Performing Historical Data

Lydia Nicholson, University of Tasmania

18 July 2017

In Australia the majority of our public understanding of history comes not from reading the work of historians but from watching film and television productions based on history. Performance has also become a key interpretative strategy for museum and heritage sites, and digital programs and web-series are playing a growing role in school curriculums.

My PhD explores the process of adapting history through performance – how it could or should be done, and what the opportunities or challenges might be in adapting the work of historians through different performance mediums. My research is practice-based and I’m building upon my background as a theatre-maker and heritage interpreter to develop a series of performance texts that are adaptations of the Founders and Survivors Project, a quantitative history research project analysing the experiences and legacy of Tasmania’s convicts.

In 1803 the British invasion of Australia spread southwards to a lush heart-shaped island named Van Diemen’s Land by Europeans, known today as Tasmania. The island soon teemed with red-coated soldiers, record-obsessed colonial bureaucrats, and ambitious free settlers who over the next fifty years would whittle it into a ‘little England.’ This feat was only made possible thanks to a devastating process of land dispossession from local Aboriginal groups and the forced labour of around 73,000 men, women and children convicted of crimes in British courts and transported from the far reaches of the Empire as convicts.

R.G. Reeve Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land (1828)

For the purposes of the colonial administration these convicts were comprehensively documented:

As unfree migrants, the convicts sent to Britain’s Australian penal colonies were described in extraordinary detail that proliferated over time. We know the colour of their eyes and hair, their place of birth, age, religion and literacy as well as the names of their parents and brothers and sisters. We also know much about their former criminal and work histories and the disorders for which they were treated on the long voyage to Australia. So minutely were their bodies examined that we have a record of their scars, inoculation marks and tattoos.

– Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, Founders and Survivors Project [i]

The Tasmanian convict archive contains some of the most detailed data about 19th century working classes in the world. As well as describing the convicts, the archive also traces each convict whilst under sentence, keeping track of any work done, punishments borne, marriages sought or babies born.

When convict transportation to Van Diemen’s Land ended in 1853 locals began unburdening themselves of the past and scrubbing clean the ‘convict stain’ that many felt had tainted the island. The convict archive was literally locked away, with some records actively destroyed, and society developed an unofficial ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy about the convict past. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Tasmanian convict archive was made available to the public, and it was only near the end of the 20th Century that it became a point of pride, not public shame, to have found a convict in your family tree. In 2007 the Tasmanian Convict archive was inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

A convict conduct record, Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office

The Founders and Survivors Project is an ongoing collaborative research project between a number of institutions involving historians, genealogists, demographers and population health researchers who are interrogating this UNESCO listed convict archive. Convict records are gradually being transcribed and uploaded by researchers into a massive database, and quantitative analysis techniques are unearthing some ground breaking ‘big picture’ stories about the convict experience. Instead of seeing the archive as a record of convicts’ individual failings and experiences, which has long shaped our understanding of convict history, we can ‘read against the grain’ en masse and see the attitudes and systems of the colonial administration and how convicts’ lives were influenced by political, social or economic factors.

The project’s findings cover diverse territory – from myth-busting entrenched attitudes towards Irish convicts to analyzing height data to gauge whether the children of convicts were at a health disadvantage. Big data is changing the way we do history, and significantly shifting our understanding of the Tasmanian convict experience.

Port Arthur Historic Site, Tasmania

When adapting this research for performance a key challenge has been negotiating the warring needs of accuracy, artistry and accessibility in developing a performance text for a particular audience. For each performance text I have decided how much fidelity to the original historical research I need (or want) to maintain and what role the slippery and subjective term ‘authenticity’ should play in my choices. Quantitative history enjoys a relatively small audience thanks to the complexity of the methods used by researchers, and one of the aims of my research has been to interpret the data analysis process in ways that allow it to be accessible and engaging for wider public audiences without losing accuracy or misrepresenting the findings. I’ve been exploring techniques around simplification, prioritisation, and providing extra informative scaffolding, and have been experimenting with ways of visually representing the data, inserting the data into narratives and finding ways to perform ‘a likelihood’ rather than an outcome.

The early exploration of performing a Gaussian curve

Because the Founders and Survivors Project is so dependent on digital technology, and the database provides such a highly mediated window through which to view the Tasmanian convict experience, I have used similar digital-based mediums in my performance texts. I am developing a vlog-style series that uses visual representations of data and builds upon contemporary forms of educational storytelling to communicate some of the key findings of the Founders and Survivors Project. I’m also exploring online digital engagement with the Founders and Survivors research and how digital data visualisation might also be integrated into live theatrical performance.

My findings might be used to inform museum and heritage performance practice or performance adaptation projects for stage, film or television, but might also influence the communication practices of quantitative historians, and I’m looking forward to publicly releasing my performance texts and gauging how they bring this exciting new research into Tasmanian convict history to new audiences.

[i] Maxwell-Stewart, Hamish ‘And All My Great Hardships Endured’?: Irish Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land’ in Transnational Perspectives on Modern Irish History, Routledge, Niall Whelehan (ed), United Kingdom (2015)

Lydia Nicholson is a theatre-maker and heritage interpreter and is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Tasmania. She studied at Flinders University and the University of Sydney, has worked with a range of theatre companies in South Australia and New South Wales and developed public programs with the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, the Australian Museum, National Trust Tasmania and the British Museum.




Pedagogies of Re-Enactment: Bystanding and the Media of Re-Experiencing Violence

Carrie Rentschler, McGill University

11 July 2017

My research examines the media history of the bystander as a social change agent, drawing from feminist cultural studies perspectives.  In it, I aim to understand why and how the subject position of the bystander has become such a visible target of public outcry, and why bystanders are currently being hailed as a potential intervener in social violence—that is, as people who can be trained to stop violence around their roles as witnesses to it. 

From 1960s journalistic and public outcry over “do nothing” citizens and “the sickness of public apathy” to contemporary activism against street harassment, gender violence and racialized police violence in the U.S. and Canada, the bystander represents a subject who can be mobilized to intervene. In the context of increasing calls for community-based responses to and responsibility for social violence, the bystander position offers, in its most radical orientations, the promise of community based intervention and collective movement.

The 1964 murder and sexual assault of Catherine Genovese — one of the 20th century’s most well known crime cases — and the legacies of social psychological research inspired by it, have framed public discussions about the problem of bystanding for over 50 years. A group of British social psychologists describes the Genovese case as the most widely cited real-life example in their field (Rachel Manning et. al. “The Parable of the 38 Witnesses,” 2007). The case is the subject of introductory courses and textbooks in the field of social psychology, and widely circulates in law, sociology, and urban studies. In social psychology, the New York Times’ story “37 Who Saw Murder Did Not Call Police” about Genovese’s sexual assault and murder inspired new forms of theatrical experimentation around the problem of bystander non-intervention.

Their experiments in turn have inspired students, amateur media producers and even US TV shows such as “What Would You Do” to re-enact some of their social psychological experimental models drawing on hidden-camera conventions popularized in the U.S. TV show “Candid Camera.”

While high profile violent crimes are often the subject of true crime TV re-enactments, the Genovese case is unusual in its propensity to be re-enacted across media formats over time, becoming a popular form of pedagogy about bystander intervention. Unlike true crime productions, with their focus on what Mark Seltzer referred to as wound cultures (crime scenes, weapons, wounded bodies), which make up only a small proportion of re-enactments of the Genovese murder, most re-enactments of the Genovese case focus instead on the main subjects of the Genovese story: the witnesses who were said to have watched or heard her being assaulted and did not call the police. They rarely focus on the victim or perpetrator, who were never central agents in the dominant story of the crime.

The case’s re-enactment culture reveals the role re-performance plays in constructing a historical dossier of the crime in which cultural producers and educators transform the meaning of legal and social responsibility tied to bystanders. Learning about the Genovese case – whether in a classroom or through civic TV programming — is tied to processes of experiencing its re-enactment by spectating a media re-enactment for the crime’s witnesses or, for students, doing one’s own re-enactment in which they become witnessing re-enactors of the historical case.

In the 1960s, the Genovese case helped articulate a racist street crime framework that replicated the white supremacist and racially androcentric system of terror that constituted slavery and Jim Crow laws on the myth of black male rapists and the cult of white womanhood (see Carol Stabile’s great book White Victims, Black Villains: Gender, Race and Crime News in US Culture, 2006). It dramatized a white identified middle class crime fearing public that would soon take shape in the first U.S. national crime victimization survey in 1967.

Today its re-enactment often represents conditions of individual responsibilization and the dominance of risk management frameworks in violence prevention. While framed by these earlier narratives, contemporary re-enactments focus on the individual witness as responsible, and irresponsible, agent.

My talk, “Pedagogies of Re-Enactment: Bystanding and the Media of Re-Experiencing Violence” examines the affective pedagogies performed through and in media re-enactments of the Genovese sexual assault and murder. Media re-enactments set up conditions for virtually witnessing the form of the Genovese sexual assault and murder through proxies, purporting to offer lessons about the structures of feeling that might transform bystanders into active witnesses. To do so, they invite spectators to experience the re-enactment as proxy witnesses – as witnesses to other’s bystanding – and as amateur investigators and surrogate judges.

I call this an affective pedagogy of spectatorship. Re-enactments produce a genre of media witnessing that prompts its viewers to judge those who failed to act and to project themselves into the position of possible interveners based on the (largely unfulfilled) promise of an emotional and experiential conversion: from bystander to witness. I approach media re-enactments as “technologies of orientation,” modes of re-enacted performance that are meant to orient viewers towards particular ways of judging oneself and others as potential bystanders to social violence through spectator’s experiential conversion process. 

The talk draws from a digitized archive of media re-enactments of the 1964 assault and murder case that I’ve been collecting and analyzing over the past 6 years. To watch clips and read additional critical commentary on several films and TV programs that represent and re-enact the Genovese murder, access the archive in Critical Commons

*Critical Commons is an online initiative to make the texts of media culture available for study and teaching under fair use and critical transformative re-use purposes.

Carrie Rentschler is Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar of Feminist Media Studies in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies and an Associate of the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at McGill University. She is the author of Second Wounds: Victims’ Rights and the Media in the U.S. (Duke UP, 2011), and co-editor of Girlhood Studies and the Politics of Place (Berghahn Press, 2016). Her current research examines the history of the bystander as an agent of social change, feminist social media responses to sexual violence, campus activism against rape culture, and the role media infrastructures play in social movement activism.

Film Finances: Making Hollywood Happen

Charles Drazin, Queen Mary – University of London

4 July 2017

As I begin to write this blog on the world’s first completion guarantor Film Finances, I can’t help wondering what the company’s founder Bobby Garrett would have made of today’s online world. During World War II, he had been deputy head of the Air Section at Bletchley Park. When the war was over, he returned to the publicity-hungry movie industry, but ran his little-known corner of that industry with all the tact, discretion and knack for eluding attention that characterised his previous career in secret intelligence.

I was recently amused to find in the company’s archive a letter from the early 1970s that explained to a new business partner: “Our UK and European operation as far as we are concerned has been restricted within a very confined area; bankers, distributors, etc, are aware of our function within the Industry. Therefore, we have found that there has been no need for any publicity.” It was perhaps some left-over from Garrett’s day that helped to explain why, when I was first invited to explore Film Finances’ archive in 2009, I had not heard of the company and had no idea what a completion guarantor did. The fact that the IAMHIST conference will be hosting a panel on Film Finances offers some index of the increased awareness eight years on of this company’s crucial importance to post-war film history.

Founded in London in 1950, Film Finances pioneered a system of guaranteeing budget overcosts, as well as the certainty of completion and delivery by a specified date, which facilitated the financing of independent production. By “independent production” I mean a film that is not funded directly by a major studio but requires its producer to raise its budget from separate, independent financiers. In order to obtain a guarantee that Film Finances would meet any extra costs, a producer had to provide not only a plan of production but also regular reports on progress. Once the film had been completed and delivered to its distributor, Film Finances would then archive the paperwork relating to the project.

Over the nearly seventy years of its existence, Film Finances was an important catalyst in the spread of independent film-making from Britain and Europe to Canada, Australia and Hollywood. The result today is a vast collection of papers –  including correspondence, scripts, budgets, schedules, call sheets and progress reports –  that detail the behind-the-scenes production of thousands of feature films, including some of the most celebrated ever made –  The African Queen (1951), Dr No (1962), Cabaret (1972), Terminator (1984), Pulp Fiction (1994) and so on all the way to La La Land (2016). It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of an archive that encompasses so many industries and so many significant films.

In 2012 Film Finances agreed to grant scholars access to the papers relating to the first thirty years of its history. A special issue of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television in 2014 offered a taste to the academic community of the archive’s treasures. Since then the company has continued to facilitate research, most recently welcoming researchers from the BFI/AHRC project, “Transformation and Tradition in Sixties British Cinema”. In the long term, Film Finances plans to work with institutions that can help to develop the research potential of the archive, whether through digital access, cataloguing the collection or arranging exhibitions.

When Bobby Garrett retired in 1982, the British film industry was in the doldrums. In a difficult climate, publicity became important even to Film Finances, as Garrett’s successor, the much more gregarious Richard Soames, sought to explain the value of what the company did to new markets that had not previously been aware of its function. The biggest of those new markets was Hollywood, where the advent of video distribution was fuelling the growth of independently financed films.

My paper at the IAMHIST conference will tell the story of how Film Finances came to Hollywood. Drawing on original documents in the Film Finances Archive, it will focus on Francis Ford Coppola’s Outsiders (1983), which Film Finances took the risk of guaranteeing even though the director’s previous two films, Apocalypse Now (1979) and One From the Heart (1982), had incurred massive overcosts. The production turned out to be the perfect calling card, as Film Finances took out a full-page advert in Variety to congratulate Coppola on finishing the film “on schedule and on budget”.

Opening an office on Sunset Boulevard only weeks later, Film Finances was keen during its early years in Hollywood to explain what it could offer to an industry that was still unfamiliar with how the completion guarantee worked. In an article that appeared in the Hollywood Reporter in 1985 Soames discussed the difference that Film Finances might have made if only it had been around to provide a completion guarantee for Heaven’s Gate (1980).

Budgeted at $11.5m, the film notoriously ended up costing over $40m and nearly ruined United Artists.  “The big advantage that the production would have had if we’d been there would have been to have an objective party who was involved in the creative aspects and who could point out where the film was really going.” In another interview with a trade journal called The Business of Film, Soames pointed out that over more than three decades “practically every set of circumstances in the making of a film has come past our door”. There were few other companies that could match the experience it had accumulated in solving the problems of production. “The very fact that there are problems with pictures is the reason that we’re in business.”

When a special issue of the Hollywood Reporter celebrated Film Finances’ fiftieth anniversary in 2000, the company had guaranteed approximately 3,000 films. Although the Hollywood office was now the headquarters of the company, the last page of the issue offered a nod to its British origins.

“Excellent Batsman for 50 years,” declared the advertisement from Merchant Ivory Productions. “May you continue for the next 50.”  It will be some time until scholars can hope to have access to the papers relating to films that Film Finances guaranteed after its arrival in Hollywood in 1982, but meanwhile the first thirty years of Film Finances’ history, relating chiefly to the British film industry, are likely to keep researchers busy for quite some time.

Charles Drazin is Senior Lecturer in Film at Queen Mary, University of London, and the author of Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s (1998), In Search of ‘The Third Man’ (1999) and Korda: Britain’s Only Movie Mogul (2002). Charles will be presenting a paper, ‘Film Finances goes to Hollywood’, at this year’s IAMHIST Conference.


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