Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Bis + Big Zero + ILL - The Deaf Institute, Manchester

Less than six months in, and 2016 is already a great year in terms of going to gigs, not least because I have now seen Bis twice (and trust me, I'm ready to make it a third time if they come back!).
Tonight's opening band was ILL, who I've been a fan of since seeing them  open for Jack Off Jill last year. While I love their loud and chaotic post-punk sound, they're not for everyone - thankfully though, most people in the crowd tonight seemed to like them. Their political lyrics burst with energy against the noisy, at times jarring, backdrop they create. My personal highlights were Secret Life ("true story", as keyboardist/vocalist Harri Shanaham informed us) and Ill Song, a song takes a look at the government's destruction of the NHS with their distinctive politics-meets-dark-humour lyrical style.
Next up is Big Zero, who are kind of like what might happen if Weezer and Devo had sex while watching Back to the Future, and gave birth to a band baby. A couple of their songs blended together a bit, but overall their music is catchy and fun (they're at their best when they don't hold back on the synths), and the band certainly don't lack any energy when it comes to performing.

While I admire their dedication to the image they've created for themselves, I can't help but feel like it seemed a bit forced at times - the constant stating of "we are zero" after each song, for example (we get it, you like Devo!). Definitely worth checking out though, and I'm interested to see how they develop as they release more music.
By now, the venue was packed - thankfully, we only had to wait 15 minutes for Bis to take to the stage. Starting off with School Disco the whole room was dancing like they were part of the coolest dance competition that never was, and they didn't stop until the last note was over (seriously, I feel like some of the audience members deserve their own mini reviews for their dancing!).

The set list was, like in Glasgow, made up mostly of the band's early material, with their two newest songs fitting in seamlessly. My personal favourites of the night were Teen-C Power, Keroleen and Kill Yr Boyfriend. As I said in my last review, I hope the new songs are a sign of more new material to come!

Bis are a band that I would happily go see live everyday for the rest of my life. For now, I'll just settle for listening to them obsessively at home. I'm assuming there are people in the world who don't like Bis and, to be honest, that's a scary thought. Anyway... Teen-C Power!

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Hidden Figures

I came across an article a few days ago on a film that's being made, called Hidden Figures, and it immediately piqued my interest. It tells the true story of African-American women who were mathematicians and parts of NASA's space program during the Civil Rights era.

In a bid to stay ahead of Russia in the space race, the agency hired the smartest people they could find. After World War II, federal agencies had to cope with the shortage of male candidates by hiring actual, real-life women. Shocking, I know. Women were seen as being more detail-oriented, with small hands that were better suited to repetitive tasks on the adding machines, and came with advantage of being paid less than a man for the same job. This also freed the male engineers they did have up for the more "serious" and analytical projects.

So, not only did agencies like NASA have to start hiring women, they also had to start hiring African-American women.

Despite the skill of these women, segregation and isolation still reigned; women were placed in separate rooms from men, and the black women were separated from the white women, and nicknamed "coloured computers". During lunch breaks, they had to sit at a "coloured" table in the cafeteria.

A few years into the program, the unmarried white women were housed in a fancy dorm, while the unmarried black women were left to find their own accommodation in town.

It's no secret that history is full of white-washing, and it's important that stories like this are told. There are probably so many other stories like this that we don't even know about yet, so many people who never got the credit they deserved.

As I said, I found this whole story interesting, and decided to write about three of the women who'll be portrayed in Hidden Figures.
Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) worked as a mathematician. In 1938, she became the first African-American woman to desegregate the graduate school at West Virginia University, and was hired by NASA in 1953. She was one of the many women who were essentially the agency's "living computers" - replaced when actual machines became available.

Among her achievements are calculating the trajectory of Alan Shepard's flight, making him the first American in space, and calculating the trajectory for Apollo 11, which took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon. In 1962, when NASA used computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn's orbit around Earth, they asked Johnson to verify the numbers.

Johnson would also plot back-up navigational charts for astronauts, in case of electronic failures.

In 2015, she received a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to America's Space Race.

Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) also worked as a mathematician. She started working at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943. In 1949, she was promoted and became the agency's first black supervisor, and one of very few women supervisors. She used her position to help other women progress through the agency, helping them to get the promotions or pay rises they deserved, and worked in that role for nearly a decade.

In 1958, segregated facilities were abolished. Vaughan joined the new Analysis and Computation Division, a racially and gender-integrated group working with electronic computing, and became an expert FORTRAN programmer. She retired from NASA in 1971.

Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae) began her career as another "computer", specialising in reducing data from wind tunnel experiments and from aircraft data on various flight experiments. Throughout her career, she was aware that minorities and women weren't advancing as fast as they should have been, and started analysing the data to see what was holding them back. She found that, in addition to the obvious glass ceiling, a lot of time it was simply down to lacking a course or not being given the right assignments, and set about discreetly advising women on what they needed to do to go from Mathematician to Engineer.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Piers Morgan: The Feminist Gatekeeper That No One Asked For

It's a sad and unfortunate truth that we currently share a planet with Piers Morgan. Even sadder, his face and voice crop up everywhere, his opinions available to any platform willing to accommodate them.

Among his recent offerings to the world is a column for The Daily Mail, in which he told journalist Michelle Fields, who was assaulted by Donald Trump's campaign manager, to "toughen up". He tries to use the "let's ignore the journalists gender for a second" argument, and okay... yes, it would still be wrong if that journalist was a man. Because yes, I do believe in equality - I don't think anybody should be assaulted. As a side note, he chose to open this article with an anecdote of how Jeremy Clarkson once punched him in the head and he decided not to punch him back or press charges - I think he was trying to be endearing? - and a misuse of the word "ironically".

Piers seems to think of himself as something of an expert on feminism (and most other things in the world, now that I think about it), taking to Twitter and mourning the supposed death of feminism. Yep, Kim Kardashian and Emily Ratajkowski's topless selfie has literally killed feminism. 

I'm not trying to say that a successful woman posting a topless selfie is the biggest step forward feminism has ever made. But it's also not even close to being a step backwards. Here are two women, often photographed without their consent, taking control of their own image. It's their choice of how much of their body to show, despite the fact that we live in a society that constantly tells up to cover up, in case we offend someone (unless you have a "bikini body", in which case you're obliged to display it). For a woman to take control and present herself how she wants is meaningful (which is why I am big believer in selfies as a positive act). It's certainly not Piers' place to decide if something is personally empowering.

We live in a world that tells us (Kardashian included) that to show your body is to undermine everything else about yourself - intelligence, accomplishments etc, that we should cover up in order to be "safe". The truth is, as a woman, you're going to be just as scrutinised in a business suit as you are topless. You'll probably be called an attention-seeker, or "attention-whore", because seeking attention is obviously the worst thing a woman can do.

Then, of course, there's his judgement of Beyoncé and the increasingly political undertone of the work, siding with everybody's nobody's favourite politician Rudy Giuliani's view that her recent Superbowl performance, which paid tribute to the Black Panthers, was "disgraceful and outrageous". He goes on to say how he "preferred the old Beyoncé. The less inflammatory, agitating one." Well, yes, I'm sure you did prefer it when Beyoncé appealed more to your white male sensibilities. Jamelia put it perfectly, in an open blog post, when she said "[Piers], you don't like Beyoncé in Lemonade because her blackness isn't white enough for you anymore."

Oh yeah, and apparently Madonna is "tragic" because she doesn't conform to what Piers believes a woman should be.

And the Jezebel writers are "Nazis" for supporting Susan Sarandon for daring to show some cleavage.

And it's perfectly fine to misgender someone (in this case, Janet Mock), and then when said person calls you out on it, to make it seem as though you're the victim here.

And, as a white, middle-class man, it's definitely his place to police black people on their use of the N-word.

If looking at Piers' criticism of various women has taught me anything, it's that he has a strict image of what he thinks a woman should be and how she should act. Anything outside of that is just plain offensive. If you're a woman, then you can't expose your body unless it's on his terms. If you're a WOC, then you'd better make sure you still cater to middle class white men.

Piers, you are not some wise gatekeeper of feminism. Your brand is pseudo-journalism at best, in the same vein as Katie Hopkins and her thirst for social media infamy. You used to the editor of the Daily Mirror, a tabloid worthy of no respect, and even they fired you. You were cancelled by CNN. You've frequently used your platform to shame women for whatever reason you see fit, yet feign concern over the future of feminism. You're not worried about feminism being "dead" - you're worried because women are actually benefiting from it, and that scares you.

Feminism isn't dead. Your understanding of the world is dead.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Shirley Baker

Today I decided to write about a photographer I discovered recently, whose work I really love. Shirley Baker was a British photographer, known mostly for her street photography and portraits of Manchester's working class areas.

The mid-20th century spawned a lot of talented documentary photographers, though there were very few women in the field; when Baker studied photography at Manchester College of Technology in the 1950s, she was one of only two women on the course.
Baker had trouble getting a press card, meaning she couldn't pursue a career in photojournalism, something she put down to only being given the assignments that were "unsuitable" for men. One article she contributed to, "How To Photograph Children", made the patronising observation of "You'd expect a woman photographer to be at home with such a subject."
From the 60s, Baker taught photography at Salford College of Art, always carrying a camera in her handbag. During free periods, she started taking photographs of the nearby social housing area that was being demolished, and the people that were still living there. "Slum clearances" started in the 1930's, and began again in the 1950's after the war, with around 1.3 million houses demolished across the country. Baker seemed to be the only person interested in recording the history of these communities that were being torn down.
Baker's work received barely any attention at the time. These photos weren't exhibited until 1986, at Salford Museum & Art Gallery, in a show titled "Here Today, Gone Yesterday."

One of the things I like about Baker's work is how she was able to document quite a dark and unhappy period without making us pity the people who are shown. There is a sense of empathy however, but also a sense of compassion, and, at times, humour.
The family's surrounded by demolition aren't broken or worn down themselves, they're resilient and resourceful. Children make swings on lampposts, play cricket in the street, draw on paving stones. These people aren't put on display for us to feel sorry for, they're just ordinary family's who happen to live in poor areas. Poverty is a backdrop, not a defining feature.

Baker died in 2014, aged 82.