By Kenn Taylor
Down on the right
Creaks into life
Balance is achieved
And motion begins
Long straight road
Muscles strain and tense
To the brain
The movement begins to take
All sinews strain
As the click, click, click of the ratchet
Becomes one constant sound
Air is sliced
Metal and body
Shake and protest
Lean into a corner
The frame groans
The wheels shake
The rhythm continues
Thighs aching now
As you reach
The crest of the hill
Sweat now coating
Head and back
Pressure is released
As all parts strain forward
The wheels run free
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
Lean in again
Brake now released
Feeling only sound
Enveloped by wind
As the last corner
This appeared in the August 2013 edition of The Shrieking Violet.
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.
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.
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> [accessed 2nd March 2013]
[iv] Mark Binelli, The Last Days of Detroit (London, Bodley Head, 2013), p.285.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
This piece appeared in the 25th May 2013 edition of The Big Issue in the North.
By Kenn Taylor
Art is a call and response but, assembling in the Bluecoat, we anticipate listening. Tonight, we have come to hear some voices from the North.
Our first is Dinesh Allirajah, who tells us of the characters he has created and how each one has a little bit of himself in them. His experiences slipped under the radar into a story, from a bad knee to a favourite record, all taking on a life of their own.
“Like I did with my asthma in 2008 and like I did with being Asian 1992 – 98.”
Our voices are shaped by our experiences. Personalities determined by the connecting of synapses as we each go through life’s commonalties in our own unique way. From this our stories emerge. Changing and modifying, we iron out the details and preserve the best and the worst. The stuff we don’t want to lose or can’t throw away.
Some though, go further and write their voices down, make narratives from their own stories. “These people I have created,” says Dinesh, “in order to preserve slivers of my own life I want to keep. Preserved forever in the chilly embrace of a writer.”
We are all taken into this chilly embrace in the clean, dark auditorium. As the characters that writers create struggle for life, we see it all through our own filters of experience. We have come to listen but, as we do, we dig inevitably into our own memories and neurosis. A call and response.
Rebecca Sharp puts her own voice onto the spaces painted by Anna King. We are taken to insignificant patches of rough grass and distant tower blocks, worn looking wooden sheds and bent fences. The everyday changed by paint and then once again by verse.
We find ourselves in a faded and blurry place, somewhere in the back of our minds. We know we have been here before because it is everywhere. Places where everything of real importance usually occurs. These are where the true voices emerge from, not the seven wonders and centres of the universe, but the insignificant spots of ultimate reality.
Andrew McMillan talks to us about family. His own nephew impressed, not by poetry, but that his mum’s boyfriend can bench press him.
“Everyone has a family, even War Criminals.”
Andrew takes us a long way from here. To a crumbling building on the edge of a Serbian forest, or even a clinical but comfortable cell in The Hague and Ratko Mladić, wondering about his children. Like we all wonder. about. our. children.
In the interval, waiting for a Coke, we stare at the dead flies in the lightbox above the bar.
Back and, as the sound of seagulls fills the auditorium, Chris McCabe takes us to the Mudflats. Here in the theatre there is a theatre that has come from the basement. The place where we keep all the things from our lives and our families that we can’t or won’t throw away. What we hear when we are young embeds in our minds and we pass it on even as we don’t mean to. We may forget about the things we carry around, but it all lies buried. Writers may mine their lives for characters, stories, truths, but when we are faced with a question we can’t answer, we all do the same. A call and response.
All the love and pain of a family are revealed by the four on stage. People, and the ghosts that they live with. When those we love leave this life they remain in our minds, shorn of many of their layers and complexities. Only a cipher of what they said and did to us and what we said and did to them, all of the love and all of the pain and everything in-between. And their ghosts are strongest when they shape what we say and do to others. They are gone but their voices remain.
Grandmother talks to dad and dad talks to Chris and he talks to his son. Generations of change, but the same struggles continue. The same questions and confusions, getting by, trying to be there for each other despite the world, trying to make each other understand what we have been through.
We all tell our own story, drawn from the actions and experiences of our lives. Our own story, to suit ourselves, but others will tell it different. Our lives in the chilly embrace of others.
“WAR WOUNDS and WORD FIGHTS, that’s men!”
Dad once wrote a book because he had to but, in true Liverpool fashion, tells his son, “Don’t look at the dark stuff, tell the jokes!” Look back and try to view the past through the lens of humour. Let us forget the dark stuff. Leave it in the basement. It never goes away though, always waiting with the ghosts to come when you have to draw on your past to make sense of the present.
“What’s a tide dad?”
“It’s when the motion of the sea hits the shore.”
Tides come in and go out but the pattern always repeats. Like Dinesh said, it all starts with a memory. We pass on the experiences that we each have to go through, a flow between different generations, all waiting on the same tides.
Why be away from your family. “I have to work.” “I had to work.” We all have to work and we miss each other. Miss those who we love as we work to support them. This is the particular story of a family, a particular story of Merseyside, of ships and the lack of them. Of the North and the continual struggle were wealth and opportunity is limited. There are the truths and fallacies, triumphs and regrets, exaggerations and myths. The lies we tell ourselves and others.
The tide goes out in the Mersey and reveals the mudflats underneath. Authors may sit and write and we may listen, a call and response in the places of culture. What really matters though is that we pass our voices on. Whether through family or through art it is all part of the same attempt to communicate all that we have learnt and seen before we depart. As individuals, we’re merely keepers, of genes, but also of stories. Messages. All artists steal from the past, their own and others. We create voices from the voices we have heard. We refine and change again and again but fundamentally the stories remain the same.
The writing is done now, because it had to be. Because you have to work and you have to pass on. A call and response.
Now, “let’s go and play.” Before the tide comes in again.
This piece was commissioned as a creative response to the ‘Mudflats’ evening of spoken word. This was curated by Michael Egan, orginated by Northern Elements and held at Bluecoat, Liverpool in March 2013.
By Kenn Taylor
From the 17th May until the 15th June, photographers from around the world will have their work on show in Liverpool for the second edition of the city’s LOOK photo festival.
“We’ve worked very hard on learning from our experience of two years ago,” says Patrick Henry, LOOK/13’s Director. “LOOK/11 was very rich and expansive, with loads of activity spread over the city. In LOOK/13 we’ve tried to create a tighter, more focused core programme and to be realistic about what we have the resources to do.”
This year’s festival theme is ‘who do you think you are?’ Patrick tells me more: “Our theme in 2011 was photography as ‘a call to action’. The 2013 theme is a reversal of that. Instead of asking how photography can change the world, it asks what happens when we turn the camera on ourselves and others.”
Patrick describes the festival’s origins: “The impetus to create a festival came from a group of photographers based in the North West. They wanted to get more people involved, create new work, bring the best photographers and photography to the region and share it with a wider public.”
The hope is that LOOK will continue as bi-annual event on the city’s art calendar, running in the opposite years to the Liverpool Biennial. Patrick feels that LOOK fills a niche not just in Liverpool, but the UK.
“Photography festivals have been hugely successful all over the world, France alone has more than sixty, but they’re very thin on the ground here in the UK.” He continues: “Liverpool is the perfect festival city, with the best collection of galleries and museums of any regional city in the country. This gives us the infrastructure we need to do really ambitious programmes. There are really strong links between the venues and an unusual willingness and ability to work together. The programme grows out of close, long-term collaborative conversations and each exhibition and event is a genuinely collaborative effort.”
And there also seems to be something about photography as a medium that suits Liverpool as a city: “Liverpool also has a very strong photographic culture,” says Patrick. “It’s home to Open Eye, one of the UK’s very few specialist public photography spaces. The city also has great collections of historic photography, some of which we’re mining for LOOK/13. And some of the UK’s best-known photographers have made their most celebrated work here, Tom Wood and Martin Parr to name just two.”
One LOOK/13 exhibition that definitely relates to ‘who do you think you are?’ is Kurt Tong’sThe Queen, the Chairman and I. Kurt’s project, on display in the Victoria Gallery, explores his family history across several continents. He explains: “The title came from the fact that their actions ultimately lead to my grandfathers coming to Hong Kong. My paternal great-grandfather came after the fall of the empire in 1911 and my maternal grandparents came in order to escape from Mao’s advancing army.”
“We will be exhibiting my photographs, found photographs, some of the actual family items and a home movie form 1948,” says Kurt. “The idea is that visitors will get a glimpse into my private history. However the main focus of the exhibition is really in the storybook that I have produced for my daughters.”
The exhibition will have an unusual element: “We will be installing a working Chinese Tea House where visitors will be able to sit down, have a cup of tea and spend some time with the book,” says Kurt. “I have always found that the book gets people talking about their own history and their ancestors.” He continues: “I am basically saying, I have gone and done this for my daughter and in the process, gotten closer to my parents and discovered and gotten a better understanding about myself, go and try it for yourself.”
Based in Hong Kong, Kurt grew up in London and studied at Liverpool University. Photography has been a second career for him: “I wanted a job that I could travel with and that’s why I chose nursing. I headed out to India during and after my training and started taking pictures for the NGO that I was working for. They started to pay me and I started taking jobs from other organisations. I figured that was a more interesting job and decided to try to do it full-time.”
Meanwhile, at Bluecoat, Liverpool-based Adam Lee will be exhibiting Identity Documents, a project that looks at the identity of others through photographing their bookshelves. Adam elaborates: “It came from a conversation with a friend at university about ten or twelve years ago. We were joking about being robbed and I said facetiously that I would be nothing without my things. While neither he nor I agreed with this statement it got me thinking about the relationship between our possessions and who we are. I came to believe that while we shouldn’t define ourselves through our possessions, we define them, through our interests in the things they represent. I think it’s a reciprocal relationship and that our possessions then come to say about our identities, as representations of these interests and tastes.”
Where does Adam get his participants, and their shelves. from? “I began by asking personal connections of mine. I work part-time for John Moores University and began by asking lecturers there if I could photograph their offices,” he says. “Following on from these, I asked friends, family, colleagues in the arts, and other personal connections.” Identity Documents remains an ongoing project: “I have also had an extensive social media campaign to try and find self-curated participants, which has mixed met with mixed success. I’m always looking for more participants.”
I ask him, what is it about books that tell us so much about a person’s character as oppose to, say, wardrobe contents? “I feel the sheer variety of them, in terms of genres, topics and specificity, means that they can give a very broad but also detailed picture of someone’s interests. I feel that it is this massive variety of specificity that makes them more interesting than say clothes, or for me, films or DVDs.”
Lee thinks that LOOK/13 is not only great for visitors but offers good opportunities for photographers based in Liverpool too: “I think that for photographers and artists who get involved, through the core program, parallel program, competitions, conferences and any fringe activities, the festival offers an international and high-profile platform to get work seen and network.”
Liverpool International Photography Festival
17th May – 15th June 2013
Various venues, Liverpool
The piece appeared on The Guardian in May 2013.
By Kenn Taylor
When it was announced that Liverpool had been chosen to be the 2008 European Capital of Culture, there was an outpouring of emotion in the city. After so many years of being the UK’s pariah city par excellence, the importance of the accolade to Liverpool’s collective psychology and how it was viewed externally cannot be underestimated.
Beyond the city itself though, of greater importance was how, whilst hosting Capital of Culture, Liverpool became the focus of intense debate and a subsequent sea-change in the way that many people think about concepts of culture, community, participation and regeneration.
Long before 2008 of course, Liverpool had a strong cultural output despite, or perhaps because of, its continual economic struggles. Even Liverpool’s bohemian enclaves are only a short walk from the most grinding poverty and this has always lent something of a DIY and a socially and politically aware spirit to arts in the city.
Arguably the first ‘arts centre’ in the UK was Liverpool’s Bluecoat, founded at the turn of the century in an abandoned school by rebellious spirits called the Sandon Studios Society, unhappy with the then traditional arts establishment in the city. Sixty years later a group of idealistic Liverpool University students set up the Everyman theatre in an abandoned chapel. They wanted to create a space for drama that would reflect ordinary lives and take radical perspectives, in doing so helping to pave the way for socially concerned writers like Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale.
In another abandoned chapel, a group of radical creatives set up The Great Georges Community Cultural Project in 1968, arguably the UK’s first ‘community arts’ project, now still operating as the Black-E. Later, in the 1970s a group of photographers ignored by the art establishment set up shop in an abandoned pub. They called part of it the Open Eye Gallery and helped bring photographers of everyday life such as Martin Parr and Tom Wood to attention. Whatever public money was spent by the city itself on the arts in the post-war era was nearly always through the lens of ‘what will it do for the community?’ and ‘how will people connect to this?’ long before audience participation was a section on every Arts Council application form.
It was into this tradition that the UK’s choice of host city for the 2008 European Capital of Culture came into view. The hope in Liverpool was that winning the title would celebrate the city’s cultural achievements, so often forgotten or ignored, and also that it would help attract investment and create much-needed jobs. It was very much in line with pre-Crunch era Blarite ideas of turning post-industrial areas into centres for the ‘creative economy’ that the city’s bid went in. Liverpool was arguably the starting point for the application of such ideas of cultural regeneration in the UK. After the 1981 riots, the regeneration schemes in the city initiated by the then Conservative government included the opening of Tate Liverpool in 1988 in the city’s abandoned docklands. This long before London’s Tate Modern and Gateshead’s Baltic also turned redundant riverside industrial space in centres for culture.
Ultimately Liverpool was to beat favourites Newcastle/Gateshead to the Capital of Culture title. The judges who made the decision said it was Liverpool’s strong cultural heritage, future plans and most of all, the sheer enthusiasm of the city’s population for the bid that won the day. Yet, as that faithful year got closer, more and more people began to ask, what is it for and who will it benefit?
The criticisms tended to be two-fold. The property boom which was already engulfing the UK was accelerated significantly in Liverpool by the title. Soon grassroots music venues and artists studios began to be displaced by luxury flats. Capital of Culture it seemed was indeed helping to re-make the city’s fabric, but was it in a good way for its cultural scene? Secondly and perhaps more fundamentally, many people had objections to what they felt was too much focus on bringing an ‘international’ culture aimed at attracting tourists to the city and not doing enough to encourage local creative expression and involvement.
Accusations of the Liverpool Culture Company, who were tasked with running the year, being remote and lacking understanding of the local arts community were rife, if sometimes unfair. With art it is of course hard to please all of the people all of the time. However, these criticisms were perhaps summed up when a popular local Banksy work on an abandoned pub was covered over with Capital of Culture branded hoardings, something which even made Newsnight.
A whole swathe of independent fringe projects sprung up alongside the official 2008 cultural programme, often using creativity to highlight the above issues. In a city with such a tradition of DIY, rebellion and politics in art, this was perhaps inevitable. As time went on, more and more people began questioning the whole idea of the then dominant mode of cultural regeneration. With these issues highlighted by activists in Liverpool, national critics who had previously praised the cultural regeneration of Britain’s Northern cities began to write of their wariness of the ‘dropping in’ of art from on high to change things in post-industrial areas. There was a realisation that such initiatives were not necessarily bringing benefits to deprived communities, that in some ways they were making things worse and were perhaps ultimately unsustainable.
For a time, it seemed the whole Capital of Culture project was heading towards disaster. In the event, sterling work by all involved pulled it back. Ultimately delivering a programme that was varied and popular, ranging from experimental electronica to a Gustav Klimt exhibition and a play about Liverpool FC. Most local people felt, by and large, that it was a successful year, but also that how the city did culture in future would have to be different.
Yes, culture can bring up the visitor economy; witness Liverpool’s huge growth as tourist destination since 2008, recently nominated by Condé Naste Traveller as its third favourite UK destination after London and Edinburgh. Yet if the same type of art is available in London and New York, why go anywhere else? Uniqueness is what attracts visitors, culture they cannot consume elsewhere. Gaudi’s architecture brings many more people to Barcelona than the works in its contemporary arts centre, for example. More fundamentally, there was also a realisation of the need for a change in how cultural services interact with local communities. That publicly funded culture should not be just imposed from the top down, it should be developed with thought given to how different audiences can connect and become involved at different levels. In Liverpool this was perhaps just a return to the way things were done before, back to the era of the founding of the Black-E, the Open Eye and Everyman, but such thinking is beginning to embed itself within wider cultural policy and thinking.
Liverpool of course didn’t do this on its own, but the city has played a big role in debates about culture, participation and the urban environment over the last thirty years. A line could be drawn from the opening of Tate Liverpool with its ‘international culture’ coming North and its luxury flats next door, the beginning of the property and ‘new economy’ boom and the speeding up of the international art world to Capital of Culture and the Crunch and onto today’s greatly changed arts landscape, with funding reduced and audience criteria higher than ever.
Liverpool’s biggest cultural event since Capital of Culture was The Sea Odyssey Giant Spectacular in 2012 and it demonstrated some of the changes that had taken place in the way the city went about its cultural programme. Delivered by renowned French street theatre experts Royal De Luxe, the project was several years in the making. Much time was spent developing the story so that their giant marionettes, which have been seen around the world, had a local connection, in this case via Liverpool’s links to the Titanic. The procession also took in a route that encompassed Anfield and Everton, two of the city’s most deprived wards, not just the shining regenerated city centre and waterfront where so much of the 2008 programme had taken place.
Plenty of opportunities were given for local people to be involved via a Wider Participation Programme embedded from the start of the project. The Sea Odyssey Spectacular included volunteer roles ranging from ‘local advocates’ who promoted the event in the community to people actually operating the marionettes. In addition, much partnership work was undertaken so that local cultural organisations, community groups, schools, colleges and businesses could interlink their own initiatives to the event. For example, there was an accompanying festival in Anfield’s Stanley Park arranged by local partners. Consequently this event is much more fondly remembered in the city than the not dissimilar La Machine from 2008.
Similarly, while the Liverpool Biennial festival had always worked to encourage participation and engagement, for the 2012 event more focus was given to creating in-depth participatory projects. This included the Homebaked/2up2down initiative in Anfield, led by Dutch artist Jeanne Van Heeswijk. Over a period of two years, the project worked to embed itself in the local community and developed the ultimate aim of re-opening a closed-down bakery and restoring abandoned housing in the area. 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 which highlighted what had happened to the area in recent years with the failure of various regeneration schemes. Thus the project helped to bring abandoned space back into uses that benefit the community and tell local stories to visitors.
Similarly the Biennial commissioned Los Angeles based artist Fritz Haeg to work with the local community on creating a new garden at the stunningly-sited but somewhat rundown Everton Park. Both the Anfield and Everton Biennial projects had aesthetic outcomes, but ones which also addressed real local issues and needs whilst still working with international artists in an international context. Indeed, these ‘community’ projects attracted as much if not more national press attention than some of the ‘mainstream’ art shows in the city centre held at the same time.
Thinking about culture in the city is also increasingly turning towards sustainability. As a legacy from the Biennial initiatives, the bakery hopes to be fully re-opened by the end of 2013 and plans are underway with the local community for the further development of Everton Park, including a new pavilion.
Liverpool as a city appreciates the power and importance of art and culture, but knows that it can not sit in rarefied isolation from reality and shouldn’t just be dropped in and expected to improve a community by its mere presence. This isn’t to say that all art must be totally instrumentalist; as much as Sea Odyssey had regeneration ideas behind it, it was also something that was in and of itself fun and interesting to watch, but with just changing how things were done a little, it became much more than that.
A culture of participation is healthy and necessary, especially as funding cuts continue to bite and publicly funded arts organisations are more than ever responsible to and reliant on their audiences. Projects such as these undertaken in Liverpool can show the way. That it is possible to commission and create work that benefits local people, entices visitors and excites the art world all at the same time and in doing so, create the possibility of changing lives and communities for the better.
This piece appeared on Mailout.co in April 2013.
Liverpool Waters masterplan. The project includes apartments, hotels, bars and a new cruise terminal. Photograph: Rust Design
By Kenn Taylor
After nearly a year of waiting and without warning, it was announced this week that Eric Pickles, the communities and local government secretary, would not be calling a public enquiry into the huge Liverpool Waters redevelopment of Liverpool‘s central docks area.
To an extent this was always something of a foregone conclusion. With the coalition Government obsessed with economic growth and the regions ‘standing on their own feet’ it would have been hugely damaging for them to have been seen to be blocking the development. This was especially true with the plans having such strong support locally and the Government having already awarded the area Enterprise Zone status. This despite the concerns of English Heritage and UNESCO who have suggested that the plan could jeopardise Liverpool’s World Heritage Site status.
Of course in this 30 – 50-year project, the builders will not be moving in tomorrow, but the announcement was still greeted largely positively in Liverpool. The support for what is unabashedly a capitalist scheme in the city’s more deprived areas seems to have surprised some national commentators – to the point that some seem to be patronisingly suggesting that ‘those poor provincial folk, they don’t know what’s being done to them.’
On the contrary, people living next to the central docks know better than anyone what a general eyesore they have been for most of the last 40 years and the desperate need that Liverpool has to gain more jobs and a stronger economy, especially in the face of devastating public sector cuts.
To recap, Liverpool Waters is a massive redevelopment of Liverpool’s dockland between the city centre and the still active modern port. It is huge in scale, up to 1,691,000 square meters, which it is planned will include offices, homes, cultural facilities, retail and leisure provision and a second, larger cruise ship terminal. It has been suggested it could create as many as 17,000 jobs, have up to 23,000 apartments and four hotels on what is presently, for the most part, flat Brownfield land. Its centrepiece would be the ‘Shanghai Tower’, at 55 stories the tallest building in the UK outside of London.
With a scale like that, there are legitimate concerns about who will fill that huge amount of space. Especially when there is a fair amount of unused Victorian office buildings in the city and when Liverpool has a relatively poor, if slowly improving, economy. The developer Peel’s argument is that the sheer scale of the plans will attract foreign direct investment in a way that piecemeal development would not, and that many of the older buildings in the city are not suitable for modern office accommodation.
Unesco has got a bit wobbly at this sort of image. But Peel has a decent heritage record. Photograph: Rust Design
Similarly heated debates were made about the Liverpool ONE retail development, with many commentators suggesting that Liverpool’s poor retail market could not stand any more units and that Liverpool ONE would destroy the city’s existing retail areas. While there are indeed empty units in Liverpool, as there in most of the UK’s cities and towns, the destruction of the older retail areas hasn’t happened and the critical mass of the transformative development shoved the city back into the big league of UK retail centres, from 14th to 5th place in three years. New occupiers continue to move in, even in the current depths of retail recession.
What has also been consistently ignored by critics dazzled by the glass towers in Peel’s admittedly brash artists’ impressions is the solid economic development work underway in relation to it. A huge new container shipping terminal is being built in Peel’s modern Seaforth docks just north of the scheme. It will be the first one in the north of England capable of handling the new, larger container ships that will fit through the widened Panama Canal from 2015. With road transport costs increasing and the UK’s markets shifting from Europe to the wider world, there’s huge potential for the city to reclaim its place as the north’s premier port and create a large number of jobs in the process. A new Maritime College is already under construction on part of the site to help train young people for this.
Meanwhile, over the river Mersey, Liverpool Waters’ sister project, the Wirral Waters redevelopment of the Birkenhead dockland is also significant. It’s actually even larger in scale than the Liverpool plan, but with it not being in the World Heritage Site, has attracted a lot less media attention. About to begin construction there is the International Trade Centre, a new business start-up hub for foreign inward investors that is the first of its kind in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe. It alone has vast potential to attract new investors from growing countries such as China, India and Brazil which are looking for a route into Europe. Once they become more established, they’re likely to require more space and suitable accommodation, leisure and retail space to support their facilities, and the Liverpool and Wirral Waters plans offer that. More recently, also at the Wirral Waters site, Peel has announced a manufacturing park, with plans to capitalise on the booming motor industry on Merseyside and possibly also expanding manufacturers in the energy and railway rolling stock sectors.
The heritage arguments against the plans are something that many people local people have struggled to understand when most of the development site is literally flat. The main argument from UNESCO seems to be that the new buildings would detract from the older ones up the river, which has also been suggested with London’s Shard. This may be true, but I haven’t seen the queues for the Tower of London getting any shorter recently. The other crux was the archeology of the site, where they have a stronger point. Yet without development, the archeology will remain there unexamined until someone comes along with the money to dig it up. To leave the site in its present state because of what is possibly buried underneath it would be folly.
No doubt the architecture critics will be sharpening their knives to criticise the scheme. Again, they may have a point. MediaCityUK and The Trafford Centre, Peel’s successful developments in Greater Manchester, are not beautiful. Yet they did restore redundant industrial land to productive use and have created thousands of jobs. And that will carry more weight in the deprived parts of Liverpool than hand-wringing about aesthetics by a few people who live far, far away.
However, Liverpool is a city that loves its heritage and most citizens will hope that Peel will keep its promise that what historic structures there are in the development site will be restored and re-used. The group has a decent track-record in this already, spending money in the last couple of years to restore the historic but unlisted Bascule Bridge and dock police hut on its estate, which had been left to rot for decades by its predecessor, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. It remains to be seen if they will restore more. I have no doubt though that both the council and Peel will fight to retain the World Heritage status alongside the development if they can, not least for the pragmatic reason that it adds significant marketing value to the area.
So, when is all this going to happen? That’s the big question. Those suggesting that the whole thing is pie in the sky should consider why Peel would have spent several years and millions of pounds on planning and preparation in the middle of the recession if they didn’t have serious intentions. It is true, however, that the time scale is a long-term one.
A vulgar dome of commerce; but the Trafford Centre in Greater Manchester has been a runaway success. Photograph: Aidan O’Rourke
Almost certainly the first elements will be the ‘business generator’ ones on the fringes of the developments. The post-panamax terminal and the International Trade Centre are under construction or about to commence. I would expect a start on the manufacturing park in Wirral as well soon, and with Liverpool’s cruise business growing, the second cruise terminal could start in the next few years. With these in place, then we can expect the first leisure and retail development to support the area and the first offices going up in the central part of Wirral Waters and just north of Liverpool city centre. All this will probably take at least 10 years to complete. The ‘second cluster’ of tall buildings further north, which was the real bone of contention with UNESCO, not the Shanghai Tower as some commentators have suggested, are unlikely to be built within the next 20 years.
An International Festival for Business is being held in Liverpool in 2014, a large part of it on these very development sites. This will no doubt see a big investment push by the city and we may see the breakthrough of the first few key deals in relation to these schemes. Certainly the citizens of Liverpool will be hoping so.
Now, the ball is in Peel’s court to prove they can deliver. The city council, the Government and the majority of people in Liverpool have endorsed the plans. Peel Holdings, it’s up to you to show the city that you can do more in Liverpool than create shiny pictures of a better future.
This piece appeared on The Guardian in March 2013.
Lewis’s department store, Modernism, destruction and restoration
By Kenn Taylor
Standing prominently on the corner of Ranelagh Street and Renshaw Street in Liverpool, the huge former Lewis’s department store is currently enveloped in plastic sheeting. Soon it will re-emerge as part of the Central Village development, but for now, what was formerly Liverpool’s grandest shop, and its unique Modernist features, remains covered up.
The store, no connection to the John Lewis Partnership, was founded in Liverpool by David Lewis in 1856 and expanded to Manchester in 1877. Lewis was known as a philanthropist and, after his death in 1885, his will paid for the David Lewis Theatre and Hostel on the edge of Toxteth in Liverpool and in Manchester, a centre for people with Epilepsy, whose successor still bears his name.
After David Lewis’s heirs, the Cohen family, took over, Lewis’s expanded rapidly, opening stores across the country in first half of the twentieth century. The Liverpool store was rebuilt and expanded in 1923 to a design by Gerald De Courcey Fraser, becoming one of the biggest in the UK. However, Lewis’s forward march was to be halted by the Second World War. On 3rd May 1941, during Liverpool’s infamous May Blitz, the store was almost entirely destroyed, part of the aerial assault that would see Liverpool become the most bombed city outside of London.
Post war, Lewis’s was keen to regain its position as the grandest store in Liverpool. De Courcey Fraser designed the replacement for his previous building, beginning in 1947. The store apparently began to trade again prior to construction being completed – there are stories of shop staff clambering over rickety scaffolding between sections in pre ‘health and safety’ days.
Only the furthest part of the building down Renshaw Street, the ‘Watson Building’, which at one point housed a car showroom, was retained from the older, more decorative 1920s building. The remainder was completely rebuilt of steel framed construction, clad in largely flat and imposing Portland stone; the Lewis’s name carved into the side and picked out in gold.
To mark the reconstruction, Lewis’s commissioned sculptor Jacob Epstein to create a new artwork for the prominent corner section of the building between Renshaw and Ranelagh Streets. A pioneer of Modernism in sculpture, Epstein had once been a controversial figure, causing scandal in 1931 by exhibiting a statue of a pregnant woman called ‘Genesis’ in Liverpool’s Bluecoat Arts Centre. The curious, some 50,000 of them in four weeks, paid sixpence each to see it. By the 1950s though, Epstein was something of an elder statesman in the arts.
However, this didn’t mean he had lost the power to shock. On 20th November 1956, the statue commissioned by Lewis’s to symbolise “the struggle and determination of Liverpool to rehabilitate itself after the grim, destructive blitz years”. (Evening Express, 1956) and entitled ‘The Spirit of Liverpool Resurgent’ was unveiled. It was a large naked man standing up on the prow of a ship. Apparently the sudden sight of the naked statue caused some people to faint and a war of words for and against its artistic merits and morality began in the newspapers. Locally meanwhile, the statue quickly gained the nickname ‘Dickie Lewis’.
However, ‘Liverpool Resurgent’ wasn’t the only Modernist feature of the new Lewis’s and the company’s desire to embody the post war optimism. The interior of the store was filled with cutting edge design features, none more so than in its catering facilities situated on the upper floors of the huge building.
Lewis’s Liverpool store was a complex in itself, with around 1,300 staff at its height. It contained its own bank, pet store, hair salon and travel agency alongside the usual department store fare, and the scale of its catering facilities reflected this. There were several eateries, each aimed at different ‘classes’ of shopper and each containing striking Modernist features, the likes of which must have been a rare sight to the war-battered austerity Liverpool of the 1950s.
Perhaps most notable was the self-service cafeteria. This contained large tiled murals designed by Carter’s of Poole, which later became the famous Poole Pottery. The murals featured bold and abstract designs of food, crockery, cutlery and kitchen utensils. Added to this were geometric light fittings with hints of the atoms and space themes that were so popular in the 1950s, and vibrant colours throughout. These designs apparently all inspired by the restaurant at the 1951 Festival of Britain, an event which is credited by many with ushering Britain into the Modern age.
However, the cafeteria was not alone. For the middle classes there was The Mersey Room waitress service restaurant. This contained etched wooden panelling depicting the history of Liverpool created by the influential Design Research Unit, the outfit behind such design classics as the British Rail logo and a key player in the Festival of Britain. The grandest eatery of all though, was the Red Rose Restaurant, which was silver service and aimed very much at the wealthiest of Lewis’s patrons. This featured a striking bronze sculpted screen depicting the Wars of the Roses created by Mitzi Cunliffe, perhaps best known for her design for the BAFTA Award statuette.
With the opening of these eateries, Lewis’s was at its peak, in an era before internet shopping, supermarkets and out-of-town retail parks. Generations of Liverpudlians have strong memories of its huge range and good service. Perhaps most of all, many people remember the grand Christmas grotto and meeting future wives and husbands under Epstein’s ‘statue exceedingly bare’.
For employees, there are memories of a benevolent employer that provided ‘a job for life’, where whole families would work together, and that even paid for its own sports fields on the edge of town. By the 1960s Lewis’s even owned London’s Selfridges and opened a Modernist tile-fronted store on the Blackpool waterfront in its continued expansion.
By the 1970s though, the company’s fortunes began to wane. For all their investment in cutting edge design in the 1950s, Lewis’s subsequently failed to adapt to changing markets. One by one its branch stores closed and the floorspace began to be reduced at its flagship Liverpool site. When the Red Rose Restaurant was closed in 1986, its bronze screen was acquired by Cunliffe and reinstalled at her home in Seillans, France. However, the remaining Modernist features in the building were sealed up and forgotten, the disused floors being used for storage.
In 2008 photographer Stephen King entered the lift of the slowly dying department store and was greeted by the attendant (yes, in Lewis’s they still had lift attendants). They sparked up a conversation and King was told about the abandoned upper floors still containing their original 1950s interiors. King made it his mission to explore and photograph them, his project culminating in a book and exhibition entitled ‘Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story’.
As fate would have it, the opening of the exhibition in 2010 coincided with the final closure of Lewis’s after 150 years and the show became a focal point for former staff and customers to reminisce about what had been the greatest store in Liverpool, if not the UK. Luckily, during one of Lewis’s pervious crises in 2007, the building had been Grade II listed, meaning its historic features were protected.
The Lewis’s building is now being incorporated by developers Merepark into a huge scheme called Central Village, opening in 2013. This will see the creation of shops, offices, hotels, eateries and a cinema, as well as a rebuilt Central Station. The overall façade of the building is being retained, including the Epstein statue, and, though internally it will be largely unrecognisable as the old Lewis’s, its remaining Modernist features will be restored. Most prominently, the former cafeteria with its tiled murals and geometric lights will become the Breakfast Bar of the Adagio hotel, while the panelling from The Mersey Room will be refitted to one of the hotel’s corridors.
It’s ironic perhaps that it was the decline of both Lewis’s and the Liverpool economy that saw these features preserved. Elsewhere, the building would have long been completely stripped for a new use before listing would have even been considered. Lewis’s is sorely missed, but at least elements of its proud history are being retained in a development that symbolises Liverpool, if not resurgent, then at least looking again to the future.
Thanks to everyone who worked on ‘Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story’, especially Stephen King for the use of his images, and Merepark for the information on the current development.
This is an extended version of a piece that appeared in The Modernist magazine in December 2012.
His mind felt like it was cracking open, his eyes were puffy and red, and his skin itchy and sticky. He lay cocooned in his cheap, battered leather jacket and a t-shirt stuck to him by three days worth of sweat.
He held his head in his hands, keeping his burning, swollen eyes closed for as long as possible, only looking up occasionally to see the couple of Arab ladies opposite chatting through all his suffering.
The sound of the many washing machines turning was reassuring, though barely enough to drown out the brooding thoughts that threatened to career into his mind.
The laundrette had a stifling atmosphere. Strip lights on even in the day, walls plastered with brightly-coloured flyers advertising long past events and every surface covered with a thin, sickly-static residue of detergent.
He felt like he was breathing it in, the powder going deep, searing away at his already cigarette-abused lungs, slowly suffocating him as he sat beneath the grim yellow fluorescence. He put his head back in his hands again for a long time. Squeezing his eyes hard to try and take control of the throbbing, trying to take control of the feeling in his body.
When he looked up again the two ladies had gone and he found himself looking straight out through the large front window of the shop that looked across the junction of Upper Parliament Street, Catharine Street and Princes Avenue.
Cars, vans, buses, bikes and people all moved rapidly in all directions through the crossroads, all speeding along their own paths through the city. He felt a little better now, and continued to stare out at the never-ending flow through the window that was scarred around the edges with the dust and grease of a million washes.
He stared unblinking until his eyes started to stream and the Escorts and Polos and Hyundais and Transits began to blur. Blue and chrome became brown and plastic; the back of one car began to connect with the front of another.
As he watched, the pedestrians began to walk slower, their every action becoming long and fluid. Every single movement of every body could be seen in minute detail, dragged out and fractured. Eventually, their whole forms began to fragment and disintegrate.
The cars became viscous, their components stretching and flexing before losing their forms and turning into fluid shapes. These too began to flux and bend, breaking into pieces and floating off in many directions.
He saw a bird rise out of the now cracking tarmac on Princes Avenue, a Phoenix that struggled hard to free itself from the fragmenting road surface, eventually, violently, pushing its body outwards and turning the remaining tarmac to dust. It stretched out its brilliant red and gold wings as it rose away.
As he looked back to the road, he saw it had turned into a foaming torrent of a river, roaring forwards without pause down where the avenue had been. In it floated the last few forms of vehicles that quickly sank.
The Georgian terraces that lined the road began to crumble, their facades falling in on themselves to reveal thick jungle, soaring golden temples and, in the distance, jagged, snow-tipped mountain ranges.
The remaining people on the streets turned there, in the bright sunshine, into lions and stags and dragons and mermaids.
And, as the last vestiges of Liverpool 8 erupted, he saw the drive-in NatWest consumed by a waterfall and, far across the plains, the Renshaws factory was shunted aside by an emerging volcano.
Here were a million colours and forms rising before his eyes. Animals grazed on the rich plains and leaped through the surging waters now deep blue, then viscous green, now crystal clear.
It all became too much and, his eyes aflame, he closed them, squeezing them tighter than ever, but still he saw the colours on the inside of his closed lids, burning into his mind.
He concentrated all of his thoughts, all of his energy, on containing what he had seen: the sounds of the volcano; the continually rumbling drums from far away; the vivid, liquid brown of the stag’s eye; the flock of small, bright birds emerging from the dense, damp undergrowth.
All surged inside his head for what seemed like an age. When he eventually peeled open his dry, sticky eyelids again, he was confronted with only the dirty window of the launderette and a shrunken old woman gently snoring on the bench opposite.
Through the window, a Hackney Carriage honked and careered down Princes Road; but behind it, in the corner of his vision, he could see a Phoenix still rising.
This piece appeared on Northern Spirit in November 2012.