Sexual minorities and ongoing sound change

As part of our Pride Month celebrations, we caught up with Dr Damien Mooney, Senior Lecturer in French Linguistics and Language Change, to hear about his research into how sexual minorities participate in ongoing sound change, and the importance of inclusion in research and beyond.

Language variation and change

The study of language variation and change attempts to identify the linguistic and social factors that influence the pronunciations and grammatical features that speakers use. Sometimes, for relatively arbitrary reasons, new pronunciations – and other linguistic features such as new words – enter into being and establish themselves in the language. These slowly replace old pronunciations or ways of speaking. The way this happens is very simple: one speaker who already uses the new feature interacts with others and, if the relationship between them is favourable (i.e. if they like each other and seek each other’s approval), they are likely to adopt features of each other’s speech, including new pronunciations.

On a larger scale, these basic interactions between speakers lead to language change, whereby more speakers adopt the new pronunciation or word into their repertoire and then begin using it in their interactions with others. For example, this is how the common English phenomenon of ‘dropping your ts’ – known in linguistics as glottal stopping – spread from Cockney English to almost all varieties of English in the UK. In essence, linguistic changes spread throughout the speech community because we adjust our linguistic behaviour to conform to other people like us. So, what happens when you’re different? When you’re gay or trans or not white? Does the same motivation to conform exist?

Why is this piece of research important?

When a sound change (where an established pronunciation is replaced by a new one) is underway in a given speech community, young female speakers have been repeatedly shown to act as the vanguards of change. They push the change forward and implement the use of the new pronunciation as much as one full generation ahead of male speakers.

Set of Lego people, each a different colour to represent the Progress Pride Flag

Up until now, sociolinguistic studies have implicitly assumed that the male and female speakers in their samples are heterosexual. While some research has considered the role of minority ethnicities in large-scale sound changes, a more nuanced articulation of gender, which takes a male or female speaker’s sexuality into account, has been absent from these studies. A small number of studies have examined the speech of homosexual male and female speakers, usually with the aim of analysing pronunciations that act as a perceptual cue for homosexuality when heard by others. These studies did not, however, focus on how gay men and women engage in sound changes in progress, but on what makes them sound gay. The present study asks the questions that other research did not; in particular, what is the role of sexual minorities in driving language change forward?

What does the research project involve?

The project began in 2022 with a pilot study in Paris, France. I collected speech samples from 22 native French speakers that self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual. All speakers were required to read a short text and a long list of words for which there was a possibility of using a new pronunciation or an older pronunciation. The pilot study focused in particular on the ongoing changes affecting the pronunciation of the Parisian French nasal vowels in words like bain (‘bath’), banc (‘bench’), and bon (‘good’).

I am currently in the process of analysing the data acoustically, using speech analysis software, in order to identify fine-grained differences in pronunciation between speakers and groups, if they exist. The analysis of heterosexual speakers will have the dual aim of documenting the progression of this change, known to be underway in French, and of providing a baseline against which to compare the evidence for these changes in the speech of the gay and lesbian participants.

What impact is this research expected to have?

While there is some research on the role played by African American and Latinx people in predominantly white speech communities, this project will be the first to consider sexual minorities as an integral part of the wider social order.

The data-driven principles advanced by this study will constitute a significant point of reference for future studies of language and sexuality, providing an in-depth empirical analysis of the speech of gay men and lesbians. The project will contribute a more comprehensive examination of sound changes known to be underway in the sociolinguistic literature on French. The research will also provide a framework within which to undertake quantitative linguistic research that is experimental, focusing on language variation and change, but also theoretical, examining the extent to which an individual’s performance of sexual identity influences the extent to which they engage in sound changes set in motion by their heterosexual peers.

The cross-disciplinary methodology will demonstrate the contribution that sociolinguistic theory can make to the central focus of queer studies, namely interrogating heterosexuality by dismissing its claims to naturalness.

What are the next steps?

Once the results of the pilot study are processed, the hope is to establish a set of data-driven principles that can be tested in other contexts and in other languages. The findings of the Paris study will be formalised in a research article which will then form the basis of future studies on a wider variety of sexual identities, gender identities, and sound changes, in both French and English, in Paris and in other large cities such as London, Montreal, and Toronto.

The pilot study is the first step in a research project that will attempt to transform current theories of language change by providing a quantitative account of the way sexual minorities engage in mainstream linguistic change. The project will create an open-access corpus of natural speech – a database of speech audio files and text transcriptions – of both homosexual and heterosexual speakers, making all sound files and transcriptions from this study and from future, larger studies publicly available. The essence of the project, however, is its continued commitment to social justice: it aims to address the continued exclusion of sexual minorities from large-scale social scientific studies, which not only invisibilises queer people, but underlines their behaviour, linguistic or otherwise, as gender-deviant.

Learn more about research in the Faculty of Arts.

Visit the University’s Pride 2022 page to see how the University is celebrating LGBT+ staff and students.

Find out about LGBT+ equality initiatives at the University of Bristol.

Explore the University Library’s Pride Month page, which showcases a range of LGBT+ books, films, archives and other resources.

REF 2021

The results are in for REF 2021: the results for the Faculty are very good indeed, and part of a fantastic university result.

What is the REF?

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the national assessment of research, conducted by expert panels every six years, across some 34 subject-based units of assessment (UOAs). It provides rankings and ratings for research, impact and environment which are used by the four UK higher education funding bodies to decide on the distribution of around £2 billion of research funding. The last one took place in 2014.

REF is a kind of report card on research and impact for all participating British higher education institutions.

So how did we do?

Overall, we did very well. According to the rankings provided by the Times Higher, three UOAs have been ranked in the top ten in the country, namely Anthropology (6th), Classics (8th), and Modern Languages (4th).

In individual highlights, Anthropology, and Religion and Theology were given the highest possible award for outputs (for example, books, chapters, creative works, and articles). Music, Drama, Film and TV, and History were ranked in the top quartile for impact. Modern Languages had the highest possible award for environment.

An overall 48% of research submitted to REF 2021 by the Faculty was rated as world-leading (4*) in terms of originality, significance and rigour. 88.5% was rated as world-leading or internationally excellent (4* and 3*).

These figures represent an enormous amount of intellectual work and effort, not just by the academics but by the professional services staff who supported them and the process. It demonstrates that the research undertaken in the Faculty of Arts is world leading, has significant impacts on society, and contributes to knowledge across all our disciplines.

What difference will it make?

A strong REF 2021 result means the Faculty is in a good position to invest in more world-leading research in the arts and humanities, research which makes a real and positive difference to people’s lives. You can sample some of our outstanding impact in the refreshed Impact and Engagement page.

Congratulations to all.

Hilary Carey and Helen Fulton

Faculty Research Directors (Arts)

Same planet, different worlds: Environmental history conference comes to Bristol

By Professor Adrian Howkins, Department of History

In early July 2022, Bristol will play host to the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) conference. The conference – which usually takes place every two years – will have the overarching theme of ‘Same planet, different worlds: environmental histories imagining anew’.

This is only the second time the ESEH conference has taken place in Britain, and the first time it is happening in England – the first ever ESEH conference took place in St Andrews in Scotland in 2001. The decision to hold the conference in Bristol reflects the strength of environmental history research at the University of Bristol, as well as the city’s strong environmental reputation. More broadly, it reflects the strength of the University of Bristol in the wider field of environmental humanities, which includes environmental history research.

“Environmental humanities are interdisciplinary areas of research, combining the traditional humanities – such as literature, music, history and languages – with areas including science and technology to better understand the relationship between humans and their surrounding environment, both social and natural. Environmental humanities can help us learn about the environmental challenges of the past, address those of the present, and plan for the future.”

The University of Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities (CEH) in the Faculty of Arts is firmly established as one of the leading centres for environmental humanities research in the UK, and there is a wide range of exciting projects taking place. Do follow our CEH blog to keep up with everything that is going on.

Group of researchers look out across a waterway towards a stone bridge in the distance. The area is grassy with trees in full leaf.
Centre for Environmental Humanities field trip

In preparation for the ESEH coming to Bristol, Adrian Howkins – one of the co-directors of the CEH – spoke to Marianna Dudley and Andy Flack who are organising the conference.

What is the European Society for Environmental History?

[Marianna] The ESEH is the leading scholarly organisation for people interested in environmental issues from a humanities perspective. It is European, but that doesn’t exclude people in other parts of the world working on this topic. It is very inclusive, and has grown to include a wide range of scholars. It offers networking, mentorship, peer-to-peer support, and a discount on the Environment and History journal. It also has by far the best academic conference going, which moves around Europe and is coming to Bristol this summer!

Why is it important that the conference is coming to Bristol?

[Andy] It recognises Bristol’s status as an environmentally aware and activist city as well as recognising that the University is involved in environmental issues through the Centre for Environmental Humanities, the Cabot Institute, and other research centres and clusters. It is the first time the ESEH has been in the UK since the first meeting in 2001 (St Andrews), and the first time in England. The decision to come to Bristol shows that despite political developments like Brexit, the United Kingdom is still at the heart of the European scholarly community studying environmental change. We love living and working in Bristol – it’s a fun, vibrant, welcoming city and we want to show our colleagues from around the world what a great place Bristol is.

What impact do you hope to have as a result of the conference?

[Marianna] It felt more important than ever to have an in-person conference after such a long hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re looking forward to bringing our scholarly community together and reforging the connections that are so important to our work. In terms of academic legacies, we want to spotlight Bristol as a place to study environmental history and environmental humanities. We hope that other scholars around Britain will seek us out for postgraduate research, postdoctoral fellowships, and academic collaborations, maintaining and building the exciting work that is already taking place.

What opportunities are there for our students to get involved in the Centre and/or the Conference?

[Andy] There will be opportunities for students to get involved in the running of the conference. This will put our students in touch with scholars from all around the world. Please get in touch if you might be interested in joining our conference team. If anyone would like to attend the conference to see what it’s all about, we’ll be offering day rates for University of Bristol staff and students to come to talks and meet with conference attendees. There will be interactive environmental art installations, a talk on wildlife film, science and humanities conversations, and a poet in residence.

If you would like to register for the conference, you can find further details here.

A tale of two cities: The historical links between Bristol and Dublin

By Professor Brendan Smith, Professor of Medieval History

When we think of British cities with strong Irish links it is likely to be Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and London that first come to mind. In terms of historical longevity, however, no city on this island can match Bristol’s connections with Ireland.

The medieval connections

2021-2 marks the 850th anniversary of the conquest of Ireland by King Henry II of England. During his stay in Dublin at Christmas 1171, the king issued an extraordinary charter whereby he granted Dublin to ‘my men of Bristol’ and gave them permission to colonise their new possession.

Image of King Henry II's charter of 1171 - the paper is old and brown, with elegant script
King Henry II’s charter of 1171 (Dublin City Library and Archive)

Links between the two towns were already strong by this time. Ham Green pottery, manufactured on the banks of the Avon near Pill, was popular in Viking Dublin, and the vigorous trade in slaves conducted between Dublin and Bristol in the eleventh century inspired bitter criticism from churchmen before William the Conqueror and his successors brought this vile commerce to an end. After 1171, many important trading families from Bristol established branches across the Irish Sea, while stone quarried at Dundry, to the south of the city, was transported in large quantities to Ireland for use in the new churches and monasteries that the English began to build.

King Henry II issued an extraordinary charter whereby he granted Dublin to ‘my men of Bristol’ and gave them permission to colonise their new possession.

In February 2022 a symposium focusing on the medieval ties between the two towns was held in Dublin to mark the anniversary of Henry II’s grant. The Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin welcomed the Lord Mayor of Bristol to the event with a certain wariness, since the original charter of 1171 was never officially revoked!

The age of Edmund Burke and beyond

Statue of Edmund Burke atop a plinth at St Augustine's Parade, Bristol, UK
The statue of Edmund Burke in Bristol
(Credit: Tim Green, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

In Bristol, on 20 April 2022, the University hosted the ‘return match’, with a symposium considering more recent ties between Dublin and Bristol, beginning with the career of the great political philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797). Burke was born in Dublin and was educated at Trinity College Dublin before developing a successful political career in England. Between 1774 and 1780 he was MP for Bristol, though his views on a range of issues made him unpopular with the city’s ruling elite. Two fine statues of Burke can still be seen today, one outside the gates of Trinity College Dublin, and the other on St Augustine’s Parade in the centre of Bristol, a few metres in front of the now empty plinth where Edward Colston’s statue once stood.

The University hosted the ‘return match’, with a symposium considering more recent ties between Dublin and Bristol.

The celebratory event

The University was delighted to welcome Ireland’s Ambassador to the UK, Mr Adrian O’Neill, at the recent event, who spoke warmly about the opportunities the day had provided to further strengthen links between Bristol and Dublin. In addition, Professor Martyn Powell (Head of the School of Humanities), Dr Erika Hanna, of the Department of Historical Studies, and Professor Steve Poole of the University of the West of England delivered academic papers and a guest lecture was given in the evening by Professor David Dickson of Trinity College Dublin. To coincide with the event, an exhibition was staged at the venue, displaying some of the important Irish-related materials held in the University of Bristol’s Special Collections department. This included early editions of some of Burke’s published works, as well as a sample of Irish political pamphlets dating from between the eighteenth century and the Easter Rising of 1916. The close ties that have existed between the University of Bristol since its foundation and Trinity College Dublin were also explored in some of the exhibited material.

The future

Following the guest lecture a reception was hosted by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Hugh Brady, whose Irish background provided a fortuitous link to the day’s events. Professor Brady welcomed to the University Ambassador O’Neill, the Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Joe Costello, the Lord Mayor of Bristol, Councillor Steve Smith, and members of the Bristol Irish Society. Councillor Costello promised that on his return to Dublin he would continue to work with his counterpart in Bristol to bring about a new twinning arrangement between the two cities. Reviving awareness of the historical links between Bristol and Dublin seems likely to lead to their further strengthening in the years ahead.

Attendees at the 850th Anniversary of Henry II's Grant of Dublin to Bristol, School of Humanities, University of Bristol.
850th Anniversary of Henry II’s Grant of Dublin to Bristol, School of Humanities, University of Bristol.
From left to right: Professor David Dickson (Trinity College Dublin); Ambassador Adrian O’Neill; Bristol Lord Mayor Steve Smith; Professor Hugh Brady (University of Bristol’s Vice-Chancellor); Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin Joe Costello; Dr Erika Hanna (University of Bristol); Professor Brendan Smith (University of Bristol); Professor Steve Poole (University of the West of England) and Professor Martyn Powell (University of Bristol).

 

Brendan Smith, Professor of Medieval History, is a Dubliner who was educated at Trinity College Dublin. He took up a lectureship at the University of Bristol in 1993. He has published extensively on the links between England and Ireland in the Middle Ages, and in 2018 edited volume I of the four-volume Cambridge History of Ireland, which was launched in Washington, D.C. in September 2018 by Joe Biden, now the president of the United States of America. Professor Smith is currently engaged in research projects examining the financing of English rule in medieval Ireland, with an emphasis on the deployment of Digital Humanities techniques and methodologies. He has received funding from The Jean Golding Institute to work with Mr Mike Jones, from Research IT, on the production of visualisations of the financial data contained in medieval Irish exchequer material. He will be presenting some of the fruits of this collaboration at the Bristol Data and AI Showcase at the MShed on 7 June 2022.

 

Jenny: Posed as a woman. An insight into trans history.

February marks LGBTQ+ History Month, a time to reflect upon the rich history of LGBTQ+ communities. It offers an opportunity to remember those who have fought for LGBTQ+ rights, consider the progress made, and look ahead to engage in a more inclusive, visible and equal future.

Piecing together history can be a fascinating puzzle. How can we properly represent the nuances of history in situations where the little information available to us comes from biased sources? What more can we learn about trans history? How can we talk about trans lives today by examining a story from over 100 years ago?  The Brigstow Institute brought together a team of researchers from different disciplines – history, law and performance art – to answer these questions.

‘Jenny: Posed as a woman’ explores the life of Jenny Moore, a person from an impoverished background in Gateshead in the early 1900s. Little information was available about Jenny and her life, save for criminal records and a few related newspaper articles. How did living outside the law shape her identity and experience?

We caught up with Dr Sarah Jones, a social and cultural historian of gender and sexuality, to learn more about the project, breaking the mould of traditional historical investigation, and using performance to enhance research.

‘Jenny: Posed as a woman’ is a fascinating interdisciplinary project bringing together the worlds of history, law and performance art. What led you to carry out this research, and why is this research important?

Often, the evidence about LGBTQ+ lives we find in the archives is focused on processes of regulation and control. While it is a rare gift to find personal testimonies or clues about what ‘real life’ might have been like for LGBTQ+ people in the nineteenth century, it is far more likely that we will find accounts of persecution and prosecution at the hands of bodies such as medicine and the law.

To some extent, this is true in the case of Jenny Moore – a person a judge said ‘always lived in the shadow of the prison door.’ When we encounter her story in our sources, we can learn a little about her arrests for theft or loitering, and perhaps gain little snippets of insight into the challenges of being what we might think of as a trans woman in Victorian Britain. Our research, though, attempted to tell new and different stories about Jenny and her life. Bringing together our different fields of expertise, combining creative and academic practice, we wanted to capture more of the rich, complex essence of a character like Jenny Moore. As well as helping us reflect on how our understandings of queer lives are shaped by archives focused on their often brutal encounters with the state, our project also sought to think about how we could tell fuller stories about LGBTQ+ people in both the past and present.

How did the team go about this research?

The project brought together a group of scholars and artists to try and explore Jenny’s life through different lenses. On the academic side, a group of colleagues (Professor Josie McLellan, Dr Jeanie Sinclair, Professor Lois Bibbings, Nic Aaron, and myself) with backgrounds in history or law explored the background and context of Jenny’s life. We considered what her world might have looked like, and also tried to track down more details of what she got up to as the Victorian era gave way to the twentieth century.

While we tried to create as rich a picture as possible of her life and times, we also attempted to ‘fill the gaps’ through creative practice – to use our existing knowledge to imagine the kinds of spaces she might have frequented, and the people she might have met. All of this research was workshopped with Tom Marshman – an artist and performer interested in ‘the outsider’ and their story, particularly regarding the LGBTQ+ experience, and stories from the queer history that have been omitted through silences in the archive. This process of collaborative and creative research has been feeding into a performance created by Tom, alongside composer, singer, and musician Jenny Moore, writer and performer Enxi Chang, and puppeteer Emma Powell.

What impact has this research had?

At the most basic level, we’ve told a version of Jenny’s story. Her little corner of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain could have easily been totally lost to history – dismissed, perhaps, in traditional academic work because the evidence we have about what her life was like is patchy and our picture of her incomplete. Creative projects like this one give us room to tell different stories of the past, and to build insights into LGBTQ+ lives that might slip between the cracks in the archive. In a contemporary moment where the rights of LGBTQ+ (and particularly transgender) people are under attack, it feels more important than ever to engage the public with stories like Jenny’s.

Beyond this, we’re also hoping the project will have broader applications. Nic, one of the research team, is investigating how we might be able to use Jenny’s story to uplift trans people – especially, they note, those at the sharp end of criminalisation like Jenny was. As part of this, for example, Nic has connected our work with the Bent Bars Project, drawing links between Jenny and the experiences of trans people who are currently incarcerated. Our research, then, has helped us to reflect on how we approach LGBTQ+ history, engaged the public with some intriguing and timely trans history, and has started us thinking about how historical work around gender diversity can be relevant to trans communities today. In short, the project honours Jenny but is bigger than her alone.

What are the next steps for the project team?

For now, our collaboration is wrapped up. On the research side, Nic, Jeanie and I are preparing a chapter that reflects on the project and how and why we worked together. In that publication we look to reflect on the messiness of working with an incomplete and often problematic archive, and the benefits and challenges of multi-disciplinary and creative research. We also look forward to seeing the performance take shape. Tom has prepared a work in progress version of the show, and we’re hopeful that there will be a full performance coming to a theatre sometime this year.

Further information:

Learn more about ‘Jenny: Posed as a woman’ by watching ‘Brigstow Presents: Hidden Histories and Performing the Archive’ and visiting Brigstow’s project page.

Find out how the University of Bristol is marking LGBTQ+ History Month 2022.

Discover the wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses offered by the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Arts.

Where is the (cycling) revolution?

By Professor Martin Hurcombe, Professor of French Studies, School of Modern Languages

It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in May 2020. The sun is glinting off Chew Lake. There is the sound of birds I’m too ignorant to know the names of. And on both sides of the road there is a steady stream of cyclists. Not just the regular MAMILs* like me who you’ll always find out here this time of day, but cyclists of all ages and sizes, many of them on bikes a lot newer than mine. I count them over an hour; there are six cyclists for every motorist.

During those awful first weeks of lockdown, many of us found some respite from the horrors unfolding around us in our ability to cycle, run or just walk away from the homes and the online world to which we were otherwise confined. Bike sales went through the roof as we all realised that, once you take away the bulk of the traffic, roads make pretty good cycle paths and cycling is both an efficient and pleasant way of getting about (particularly when the sun shines).

There was also a lot of serious debate about how the pandemic would transform our working lives. Most of us would probably be working from home for years. Time saved by not commuting could be reinvested in leisure; not the constant consumption of those tiresome pre-pandemic weekends spent trudging around out-of-town retail outlets, but what researchers call active leisure (running, walking, cycling, etc), activities that we could now integrate into our daily lives. Perhaps, despite the dystopia of a health service under constant strain, we could emerge healthier and happier as a nation. ‘A better world is possible’, the slogan painted onto the main road through Long Ashton declared as I cycled towards it on my first trip into Bristol coming out of lockdown.

Yellow heart painted on road surface with image of a bike within the heart

We caught some of this spirit in Active in Lockdown (AIL), a project that Dr Melanie Chalder (Bristol Medical School) and I ran in collaboration with Knowle West Media Centre. By collecting social media posts, and helping volunteers to capture and reflect upon their experiences of cycling, running, or walking during the three national lockdowns, AIL attempted to record the huge surge in active leisure in Bristol and the surrounding area.

I still see that slogan as I commute through Long Ashton on my bike. It’s beginning to re-emerge after being painted over by the authorities eager perhaps not to raise our hopes. It’s re-emerging because the paint used to cover it is being eroded by the cars that have now returned to our roads. Traffic levels are rapidly approaching pre-pandemic levels and congestion is returning to our city centres. It is hard to remember that, only a year ago, we stood on our doorsteps applauding keyworkers and swearing to protect the NHS. In our headlong rush to get back to our old way of living, though, we seem determined as a society to spend even more time in its care.

So, I’m left asking: Where are all the lovely new bikes of 2020 and the revolution we dared to dream of? We hope that global leaders will emerge from COP26 with the roadmap to a world that looks better than the course we are currently set upon. But is ‘A world not as bad as it could have been’ our only hope? And what is it that towns, employers, and individuals can do to help our roads contribute to our wellbeing rather than to be a major source of global decline? The stories captured by AIL can help here. They tell us about the wellbeing that comes with active leisure, but also the conditions needed to facilitate it: safe, clean, congestion-free spaces available for all.

*Middle-Aged Man in Lycra

Art in the Time of COVID-19

By Dr Elizabeth Robles, Lecturer in Contemporary Art, School of Humanities

This year we celebrate 116 years since the inception of the Autumn Art Lecture series. Conceived in 1905 as an important platform for Art and Art History in what was then University College Bristol’s academic year, the series has become an annual highlight in the cultural life of the University and the city beyond. Over its lifetime, it has hosted luminaries from Kenneth Clarke, EH Gombrich, Toshio Watanabe, David Olusoga and Laura Mulvey to artists Denise Mina, Paul Gough, Richard Long and Ingrid Pollard, and explored themes ranging from the monstrous to the celestial. A true survivor, the series has only been interrupted twice – first as the Second World War erupted and, more recently, in 2020 as the world locked down amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Sick Call, from Illustrated London News (Matthew James Lawless)

To mark the series’ return from its pandemic-related hiatus, the Autumn Art Lecture Committee is delighted to announce this year’s lectures, brought to you by the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Arts in partnership with Bristol Ideas. ‘Art in the Time of COVID-19’ – an online series – will bring together leading artists, scholars, and museums professionals to reflect on the impact of pandemics on the ways in which we create, engage with, and think about art and art-making.

Over three online lectures, we will consider the longer history of art and diseases, the ways in which artists have reckoned with and worked through the COVID-19 pandemic, and the new possibilities that opened up as we were forced to reimagine the form and function of our museums and galleries amid enforced closures. We will look to the past – from the Black Death to the Third Plague – to provide context to our present as we begin to imagine what the future might look like for artists, collections and the publics they serve.

Find out more about each event and book your free tickets here:

Episodes and Contexts (Thursday 18 November at 18:30)

Museums and Collections (Thursday 2 December at 18:30)

Artists in Practice (Thursday 9 December at 18:30)

Redrawing our Environments

By Dr Paul Merchant, Senior Lecturer in Latin American Film and Visual Culture, School of Modern Languages

Can art change how we relate to the environment? Might the experience of watching a film, observing a drawing, or visiting an installation help us to understand the current ecological crisis in ways that scientific reports and data can’t? As the crucial COP26 climate summit in Glasgow continues, these questions are taking on added urgency.

On Friday 5 November, visitors to the First Friday event at Watershed in Bristol will have the opportunity to explore these questions. They’ll be able to learn about some contemporary art initiatives from the UK and Chile, and take part in some drawing exercises led by the illustrator Jasmine Thompson (no prior experience required!).

Waves crashing on the Vina del Mar coast, Chile
Vina del Mar, Chile

The event draws on the work of the research project Reimagining the Pacific, which is led by Dr Paul Merchant and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project explores how artists in Chile and Peru are responding to environmental challenges on the Pacific coast.

One way in which contemporary artists are seeking to engage their audiences with environmental issues is by creating works that use a range of different media to create a multisensory experience. For example, Claudia González’s installation Hidroscopia / Loa (2018) uses drawings, videos, and electronic apparatus to present the effects of copper mining on the Loa river in unexpected ways.

Closer to home, the Bristol-based artist Dan Pollard’s Liquid Noise installation project creates a link between the movement of visitors’ bodies and the vibrations in pools of water to visualise the effect of underwater noise pollution on whales.

The value of projects like these is that they make issues that can seem distant or abstract (like marine noise pollution, or ocean acidification caused by uptake of carbon dioxide) feel present, by engaging our senses and our imaginations. It would be too simplistic to draw a straight line between an experience of an artwork and a specific political commitment. But if works like Hidroscopia / Loa and Liquid Noise, or even the simple act of drawing, can make us look again, listen again, and pay better attention to our environments, then there’s much to be said for them.

Waves of Change: Youth engagement in climate change

As the world turns its attention to Glasgow and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties  – known as COP26 – we’re taking a look at some of the climate change-related research happening across the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Arts. For this first piece, we caught up with Dr Camilla Morelli, a Lecturer in Anthropology. Camilla specialises in the anthropology of childhood and youth, and the use of participatory visual methods in youth-centred research.

Hi Camilla! Thanks for joining Arts Matter. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what sparked your interest in your area of research? 

Camilla Morelli looking towards the camera and smiling
Camilla Morelli

Hi! Thanks for inviting me. I have an absolute passion for my discipline – social anthropology – and specifically the anthropology of childhood and youth. My greatest inspiration is Margaret Mead, the first anthropologist to take children seriously as research respondents.

Most of my research has taken place in the Amazon rainforest, where I started working over ten years ago. I was interested in exploring Amazonian children’s relationships – physical and imagined – with the forest environment. When I got there, all the children would talk about was the city, and how much they love concrete! Through the years, I have become very close to the community in Peruvian Amazonia where I work, and I return every year to visit them and conduct further work. I haven’t been able to travel to Peru since the start of the pandemic, and it’s breaking my heart. I hope I’ll be able to go back there soon.

My current projects are co-designed with young people, and are based on collaborative approaches. The children I started working with ten years ago have now grown up, and two of them have become anthropologists themselves! They are now my key collaborators in a British Academy-funded project, ‘Animating the Future’, and will be co-authors in our published outputs. I’m sure in the future they will be leading their own projects and transforming the field of anthropology.

That’s great – how wonderful to hear that the future of anthropology is in such good hands! What insights have you gained from engaging with young people? 

I have learned so much working with children and young people! Something that I always find incredible is that children and youth have the capacity to radically transform the world through simple everyday actions, which are often unseen by adults. It astonishes me when I work with children to see how much their own parents don’t know about what happens in children’s daily worlds and imaginations. Then one day, all of a sudden, they realise that their children are substantially different from them, and they ask: “How did we get here?” They have no idea about the small, everyday actions through which children silently shape new futures. Once we appreciate that children and young people have this capacity and agency, we can give them more credit than we do, and perhaps work with them (rather than for them) so that we can build a sustainable future together.

Waves of Change logo depicting ocean creatures and plasticsYour latest research project, based in the UK, is called Waves of Change – can you tell us more about it? 

Sure! The project is based in Cornwall, where we are working with young people aged 15 to 18 to address the impact of climate change on coastal communities and their future. Cornwall is already feeling the effects of climate change hard – ocean acidification, plastic pollution (worsened by recent tourism) and warming are threatening the rich and unique marine ecosystems there, and sea levels are rising faster than average…meaning that Cornwall is sinking fast! Young people are at the forefront of these challenges and should have a key role in structuring debates around it. Yet, the young people we are working with often feel cut out of these debates. This sense of exclusion is heightened by the remote locations of their coastal communities, the limited access to public transport, and recent funding cuts to youth centres and activities.

Our project’s goal is to engage young people actively in a conversation on climate change and to help them share a message with the public and relevant policymakers. I have the privilege of working with two incredible women – the Co-Investigator Dani Schmidt, Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol, and Sophie Marsh, professional animator and the project’s artistic director. Dani is bringing her world-leading expertise in climate change to the project, and Sophie is teaching young people how to become animation producers. We are partnering with a local charity, Young People Cornwall, whose mission is to give young people enhanced opportunities and promote inclusion.

That sounds like such a brilliant project, with an important impact on those communities. Climate change is currently at the top of many people’s agendas, with COP26 now in full swing. Naturally, much of the talk centres around the science, but your latest research project combines climate science with anthropology and visual arts – what can this interdisciplinary approach bring to the table?

This is very much a collaborative effort! Our interdisciplinary approach can hopefully bridge the field of climate science with the knowledge of local communities, and specifically that of young people. While science can tell us much about the causes and effects of climate change (Dani’s expertise), we need an approach that is centred on young people’s own perspectives and can explore their worldviews – and this is brought in by anthropology and ethnography (my own field). But in order to engage young people actively in the process, we need participatory methods. This is where animation (Sophie’s world) comes in. Co-production of animation is a great method that allows young people to write and animate (literally ‘give life to’) their own stories, and to share them with others. We want this project to do all of this, while giving young people a new sense of hope and empowering them to realise that their voices matter and can be heard widely.

You can follow the project here:

https://twitter.com/EthnoAnimation

https://www.instagram.com/ethno_animation/

Camilla Morelli is a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Bristol. She specialises in the anthropology of childhood and youth, and the use of participatory visual methods in youth-centred research. Find out more about Camilla’s research.

A Map of Medieval Bristol

By Professor Helen Fulton, Chair in Medieval Literature, Department of English
Image of the cover of 'Bristol in 1480'
Cover of Bristol in 1480: A Medieval Merchant City

One of my research directions is aimed towards medieval towns and urban culture, especially in the region of the March of Wales. Some while ago I collaborated on an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) project on medieval Chester which resulted in an online map of the medieval streetscape of the city, with links to its major churches and buildings. This inspired an interest in the possibilities of mapping ­­– both digital and hard copy – as a tool for research, education, and public engagement.

As a Trustee of the Historic Towns Trust (HTT), which produces hard-copy maps of historic towns throughout the UK, I took on the leadership of a project to produce a map of medieval Bristol, which was published in December 2020. I worked in partnership with Professor Peter Fleming at UWE, a renowned expert on medieval Bristol, and a team of local historians and archaeologists from the city of Bristol. Our first job was to decide roughly what period of time would be covered by the map – it is possible to layer maps on top of each other to show features and streetscapes from different periods of time, and some of the HTT maps have done exactly that. For Bristol, however, it made sense to focus quite precisely on the year 1480, when a well-networked Bristolian, William Worcestre, made a survey of the city of Bristol on foot, literally counting how many paces there were between landmarks. Using this survey, together with many other historical records of the city, the team was able to reconstruct the layout of Bristol in 1480, along with its major churches, abbeys, gentry houses, taverns, industrial buildings, and even its water supply.

The production of this unique map was funded partly by public donations and partly by a generous grant from the University of Bristol Knowledge Exchange fund. We used the money to employ a research assistant, Dr Bethany Whalley, who researched the history of the various streets and buildings that are described in the Gazetteer on the back of the map. Crucial information was also supplied by our team of local experts, each of whom had specialised knowledge of the city’s history. I co-wrote the introduction to the map, describing the work of William Worcestre, and edited all the textual information on the map, including the street names and other words on the map itself as well as the Gazetteer. We worked closely with the HTT cartographer, Giles Darkes, whose beautiful artwork makes all the HTT maps stand out not only as useful reference guides but as works of art.

Despite being published during a pandemic lockdown, the map has sold very well and has been the topic of numerous public lectures, in person and online. The map was launched during the Fifteenth Century Conference in early September at St James Priory. We are now planning a workshop at the annual Historical Association conference to be held in Bristol in May 2022, and we are working with an educational consultant to produce a study package for Key Stage 2 students.