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Critical Writing Focuses on John Berger

The Critical Writing in Art & Design programme (CWA&D) is hosting a public study day, On John Berger On Art On TV On Radio, focusing on the influential television, film and radio work of John Berger. Alongside screenings, the day also features discussions and talks from academics and writers, including some of Berger’s most significant collaborators. 

This study day is the latest in a series of public events held by CWA&D. Last year they hosted a conference on The Essay, which featured a keynote speech from Wayne Koestenbaum, and in 2013 they held a two-day symposium on the work of writer Chris Kraus. David Crowley, Head of CWA&D, explained that this event aims to put a spotlight on Berger one of the most important and engaged critics in Britain over the last 50 years.

Berger was born in 1926 and attended Chelsea College of Art and Central School of Art, before starting his career as a painter. He published his first novel in 1958, followed by several books of art criticism, including studies of Picasso and Ernst Neizvestny. His best-known work is the landmark television series Ways of Seeing, first broadcast on the BBC in 1972. The series, in part derived from Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, considers the circulation and impact of images. A publication of the same name accompanied the series, which is still in print and widely read today.

Berger is known not only for his art criticism but also as a prolific novelist, poet, playwright, filmmaker and very much part of public intellectual life. In the same year Ways of Seeing was broadcast, he won the Booker Prize and James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel G, and in 2008 his novel From A to X was long-listed for the Booker Prize. One of the reasons Berger was selected to be the focus of a study day at the College is his wide-reaching and multidisciplinary practice, which reveals the capacity for criticism to exist outside of print media.

Two of Berger’s most significant collaborators will be in conversation discussing his innovative work for television. Mike Dibb, a documentary filmmaker who produced Ways of Seeing, and John Christie, artist, writer and publisher, who worked with Berger on his television series about photography Another Way of Telling, will offer insights into their experiences working with Berger. There will also be a screening of Dibb’s 1993 film A Telling Eye: The Work of John Berger. Alongside his work for television, Berger also wrote for radio. Gareth Evans, Film Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery, will introduce a number of clips of these historic broadcasts.

Accompanying these discussions of Berger's writing for broadcast, Tom Overton presents a talk on the John Berger archive held at the British Library. Overton, who catalogued the archive, is currently preparing a selection of Berger’s writing on art for two volumes, which will be published by Verso later this year.

Throughout his career, Berger worked collaboratively with other writers, filmmakers and photographers. Brian Dillon, writer and CWA&D tutor, will be in discussion with two doctors about A Fortunate Man (1967), Berger’s publication with photographer Jean Mohr documenting the life of a rural doctor. Gavin Francis, a GP and writer who contributed a new foreword to the re-issue of the book earlier this year, will discuss Berger’s work with Iona Heath, a GP for 35 years and author of Matters of Life and Death (2007), a reflection on death and dying that features contributions from Berger. 

The study day ends with Berger’s voice. Firstly in a screening of Taskafa, Stories of the Street (2013), a film about resistance and co-existence voiced by Berger, and finally with his moving reading of Ghassan Kanafani's Letter From Gaza (2008).

The enduring appeal and influence of Berger’s work provides another reason for it to be given the attention of this study day. In 2014, The One Minutes, at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam and curator Lorna Mills, created Ways of Something, a re-interpretation of Ways of Seeing. The film is comprised of 60-second segments from 85 web-based artists. Although each artist took a different approach, using contemporary media such as the creation of 3D renders, GIFs, or webcam performances, the original soundtrack from Berger remains, his words as relevant as ever.

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