indigenous Acholi perceptions concerning
manhood and warfare for my doctoral research had largely focused on lingual
cultural forms that facilitate the oral transmission of knowledge, such as songs,
proverbs and folktales. It was only after I began to explore the Judith Hanna
collection at the Library of Congress that I started to truly appreciate the
importance of dance for transferring knowledge between generations within a
number of African cultures and societies.

Photograph courtesy of the Judith Hanna Collection, Library of Congress. Picturing Acholi men dancing the Larakaraka in 1963

Photograph courtesy of the Judith Hanna Collection, Library of Congress. Picturing Acholi
men dancing the Larakaraka in 1963

The Larakaraka was an Acholi courtship dance that granted young men
the opportunity to demonstrate their dancing prowess and physical vigor in the
hope of securing a marriage partner. As Okot p’bitek, a famous Acholi poet,
suggested in his ‘Song of Lawino’, young women used to judge and assess
prospective partners based on their skill and endurance in the dancing arena.1

‘A man’s manliness is seen in the arena’
‘All parts of the body
Are shown in the arena!
Health and liveliness,
Are shown in the arena!’ 2

During the Larakaraka the young men danced in a semi-circle with their legs
interlocked whilst singing short repetitive songs. They adorned ostrich or cock
feathers on their heads and carried calabashes in their left hands. The young
women danced silently facing the men until the moko stage, when each woman
would identify her preferred male of choice, push him out of the semi-circle and
the young couple would retreat to a quiet spot to become better acquainted.3
However dancing the Larakaraka not only provided individuals with a chance to
excel amongst their counterparts, but the scripted moves, costumes and
instruments employed also reproduced and conveyed to the audience
appropriate gendered roles and behaviours.

Dance embodied an important instrument for education within Acholiland and a platform whereby accepted behavioral patterns and socially constructed norms and values were
demonstrated and disseminated. Although important to consider the extent to
which concepts are exaggerated within dance, sometimes for entertainment
purposes, dances such as the Larakaraka can help provide us with a better
understanding of what was admired and celebrated in terms of masculinity and
femininity in pre-colonial Acholi society.

Courtesy of The Nigrizia,1932, (Comboni Missionary Magazine). Picturing dancers preparing for the Otole

Courtesy of The Nigrizia,1932, (Comboni Missionary Magazine). Picturing dancers preparing for the Otole

Before the onset of warfare, or during important occasions organized at the
call of a chief, the Otole, a physically tiring dance involving mock fights, repetitive
jumping and running back and forth around the arena, was often performed.4
Men wore leopard hides, ostrich plumes to decorate their heads, and carried
spears and shields whilst women carried a lukile, a small axe.

The Otole dance, or war dance as it also now known, served a number of
complementary functions. The vigorous and energetic movements helped
physically prepare men for the demands of fighting, whilst the sequences
performed during the mock fights instructed men on formation patterns,
advance and retreat strategies alongside the manner of attacking and defending
with a spear and shield.5

In addition to this, the Otole served to emotionally prepare men for

violent encounters, acting as a mechanism for motivation and encouragement,

and for inciting military courage and confidence. The Otole further enhanced the

men’s combat readiness through eliciting popular support,and sanctioning the use

of violence and normally inappropriate behavior within the context of warfare.6

Thus, although trauma is rarely considered during discussions of pre-colonial African warfare, I would argue mechanisms such as the Otole dance, through freeing men of guilt or regret, helped further emotionally prepare men for war by relieving or reducing the psychological impact of participation in violence.

Thus, although trauma is rarely considered during discussions of pre-colonial African warfare, I would argue mechanisms such as
the Otole dance, through freeing men of guilt or regret, helped further emotionally prepare men for war by relieving or reducing the psychological
impact of participation in violence.

Courtesy of the Hesketh Bell Collection, 1906-1909, (Y3011C), Cambridge University Library

Courtesy of the Hesketh Bell Collection, 1906-1909, (Y3011C), Cambridge University Library

The Judith Hanna collection is remarkable in terms of the variety of
resources it includes and its references to ethnic groups that were relatively
marginalized within other research projects in the early post-colonial period,
notably, the Acholi. The collection provided me with a wealth of knowledge and
theoretical understanding concerning dance in Africa, and challenged me to
further explore specific Acholi dances, such as the Larakaraka and the Otole, in
relation to masculine identities and warfare during my own fieldwork in
northern Uganda.

Those working at the American Folklife Centre, where the Judith Hanna
Collection is housed, could not have been more helpful; if it was not for their
enthusiasm and dedication to disseminating this valuable collection, I would
never have been able to extract such rich data from it. In particular the
photographs and motion picture featuring Acholi dances, of which the staff
kindly provided me copies, are helping me question whether the imagery or
symbolism embedded within these dances was susceptible to individual
interpretation depending on varying life trajectories. Additionally by showing
this material to elderly Acholi people, I have the unique opportunity to gauge
their opinion concerning how dance has evolved and adapted over time. The
importance of the Library of Congress as a repository of cultural history in a
rapidly changing and often poorly documented world has never been more
apparent to me.

My fellowship at the John W. Kluge Center was facilitated and funded by the
AHRC through the International Placement Scheme. This support not only helped
me gain access to unique resources and pursue new areas of interest in relation
to my doctoral research, but importantly the scheme also granted me the
opportunity to forge significant contacts, and explore potential collaboration
opportunities for the future. Notably my forthcoming visit to Columbia
University to work under Associate Professor Rhiannon Stephens came as a
direct consequence of my research at the Kluge Center and the invaluable
conversations I had with other academics working at the Library regarding
innovative methodologies for researching pre-colonial African history.

 

1 Judith Hanna, Dance, Sex and Gender: Signs of Identity, Dominance, Defiance, and
Desire (The university of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1988), pp.4-5.

2 Okot p’bitek, Song of Lawino (East African Publishing House: Nairobi, 1966)
p33-34.
3 Okumu pa’ Lukobo, ‘Acholi Dance and Dance Songs’. Uganda Journal, Vol. 35,
1971, pp.55-61, (p.55).

4 Okumu pa’ Lukobo, ‘Acholi Dance and Dance Songs’. Uganda Journal, Vol. 35,
1971, pp.55-61, (p.55-56).
5 Judith Hanna, ‘African Dance and the Warrior Tradition’. Journal of Asian and
African Studies, XII, 1-4, pp.111-133, (p.114).
6 Judith Hanna, ‘African Dance and the Warrior Tradition’. Journal of Asian and
African Studies, XII, 1-4, pp.111-133, (p.115-119).


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The Sounds of Strange Phenomena: An IPS Fellowship at the International Research Centre for Japanese Studies

The stunning seasonal changes at Nichibunken. Photo Courtesy of Hannah Bayley

The stunning seasonal changes at Nichibunken. Photo Courtesy of Hannah Bayley

In this latest Guest Blog, Hannah Bayley, International Placement Scheme Fellow, reflects on her experiences of the IPS Scheme and time at the International Research Centre for Japanese Studies, (part of the wider NIHU (National Institutions for Humanities) in Kyoto, Japan.

Writing a doctoral thesis often triggers moments of reflection. Sat in a dedicated creative writing session at Keele on a particularly grey foggy Thursday morning I found myself looking out of the window and thinking how the weather and the damp atmosphere provided the perfect conditions in which one might expect to meet a yūrei (The most common Japanese term for ghost, roughly translated as dim spirit). This kind of meeting was something I half expected to experience while sitting in the library of the International Research Centre for Japanese Studies during my AHRC International placement, head bent over publications strewn with images of Japanese spirits and descriptions of ghostly sounds.

The stunning seasonal changes at Nichibunken. Photo Courtesy of Hannah Bayley

The stunning seasonal changes at Nichibunken. Photo Courtesy of Hannah Bayley

I never met a spirit in that library. However, I did leave my five-month fellowship with a wealth of ideas focused on distinctly Japanese representations of sonic haunting that have fruitfully shaped the course of my doctoral thesis. I am currently in the writing up stage of my PhD which offers a reconceptualization of the roles of sound and music in Japanese ‘ghost’ film, and how that differs from other traditions elsewhere in the world, especially considering the number of American J-horror remakes that have emerged.

I can recall two months into my PhD at Keele University receiving an email from the Music postgraduate mailing list and my efforts to carefully assess which of the six inter-university institutes that make up the National Institutes for the Humanities in Japan would be right for me. As an institute with an emphasis on comparative studies and cultural exchange the International Research Centre for Japanese Studies, or Nichibunken (日文研) was well suited to my project. Further research on the host website confirmed this, as I would have direct contact with a wealth of relevant resources on filmic, literary and theatrical traditions. Pre-fellowship I had read and accessed some of their special digital databases online. Once at Nichibunken the library staff were incredibly helpful, providing guidance on how to access a number of items in print form. I was able to view unique visual materials from the collections of Paintings of Strange Phenomena and Yōkai (Ghosts, Monsters, Spirits) and the Database for Folktales of Strange Phenomena and Yōkai (Ghosts, Monsters, Spirits). The library also had a number of microfiche collections and I retrieved cuttings from the Prange collection, publications (books, periodicals, pamphlets, newspapers), documents, posters, etc. that were censored during the Allied occupation of Japan between 1945 and 1952. Articles retrieved were all reports on cinema and film music, mainly screen guides from this period of restriction in journalism. Most of the documents were in Japanese but I was granted permission to take away photocopies for future translation work.

Admittedly, I had one concern when I applied to the fellowship and that was the Japanese language level requirement. As someone who has obtained a certificate of Japanese language competency it still did not inspire a lot of confidence in me, but there was no Japanese language skills requirement for Nichibunken, and it never posed that big an obstacle as there was always help on hand and a large proportion of the library resources are in English. Support was provided by the Research Centre’s staff, visiting researchers, and students, and especially by my host supervisor, Professor Hosokawa Shuhei, who introduced me to a number of research contacts. I was encouraged to develop both my research and language skills by attending monthly seminars in English and Japanese, as well as the International Research Symposium hosted at Nichibunken, and the Sokendai (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies, Osaka) Cultural 2014 Forum. I presented an early version of my analysis of transnational adaptation in the music and sound design of Ju-on: The Grudge and its remake The Grudge at the Kyoto-Nara EU Association English club.

Yutate Kagura ritual dance and purification ceremony, Jōnangū shrine, Kyoto.

Yutate Kagura ritual dance and purification ceremony, Jōnangū shrine, Kyoto.                             Photo Courtesy of Hannah Bayley

My first-hand experiences of several Japanese performing art forms from ancient court music and dance (Gagaku) to traditional puppet theatre (Bunraku), and traditional theatre forms such as Noh and Kabuki, would not have been possible without being awarded my fellowship. One of the most illuminating moments was actually being able to take part in a workshop on butoh, an avant-garde dance form that originated after World War II. The class was led by acclaimed choreographer and dancer Ima Tenko, whose performances I had attended earlier in my placement. Never underestimate the power of networking, anywhere! I began attending services at St. Agnes church in Kyoto, where I played the organ for a few services. There, I met a conservator of Japanese paintings who introduced me directly to a research contact at the International Noh Institute (INI). I was advised on performances and arranged to sit in on a rehearsal led by the Kongō School Master-Actor Udaka Michishige, leader of the INI.

 

These immersive opportunities have transformed my understanding of the unique sonic practice of Japanese performing arts. To be able to examine culturally specific traditions of supernatural and horrific representations in the Japanese arts and how they have shaped examples of sonic practice in Japanese film within the ‘field’ has enriched my understanding beyond the scope of anything I expected. My time at Nichibunken has equipped me with the original scholarly foundations required for my doctoral thesis and helped me to shape the various cultural, social and artistic contexts for a research paper I had begun working on, which will be published in 2018. Thanks to the support of staff at Nichibunken I was also able to contact figures in the Japanese film industry ‘in country’ and travelled to interview three prominent film and video game composers; Shimizu Hiromi, Kawai Kenji (pictured) and Ashiya Gary.

Meeting Kawai Kenji at his studio in Tokyo. Photo Courtesy of Hannah Bayley

Meeting Kawai Kenji at his studio in Tokyo. Photo Courtesy of Hannah Bayley

During my placement, I liked the fact that I had the option to live alongside other researchers at the centre in a self-contained apartment in Nichibunken House. A nearby supermarket, post office, bank and on-site restaurant at the institute were all conveniently located. A short walk away was what quickly became one of my favourite ramen restaurants. Transportation was very reliable and frequent, especially the bus services, as Kyoto city itself is roughly a 30-minute drive away from the western edge of the city, where Nichibunken is situated. Arashiyama, Osaka and Nara are also easy to reach and of course the famous shinkansen (bullet train) was convenient for travel to places such as Nagoya and Tokyo, especially with a Japan rail pass. Being a big foodie, I was more than happy to sample some of the famous Kyo-wagashi (Kyoto sweets), Yatsuhashi (red bean paste confectionary), and of course experience the Japanese tea ceremony, which I attended frequently. I was even trained in the Way of Tea (Chadō, Sadō or Chanoyu, literally “Hot Water for Tea”).

Aspects of Japanese culture: match tea ceremony lesson, Tō-ji Temple’s five-storey pagoda- the tallest wooden tower in Japan, and the Noh theatre stage. Photos Courtesy of Hannah Bayley

Aspects of Japanese culture: Match tea ceremony lesson, Tō-ji Temple’s five-storey pagoda- Tallest wooden tower in Japan, and the Noh theatre stage.                                                                                                                      Photos Courtesy of Hannah Bayley

Kyoto inspired me with its wealth of beautifully preserved temples, shrines, rock gardens, the former imperial palace grounds, and I didn’t miss any chances to attend the city’s festivals and illumination events. I will treasure my many walks around Kyoto reflecting on the connections of nature, animism and the supernatural in film music, whilst appreciating the beauty of viewing both the colourful maple leaves of autumn (koyo/momiji) and the first buds of the cherry blossom (sakura) season, which were often accompanied by the telling of a tale from Japanese folkore.

I am so thankful that I spied an opportunity in an AHRC email, and applied for the IPS. The fellowship has enhanced my knowledge of Japanese ghost and horror traditions through the ages in ways that have enabled me to develop fresh approaches to the criticism of films, scores and soundtracks. The impact of my placement has allowed me to develop the leading-edge expertise that I hope will open many doors as I seek post-PhD academic employment.

And who knows? Maybe I will return to Nichibunken one day and encounter a spirit or two.

 

 


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International Funding Opportunities Closing Soon


Happy new year, and just a quick reminder that there are lots of international funding calls closing in the next month……

AHRC international development call

As part of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), the AHRC have a call for Area Based Network Plus awards for Arts and Humanities based approaches to addressing global development challenges. It is expected that applications will have a strong collaborative element with ODA (Overseas Development Assistance) countries. The awards will be £1.5-2 Million and over 4 years, and offer a flexible model of scoping, partnership building and running funding calls. Closing date: 18 January 2017

European Commission Funding

The topics to be funded under European Commission Challenge ‘Europe in a changing World – inclusive, innovative and reflective societies’ work programme close soon. These topics are more closely defined than a research council theme, but are still more open than commissioned research. In 2017 there is particular arts and humanities interest under the theme ‘Understanding Europe – Promoting the European Public and Cultural Space’ For example topics include:

  • Contemporary histories of Europe in artistic and creative practices
  • Religious diversity in Europe – past, present and future
  • Participatory approaches and social innovation in culture

Most close 2 or 4 February 2017 (note some of these are now 2 stage processes so involve an outline proposal). If you need assistance with applying, the UK contact point for this challenge is Ben Sharman challenge6ncp@esrc.ac.uk

Hello Shenzen: Researching the Ethics of Makerspaces

The AHRC and British Council have a UK/China opportunity for research into the China Maker movement that closes 29 January 2017. Note: applications need to comply with Overseas Development Assistance (ODA)

International Placement Scheme

The AHRC International Placement Scheme offers the opportunity for doctoral and Early Career researchers to visit seven world leading institutions in the USA, Japan and China. Closes 19 January  2017 

 


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How a Scholar Uses Her Ph.D. to Combat Global Corruption

This is the 2nd posting from the The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.  With kind thanks and permission of Jason Steinhauer and ESRC.

In 2012 and 2013, Nieves Zúñiga was an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center, researching a project titledIndigenous Struggles over Recognition in Bolivia: Contesting Evo Morales’s Discourse of Internal Decolonization.” Today, she is putting her knowledge of Bolivian society to use as part of the EU-funded project Anticorruption Policies Revisited. Global Trends and European Responses to the Challenge of Corruption (ANTICORRP), examining anti-corruption policies in Bolivia and Rwanda. She talks with Jason Steinhauer about how her scholarship has informed her current work.

Hi Nieves. Welcome back to the Kluge Center. Refresh our memory: what was the subject of your research when you were here years ago?

When I came to the Kluge Center as an ESRC Fellow, I was a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. My thesis was about the recognition of indigenous peoples in Bolivia. I was analyzing the discourse that the government of President Evo Morales was using to recognize indigenous peoples and how indigenous peoples were responding to that recognition.

What had been the status of indigenous people in Bolivia prior to his administration?

Indigenous peoples in Bolivia, as well as in other countries in Latin America and in the world, have struggled to get their rights recognized. President Morales recognized them at different levels. Foremost, he recognized their right of self-determination. This is a key right that indigenous people claim but states are reluctant to grant because it involves potential conflicts surrounding land and natural resources. As well, he turned the nation state into a multi-national state, meaning that indigenous autonomies are constitutionally acknowledged as legal political forms of organization, indigenous languages enjoy the same official status as Spanish, and an indigenous flag is now a national symbol.

However, despite the answer that these acknowledgements represent to historical indigenous demands, several indigenous leaders remain dissatisfied with these changes. My thesis provides a political explanation of why the recognition of cultural diversity in Bolivia has fallen short. My argument is that the indigenous dissatisfaction can be explained by the divergence between the discourses of the state and of indigenous struggles. The cultural recognition granted by Morales is based on an essentialist idealization of indigenous identity that does not correspond with reality. One of the indigenous leaders that I interviewed told me that before indigenous people could not participate in politics because they were thought to be inferior, and now they are considered pure and they are forced to maintain that pure image, which is another form of control. I suggest that this tension reveals a different understanding of what decolonization and recognition mean, not only between the Bolivian government and the indigenous peoples, but also among indigenous peoples in the highlands and the lowlands.

What did you find at the Library that helped you understand these issues?

I found lots of literature of Bolivia before Morales and during Morales’s time. And something really interesting is that I found many pamphlets from Bolivian social movements and local authorities—materials that are quite difficult to find in the field because you have to gather them from across different regions. However, I found them here concentrated all in one place, which was very helpful.

Nieves Zuniga

ESRC Fellow Nieves Zuniga conducting fieldwork in Rwanda, July 2016. Photo provided by the scholar, used with permission.

So following completion of your thesis, where did you go?

After my PhD I continued working in Bolivia. My project now is on anti-corruption policies. Since 2014 I am research fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham for the project ANTICORRP funded by the European Union. The main objective of the project is to examine why some anti-corruption policies work, and others don’t. We are twenty multidisciplinary research groups in fifteen EU countries working on identifying factors that promote or hinder the implementation of effective anti-corruption policies.

At the University of Nottingham, together with the Developmental Leadership Program at the University of Birmingham, we are doing a comparative analysis between the anti-corruption policies in Bolivia and Rwanda. Even though Bolivia and Rwanda appear to be very different, they have interesting similarities in the way they understand corruption. For both of them the problem of corruption stems from colonialism. The solution, therefore, is to reconnect with indigenous and pre-colonial values and institutions. Our approach is to see how the promotion of integrity and values can play a role in anti-corruption in combination with a compliance approach, and both countries place an emphasis on values and ethics as key tools to fight corruption.

However, it’s very interesting to see how they are getting different results. Anti-corruption is one of the most celebrated achievements of Rwanda in the last years, whereas in Bolivia the negative perception on the levels of corruption has hardly improved. In Rwanda, the education in values is a continual activity and they use diverse formal and informal mechanisms to reach the different groups of the society, which explains, among other political and historical factors, a change in attitudes toward corruption. In Bolivia, activities regarding educating citizens against corruption are sporadic and isolated and, in reality, there is a prioritization of regulatory codes and compliance over values that prevents to change a mindset that condemns corruption in theory but tolerates it in practice.

How does your Ph.D. thesis, and your research at the Kluge Center, provide insight for your current project?

For me it was really good to have the background on Bolivia coming from my Ph.D. It helped me to contextualize the anti-corruption policy that Morales’s government is trying to implement and to better understand the response of the society. For example, one of the pillars of the anti-corruption policy is to increase the participation of civil society in monitoring the government. My previous knowledge about the tensions among social movements and their relationship with the government has helped me to understand some of the struggles and limitations of the policy, in particular, regarding the value and challenges for an effective social accountability

What will be the end result of your current work?

The main product will be a report on the promotion of integrity in fighting corruption. We propose to move the debate from fighting corruption to promoting integrity in public management. Everybody believes that integrity is good and necessary, but very few know how to define it, and even less how to implement it. With this report we try to provide an operational definition of integrity and ideas for its practical implementation in public institutions. This report will be presented to policy-makers, public officials and practitioners in the EU and other international contexts.

Another main product will be the comparative analysis of the anti-corruption policies in Bolivia and Rwanda, and more in-depth papers on each case. I recently presented a preliminary analysis in the OpenGov Hub in Washington, D.C. on what is working in anti-corruption with successful examples from Rwanda and the municipal government of Juan del Granado in La Paz, an exception in Bolivia. It was nice to see in the audience Ronald MacLean Abaroa, former mayor of La Paz who has done a lot of work on anti-corruption, meet him personally, and talk further over coffee.

What does the future hold for you—what role do you see for yourself moving forward?

My future will hopefully involve doing something that is a bridge between the intellectual world and pragmatic results. I want to do research, coordinate projects and work in teams to make a positive impact in society. This is what I really want to do.

Nieves also added a final comment on the International Placement Scheme:

To have the Economic and Social Research Council ESRC/AHRC fellowship to do research at the Kluge Centre in the Library of Congress was fantastic for many different reasons.

During my PhD I had to divide my time between working on my dissertation and doing other jobs to help myself financially, like being Graduate Teacher Assistant and note-taker for students with disabilities. Both of them were great personal and professional experiences and they also meant extra effort on my PhD thesis. To have three months during the summer fully funded by the ESRC/AHRC to focus only on my research meant the paradise to me. Moreover, it gave me the opportunity to be part of one of the most fascinating places for the intellectual brain. The Library of Congress, and the Kluge Centre in particular, is fantastic not only because of the resources they have –imagine being the biggest library in the world!-, but because of the possibility that offers to interact with scholars from different countries and fields. To be part of such intellectually stimulating environment allowed me to learn from different topics such as graffitis in Pompeya, medieval maps, Mongolia, the history of money or social movements in a digital era, and also to look at my own research with fresher eyes. I have to add that Washington DC is a fantastic and beautiful city. Full of cultural opportunities, friendly people, and sun! I loved living there, and as Spaniard I can deal pretty good with the hot weather.

I brought many things from my time at the Kluge. It opened to me professional opportunities otherwise impossible to have. And to meet the staff at the Kluge and the LOC was great. They are really welcoming and helpful, and the contact with some of them have developed in friendships that last until today. I go back to the Kluge whenever I am in DC and it stills feels like home.

I really recommend applying to this fellowship. If I could, I would do it again!

 

More information on the 2017 Scheme can be found via the website.