University of Portsmouth Hosts Visualising the Past Conference

On Friday 19th July, researchers from the University of Portsmouth’s Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries (CCI) will be presenting their work at Visualising the Past, a daylong symposium devoted to historical representation across a range of visual media. The conference’s organiser Olly Gruner reports.

Organised by the faculty’s Conflict and Culture research group, the event explores the ways in which images can create significant and impactful historical narratives.

At a time of heated debate over the meaning of the past, there are high stakes involved in any historical representation. As Stephen Harper, Senior Lecturer in Media and head of the Conflict and Culture research group, explains, popular histories are often put ‘in the service of particular political or ideological agendas.’ Harper’s book Screening Bosnia examines Western media portrayals of the Bosnian war and the ways in which images of past conflicts appeared to ‘haunt’ these portrayals. ‘In the case of the Bosnian war of 1992-95, much of the journalistic commentary in Western countries was filtered through the lens of the Nazi Holocaust’, he explained. ‘A similar sort of remediation is evident in US and Western European film and television treatments of Bosnia’.

Kremena Dimitrova, Illustration for Benjamin Franklin House, London. Kremena will discuss her work on Franklin at the symposium.

Tom Sykes, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, agrees. ‘We can ask questions such as, “Which powerful groups and interests in the present day stand to benefit from particular analyses or visions of the past?” At the same time, history is an important resource for anyone seeking to change the present and the future because when we look at what happened in the past we find alternative ways of seeing and thinking and doing.’ Tom explores these themes and others in his ‘political travelogue’, The Realm of the Punisher: Travels in Duterte’s Philippines. 

Several speakers at the symposium will address the theme of conflict. From photography exploring Lebanese city Beirut’s turbulent history to plays about Portsmouth during the Civil War, echoes of past battles reverberate across the contemporary visual landscape.

The power of images to influence collective memory is central to the day’s discussion. Leslie Hakim-Dowek, Senior Lecturer in Photography, explores this theme in relation to representations of the Middle-East. Leslie contributed to the photographic exhibition ‘East and West: Visualising the Ottoman City’, which drew on public and personal histories, archival research and documentary photography to offer fresh insight into the impact of the Ottoman Empire. ‘Identity and memory are recurring themes in my practice and the first impetus for all four members of the Ottoman Cosmopolitanism team was that we all come from the Middle-East and live with the legacy of conflict and our histories remain unrepresented.’

The power of images to influence collective memory is central to the day’s discussion. Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott, whose PhD research explores the lives of 19th century magicians, will explore the role of visual media in shaping our understandings of the Victorian era. ‘Most people will be familiar with Christopher Nolan’s film adaptation of The Prestige, and perhaps Neil Burger’s The Illusionist which came out the same year’, she said. ‘For this symposium I was interested in thinking a bit more about whether, to a general audience, these visual representations depict a “true” history of magic in the Victorian period, filtered through a Neo-Victorian lens.’

Featuring talks from historians, artists and designers, the symposium is concerned with sparking a debate across disciplines. If there is a typical idea of a ‘historian’ as someone who writes lengthy academic tomes, Visualising the Past will seek out new ways of retelling history. Illustrator and PhD researcher Kremena Dimitrova argues for the power of images to rethink our relationship to the past. She explains that while historians often claim a level of ‘objectivity’, traditional history ‘has often excluded certain people and events from its narratives, which is why some view history as controversial.’ Her work focuses on Benjamin Franklin House in London, and the stories of people that have been marginalised from official accounts of this American founding father. Illustrator Russ Olson, creator of the acclaimed graphic novel Gateway City, similarly sees much potential in illustration as an alternative form of history. ‘I enjoy finding marginalized subjects or esoteric figures and giving them space to breathe, even if only in a fictional format. I use these subjects to explore contemporary themes in a way that highlights the timelessness of human struggles and accomplishment, a kind of affirmation, or a version of empathy’, he said.

A scene from Vin Adams’ play Besieged, which is set in Portsmouth during the Civil War. Vin will be speaking on theatrical representations of history.

Through a wide-ranging programme of talks focusing on illustration, film, television, digital media, graphic design and theatre, the symposium will interrogate the ways in which visual historians might contribute toward these larger debates on the power of the past to shape individual and collective identities in the present. Or, as Louis Netter, an illustrator and Senior Lecturer in Illustration, puts it: ‘History matters because the dialogue between the present and past is vital for our understanding of who we are and what we have done.’

Visualising the Past takes place on Friday 19th July in the Eldon Building, room 0.106.
Coffee from 9.15, panels begin at 10am. Event finishes 4.45pm. All welcome.
For further information contact Olly Gruner: oliver.

Cover image by Dan McCabe.