METAMORPHOSIS: Welcome to the world of dreams and imagination

March 21st, 2014 1 Comment

Quay Brothers. Still of Street of Crocodiles, 1986. ©Atelier Konick QbfZ

On Tuesday 25 March the CCCB inaugurates its first exhibition of 2014 and the first in the world dedicated to four fundamental authors in animated film: the pioneer Ladislas Starewitch (Moscow 1882-Paris 1965), the Czech master Jan Švankmajer (1934) and the Quay Brothers(1947) – identical twins who work in unison. Despite being creators that, as explained by the exhibition’s curator Carolina López, have remained on the fringes of fashions, the industry and tendencies, meaning that they are relatively little known to mass audiences, their work appeals to emotions that we have all surely felt at some time in our lives, as children, or when afraid or dreaming. The universe of the filmmakers of Metamorphosis is a vast collection – a fascinating cabinet of curiosities – that mixes insects, anthropomorphic beings, monsters, dreamscapes, stuffed animals, and darkness at the end of the corridor.

The exhibition recovers and screens films by Švankmajer, Starewitch and the Quay Brothers while presenting two installations that the Quays and Švankmajer have prepared exclusively for the event, and documenting the style and influences of the filmmakers with over 550 pieces of art, including puppets, drawings, prints, sculptures and paintings (we will see works by Francisco de Goya, James Ensor, Alfred Kubin and Giuseppe Arcimboldo, to name just a few examples).

In this interview, the curator Carolina López offers a preview of what we will find at Metamorphosis. Fantasy visions of Starewitch, Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers.

Meet the Quay Brothers, Švankmajer and Starewitch’s granddaughter

For the week of the inauguration of Metamorphosis, the CCCB has programmed a series of activities for delving further into the work and creative process of the filmmakers in the exhibition. The day after the inauguration, Wednesday 26 March, you will have the opportunity to talk with the Quay Brothers, Jan Švankmajer and Léona-Béatrice Martin-Starewitch, granddaughter of Ladislas Starewitch, in a debate that will kick off at 7.30 p.m. With the entry ticket to this cinephile debate, you can visit the exhibition afterwards free of charge. And if you can’t travel to the CCCB, but you really want to ask the participants a question, you can leave your questions in a comment below this article or send them via Twitter with the hashtag #ExpoMetamorfosis.

The CCCB’s regular scheduled film programme XCèntric has also prepared a special tribute season to the authors, which will begin on Thursday with the première of the film by the Quay Brothers “The Secret Order of Things”. Another unique opportunity to talk once more with the American twins, who will be attending the première of their latest work at the CCCB.

Metamorfosis can be visited until 7 September at the CCCB and, in October, it will travel to La Casa Encendida Fundación Caja Madrid, which is co-producing the exhibition.

From now on and for the next few months, you will be hearing a lot about the artists featured in the exhibition. The “Metamorphosis” experience goes beyond the exhibition hall and, based around the exhibition, an extensive programme of activities has been organised that will take place both at the CCCB and at different venues around the city.

You can consult all the information about the exhibition here.

Mavi Sánchez-Vives: “In 20 seconds we can produce the illusion of ownership of a third arm”

March 19th, 2014 No Comments

On Tuesday 25 March Mavi Sánchez-Vives, ICREA research professor at the August Pi i Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBAPS) will give a lecture titled “Brain and Virtual Reality“, the third in the ICREA-CCCB series of debates on “The Brain”. We have interviewed her in order to learn more about how the neurosciences use this cutting-edge technology.

La professora d’investigació ICREA Mavi Sánchez-Vives

What is your field of research?
I’m a neuroscientist and I use virtual reality as a tool for understanding brain functions. I’ll be speaking at the CCCB about a phenomenon that illustrates very well how expressive the brain is, and our great capacity for transforming the inner representation of our body in very short periods of time. We have different ways of knowing that the representation of our own body is in the brain, one of which is through bodily illusions, which are relatively easy to evoke, for example assigning ownership to a rubber arm. There are also numerous illusions of body transformations described in the literature, some of them known to be caused by certain brain lesions which bring about strange or bizarre alterations, as happens with people who believe they have a third arm, or have out-of-body experiences, or with the cases described by Oliver Sacks, for example the man who thinks that a leg in the bed isn’t his and he wants to be rid of it, and other such extreme cases. By means of virtual reality we can study the limits of representation of our own body by re-creating these illusions without needing to turn to people with brain lesions.

How do you use virtual reality?
Through virtual reality, we can bring about the illusion of ownership of an external body and achieve other such illusions by inducing a series of correlated stimuli which produce these illusions of transformation in very brief periods of time. In twenty or thirty seconds we can produce the illusion of ownership of a third arm by means of virtual reality, for example. The fact that these illusions can be produced so quickly leads us to think that the brain has this enormous expressiveness, and that virtual transformations pave the way for very different kinds of applications.

When you speak of virtual reality, do you mean a headset with a screen?
We speak of immersive virtual reality, with a headset, when the user sees an avatar instead of his or her normal body. These experiments have potential in many areas such as rehabilitation, training, physiotherapy and leisure activities.

What have you discovered, for example?
In the case of rehabilitation, we’re studying treatment of pain. For instance, we have published several papers showing that the colour in which a virtual arm appears to you can affect your pain threshold. If your virtual arm is red, you’re going to be more sensitive to a painful or hot stimulus, while if it’s another colour, blue for example, you’ll be less sensitive to a painful or hot stimulus. This means that the pain threshold is not stable and it can be modified depending on the visual information you receive.

These transformations can be brought about in a virtual environment but also by giving life to a robot.
Yes, body transformations can also happen if, instead of having a virtual body, one incorporates a robot body, and this robot body can be situated some distance away. I can use a virtual environment in Barcelona and see through the eyes of a robot in London, and interact and speak in that environment, so that I have a body in the place of destination. If this becomes general, such practice will have to be legislated, with new laws being passed to stipulate who is responsible in the other place, which might be on the other side of the world.

In this video from the TV programme Quèquicom you can see how a Barcelona-based journalist uses virtual reality to “beam” herself into an office in London in the guise of a robot in order to interview the scientist Mel Slater.

Kamila Shamsie and Multicultural Writing

March 18th, 2014 No Comments

Bolaño Archive. 1977-2003 © Lidia González Alija

Many writers from all around the world have written about Barcelona, embracing the city as theirs. A great number of foreign gazes, from George Orwell to Jean Genet, to the first writers of the Latin American boom, for example Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, who for years made the city the base for their European operations, to Roberto Bolaño who described his Barcelona in Consejos de un discípulo de Morrison a un fanático de Joyce (Advice from a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic) – now being adapted for the stage – and Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives), to Colm Tóibín and The South, to Richard Gwyn and The Colour of a Dog Running Away … have contemplated Barcelona. Very few, however, have depicted today’s multicultural metropolis. There are travellers’ chronicles – including Hemingway’s notes from his time as a correspondent – flashes from the past, glimpses of the fascinating red-light district known as Barri Xino, or of the cosmopolitan capital of the seventies when speaking Catalan was a private matter, but there are virtually no novels about today’s global metropolis or chronicles of this “global city” of more than 200 languages, in which there are neighbourhoods like the Raval where more than half the residents were born abroad. Among the writings of today’s newcomers, the “latest ‘other Catalans’”, there are only the novels by Laila Karrouch and Najat el Hachmini, the work of Matthew Tree, Stefanie Kremser’s Carrer dels oblidats and Carrer Robadors by Mathias Énard, but novels about the 23,000 Pakistani residents or the 6,000 Chinese people in Santa Coloma, the story of the Italian community, and the family worries and joys of the 8,500 Filipinos living in the city are yet to be written.

England is the great reference for multicultural literature in which, for several generations now, the narrators have depicted everyday reality in England’s hundreds of immigrant communities. Owing to the tradition of integration in this country at the heart of the Commonwealth, or simply because of its language, which was taught in the colonies, all kinds of accents and uses have easily been embraced and adapted (would we accept a novel about Barcelona in Spanglish, or Catalan mixed with other languages, when we already make such a fuss about the Spanish-Catalan hybrid we might call Catanish?) literary England today is replete with Zadie Smith’s districts, Vikram Seth’s interracial marriages and recent exiles, as Nadeem Aslam remarked when he was here some months ago. Indeed, in the Granta 2013 list of the top twenty young British writers, only 60% were born in the United Kingdom. The others hail from Ghana, Bangladesh, China and Pakistan and, although they write in English, they broaden the canon of world literature rather than the British one.

Kamila Shamsie, photo by Robert Burdock

Born in Karachi but now resident in London, Kamila Shamsie is one of these writers, and certainly one to be followed. Her novels portray this multicultural spirit from many angles since she writes stories of a worldwide reach with chapters set in Hiroshima, India, London, New York or Pakistan, and her characters, whether they are English or Indian, are not just that but also citizens of the whole world, each one with a rich personality and in touch with all kinds of people.

In this borderless literature a multitude of multicultural encounters and clashes take place, with Japanese girls falling in love with German doctors or English people with Indian servants, and these exchanges are described with intelligence and sensitivity, bringing out the preconceptions on both sides and portraying many-sided characters who make mistakes and rectify them. Prevailing most notably in her work is her neutral stance of never judging and treating all her characters as equals. This multicultural spirit also appears when Shamsie writes about languages because her novels are about communication and she upholds a multilingual world where every language one learns is a door opening into a new universe.

Finally, Shamsie manages macro and micro levels, constructing episode and anecdote with exceptional timing but always as part of a greater story, from the bombing of Nagasaki to the 9/11 attacks and the last war in Afghanistan. Here, there are no autarchies, no dividing walls or barbed-wire fences: the world is a single entity and everything is related. In Shamsie’s books, every city is a bridge, or a port where exchange and interaction occur, where one is moored but from which one will also sail away again. These are love stories in global cities, novels of individuals and how they fit into a world they don’t shrink from joining. Neither do they avoid dealing with religious issues or inequality or oblivion or forgiveness.

#MuseumWeek, an interactive experiment

March 13th, 2014 No Comments

For the first time, and with the aim of setting a precedent, #MuseumWeek will bring together a score of Spanish museums and over 200 cultural centres from all over Europe in an initiative whose aim is to make culture more easily accessible via Twitter. It will take place in the week of 24 to 28 March, and the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona will be one of the virtual scenarios where this proposal will unfold.

#MuseumWeek will fill the web with comments, anecdotes, questions, and answers. It will offer prizes to participants, share knowledge and experiences and become a meeting point for lovers of art and culture. The museums will open their doors via Twitter, offering a previously unseen or little-known image of their premises, their activities, and the people who work there.

Each day of the week will be devoted to a theme, which will allow in-depth study of two major events linked to the CCCB: the inauguration of the exhibition Metamorphosis and the celebration of 20 years of the CCCB. And, at the same time, each of the themes will serve to explain certain aspects of the event in question. Thus, #MuseumWeek will be organised in the following way:

Monday 24: A day in the life

This title encompasses all the stories that take place at the centre the day before the inauguration of an exhibition. How the curators work to ensure that everything is in order; how the exhibition coordinators organise themselves; what the press department does; the final touches made to the exhibition space… “A day in the life of an exhibition” will mean that things that are not usually shown will be revealed.

Tuesday 25: Test your knowledge

Coinciding directly with the inauguration of Metamorphosis, followers will be asked diverse questions related with the exhibition and its protagonists: the Quay Brothers, Jan Švankmajer, and Ladislas Starewitch. The aim is not so much to put Internet users to the test as to let people in on anecdotes and interesting facts about the exhibition, one of the CCCB’s exhibitions of the year. What’s more, people who participate will have a chance to win different prizes.

Wednesday 26: Your story

Once the inauguration is over, Wednesday will be devoted to visitors to the centre and their stories, but it will also feature the staff of the CCCB itself. What memory does the public have of the CCCB? Which exhibition did people like best? Which activities do they take part in? And as for the staff, what is their best CCCB moment? As the title indicates, “Your story” is the link between the visitor, the staff members, and the CCCB over the course of 20 years of history. And there will be a prize on offer too!

Thursday 27: Buildings behind the art

Continuing with the anniversary theme, Thursday will be devoted to the CCCB as a cultural venue. We will recover old images of the building when it was the Casa de la Caritat (Almshouse), show spaces that are unknown to the public, and reveal interesting stories about the centre… In short: what hides behind this 18th century building?

Friday 28: Ask the expert

The #MuseumWeek proposal for Friday is devoted to the experts, but we are going to turn it around and make the public an expert on the CCCB. How will we do it? Under the tag #sabiesque, we will be providing capsules of information that anyone with an interest in culture should know about order to become an expert on our centre.

So, are you up for forming part of Museum Week?

Albert Costa: “In bilingual people brain deterioration is slower”

March 12th, 2014 No Comments

The third series of ICREA-CCCB debates, «The Brain», continues on Tuesday 18th March with the lecture “The Bilingual Brain” by the ICREA research professor Albert Costa, one of the world’s leading scientists working in neurolinguistics. We have spoken with him and asked him to tell us in advance about some of the key areas of his research.

ICREA research professor Albert Costa

Your area of research is concerned with the way in which languages are installed in the brain in the case of bilingual speakers. Does this mean that you have identified the parts that store verbs and those that store nouns, for example?

One needs to think of the brain as being made up of circuits and not as isolated areas. By means of neuro-images we can tell which circuits are activated with speech. In the case of verbs and nouns, there are brain-damaged patients who are suddenly able to pronounce many more verbs than nouns, and other patients who start using more nouns than verbs. Hence, we see that there are some brain circuits that are more concerned with verbs and others with nouns. Starting from here, we look at bilingual speakers to see if the same circuits operate with the second language and the extent to which the organisation in the brain of the second language follows the same principles.

What should we understand by “bilingual speaker”?

Bilingualism doesn’t have a single definition as it consists of a wide range of cases. I lived in the United States for four years, for example, and I speak English with my son. Does that make me bilingual in English? Or aren’t I? Or, in the case of Catalan and Spanish, who is bilingual? The person who speaks both languages? Or only the one who speaks Catalan with his father and Spanish with his mother and must therefore have learned both languages at the same time? Every time we try to define bilingualism we leave out groups of people, so what we must do is to add adjectives to the concept of bilingualism: proficient bilingualism, of simultaneous acquisition, of successive acquisition, non-proficient, and so on.

What problems are entailed in being bilingual?

Bilingual people know fewer words in each language than monolingual people, for example. If you add up the total of all the words they know in both languages it will be greater, of course. However, a monolingual person might know 60,000 words in her language in contrast with the 40,000 a bilingual person knows in each of the two languages. If you play four hours of squash and four hours of tennis every day and I play only tennis for eight hours, I’ll play tennis better than you. Other disadvantages: it is more difficult for the bilingual person to find the precise word he needs. He experiences the “tip of the tongue” situation more often because he’s constantly changing languages, using them at ratios of 50:50 or 30:70 perhaps, while the monolingual person is 100% concentrated on just one language, so it’s not so difficult to come up with the more unusual words. Finally, there’s the matter of energy consumption. When you speak Catalan, you can’t switch off Spanish. You have to focus on one language and set aside the other. A monolingual person doesn’t have to do this. Bilingualism means devoting more resources and using more energy in this linguistic monitoring. It’s like when you go to England and you end up getting tired because of the effort of speaking English and your attempts to sideline Catalan and Spanish in order to speak English. Nevertheless, this outlay is only in terms of energy. It doesn’t use up neurones. In fact, quite the opposite happens.

What about the advantages of bilingualism?

Well we find that this linguistic obstacle course of managing two languages and switching the focus from one to the other is beneficial, and that it affects other brain structures and cognitive processes apart from language. We see that bilingual people can focus their attention better on stimuli, that they control attention better, have more grey matter and more neural connections in certain areas, and this means that they have a larger cognitive reserve when they are old. In bilingual people brain deterioration is slower. For example, we have seen studies showing that, among patients with Alzheimer’s disease, bilingual people come to the doctor complaining of symptoms later than monolingual people. This doesn’t mean they don’t have Alzheimer’s. In fact they show the same brain damage but they have compensatory strategies as a result of the obstacle course they’ve been managing for sixty years.

What are the practical applications of all these studies?

A better understanding of cortical representation of language can help us with a lot of things, for example, to decide whether to operate on a person or not. In the case of brain tumours we can know how the patient will end up, whether he or she will lose language or not. Or in bilingual patients who’ve had a stroke, we need to think about which language we should use for the rehabilitation. The one that’s least affected? Or the one that’s more affected? Or the one that’s more useful? These studies also help in language learning, to the extent that we can discover which techniques are best for language acquisition, or what predisposition each person has for languages. With small children we can find out which ones are more sensitive to phonological contrasts, and hence which children have more ability in learning languages, and so on.

Contemporary Museum of Calligraphy

Here’s another question people must always ask you: is it true that the earlier you start to learn a language the better?

The cliché says the earlier you start the better but this depends on certain other things. We know that sounds and accents should be learned very early. It is true that there is variation among individuals and that some people are good at capturing accents well but, in general, accent is picked up in the first year of life. Syntax should also be learned young but acquiring new words, for example, has no age limit. You can do this all your life. You’re learning new words in Catalan every day. This issue is always the cause of great controversy because, in Catalonia, we want the children to learn English, and the earlier the better, but we give them native speakers in the more advanced classes while the small children get non-native speakers! We need to give children teachers who are native speakers from the very beginning. This question always stirs people up and, every time I talk about it, I get complaints in emails from primary school teachers.

In Spain, your research has always been highly politicised.

It certainly has. When the Catalan radio stations phone me I know they want me to talk about the advantages of bilingualism and, in Madrid, they always ask me about the disadvantages … But, besides what goes on in the brain, bilingualism is a social decision. We decide whether to be bilingual or not, independently of what happens in the brain.

In the world in general bilingualism is the norm and monolingualism the exception.

Yes, monolingualism isn’t so common. In Europe it is relatively uncommon. Most European citizens speak more than one language. Another matter is whether you’ve been bilingual from the cradle. This isn’t so common, but there are a great many contacts between languages and this happens all around the world.