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Louisa Olufsen

This is the latest in the Artistic Licence series.

Louisa Olufsen Layne loves literature. She also loves reggae.

Growing up in Norway, she devoured Dostoyevsky and soaked up her Dad’s record collection. Now, at Oxford, Louisa is bringing her interests together.

Louisa is a fourth-year DPhil student studying English. Talking about her love for literary theory and her ear for Jamaican music, she explains how a desire to combine the two brought her to Oxford.

“I thought there was something compelling about bringing those two worlds together,” she explains.

The poet Linton Kwesi Johnson turned out to be the key. Johnson is well-known for developing dub poetry, a genre heavily influenced by reggae music.

Primarily active in the 1970s and 1980s, Johnson developed a style of poetry that crosses the boundary between poetry and performance. He also toured with punk performer John Cooper Clarke.

Louisa was fascinated by Johnson, and after studying his poetry for her master’s degree in Oslo, she knew she wasn’t finished with him.

'I liked the UK, I liked the university culture, and I met some people who had gone to Oxford,' Louisa remembers. 'They said I should consider applying here. So I did!'

Louisa has now spent the past four years working on Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poetry and making the most of what Oxford has to offer.

Coming to Oxford as an international student and a graduate was a big change for Louisa. 'When you change institutions, you start to see things quite differently,' she says. 'Oxford gave me much more of a historical interest.'

On the personal side, adjusting was a little more challenging. 'When I first came here, I didn’t know anyone, so I was quite shy,' she admits. 'The first seminars I went to, I felt quite intimidated.

'But then you get used to the environment. I started to feel more confident in this new place, and all of a sudden, people go from being strangers to becoming your friends.'

The postcolonial seminar in the English Faculty gave Louisa her first tastes of home in Oxford. “The postcolonial seminar has really been kind of like a home here,” she says.

Attending the seminar brought Louisa to a community of people working on topics ranging from black British writing to Caribbean and World literature. Inspired by the conversations taking place, Louisa decided to get involved in organisation herself. Last year, she began co-convening the Race and Resistance network at TORCH.

This proved to be an exciting move. In February, Louisa organised an event on hiphop for the network with her colleague Dr. Imaobong Umoren.

“Marcyliena Morgan, the director of the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard, came to talk about the study of hiphop,” she says. “For me, that was one of the highlights.”

During the event, Morgan talked about how British and American scholars can research and exchange knowledge not only on hiphop, but also on British rap and grime, and other forms of contemporary culture.

'It added an interesting perspective,' Louisa says. 'Marcyliena Morgan was talking about how they’ve had hip-hop fellows, and have an archive of the best hip-hop albums. Oxford is very good at historical topics and disciplines, and should continue being so, but we also have room for contemporary culture and criticism.'

So while bringing together her love of literature and music, Louisa has made some pit stops along the way—delving into hiphop, African-American literature, and punk lyrics. It’s these opportunities to explore such diverse areas that Louisa has relished while at Oxford.

'There’s so many things going on, so if you get involved, like I did, it opens up possibilities,' she says.

Soviet film.jpg

This is the latest in the Artistic Licence series

Since the first films emerged in the 1890s, in societies of all eras, sizes, and ideologies, movies have had us enraptured.

And Catriona Kelly, Professor of Russian at New College, is exploring how one Soviet film studio has contributed to this long and colourful world of cinema - both on- and off-screen.

Lenfilm, a film studio based in Leningrad, was the second-largest production company in the Soviet Union, after Mosfilm, the Moscow studio. At its height in the 1960s and early 1970s, when a cluster of young filmmakers began making adventurous new movies, it produced up to fifty films a year.

These ranged from The Amphibian Man (1962), a science fiction movie about a man with shark gills, to A Boy and a Girl (1966), a film about two young people’s holiday relationship that was banned immediately after its release.

Through archive material and oral history interviews, Professor Kelly is using Lenfilm, which was a vast film factory with over 4,000 employees, as a window onto life in the USSR.

While amphibian-like men swam around onscreen, Lenfilm employees were working collectively on the film-making process, dealing with budgets, equipment supply, and censorship. Exploring how the organisation worked gives us an unusual angle on the role of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.

“The Party wasn’t just an ideological censor. It was the only management structure that united the whole studio, from location to wigs and makeup. When it disappeared, the studio fell apart,” Professor Kelly says.

Looking at the institutional history has also thrown up some examples of more familiar, Hollywood-esque problems, like people getting drunk in the film processing laboratories, or storming off set because the director swore at them.

But despite the occasional angry outburst, Lenfilm produced many successful films. These included crowd pleasers like the all-singing, all-dancing Wedding in Malinovka, a comedy operetta set during the Russian Civil War, but also films that were more serious or experimental in tone, such as Aleksei German’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984).

“The films were often characterised by a quasi-documentary, neorealist approach to Soviet society, and some of them were quite hard-hitting,” Professor Kelly says.

One of her favourites is Gennady Shpalikov’s A Long Happy Life (1967), a love story about a man who hitches a lift on a passing coach and a woman he meets on it.

At the peak of their popularity, hit films like Amphibian Man were watched by up to 100 million people. Some, like Grigory Kozintsev’s Hamlet and King Lear, or, more surprisingly, Sergei Mikaelyan’s Bonus (1975), about workers in a Soviet factory, garnered appreciative audiences and prestigious prizes across the Soviet Union and abroad.

In the early 1970s, audience numbers began to drop, but films remained popular—and some of them still are. “TV reduced audiences in cinemas, but people also avidly watched films on TV. Indeed, they still do, and popular Soviet films are widely watched on YouTube,” Professor Kelly says.

Professor Kelly has first-hand experience of this appetite for Soviet films. Throughout her research project on Lenfilm, she has shown some of the studio’s films to audiences in Oxford, and even hosted some Lenfilm directors in the city.

“These events are popular with members of the public - they’re interested in seeing something they can’t see in a commercial cinema,” she says. So far, they’ve had visits from Konstantin Lopushansky, Vitaly Melnikov and Yuly Fait, and are planning more showings for the upcoming year, which is the centenary of the Russian Revolution.

As well as offering an insight into the history of the USSR, Professor Kelly thinks that production studios like Lenfilm have an important impact on Russia today. “Film was an enduring part of popular culture,” she says.

Curious? Watch Wedding in Malinovka for yourself here.

Boardroom

Arts graduates - do you have that one friend who always criticises your degree? Well, we have some good news - a new report released by the British Academy has evidence to back you up.

The Academy has published a report into the skills that the 1.25 million students who study arts, humanities and social science (AHSS) develop through their degrees.

Researchers found that the skills in demand from employers were the same as those developed by studying AHSS: namely, communication and collaboration, research and analysis, and independence and adaptability.

Oxford set the agenda for this kind of research in 2013, when it commissioned a report into the destinations of Oxford graduates of English, History, Philosophy, Classics and Modern Languages.

After tracking the employment history of 11,000 graduates, it found that 16-20% were employed in key economic growth sectors of finance, media, legal services and management by the end of the period. Over the period, the number of graduates employed in these sectors rose substantially.

The British Academy’s report takes this further and pinpoints why it is that AHSS graduates have such success in these fields. And Oxford’s Head of Humanities, Professor Karen O’Brien, is delighted.

"We warmly welcome the report's articulation of the higher level skills and competencies which arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS) bring to the national workplace,” she says.

“The report demonstrates the valuable ability of AHSS graduates to evaluate ambiguous information and to seek nuanced solutions in contexts of social and cultural complexity.

"At a time when many jobs are likely to be lost through automation, the communicative and analytical skills imparted by AHSS degrees may become more relevant than ever."

Brains

This is the latest in the Artistic Licence series.

Growing up in Germany, studying in English, speaking Russian with her parents, and learning French in Belgium: languages have always been a central part of Swetlana Schuster’s life.

And now she’s a PhD student at Oxford’s Language and Brain Lab, using scientific techniques to see how languages make our brains tick.

“I was always really interested in linguistics, even when I didn’t know much about the academic discipline," she says. "At that point, I was really interested in learning languages.

“And I wasn’t just interested in mastering a new language. I wanted to know what was going on in our brains when we speak one.”

Swetlana is a native German speaker, and grew up in Aachen, Germany. After a childhood learning French and English, and making her own connections between the languages, Swetlana sat down in a lecture theatre at Cambridge for her very first lecture on psycholinguistics.

“I was just blown away. It was incredibly interesting,” she remembers.

Three years later, she came to Oxford to complete an MPhil at the Language and Brain Lab. Now, she’s in the midst of a PhD (or DPhil, as they are known here), working with Professor Aditi Lahiri, and her own experiences have always criss-crossed with her research interests.

Swetlana’s research looks at how native German speakers process words in the brain. This work has also made Swetlana think more about how our brains respond to second (or third or fourth or fifth) languages when we learn them.

Her research has taken her from Leipzig to Chicago to California, using the sort of equipment that we’re more likely to associate with the sciences than the humanities.

“We use fMRI scanners and an EEG system for part of the experiments,” Swetlana explains.

This means that Swetlana has spent a lot of time examining fMRI scans and carefully placing electrodes onto participants’ heads. She even had the opportunity to run experiments at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig.

“The process of collecting your data can be quite challenging, especially when you’re running experiments abroad,” she says. “But Leipzig was such an exciting opportunity. I learnt so much from collaborating and sharing ideas.”

Now back in Oxford, Swetlana is writing up her research and making the most of Oxford life, both within and outside of the Lab.

“There’s something very special about the Linguistics Faculty,” Swetlana says. “It’s a really supportive environment but also intellectually stimulating.”

And outside of work, college life offers the opportunity to see what else is going on in Oxford’s labs and libraries.

“It’s really fun to be friends with people who have interests in areas completely different to you,” she says.

This is especially interesting for Swetlana, who has thought about how her brain scans and electrodes, which some might think are out of place among the manuscripts and archives of the humanities, fits in to humanities research.

“The idea in our Faculty is to see how everything is connected,” she says. “Looking at how languages change over time, for example. I love how we contribute different approaches to the big questions.”

Another big question is how Swetlana’s research relates to her own language-learning brain.

“It’s made me think about my own languages,” she says. “Bilingualism is something we’re looking into more and more, sometimes from unexpected angles.”

After her DPhil, Swetlana hopes to carry on in research. She’s also interested in language technology, and how language-learning apps could help us learn languages more effectively - so that we, too, could learn to gossip in German or flirt in French.

“I’ve really enjoyed the past six years,” Swetlana says. “And I’m excited to keep on exploring.”

SwetlanaSwetlana is studying a PhD in linguistics

Revisiting Genesis

An artist at Oxford University has won the 2017 Film London Jarman Award.

Oreet Ashery was recently appointed as Associate Professor of Contemporary Art at The Ruskin School of Art and a Fellow of Exeter College.  

She has made an immediate impact, winning the prestigious award for UK-based artists working with the moving image. Her successful entry was a 12-part, web-based video series called Revisiting Genesis.

The series looks at the modern death industry and follows an artist with cystic fibrosis and a painter who has had cancer, as well as carers, friends and curators. The films contained stories of Syrian refugees and the people trying to help them, which she recorded in Thessaloniki, Greece earlier this year.

The Guardian interviewed Oreet about her work here.

'I was interested in how people work together,' Oreet told The Guardian. 'Telling stories in a darkened room. Even if no one speaks, that is a story, too.'

Anthony Gardner, Head of the Ruskin School of Art , said: 'We're thrilled that Oreet's enormous talent has been recognised with this award, given in honour of one of the UK's great film-makers to celebrate the next generation of artists using film and moving-image.

'And like Derek Jarman himself, Oreet is not only a great artist but also a great teacher and mentor, which makes her success with the Jarman Award even more fitting.' 

The Ruskin School of Art has punched above its weight in the art prize categories in recent years. In the last three years alone, its tutors and alumni have won two Turner prizes (Elizabeth Price and Helen Marten), one Hepworth prize (Helen Marten) and now a Jarman Award.

The Film London Jarman Award recognises and supports the most innovative UK-based artists working with moving image, and celebrates the spirit of experimentation, imagination and innovation in the work of emerging artist filmmakers.

Launched in 2008 and inspired by visionary filmmaker Derek Jarman, the Jarman Award is unique within the industry in offering both financial assistance and the rare opportunity to produce a new moving image work.

There is an interview with Oreet Ashery in The Guardian here. You can watch Revisiting Genesis here.

Oreet AsheryOreet Ashery

Christina Holka