‘Our Changing Neighbourhood’

Millman

By Kenn Taylor

Sir John Soane’s Museum in London is the former home of architect John Soane, and has been largely unchanged since his death in 1837.

The Soane has developed links with the older people’s reminiscence group at the nearby Millman Street Resource Centre. However, with the museum’s history and collection dating far beyond living memory, using reminiscence as an engagement tool seemed problematic.

One project that worked around this was Our Changing Neighbourhood. Reminiscence sessions about the local area selected different places that were important to members of the group. The museum then sourced maps and images of these places at different times in history.

In later sessions we looked at how these places had changed over two centuries and then worked with an artist to print some of the images we had found onto calico along with people’s own personal memories of the sites. These were then attached to our large map to show their locations.

The project worked well by connecting people’s memories to wider periods of history. The project was delivered over four sessions. In hindsight one or two more may have been preferable so the participants could have had more time to work on their artwork, especially due to the mobility difficulties of some group members.

The artwork that was created will now be used as a resource by the museum to undertake sessions with other older people in the local area to encourage their own reminiscences about their changing neighbourhood.

This piece appeared in the July 2014 edition of Museum Practice.

Retail Therapy

Oikpic

By Kenn Taylor

“Bdumm!” The satisfying sound of the long-suffering warehouse doors being whacked aside once more by my roll-cage. The thought of damaging company property is incredibly satisfying, though it does little to alleviate the aches that presently swarm across my body with every movement. Somewhere inside this drink-battered carcass there is a healthy, sober man trying to get out.

Onto the shop floor proper and into that light that penetrates your skull. The uniquely awful combination of fluorescent lamps bouncing off shiny, nearly all white, surfaces with the constant, dizzying hum of innumerable refrigeration units thrown in for good measure.

A gratifying, but ill-judged, hard swing of the cage to the right sees me manoeuvre into a cardboard display stand.

“Shit.”

Still early though, no one about to bollock me, so I re-fold the thing vaguely back into shape and start to pick up all the sweet packets. In this state, even bending down is enough to send me close to collapse.

What was I thinking? Another ‘It’s-not-ilegal-if-you-don’t-tell-anyone-and-we’ll-give-you-time-and-a-half’, finish at 10pm back in for 6am shift. But then I need the money, I’ll just have an early night. No problem. Okay, just one drink. One fucking drink.

And so at 3.55am I make it back home. Approximately 1 hour 45 minutes’ sleep later the clock goes off and, after cursing the guy who assembled it to eternal damnation, I drag myself up and put on yesterday’s crumpled uniform. After all, I’m the only gobshite on shift.

So here we are. Ankle deep in fucking Toffos.

I drag the cage round to my respective shelf, past a solitary, early-bird shopper and Hannah pushing the floor polisher. Big lass, but I would.

Not now though. Onwards and upwards and one step-ladder later, I’m rearranging tea bags so they’re all ship shape and Saveco fashion. You get a good vantage point from here. Up with the gods you can see right across the shop, row after row after row, after row.

I feel fucking sick.

It’s quiet. I lay down next to the ladder. Just collect my head, clear the muck out of my throat. Didn’t even have time for a shower this morning, old sweat sticks to my skin, made all the better by the Bri-Nylon crap that constitutes work-wear around here. To add insult to injury, the clown on the Music and Video Desk has turned up and decided ‘Fast Car’ by Tracy Chapman is ideal 6.45am listening.

I pick myself up slowly and return to the job. Keep going old son, an English breakfast is but two hours away. Ah, but it’s Thursday: Pension day. All the old folks turn up to buy their small loaves and small cartons of milk and tell you about their exciting day in the Post Office queue and then how their children just don’t come around any more. It really comes to something when the only place old folks can get company is chatting to weary shelf stackers in a tin barn built over the sites of the old factories they used to work in.

Mind you, they’re not all innocent old dears. Karim nabbed one the other day with two bottles of vodka, 3 tins of cat food and a cucumber hidden in her coat. Now that’s a party I wouldn’t have minded going too.

“Excuse me…” Despite the hangover, my retail ninja training kicks in. Quick as a flash I turn and say:

“How can I help you?”

And straightaway alarm bells begin to ring in the back of my mind. The prejudice that comes from long tours of duty in the aisles gives you a nose for the worst beasts to handle, and here’s a prime example.

Woman in early middle age, smartly but cheaply dressed in a stiff trouser suit. Designer glasses that she probably couldn’t afford and already possessing a stern look in her eye the moment I turn around. It doesn’t look good.

“See the items in these trays?”

“Aye.”

“Well the label on the side says there are reduced but none of the items in here have been reduced.”

“Oh yes, sorry, madam, but someone goes around in the morning and takes everything off the shelves that needs to be marked down and puts them there. Then they mark them all down a bit later when they get chance.”

“Well?”

“Well…what?”

“I want them marked down now. I don’t have time to wait, some of us have to get to work,” she says with a pout and a hint of a rough accent creeping in behind the restrained tones. It’s worse than I thought, she’s an ‘I’ve-conqured-the-male-world-of-the-office-and-I’m-not-going-to-get-told-what’s-what-by-a-lacky-shop-monkey’ sort. No doubt works in an estate agent, or something similar; bit thick but has got where she is today by kissing ass and taking shit and she aint going to do it no more. Too brassy and prim to have had kids, and the faux-continental, shite-for-one in her basket backs this up. She’s probably divorced. No doubt lies at home alone every night and masturbates vigorously to a mental image of Daniel Craig.

Sweeping generalisations? Well all she sees is a dopey cunt in an awful shirt, and that’s only because she wants something; most of the time they don’t see you at all. You learn much when no-one sees you. If you want to learn about people, work in a supermarket. All human life is here, from smackheads to plasterers to barristers to struggling mums and bitches like this, and they barely notice you in the corner, beavering away.

But we’re there. We know. We know who people are shagging and who’s pregnant and whose kids are going to the grammar school and who’s going down for a stretch. Usually we couldn’t give a fuck and would rather talk about the football and last night’s CSI: Miami. But we still know.

Anyway.

“I’m sorry but I don’t have the facility to mark them down. You need to get one of the computer guns signed out from the office and I’ve got to get this job finished before 7am. The guy who does the mark downs will be along in just a little while.” I offer a genuine smile, but it gets rejected. She twists her nose, straightens her back and moves off.

Just the fact that I’d managed to wind her up over such a stupid thing would normally have given me that rare sense of superiority that you’re not as small-minded as they are. Not when I’m in this state though, I only hope she’s the one bad customer of the day.

But I’ve barely got back on my step-up when I see Ms Valued Fucking Customer coming back around the corner with an unimpressed-looking Sarah in tow.

“James, did you just give this customer cheek?”

Cheek?! What the fuck?!

“I served the lady to the best of my ability, Sarah.” I shoot the shopper a mild look of sweet inquisitiveness. REMEMBER, SMILE THE BASTARDS TO DEATH. “As I explained, I have no facility to mark things down. Ash will be along in a minute with the terminal.”

“And as I explained to your employee, some of us have to get to work. If,” she talks at Sarah like I’m not there, her well-shod foot tapping with tension, “it isn’t to be marked down yet it shouldn’t have been put out on the display rack. I’ve got a good mind to call Trading Standards.”

“Look, James, just take the lady’s item and mark it down in the back, twice. Then, take the rest of this rack out to the warehouse. You know you shouldn’t leave this out.” Sarah speaks in her best, ‘you’re-a-naughty-boy’ tones, which may wash with her kids, but not with me. She turns to DragonBint. “I’m sorry for your inconvenience, madam; James will sort that out for you now, and let’s see if we can get you a complimentary voucher.” I go to protest, but stop when I realize the futility.

DragonBint hands over the goods, one pack of bagels.

All this over ONE. PACK. OF. BAGELS.

I could, then, have gone straight into how of all the grand, horrendous, horrific crimes and injustices that goes on every day in this world – children dying after they’re born because of inadequate medical care, whole countries kept in poverty because of the underhand dealings of international conglomerates, young girls running away to London because they’re scared they might be pregnant because their boyfriends forced them at the party they shouldn’t have gone to and ending up as crack-whores on the streets of Kings Cross – and this woman chooses to get angry about 25 pence off A PACK OF FUCKING BAGELS.

But I don’t. Use your customer service warrior training, my son. Maintain the poker face and grit teeth. DO NOT LET THEM WIN. “Sorry madam, I’ll sort this out right away.”

I hold in my righteous indignation. And I could have coped with it, happens dozens of times every day. It’s just another petty injustice of retail life. But then as Sarah turns, DragonBint flicks her taught face into a self-satisfied sneer and grins at me.

RIGHT! I turn around before I get chance to do some severe damage and release my internal flames through my eyes and the slow, firm pressure I give to the pack of Bagels. So lady, you think you’ve won. Revenge is a dish best served cold, madam, that’s our culinary tip of the day.

“Bdumm!” I let a little bit more out by giving those doors a whack with so much enthusiasm that they bounce off the sides and come back at me. Terry is going the other way with a job lot of TVs.

“Eh Jay, you look well rough.”

“Cheers, el tel,” I say.

“Ah you young ’uns,” he says with a wry grin, “I remember when I used to be out every night.”

Terry’s jovial words pacify me a little and I let a little more of the pressure out. But I feel even weaker than before with the rage gone, just a shell again, a sweaty, smelly shell. Terry moves forwards towards the light of the shopfloor and I descend into the bowels.

And behind the pretty pictures of shiny fruit and the gleaming white tiles lies where the real work is done. As I emerge out of the corridor into the cavernous, dank warehouse, a chill hits me from the loading bay. It’s still dark outside. I can hear the forklift humming in the yard, so I walk over and wave to Paul. The bite of the early morning air cuts deeper into me and, looking out across the yard to the blue-black sky, the deserted road and the still-strapped newspapers, I feel a vague sense of satisfaction that I am up and at ’em before most people are out of bed.

To business, though. And I wander over to the trolley with all of Ash’s other mark-downs on it and the pricing gun. Simple enough job. But first some extra, personal service for a valued customer

I slip the wee yellow tag from the top of the bagel packet, they’re always loose, and tip out the contents straight onto the lovely, mucky concrete. A multitude of sins reduced to unidentifiable rubbery black stains welcomes them as they hit the deck.

A quick glance around to check no one is coming, nothing but the sound of the box-crusher straining in the distance. Two bagels go up my Bri-Nylon shirt for a wee visit to my sticky pits, with their moisture courtesy of last night’s dancing and the other two go a darker, more hazardous journey down the sweaty crack of last night’s boxers.

I take them all out and examine them again, no real visible damage. Looking at them closely they have achieved a new sheen and a few hairs, but the dark bits are nicely masked by the raisins and sesame seeds. Mmm, the recipe is not yet complete. It needs some…dressing!”

Ah, out of cheese are we. I’ll get some of my own. Swing my head back, one big hawk and Pppthsh. Nice big green and cream one on the flatbed trolley. Eeeuigh. Well, that’s what 20 Lambert and Butler does to your insides, kids. Now, easy does it, just a slight dab around the fringes of it with the baked goods, nothing so you’d notice, just enough of the green stuff to taste. Now, back in to your lovely hermetically-sealed packaging like new. Let’s go for broke. I’ll give her 35p off not 25p. Just to show that we CARE.

I wander back through to the shop floor. My still throbbing head thankfully helping to keep the massive fucking smirk I feel inside from coming out. DragonBint is waiting by the swing doors, arms folded, face like a punched kitten. I hand her the bagels with a polite smile. “Here you go, all nicely discounted.” I’m about to feel a little sorry for her as she takes them from my grasp, but then she purses a lip and snorts before turning around. As we begin off in our separate directions along the long, white thoroughfare I shout back to her:

“Have a nice day now!”

I know I will.

This piece appeared in the Summer 2014 editon of The Crazy Oik.

Austerity

By Kenn Taylor

I went on a journey
of nostalgia
to somewhere I used to go
Down a dark path
In an unloved park
In an unloved town

The building was still there
but now secure
Plywood
and wire mesh
On every window
and door

Through a crack though
there was a gap enough to view
that, where once there had been
animals to see
and friendly, old staff
now only
rubble and decay
Overgrown and abandoned

Another tiny tragedy
There are a million more
No headlines or campaigns
Just one more quiet sacrifice
to the god of austerity
While, those that caused the mess
carry on
as before

A decision made over an account sheet
by people
who know the value of nothing
People who then wonder why
so many of the young
don’t even try

Protecting our grandchildren, they say
from the debts of today
I have to wonder though
what will be left for them
tomorrow

 The piece appeared in the January 2014 edition of The Shrieking Violet.

Distance Over Time

By Kenn Taylor

Look ahead
First
Hard
Push
Down on the right
Cheap metal
Once again
Creaks into life
Balance is achieved
And motion begins

Momentum builds
Long straight road
Muscles strain and tense
Legs pushing
Heat dragging
Chemicals shooting
To the brain
Fingers grip
And burn

The movement begins to take
The pull
Faster
All sinews strain
As the click, click, click of the ratchet
Becomes one constant sound

Air is sliced
Sound trills
Metal and body
Shake and protest
Silenced though
By
Ever
Increasing
Speed

Lean into a corner
The frame groans
The wheels shake
The rhythm continues
Thighs aching now
Forward
Forward
As you reach
The crest of the hill

Sweat now coating
Head and back
Look down
Pressure is released
Relief
As all parts strain forward

Pause pedals
The wheels run free
Guided, fast
By forces
Now beyond your control

Another bend at speed
Lean ever closer to the ground
The wheels now a blur
Grinning ever more
As the hill pulls down

Feeling every crack of the road
Every twist of wind
Every grit in the air
Unbending rhythm with machine
Muscles stretched
Aching
Metal
And body
Slowly
Slowly
Disintegrating

Lean in again
Further, lower
The thrill
Free
Brake now released
Heart beats
Feeling only sound
Enveloped by wind
As the last corner
Approaches
Behind it
Only light

This appeared in the August 2013 edition of The Shrieking Violet.

 

Pre-Worn: art, artists and the post-industrial community

Hackney, London

By Kenn Taylor.

In 2012 the Liverpool Biennial continued its tradition of using empty buildings to exhibit art. This time around, spaces it occupied for the period of the festival included the huge abandoned Royal Mail sorting office at Copperas Hill and the former waiting rooms of the Cunard shipping company on the city’s waterfront. With many visitors commenting that these unused spaces were just as, if not more, fascinating than some of the art on display in them.

In the past, the Liverpool Biennial has occupied everything from a disused Art Deco cinema in the city centre to a former glass warehouse near the docks. The de-industrialisation and de-population experienced by Liverpool over the last few decades meaning there is no shortage of empty buildings to use. The re-animation of such abandoned spaces is a key part of the Biennial’s strategy, with urban regeneration a fundamental reason for the festival’s founding and existence.

Of course, the reutilisation of former commercial space for the creation and display of art is itself an older phenomenon. Dating back to at least 1960s New York and since seen around the world from London to Berlin to Sao Paulo.

As well as being a particular trend within artistic production, the use of post-industrial areas for creative purposes also reflects wider shifts within economics and society in the latter part of the 20th century. Traditional urban hubs began to lose the industrial bases that had helped make them rich and many cities, if they could, moved towards more service-orientated economies based on things like finance, the media, tourism and leisure. The effects that this had on the communities that had relied on such industry for sustenance were usually deeply negative; economic decline, social decay and de-population.

However, this also led to the freeing up of a large amount of previously occupied space which, with demand having collapsed, was available at very low rates. This attracted the some of the expanding pool of artists in the post-war era. Once hubs of this new ‘industry’ began to emerge, more and more of the ‘creative class’, to use Richard Florida’s term, started to move in and slowly change the nature of these areas. With the subsequent upswing in activism and entrepreneurship that saw abandoned spaces becoming art galleries, coffee shops and the like, these areas became increasingly fashionable. To the point were those wishing to live in a trendy locale or buy into a particular lifestyle, even if they themselves were not ‘creative’, began to move there. Then, as wealthy professionals came to dominate these areas, the ‘poor young artists’ were forced out. Despite artists in many cases using their creative strengths to rail against the effect, the process has usually been inevitable and irreversible. Such ‘gentrification’ of post-industrial areas has been well documented, for example in Sharon Zurkin’s classic study of its effects in New York: Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change.[i]

What is it though, that attracts art and artists to such post-industrial areas in the first place? That is, aside from the low costs?

The flexibility of industrial space is another key factor. Given the myriad forms of contemporary art that began to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century and the often large spaces it needs to be created and displayed in, huge open-plan buildings formerly filled with goods, machinery and people became ideal art spaces. It was initially artists’ studios, followed by grassroots galleries and then commercial galleries which began using abandoned industrial buildings, but this phenomenon perhaps came of age when public galleries also began to occupy former industrial spaces.

The use of abandoned commercial buildings allowed new museums and galleries to have the same monumental scale of older purpose-built museums and in some cases, such as Gateshead’s Baltic and London’s Tate Modern, even larger. Yet as ‘recycled’ buildings, they didn’t have the same naked self-confidence as a structure created for ‘art’s sake’ as say, Tate Britain or even the Brutalist Hayward Gallery in London.

Turning these buildings into museums was seen, less an act of reverence and ego, as were the museum constructions of the past, with their links to elitism and the idea of a strictly defined high culture, more the humble recycling of unused space. Financially it also made sense. As it became ever harder to justify the spending of public money on ‘fine art’ in a world which had begun to acknowledge all forms of cultural production had validity, re-using abandoned industrial space and bringing a ‘buzz’ to a declined area became another good reason to justify public spending on culture.

However, the notion of tapping into a pre-existing ‘authenticity’ that former industrial areas are perceived as having is also vital to this phenomenon. Like someone buying a pair of pre-worn jeans, the abandoned cranes and switchgear, decay and graffiti in post-industrial spaces lends an immediate character and ‘legitimacy’. A tinge of authenticity that can be taken up by those who are seeking it, I.E. those of middle and upper class backgrounds who inevitably dominate the creative class of any given city.

Copperas Hill Sorting Office during Liverpool Biennial

This seems to be something that is at the core of what attracts creatives, and the cultural institutions that ultimately follow them, to post-industrial buildings and communities. It is inevitably the ‘character’ and the relative ‘wildness’ of such areas which is the biggest draw after low costs and large spaces. The frequent desire for many in the creative community to live as they wish without attracting too much grief from the authorities, leads to the search for ‘transgressive’ spaces. Whilst mingling with poorer populations who behave in a less ‘conventional’ way (I.E. middle/upper class and suburban) also seems to provide in the minds of some an authenticity they crave. And therein lays the rub. The conditions which many artists seem to thrive on are those that are usually negative for the pre-existing communities that they take residence in. Abandoned space, very low rents, cheap intoxicants, an ‘edgy’ atmosphere, a lack of employment and a sense of lawlessness are generally signs of a community struggling.

Creative communities formed in this way also tend to be short-lived, relying on a rapid turnover of young people moving in. Within a few years most leave these ‘authentic’ localities, as they begin to settle down into family units. That is of course, if such areas don’t reach a tipping point and those moving in change the nature of the neighbourhoods they inhabit into more ‘family friendly’, I.E. quasi-suburban, conditions as seen in parts of London, New York and Berlin. A phenomenon which usually sees rents rise and often drives out more deprived and diverse pre-existing communities. When such gentrification does begin, creatives are usually the first to complain about the influx of the wealthier middle-classes and about how artists are being pushed out. Inevitably identifying themselves as ‘fellow outsiders’ with the ‘edgy’ local community they move into rather than the ‘Yuppies’.

Creative inhabitants of such communities are usually much less willing to admit that it is precisely them who begin the process in the first place. Without their studios and venues beginning to occupy such spaces and them being the “shock troops of gentrification” as memorably described by Rosalyn Deutsche[ii], who help make an area fashionable, the richer urban professionals would be much less likely to follow them, softly softly.

Once the notion of creative gentrification was hit upon, it quickly became a tool of local authorities world-wide to ‘improve’ areas on a brutally pragmatic level. Used as a process to quietly drive out often poor and deprived populations and replace them with the well-educated and wealthy, thus seeing an upswing in tax receipts and a decrease in expenditure. Cultural regeneration in that mode serves the interests of creatives who want ‘free’ space and those who seek areas to become ‘profitable’, but in the process inevitably, ultimately pushes out pre-existing communities.

What though of these ‘alternative quarters’ in the period between their industrial decline and their inevitable gentrification? Are they the hubs of originality and authenticity that so many seek? Well they certainly seem to be places where new ideas and artists frequently tend to emerge from, but for all the claims of uniqueness and individuality, the alternative areas of most cities worldwide, if looked at closely, seem remarkably similar. With any difference usually down to factors which predate their emergence as a creative quarter. Common denominators include the aforementioned former industrial space re-utilised for culture, an international and largely young population, more often than not from comfortable and well-educated backgrounds, ‘alternative’ cafes, graffiti, electronic music and independent clothing stores which sell similar, if ever-changing, fashion styles.

Such creative quarters may emphasise their distance from the financial quarters of cities, with their generic glass office blocks and branches of chain coffee stores, but in their own way they are just as generic; international spaces often better connected to each other than they are to the communities around them.

The respective communities that inhabit contemporary financial and creative quarters have more in common than either would probably like to think. Both are often fond of intoxicants and parties and are cosmopolitan, if largely still of the middle-upper section of global society, a section which is highly mobile and international in outlook. Like the CEO looking for the country with the lowest cost of production and tax breaks to set up a business, many artists move around the world looking for the cheapest digs and availability of funding by local authorities keen for their own slice of gentrification.

One set may wear suits, the other retro t shirts, to display their respective capital in each zone they occupy, but both are, in their own way, living off the wider community, creating ‘products’ which, though important, are not the vitals of life made in the far off agricultural and, still producing, industrial zones of the world. While ultimately both branches of this globalised class have, in their own way, occupied former industrial working class spaces of inhabitation and influence, as seen in the case of the takeover of the East End of London by a mixture of the finance class around the former docklands and the creative class in areas such as Shoreditch.

As previously discussed, most creative quarters very quickly become a parody of themselves as, after the shock troops of artists move in, the second wave of urban professionals and cultural tourists follow, occupying an area then, having usually changed it fundamentally into another generic ‘alternative’ hub, seek the cultural capital of being the first into the next ‘hot’ area.

This obsession with the inhabiting the margins seems to stem in part from a desire to exist in an alternative space to the prevailing capitalist system and a rejection of the bourgeois nature of suburban life. Finding, studying, living in and making reference to the margins in the minds of many takes them outside of a system they dislike. Yet the margins are a product of and part of the system. Their gentrification by the artistic and educated classes results in their removal as bases for those who are forced to exist on the edge of society by capitalism and turns them into areas that feed more successfully into the system. In moving into these areas to live in an alternative way, in many cases, such people ultimately help to destroy whatever was alternative about it.

As Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan put it in their essay about New York, ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’: “For despite their bohemian posturing, the artists and dealers who created the East Village art scene, and the critics and museum curators who legitimize its existence, are complicit with gentrification on the Lower East Side. To deny this complicity is to perpetuate one of the most enduring, self-serving myths in a bourgeois thought, the myth that, as Antonio Gramsci wrote, intellectuals form a category that is ‘autonomous and independent from the dominant social group. This self-assessment is not without consequences in the ideological and political field, consequences of wide-ranging import.’ ”[iii]

So, are there alternatives for the creative class who wish to live in such areas aside from colonising and destroying the communities they profess to love? Well if there is, it’s about integration rather than replacement and, if art and regeneration is to benefit such urban communities themselves, it can only do so by embedding the needs and desires of existing residents into practice.

One possible example is the recent Homebaked/2up2down initiative in Anfield, Liverpool, arranged by the Liverpool Biennial. Over a period of two years the project, led by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, worked to embed itself in the local community and through collaboration developed the ultimate aim of re-opening a closed-down bakery in the neighbourhood. For the period of the Biennial itself, the group that had been formed around the project also created a tour for visitors based around meeting local people. Homebaked/2up2down thus provided services for the existing community, helped to tell the story of the area to visitors and promote local expression. Those involved are now working towards making the bakery a sustainable community business and refurbishing adjacent housing under co-operative ownership. This stands in contrast to the aforementioned former Royal Mail sorting office and Cunard waiting rooms which, now the Biennial have left, are destined for a new commercial future.

Homebaked Anfield

Yet one of the reasons this Biennial project in Anfield is unlikely to begin the process of pushing out the existing community is because of the small number of professional artists that can live in Liverpool due to the relatively small arts market and the relatively weak economy. This means the process of gentrification will always be limited. Conducting a similar initiative in an area with more opportunities for creatives to make a living and move in, such as London or New York, would perhaps still ultimately be just be another step in making the community into the next ‘hotspot’.

Mark Binelli in his book The Last Days of Detroit examines the ultimate post-industrial city and the various aspects of cultural regeneration that have gone on there, including the Detroit’s emergence as a new, low-cost, wild, authentic space for artists from elsewhere. He’s sees the potential in this to help regenerate the abandoned areas of the city now Motown has far less of a motor industry and Manhattan has almost entirely pushed its edgy aspects away. However, he is also wary of the new playgrounds of the creative class treading on the ruins of communities that in many cases had their existence swept away by factors outside their control. He quotes a local resident, Marsha Cusic: “Some of the people coming here bring a sort of bacchanal spirit, like they’re out on the frontier and they can do anything…Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project. It’s real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.”[iv]

Similarly, many of the former industrial areas of Liverpool may have no hope of a future industrial use and their re-appropriation as spaces for art, etc, can give great abandoned buildings, even abandoned areas, a new use and prevent decay into dust. Yet it should not be forgotten that, as much as it may be a futile wish, many of people who previously occupied such spaces, from Liverpool to Berlin to Detroit, would have preferred an alternative world. One of secure, healthy, happy communities with busy industries, not edgy, troubled and ‘authentic’ areas suffering at the raw end of globalised capitalism, with plenty of room for art galleries and parties.

This piece appeared on cities@manchester, a blog of the University of Manchester in May 2013.


[i] Sharon Zurkin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press,1982, rev. ed. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1989)

[ii] Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1998), p. 151.

[iii] Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’,  The Portable Lower East Side, Volume 4, Number 1, (1987) <http://www.abcnorio.org/about/history/fine_art.html&gt; [accessed 2nd March 2013]

[iv] Mark Binelli, The Last Days of Detroit (London, Bodley Head, 2013), p.285.

Triangulation

The trig point at The Edge

By Kenn Taylor

It’s 8am on a mild February morning when I meet Stephen McCoy and Stephanie Wynne near Liverpool city centre. We are en route to the Peak District via the infamous Snake Pass. “There’s an element of the unknown,” says Stephen, as we drive out towards the M62. “You have a map but you’re not exactly sure. It requires a bit of detective work. Some have been removed, others are on restricted sites, but we want to document that variety.”

We are heading out to find ‘trig point’ number 25 of photography partnership McCoy Wynne’s long-term project, Triangulation. Trig points, or to give them their correct name, triangulation pillars, are concrete or stone pillars of about 4 feet in height which were used by the Ordnance Survey to generate an accurate picture of the shape of the British Isles. Approximately 6,500 of these pillars were spread across the UK, from as far north as The Shetland Islands to the southern tip of the UK near Lands End. Of these, just over 300 were ‘primary’ trig points. McCoy Wynne have made it their mission to photograph a panorama from the top of all these primary points.

The speed of the motorway network means we move from Merseyside to Derbyshire in a short space of time, but things are about to get a lot slower. Parking in a lay-by on the Snake Pass, we set out on the Pennine Way footpath. Travelling from the mild temperatures of the lowlands, it is surprising just how cold it is up in the Peaks. The level of snowfall can be seen by the deep footprints left by past visitors. Now though, the snow is frozen solid and even booted feet make virtually no impression on its hard surface.

Trig points were used by fixing a theodolite on the top of the pillar so that accurate angles could be measured to other surrounding points. This allowed the construction of a system of triangles that could then be referenced back to a single baseline. Trig points are generally located at the higher points in an area, so that there is a clear view from one pillar to another. You may have seen them on a country walk many times and never noticed them or thought of their function. As for myself, until this project I assumed they simply marked the highest point on hills and mountains.

Alport

We have some way to go before we reach our particular trig point on ‘The Edge’, not far from Kinder Scout. As we walk the Pennine Way the noise of the traffic gradually fades and the sound of the wind comes to dominate. It’s so cold I have to write speedily as, after only a few minutes with my gloves off, my hands go numb and I struggle even to unzip my pocket to put my notebook back in.

The trig points McCoy Wynne are photographing date back to ‘the Retriangulation of Great Britain’ instigated in 1935 by the Ordnance Survey. The aim of this project was to replace the original triangulation of Britain, known as the Principal Triangulation, undertaken between 1783 and 1853, with a more modern and accurate one. This was an immense task that would continue until the 1960s. The results of the retriangulation were used to create the British national grid reference system that is still used as the basis of maps today and allows the plotting of the entire country with relative accuracy.

As we begin to head up towards Kinder Scout, the snow fringes all of the surrounding dark hills. It is just possible though to see the shape of Manchester’s Beetham Tower in the distance through the fog, showing just how near to the urban bustle such isolation and desolation is. Kinder Scout was of course the scene of the famous Mass Trespass in 1932 when walkers from the nearby industrial towns and cities of the North asserted their right to access public rights of way. We owe them a lot.

The triangulation method of surveying has now been rendered obsolete by satellite-based GPS measurements. As a result the trig point network is no longer actively maintained, except for a few points that have been reused as part of the Ordnance Survey’s National GPS Network. The remainder now merely unnecessary, and in many cases decaying, marks of the landscape.

Erecting new trig points and making measurements frequently required materials and equipment to be carried on foot, up hills and mountains and to isolated islands, in all kinds of conditions. In the search for our trig point, the terrain gets harder as we start climbing steeper upwards. At some points we almost have to scramble on all fours in the snow and ice with large cameras and bags. A small reminder of the sheer amount of effort and labour the people who created this network would have had to go through.

Triangulation map

Having covered most of North West England and North Wales, this trig point will be one of the last within easy travelling distance of McCoy Wynne’s home. “As we need to travel further we will have to plan more carefully,” says Stephanie. “We hope to combine shooting trig points elsewhere in the country with our commercial photographic work, to help cover some of the costs of travel.” Stephen and Stephanie have been working together as professionals for 16 years, 8 of those full-time, specialising in photographing architecture, the built environment and landscapes.

The creation of the entire triangulation network took from 1936 until 1962, with a gap for the Second World War. McCoy Wynne hope the duration of their project will be a little shorter. Their intention is to complete their work in the next 5 years and find venues to exhibit the photographs close to each geographical area they complete. “It will never be finished really,” says Stephen, referring to all the non-primary trig points they do not plan to shoot. The remaining ones of which number nearly 6,000.

I ask them, how did this substantial mission start? “Photography is suited to big projects and we have always been interested in maps and the traditions of landscape photography,’’ says Stephen. ‘We were looking for a way of photographing the landscape in which the photographers’ decisions became reduced, objectifying rather than romanticising the landscape.”

Stephen continues: “The first was Beacon Fell, Trough of Bowland, which isn’t a primary trig point.” It was here they experimented with different ways of shooting the project. Their chosen method is systematic, perhaps appropriate for photographing something which mathematically divided up the country. “We place the tripod on top of the trig point,” says Stephanie, “and shoot a full panorama. So the only aesthetic decision we make is where to start and end the panorama when we display it.” Stephen adds: “It seemed like the natural way to do it. Most of the effort is in getting to the trig point. It’s usually a quick process when we get there.”

Effort is something we’re becoming more aware of in our current search. Despite the cold, which we were well prepared for, we have been bowled over by the scenery, especially a de-tour to see the frozen Kinder Downfall waterfall, but now we’re keen to find the point, shoot it, and get back to the car for coffee. Yet it is proving elusive.

Winter Hill

The Ordnance Survey, as its name suggests, had its origins in the military. Mapping is to an extent is about power and control. Thoughts again turn to the Kinder Trespassers, or even Google’s Street View, which has mapped the UK in its own way in just a couple of years, a corporation rather than a government now seemingly having the power of map making.

Stephanie though points out the desire people had to exert control over the landscape long before even trig points: “These places, miles from anywhere, were still given names by local people so things could be defined. Farmers had to know where the sheep were!”

We continue to search for the Kinder Scout trig point for some time, consulting maps and even asking a few passers-by, but to no avail. In the end, we happen upon a couple of National Park Rangers, keeping an eye on people in the adverse conditions. They tell us we’re a long way off and warn of a ‘white out’ soon. With the snow getting heavier and light declining, McCoy Wynne decide to come back another day.

Stephen says: “It’s the first in 25 we’ve not found!” It would of course be the one time they had taken me with them. The Park Rangers also tell us that due to the erosion of the peat around the trig point, it’s now six feet from the ground. “Oh we’ll have to shoot that one,” says Stephanie. Indeed, they will return to photograph again a couple of weeks later, their previous scouting efforts and less inclement weather, making the trig point this time, much easier to find.

Triangulation may be about the mathematical shape of the UK, but McCoy Wynne’s project will show the visual shape. A photographic survey of Britain’s varied landscape, from the picturesque to the industrial, the desolate to the bustling. The power of such scenery can never be truly appreciated from just looking at the lines on a map. McCoy Wynne’s work is also a celebration of the efforts of those whose quiet, methodical precision in the face of the elements has helped millions of people to explore the landscape and that, on a good day, helps us find what we are looking for.

The Edge, Kinder Scout

This piece appeared in the catalogue to accompany the Processing photography exhibition, held at the Conerstone Gallery in Liverpool from 7th June – 29th September 2013.

Images Copyright McCoy Wynne. Text Copyright Kenn Taylor.

Liverpool Art Prize 2013

By Kenn Taylor

This month sees the exhibition opening of the latest edition of the Liverpool Art Prize. Founded in 2008 when the city was European Capital of Culture, the Art Prize was created to help draw attention to local artists while the world’s spotlight was on Liverpool and has since become a regular fixture of the city’s art scene.

Hairpurse by Tabitha Moses

For the last three years the prize has been organised by Edge Hill-based Metal Culture. Jenny Porter, Project Manager at Metal, explains how the prize works:

“There’s a simple form on the website where artists submit basic details, including a piece of work or project that they have completed in the previous year. The judges, who change a little every year, meet to decide on a shortlist of four from the submissions and these four then go on to exhibit a body of work that is judged by the same panel. There is also a People’s Choice award determined by the public who visit the gallery.” There is always the chance of a double, says Jenny: “An artist could officially win both although this hasn’t happened yet.”

Anyone is allowed to nominate and artists can nominate themselves, the only criteria being that you have to have been born or be based in the Liverpool City Region, which includes the boroughs of Knowsley, Halton, St Helens, Sefton and Wirral. This year’s judging panel are Liverpool Biennial Director Sally Tallant, artist Tim Etchells, Liverpool Post Arts Editor Laura Davis and last year’s Art Prize winner, Robyn Woolston. The exhibition from which the overall winner will be chosen opens on the 26th April. The winner, and the People’s Choice, will both be revealed at an awards ceremony on Wednesday 29th May.

This year’s shortlisted nominees are Kevin Hunt, Tabitha Moses, Julieann O’Malley and Laurence Payot. French-born, Liverpool-based Payot creates work for public spaces, mainly by working with other people as participants. She explains: “For example, in Switzerland in 2010, I created a performance with 23 local men who were all dressed the same, all becoming the same character, ‘The Man Who Was Everywhere’. The work was about double-take, and about transforming something banal into something unexpected, disturbing, and out of the everyday.”

The Man Who Was Everywhere by Laurence Payot

Payot hopes that a win in one of the prizes would prove a useful career aid: “It would raise my profile and allow me to carry on doing more work. If I won the public choice prize I’d be particularly chuffed because, even though this is an overused statement, I make art for everyone, and with everyone!”

Another nominee, Tabitha Moses, describes her practice thus: “I make beautiful objects that might make you feel uncomfortable.” Moses like many artists in the city has to do other things to survive and also hopes to benefit from the increased exposure a win would bring: “I do many other things in order to make a living; TV costume, lecturing, community workshops in art, craft, gardening and cooking. While I enjoy these other occupations, I would love to have more time to spend making things.”

The prize is not insignificant either. The overall winner will receive £2000 and also be offered a show at the Walker Art Gallery at some point during the ensuing 12 month period. The People’s Choice Award winner meanwhile will receive £1000.

Jenny at Metal is also keen to emphasise the importance the prize has beyond the nominees themselves: “I think any sort of exhibition that brings together practitioners from diverse and sometimes quite widely different practices shows the breadth of talent we have in the city. Through this exhibition we champion the artistic excellence found in Liverpool and connect this work to a wider audience.”

Founded in Capital of Culture year and a very different arts world from today, the Liverpool Art Prize has turned out to be something of a sustainable legacy that celebrates the city’s strong visual art scene and long may it continue.

http://liverpoolartprize.com

This piece appeared in the 25th May 2013 edition of The Big Issue in the North.