“Tanya Bishop talking at TEDxCourtauld (Image courtesy of TEDxCourtauld)
“Movement is existential – for centuries it has been a source of fascination and inspiration,” thus begins the program for this year’s TEDx conference at The Courtauld. Taking place on March 11th, the conference picked on “Movement” as its central theme. According to the conference program, “Movement” can mean a number things – ranging from the physical transportation of the body to sociopolitical activism. The term is perhaps one of the most relevant in today’s global society, encompassing a range of issues from the ongoing refugee crisis, to the recent UCU strike closer to home. In line with this theme, the timely event invited nine inspirational speakers from diverse backgrounds for whom movement has been an important concept in life and work.
Among the only two artists invited, established British landscape painter John Virtue found movement crucial in his artistic career. Born in Lancashire in 1947, Virtue graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art. He also served as the Associate Artist at the National Gallery from 2003-05. Virtue’s monochrome paintings lie on the intersection between Chinese and Japanese ink art, American abstract expressionism and a tradition of British landscape painters such as Turner and Constable. This constant movement between East and West, abstraction and figuration, as well as the concepts of the gaze and the glance is what has marked Virtue’s artistic career and drove his imagination. He describes his art as attempting to fuse two opposite ends and capture the movement in-between. Virtue’s movement in life is not limited to thought and extends into physical space. For a landscape painter like Virtue, the physical environment plays a crucial role in his art. Subsequently, Virtue has travelled extensively – living and working in cycles in various locations in Italy and the UK. It is perhaps no exaggeration when Virtue claims in his talk, “it’s movement that had driven my life.”
Another inspiring talk on movements in the art world comes from the duo Geoffrey Marsh, Director of the department of Theatre and Performing, and Victoria Broackes, Curator, from the V&A. Marsh and Broackes’s speech was centred around the museum’s movement towards accessibility and new technologies, as demonstrated through a few of the V&A’s extremely popular and successful exhibitions in the past few years. These “immersive” exhibitions, including the recent Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains and Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, allowed a broader reach and more sociocultural influence for the museum. According to Marsh and Broackes, the immersive experiences provided through these exhibitions are perfect embodiments of contemporary culture. While highlighting the growing importance of new technologies like VR and AR to the museum world, their talk seemed to have left the audience with a thought-provoking question: how can today’s museums embrace technology in a way that makes it more approachable to the wider public while also sustaining its integrity and resisting influence from commercial interests?
While Virtue’s, as well as Marsh and Broackes’s talks encouraged new ideas on the role of movement(s) in art, speakers from other backgrounds shed light on inspiring and creative lives outside of the art world. Dr Thaier Alhussain is a Syrian medical doctor whose talk reminded us of the uncomfortable truths of war and forced dislocation. After studying medicine as a youth in Armenia, Alhussain returned to Syria to find his home country sliding into war. After practising in harsh conditions – often without electricity and water – in his hometown, Alhussain decided to head for the north of the country with his family when their home was hit by a bomb. It was there that Alhussain joined Doctors without Borders and continued to work in unsafe situations. Torn between a sense of responsibility and the longing for a safe environment, Alhussain eventually decided to leave the country when ISIS infiltrated into the region where he worked. Eventually, Alhussain arrived in the UK to pursue further studies at UCL with a scholarship; however, he could not bring himself to accept life in a safe country as his thoughts constantly shifted back to those who are still suffering the war. Alhussain is now in the process of trying to obtain a medical license in the UK while still on the lookout for opportunities to continue helping others.
Equally touching was a talk by Tasha Bishop, the young founder of a social initiative aimed at raising awareness on and tackling dominant social attitudes towards fertility issues. Named ‘The Pants Project’, Bishop’s campaign works with established lingerie brands internationally to create and sell underwear. A percentage of the profits is then donated to Fertility Network UK, the leading British charity that supports those with various fertility issues. Still a student at Oxford University, Bishop’s motivation for this project came from her personal experiences. Diagnosed with Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser syndrome (put simply, a medical condition marked by the underdevelopment or absence of the uterus and vagina) as a teen, Bishop had to learn to live with the fact that she could never carry children and that she would need a surgery in order to have sex. In a light-hearted fashion and even speaking with a slight sense of humour, Bishop recounts the difficult experience which – at that age – made her question her own “femininity” as well as what it means to be female and infertile. After finding comfort in a new pair of pants at the advice of a nurse, she decided to launch this initiative in an effort to connect and support others who suffer from infertility issues.
From the movement that Virtue strives to capture in his art to Alhussain’s forced movements in life through war-torn regions, the conference encapsulates the complexity of a socially and politically relevant concept in relation to the art world and beyond. At a time when the ideals of globalization are constantly challenged and nation-states continually retreat into isolationism, both geographical and ideological movements become irresistibly politicized and problematized. Yet, it is also at this time that movement becomes ever more necessary. Bishop perhaps captured the spirit of the conference when she commented, at the end of her talk, that we must get into a movement in order to move forward.