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Dreamland Symposium Review

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Well this could have crashed and burned. Maybe that is overstating it a little, but at fifteen pounds a ticket, an academic symposium on Freud in the Grundy Art Gallery might have had a low to middling turnout, especially as this was the first of its kind in Blackpool, not a town with an academic background in all fairness. Healthy pre-bookings and a steady stream of walk-ins allayed any fears of that, a capacity crowd appeared and extra seating was sought out for the  expectant audience.

A real mix of audience members from the academic staff of the college to the generally curious filled the Brunswick Room after an hour milling around the gallery to acquaint themselves with artist Zoe Beloff’s Dreamland exhibition. Seats were taken and Grundy curator, Richard Parry, mounted the stage, to bring us all up to speed on the life and Blackpool visits of the eminent psychologist, Sigmund Freud. Thus primed with the facts, we watched artist Zoe Beloff take to the stage and the symposium started in earnest.

Zoe’s work, for those who missed the exhibition, is a seamless weaving of fact and fiction, a creation of half truths that meshes the archive of the Coney Island Psychoanalytical Society and it’s Blackpool counterpart. Where the facts and the fancy separate is impossible to tell. The audience was treated to a merry old tale of Freudian-themed funfairs and inter-continental visits of Freudians. Beloff’s relaxed and informal style drew the audience in, so when the reveal of the fiction among the fact came to light there was an audible gasp from those who believed to tales to be true. This created a discussion on the nature of her imaginative historical structure, less of a hoax she said, more of a construction of potentiality, ‘Just because it’s not true doesn’t mean it’s not valid’. Fortunately, the lovely tale of Coney Island’s elephant shaped hotel and its salubrious reputation as a love nest, leading to the euphemism ‘seeing the elephant’ is all true (I googled it!).

Professor Scott Wilson was the next to speak. Wilson turned the academic dial up a few notches and explored the psychoanalytical aspects of side shows and saucy seaside postcards (distortion of genitals and body size to echo our unconscious infantile desires and the child’s eye view – so now you know!). An informative if not a tad traditional style presentation, those at the back had a little trouble seeing Prof Wilson behind the desk. A small gripe really.

Then came, as I am led by my tummy most of the time, the best part of the day. Suzanne Walsh from culinary art explorers MOUTH picked up her accordion and tinkling music box to treat us to a most bizarre mash up of old sea shanty and George Formby. The cheeky Formby song. ‘Little Stick Of Blackpool Rock’ suddenly became a dark and more twisted refrain as her haunting voice washed over us. Other members of MOUTH passed among us with trays of dark candy floss, murky brown sticks of rock with heartbreaking memories on the label and a chocolate cake lollypop so rich and sweet your taste buds could successfully file for divorce from your mouth in protest. The singing turned to a broken staccato of sound and tone and the sweet treats were devoured in a suitably Freudian wash of sensation. It was an inspired and original experience. If you are lucky enough to get the chance to attend an event with MOUTH involved you are guaranteed to get value from your ticket.

Lunch followed, sadly anything on offer after the treats of MOUTH was going to fall flat, the sandwiches and fruit did sadly feel a little limp in contrast. Plus awful coffee, never a good thing.

The flamboyant Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archive, started her presentation with a beautiful 1909 movie, filmed from the top of a tram, of Edwardian Blackpool, by film pioneers and documentarians Mitchell and Keynon.  It was a pleasure to watch. She kept the audience charmed as she showed many of Blackpool’s theatres and various opulent wonders sadly lost over the years. Some of these though, such as ‘Midget-Town’ and the class designated entrances to the Winter Gardens are best left consigned to history. Professor Toulmin and the fascinating picture she painted of the world of 1909 Blackpool garnered a healthy question session from the audience, a positive sign of audience engagement.

Last of the day’s speakers was Professor Michael Eaton. Prof Eaton explored the theme of fairgrounds through the form that I could only describe as an ‘anthropological memory system’. His almost prose poem format of reading took us through an entire lifetime, visits to the fairground becoming a series of maturation points or rites of passage, whilst giving the narrator’s perspectives on the family unit and community they were within. It was mesmeric stuff. I would recommend this unusual and affecting speaker to anyone who has the chance to see him.

All the speakers returned to the stage for a round table question and answer session. Chaired by Richard Parry, the subjects opened varied from the uses and values of fear in the fairground to Walt Disney via the Freudian ‘Death Drive’.

A change of venue at the end and we were back in the gallery for a spirited reading from local playwright David Riley’s new play ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’ (named after Jung’s biography).  Nicely set within the confines of the Gallery with its mock fairground frontage, Vicky Ellis and David Riley performed a scene from Riley’s Freudian memoir in which a young Freud discussed phrenology and charlatons with a local girl on his visit to the town.  The humorous script drew laughter from the audience.

This brought the day’s events to a close. The audience mixed for a few minutes of discussion before heading out into the rainy grey Blackpool evening, to walk the streets that Freud himself walked over a hundred years before, in similar weather we are told – the one constant that an ever-evolving Blackpool can boast with confidence.

If the sign of a good symposium is an audience which leaves with a new insight into the subject discussed, with an eagerness to look deeper at aspects of the topic that they might have not thought, or even known about, then this symposium was a great success. Hopefully this will be the first building block for a series of more academic events at the Grundy. Time will tell, but if this was an example of the quality of speakers that Blackpool can get involved, then the future for this kind of event is assured. Oh, but I do hope they sort that coffee out!

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