Reclaiming Spectacle

Saturday 7th September – Sunday 8th September

‘Reclaiming Spectacle: A two-day symposium’
Horse Hospital, Colonnade, Bloomsbury, WC1N 1JD (Map)

The Congress for Curious People will draw to a close with this two day symposium addressing the concept of spectacle. Please see the full schedule below. To download a shorter programme as a PDF, please click here. For more information about each speaker, take a look at our participants page.

Generally, the word spectacle refers to an event that is memorable for the appearance it creates. In nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship, spectacle has been frequently described as simultaneously enticing, deceptive and superficial, but above all as the domination of mass media, consumption and surveillance, which reduces citizens to spectators by political neutralisation. From this elitist view the audiences for spectacles have been described as passive consumers while the agency of those creating content is rarely addressed. We want to exactly challenge the very opposition between viewing (or writing about) and acting. How one can actively translate and interpret scientific spectacles and how can the boundaries between looking and doing be blurred: What can we learn from an encounter with performers, objects and spaces that create spectacles? Can counter-spaces and interventionist critiques be created?

Saturday 7th September

10.00 Registration

10.30 Welcome address
Aaron Beebe (Coney Island Museum), Joanna Ebenstein (Morbid Anatomy), Petra Lange-Berndt (Preserved!), Mark Pilkington (Strange Attractor).

‘Spectacular cultures’ (moderated by Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy) 

11.15 Richard Barnett, Engagement Fellow, Wellcome Trust: ‘All the Fun of the Fair’
Richard Barnett’s talk will tell the story of the fair. This is a tale of fleeting encounters, vivid pleasures, and the (temporary) dissolution of the bonds of mundane life. We will get our feet dusty at medieval patronal fairs, gawp at Victorian freaks and strongmen, and savour the neon and candyfloss of contemporary funfairs. We will look for traces of a pre-Christian festival culture, and examine what this endeavour reveals about changing attitudes towards the very notion of tradition. And we will end by asking: Who are the true modern inheritors of the ferias spiritus?

12.00 Break

12.15 Panel discussion: ‘Being Spectacular, Collecting the Spectacular’
This panel will address a range of spectacular practices. Discussion will take place between artists who dabble in the spectacular and archival and museum professionals faced with looking after and caring for the remnants of spectacular practices and objects with, at times, challenging histories. Artist Brian Catling turns into a Cyclops using the special effects of latex rubber masks; artistic duo Claire and Bob Humm enjoy carnivalesque humbug such as the fertility rites of Hasting’s Jack in the Green; Will Fowler is curator of artists’ moving images at the BFI; Subhadra Das is curator of UCL’s biomedical Teaching & Research Collections; Carla Valentine works as curator of Barts Pathology Museum.

13.30 Lunch break

14.30 Simon Werrett, Lecturer, Science and Technology Studies, UCL: ‘Fireworks: Behind the Bang!’
There’s much more to fireworks than meets the eye. We use fireworks today for celebrations, but in the past fireworks had many different uses. This talk will show how fireworks were used for spectacular religious and political festivals in European history, as tools of empire on voyages of exploration, as polite parlour-games and as dangerous weapons for radicals and rioters. Spectacle served many ends. Along the way, fireworks inspired scientists, artists, and poets and provided models for all kinds of inventions that have become part of the modern world. The legacy of these spectacles remains in everything from home-lighting to space exploration.

15.15 Break

‘Extraordinary bodies’ (moderated by Matt Lodder, Art Historian)

15.45 Robert Mills, Lecturer, History of Art, UCL: ‘Talking Heads, or, A Tale of Two Clerics’
Around the year 1000, two churchmen, Gerbert of Aurillac (later Pope Sylvester II) and his contemporary and one-time foe Abbo of Fleury became associated with tales of talking heads. Gerbert is the subject of the story, accused of manufacturing a head that magically issues prophesies and leads to his eventual downfall. Abbo is the author of the story, a narrative recounting the martyrdom of St Edmund of East Anglia, whose head miraculously announces its presence to the king’s subjects after its removal from his body by murderous Danes. This talk will use these stories as the starting point for an analysis of the phenomenon of talking heads in the Middle Ages, paying particular attention to the motif’s ambivalent associations. Located on the ambiguous borderland between magic and miracle, organic and inorganic, image and idol, medieval and modern, talking heads speak in many different voices.

16.30 Bill MacLehose, Lecturer in History of Science and Medicine, UCL: ‘The Foreskin of Jesus and other bits: Medieval relics and visions of the Christ Child’

This talk explores the medieval fascination with the body of the baby Jesus. From about the year 1100 onward, religious life in Western Europe began to focus more and more on the human aspects of the Christ. While this was most apparent in the fixation on his suffering at the crucifixion, religious men and women of the twelfth through fourteenth centuries also contemplated his birth and childhood. The body of the infant and child Jesus provided many people, including laymen and laywomen, with a tangible connection to their God. Supposed relics of the foreskin, baby teeth and umbilical cord, among others, became objects of great interest. Through relics and visions, most famously by saints Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena, medieval Christians explored the meanings of religion and humanity through the baby Jesus’ body and its component parts.

17.15 Break

17.30 Ross MacFarlane, Research Officer, Wellcome Library: ‘Tom Thumb and the Hilton Sisters: Uncovering the ‘Freaks’ of the Wellcome Library’
Exploitation or entertainment? Highlighting handbills and journals, postcards and posters, this talk will delve into the sensational world of the freakshow, as seen through the collections of the Wellcome Library.

18.15 End

Sunday 8th September

‘Nonhuman Spectacles’ (moderated by Petra Lange-Berndt, Lecturer, History of Art, UCL)

10.00 ‘The Micro-Spectacular’
We will screen the films An Insidious Intrusion (2008) by artist Tessa Farmer, and Serenading to Spiders (2012) by artist Eleanor Morgan. While Farmer engages in stop motion animation of dead insects and uncanny skeletal fairies, Morgan tries to attract a living spider by singing to the animal.
Afterwards, Bergit Arends (Curator), Gavin Broad (Senior Curator, Hymenoptera, Natural History Museum), Catriona McAra (Research Fellow in Cultural Theory, University of Huddersfield) and Eleanor Morgan (Artist) will discuss the impact that creepy crawlies and parasites have on us and how artists have been addressing the micro-spectacular plane.

11.15 Tim Cockerill, artist and zoologist: ‘The Flea Circus: The Smallest Show on Earth’
‘All our fleas are harnessed. You don’t take any more out than you bring in yourself’ (From a sign in John Torp’s American Flea Circus, 1950s)
Roll up and see the world-famous performing fleas! For over 150 years, audiences have been paying their sixpences to be amazed by whole troupes of real, live, performing fleas. Believe it, or not? In this talk, Tim Cockerill will persuade you that the flea circus, until recently, was a 100% genuine spectacle, made up of live fleas pulling chariots, riding tricycles and even fighting duels with perfectly crafted miniature swords. Find out how the Flea Circus ‘Professors’ fed their fleas, which household appliance spelled the demise of the Flea Circus in the 1950s, and how a flea could make a Victorian lady take all of her clothes off. Tim will teach you how – once you have found your fleas – to harness and train them yourself, so you can start a flea circus of your very own! After several years researching the history and techniques of the flea circus, Tim has uncovered previously unseen footage and photos of the fleas in action. Tim has also tracked down the last remaining Flea Circus Professors, who have taught him the secret techniques of flea training. All of this and more is included in the talk you can afford to see, but cannot afford to miss!

12.00 Break

12.15 Dietmar Rübel, Professor of Art History and Theory, Art Academy Dresden: ‘Blobjects: Nothing can stop it!’
Spectacular B-Movie horror scenarios enable us to critically engage with anxieties in relation to liquid objects beyond human subjectivity. Rübel will consider the film “The Blob” from 1958, a horror film classic, in which a jellylike, life-forms-devouring mass from outer space is relentlessly growing and spreading. Out of this fictitious story in the past decades fascinating human-thing-hybrids have been developed: So called “Blobjects” push from the realms of art, design and architecture into public spaces and conquer our everyday lives. As one can hear in Burt Bacharach’s main title song: “Beware of ‘The Blob’, it creeps / And leaps and glides and slides / Across the floor / Right through the door / And all around the wall / A splotch, a blotch / Be careful of The Blob.”

With a demonstration by Emma Richardson, UCL.

13.00 Lunch break

‘Ritual and Spectacle’ (moderated by Mark Pilkington, writer and curator)

14.00 Chiara Ambrosio, filmmaker and visual artist: ‘Tarantism: Dance, Possession and Exorcism in Southern Italy’
Tarantism is a form of dance mania that illustrates the complex struggle between Pagnism and Catholicism in the South of Italy. Its journey and development – from Greek and Roman times, through the middle ages and renaissance, straight through to the modern day – traces a story that transcends the history of medicine and religion to embrace a vast and complicated conversation about the political and socio-economical identity of a land, and the continued fight for freedom and emancipation in an extremely volatile and difficult terrain, both physical and psychological. This talk will explore Tarantism as a ritualistic spectacle that, through dance and music, offers a form of resistance and continuation of specific local histories beliefs and identity.

14.45 Shannon Taggart, photographer and independent researcher, ‘Physical Mediumship, Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm’
After learning the details of her grandfather’s death through a medium, Shannon Taggart began a long term project on Modern Spiritualism. Through images made from 2001-2013, this talk will examine Spiritualist ritual, its uses of technology and its links with Shamanistic spectacle. The intrinsic connection between Spiritualism, photography, and the science of the invisible will be discussed. A comparison between the latent theater of physical mediumship and the literal theatrics of Haitian Vodou will also be explored.

15.30 Break

16.00 Panel discussion, ‘Spectacle, Ritual and Magic’
With Cecile Dubuis (artistic gothic librarian, UCL), Christina Harrington (Director of Treadwell’s Bookshop), Shannon Taggart (photographer/independent researcher), Robert Wallis (Professor of Visual Culture, Richmond University).

17.15 James Kennaway, History of Medicine and Disease, Durham University: ‘Psychiatry vs. Religion’
Over the past two hundred years many psychiatrists have taken a dim view of religion, and have attempted to portray it, and especially its more extravagant and mystical aspects, as essentially an expression of types of mental illness such as hysteria or schizophrenia. The lives of prophets, saints and religious leaders have been reinterpreted in diagnostic terms. Ecstatic and mystical religious experiences, from Voodoo ceremonies to Pentecostal speaking in tongues, have been diagnosed as pathological delusions. Discussions of Jesus as a paranoid schizophrenic and Mohammed as a psychopath abound. This talk will look at some of the strangest examples of this phenomenon and consider its causes, uses and limitations.

18.00 Final discussion

18.30 End