Friday, 7 August 2015

Free Precarious Passages readings at Central Library for Manchester Literature Festival, Tuesday 20 October

I will be reading from my piece of writing about cycling the A6 as part of a Manchester Left Writers event at Central Library for this year's Manchester Literature Festival on Tuesday 20 October. Members of Manchester Left Writers will be reading from their Precarious Passages series of call-and-response creative and experimental writing, accompanied by a selection of films from the North West Film Archive.

Tickets are free and can be booked at

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Three years of Bolton’s international neo:artprize: “Why leave it to the Royal Academy or the National Portrait Gallery?”

I was recently asked to write a promotional feature about the annual neo:artprize, highlighting the artist-led ethos behind it. I visited neo:studios in Bolton, where I was given a tour and talked to neo:artprize co-founder Jason Simpson about the growth of the group and the way in which they have built up an alternative art scene in the town.
Three years of the neo:artprize

Every artist wants to get their work seen but it can be difficult for emerging artists to feel that they’re reaching out to an audience and not making art for non-existent viewers or indifferent eyes. It was the desire to showcase its members’ work to a wider audience that motivated Bolton-based studio group neo:artists to establish the neo:artprize in 2012, an acclaimed open submission competition which attracts artists from across the globe and is judged by leading figures in the art world.

“What everyone in the arts wants is exposure,” explains neo:artprize co-founder and neo:studios director Jason Simpson, a University of Bolton alumnus. “That’s what neo:artists has been about right from the very beginning. Artists want to be part of a group that is doing something, and we want to build up a reputation on the arts scene. We want to connect with other groups so that they feel confident working with us after seeing what we can do.” By inviting “the type of judges who artists want to see their work” – this year the painter Ian Davenport, the Serpentine Gallery’s Exhibitions Curator Amira Gad, South London Gallery Director Margot Heller and Helen Pheby, Senior Curator at Yorkshire Sculpture Park – the neo:artprize creates opportunities for all entrants, not least increased visibility. “Even if they don’t become a finalist, an artist’s work, having been seen, is there in the judges’ psyche. Although the competition is judged blind, a judge can ask if they want to know the name of a particular artist,” explains Jason. It’s about building recognition: “If the judge sees work again in another context they’ll know they’ve seen it somewhere else before.”

Neo:artists comprises 38 artists, with a wider membership of 80, working across all media, who are based around a sociable two floors of former office space in Bolton town centre and have access to impressive shared resources such as a print room and wood workshop, in addition to ceramics, sculpture and photography facilities at the University of Bolton. Ranging from graduates from the university’s MA courses to artists with many years of exhibiting and organising experience, there is a waiting list for the studios. It’s not just about making – members also curate, exhibit in and invigilate the group’s own gallery, a surprisingly spacious former retail unit in the Market Place Shopping Centre across the road. Neo:gallery has hosted more than 200 shows over the past six years and previews attract hundreds.

In a town where many of the public think state funding for the arts represents a diversion of money from services such as hospitals, Jason takes genuine pleasure in increasing enjoyment of art among local people. “We are the contemporary art scene in Bolton,” he explains. “A large number of adults come in who have never been to an art gallery before, so there’s a lot of resistance. Young men wander in on the phone and ask us ‘what’s this?’. The most common comment is ‘my six-year-old could have done this’. But kids get the concept and they explain it to their parents. If we keep doing this we can have a massive impact on a generation in Bolton.” Jason sees the neo:artprize as ”a natural progression”.

Now in its third instalment, the prize alternates biannually with the neo:printprize, acknowledging the strength of the group’s print room. Although artists from Greater Manchester and the North West have been well-represented in previous years’ shows, including writer, artist and curator Mike Chavez-Dawson and Manchester Metropolitan University MA graduate Hannah Leighton-Boyce, there have been submissions from Germany, America and Malaysia so far this year. As well as giving artists from the region greater exposure by going beyond geographical boundaries and showing “you don’t have to be in London or Manchester to succeed”, it brings new work, artists and ideas to Bolton.

Neo:artprize also highlights the value of financial support for the arts and the necessity of improving the “affordability of being an artist”. It offers much-needed resources in the form of not just a cash prize but grants for materials, donated by local businesses, and a neo:residency prize. The winner of neo:residency accesses a twelve-week residency in Bolton, tapping into an artists’ ecology that includes not just studio space at neo:studios but a close relationship with the University, which Jason describes as a “win-win situation”. In the case of printmaker Dana Ariel, who undertook the residency in between finishing her Master’s at London’s Slade School of Art and returning to the school to start a PhD, it enabled her to focus on creating work outside the pressures of an academic course and to explore a new direction in her practice. As well as becoming immersed in a new place – Jason taught Dana, who is from Israel, “how to drink real ale” – Dana took the opportunity to network and show her work in the North West, as well as gaining experience of delivering masterclasses and artists’ talks with local students, blossoming into an ongoing relationship with the town.

Neo:artists have emerged from the shadow of long-established studio groups in nearby Manchester and are now working towards funding their own building and contemporary art centre. In the meantime, the neo:artprize continues to go from strength to strength. Crucially, it continues to be artist-led. “Why should prizes always be run by organisations?”, asks Jason. “Why leave it to the Royal Academy or the National Portrait Gallery?” As neo:artists have shown over the past three years, “If it’s an artists’ prize it should be artists running it.”

The deadline for submissions to the neo:artprize is Monday 18 May 2015. For application criteria, terms and conditions and to upload work online, visit

Finalists will be exhibited at neo:gallery from 27 August-1 November 2015.

Monday, 6 April 2015

'Doing the Longsight dash': Manchester Left Writers 'Precarious Passages' collaboration on cycling the A6

Last year I started attending the meetings of a new publishing and discussion group called Manchester Left Writers and I recently, finally did my first piece of writing. It's a collaboration with Steve Hanson focused on our experiences of the A6, one of the busiest roads in and out of Manchester and the main link between Manchester and Stockport, as part of a series called 'Precarious Passages'. Precarious Passages act as poetic call and responses between two writers, reflecting on the everyday lived experiences of our times and our cities. I spent about six months thinking about my experiences of the A6, which I cycle down between two and five times a week to and from Manchester (it's pretty central to the way I experience and pass through the city), and compiling my thoughts and observations (some of this is now out-of-date, eg Tesco Metro's been back in action a while now, and the Arcadia's gone). As a result what I wrote (posted in full below) was inevitably far too long and rambling. A heavily edited version appears side by side with Steve Hanson's musings on experiencing the same road on the 192 bus, one of Manchester's major (and notorious) bus routes. The full version, PP002, can be accessed online here. There are also paper copies available, which will eventually be distributed at various points along the A6.

Although the piece might seem slightly negative in tone, I find cycling exhilarating and it's generally the high point of any day, when I feel most alive, and it's also my time for thinking and working things out in my head. I find it to be a very intense experience, both psychologically and physically, but I think it's one that always does me a lot of good. (My entry to the recent #MCRWomenbike competition is at the bottom.)


2015 started, like so many nights have ended in this city, with me dancing by myself on a near-empty dance floor in a night-club where music never got much better than the 1980s. The club faces the furthest platform of the city’s mainline railway station; indeed, it looks likely that the station’s imminent expansion will be the end point of the venue’s years of decline. Past the station runs the A6, London Road, heading out of the city for the south. As it goes beyond edge of the city centre, the A6 becomes Stockport Road, heading for the suburbs, crossing the imperceptible line from Lancashire to Cheshire, passing through the centre of the next large town along, Stockport, then on towards the hills of Cheshire and Derbyshire.

Tell people you live in Stockport and the A6 is your route into town and other cyclists – and drivers – wince. “Rather you than me,” their faces say. “Be careful,” they say to your face, particularly, as tonight, when they realise that you fully intend to cycle home, post-dance at 3am, having weighed it up and decided that cycling is the cheapest, safest, most direct and quickest option (the local rail operator is unofficially known as ‘Northern Fail’).

To leave the city you pass under the Mancunian Way. Manchester is more than a city of mills and textiles, redbrick and the humble terrace. Yes, Manchester is a Victorian city, but it could, it should, be seen as so much more than this. Manchester’s ‘highway in the sky’ won a 1968 Concrete Society Award, commemorated in block, almost Pop, lettering on its own unlikely concrete plaque. It soars over Oxford Road and Upper Brook Street as the bustle of student life goes on below, coming down to land at the heart of UMIST (aka North Campus, once the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology). At UMIST, the white-painted labs and towers, complete with subtly abstract murals by the likes of Victor Pasmore, have become grubby through the fumes of arterial roads like the A6, which pass by. Today, these monuments to science, education, industry and technology are static and empty as the university concentrates its resources on the southern campus areas. This is now prime city centre real estate awaiting redevelopment, probably to contribute to the sacred industry in Manchester today: hotels. More hotels. Manchester is becoming a city built on hotels: convert old buildings or flatten. The sweeping, office-like Macdonald hotel on the A6 was once a piece of the communications industry but is now a hotel. The old Twisted Wheel Northern Soul nightclub back down the A6 in the city centre, a modest redbrick, wasn't so lucky.

If the rest goes, the Hollaway Wall, at the London Road end of the A6, is all that will stand of UMIST. Blink and you’ll miss it as you whizz past on wheels. A grubby chunk of jagged concrete wall which has both a sculptural and a functional role as a sound buffer, it’s listed due to its association with modernist sculptor Antony Hollaway, who was innovative in his time but not a household name. This was the future, but it was cut short. The Mancunian Way comes to an abrupt stop just past the threshold of the city centre, a diving board going nowhere. Today, its underpasses provide havens for skaters and the homeless as the city goes on overhead at a different speed.

Then on past Downing Street, a far cry from its London namesake. This is the inner-city. The A6 leads into Ardwick, and a small green patch among the fumes, Ardwick Green, with its erratic boulder, a remnant of an ancient time. Georgian, genteel, tranquil and elegant, the Green and its surrounding streets feel like a lagooned island from a different age. Once, this was the edge of the city’s sprawl and not a triangle caught between a petrol station with a Tesco appended onto the side, derelict industrial buildings, and an insalubrious-looking nightclub.

Past Big Bird, the local Jamaican takeaway van, and Ardwick turns into Longsight, with modern St Luke’s Church standing like a sail on the border between the two. In 2012, conceptual artist Martin Creed tried to herald the start of the London Olympics by getting the entire country ringing with bells for three minutes from 8.12am on a Friday morning. It is fair to say that Manchester did not ring with bells. St Luke’s was the only church in the city to take part, and it turns out St Luke’s doesn’t even possess its own bells. At 8am the vicar reached into a wooden cupboard, pulled out a cassette tape marked ‘Births and marriages’ on one side and ‘Deaths’ on the other, and a portable player was set to blast out the sounds of a dying format and a dwindling institution. A couple of ladies emerged in pink fluffy dressing gowns, venturing onto the front door steps of nearby houses, more confused and affronted than aware they were taking part in what was meant to be a mass, participatory public art project. The non-event was celebrated unofficially with a Twitter hashtag: #noneofthebells. Conceptual art doesn't often venture this far out of town.

Across the road is Sunny Lowry Way, not a street but a passageway leading into an estate, named after a local heroine associated with nearby High Street Baths who swam the channel and taught many schoolchildren to swim. Famous for a training regime of 8-egg omelettes, and press images showing her brawn cutting through the waves, a larger than life personality has been reduced to a high-up sign on a nondescript road. Sunny’s generation would find much of this area unrecognisable. Slum clearance. Moving out to Cheshire. On the left stands Daisy Mill, one of the few reminders of the mills and factories that once dominated the skyline. One hulking mass of a building survives, still hoarding all that land, which the council hopes can soon be knocked down to make room for a new school. There’s a population boom. Manchester is a fast-growing city.

I feel for Sunny. Cycling the A6 feels like a feat of endurance too, at times, a gradual uphill slog. I’m never quite the fastest, overtaken by the hi-vis, year-round shorts wearing brigade. Stickers on buses warn ‘Do not overtake on the left’: hang back, or stick your arm out to pass. Buses have ploughed these roads for years, leaving ridges like black volcanic lava which has melted and set in strange formations. This combines with pot holes, broken glass and hub caps to make it a bumpy ride, with bits of old carpet and abandoned umbrellas, scrunched up like the defensive position of a dead spider, gathering at the side of the road. Other bikes crawl along, black clothes and no lights. Do they have a careless attitude to safety or are they just ignorant? Many glide through the red lights but for me, on this stretch of road, traffic lights provide a welcome respite. A chance to stop, to blow my nose and breathe. You lurch to a stop and wheedle towards the Advance stop line, a dedicated space for cyclists to make themselves seen by positioning themselves ahead of the traffic at junctions: there are supposedly fines for those whose wheel crosses the line. However, it’s something taxi drivers need not observe, exempt, as they are, from all the rules of the road.

A man at the junction has stopped too, buffered from the cold and wind in corduroy, a wool hat and a puffer jacket. He holds up a sign, “Jesus Christ: the same today, yesterday and forever.” Optimism, obliviousness – or sheer blind faith? Past Plymouth Grove, where Elizabeth Gaskell's house once stood at the edge of the city. Where we now walk was once all farms and opposite is the Plymouth Grove pub, once home to a modern-day cannabis farm. It’s next to Grove Village, New Labour’'s flagship PFI, where new homes back right up to the main road. You get the sense that these too were political ideas just passing through.

On the main strip in Longsight, the confetti of city life – the rainbow hues of free advertising inserts for discounters like Asda and nearby Lidl – blows across the pavements, and skitters across the road. Foreign language communications dance with local news, but nobody's paying any attention to any of them. In high winds, a carrier bag blows into my back wheel. I stop and spend a good ten minutes disentangling disintegrating plastic fragments from my greasy chain. A number of shops offer threading and waxing,the beauty industry making money off women's insecurities, but it’s also a place for a spot of shopping for those in the know. Authenticity. “Go to Longsight for the best coriander,” I’m told. They sell it by the bunch. Better than the flat, sad, plasticky leaves sold by the greengrocers or the supermarket down the road. The smell of fresh produce mingles with the dingy street smell of grease and grime, incense mixed in with clay ovens.

The locals use a method of crossing, particularly when emerging from the spaces in between parked cars, or from behind buses, I mentally term the ‘Longsight dash'. It’s practised by those with no time nor energy to walk to the crossing: young men, groups in religious dress, mothers and grandmothers clutching tiny hands in oversized uniforms, and the pushers of prams. We all know the pedestrian code: look both ways before crossing the road. They look. They see you, and decide to cross anyway. The young men in particular have perfected the move: head down, body bent slightly, ready for a dash propelled partly by shame, partly by defiance.

A large sign advertises Elliot's Car, van and helicopter hire. This area is transitory, a place that is passed through by a changing population. As you get into Levenshulme you pass numerous buildings reappropriated as ‘colleges’ offering 'ESOL for a diploma’ and, more importantly ‘ESOL for citizenship', ‘Home Office-approved’. “Welcome to your new job.” An arts and technology college, a school for business, performance and music, in what appears to be a converted pub, for those who don’t know what they want to do but know they that they should do something. At one, above fast-food joint ‘Foodies’, English learning takes place with the pungent smell of onions and what increasingly seems to be the national dish of choice, fried chicken, in the background. Knife and fork cross arms in a defiant gesture with a sticker in each window urging: ‘Don't Cook, Just Eat.’ The local Tesco Metro has been ‘closed for refurbishment’ for some time, though this is the understatement of the year. The roof was rendered a skeleton by fire, and the front was been hidden behind hoardings for several months, meaning the groups of schoolgirls waiting to cross the road in hijabs every morning had to find somewhere else to get their pre-class snack.

Nearby the former Arcadia skating rink, being flattened for a new sports centre and swimming pool, has a hidden claim to fame. The most famous tramp of them all, Charlie Chaplin, may have once attended Bennett Primary School down the road in Ardwick. Chaplin's Wikipedia page neither corroborates nor denies this. It merits no mention – a passage from his life brushed from memory, or urban myth, local wishful thinking? What's certain is that he was drawn back later, to skate at the Arcadia. The site of the suburb current baths sits opposite Levenshulme Library, incubator for one of Levenshulme’s more famous sons, architect Sir Norman Foster who, too, seems to dwell little on his Mancunian past. He too just passed through. Local to global. Global to local.

The area is seen as up-and-coming now, but many of the shops are still improbably specialist: ‘Snooker & Pool tables and accessories’. Manchester might be seen as a big city to some, but to me it feel like a village. I receive emails from colleagues saying they saw me ‘whizz past’, exchange a fleeting smile with acquaintances, get shouted at from moving cars and say a quick ‘hi’ as friends out walking their dog stop at the traffic lights. But there’s still a near-constant sound of sirens. It’s disorientating as they creep up behind you, sounding like they’re coming at you from all angles. I’ve started to feel like I hear them at all times now, a kind of sensory perception before the even start, like an early warning, a phantom limb. Another sensory overload comes from the party car, pulling up alongside you at the junction with its blacked out windows, emitting the rich, spicy smell of cannabis and hip-hop rhythms over bass-heavy beats. You hope the driver's not high off passive smoking. The lights change. The streamline shape is already straight off the mark, zooming off into the distance, as the cars behind struggle to jerk and splutter back into gear.

As the A6 creeps into suburbia, the road widens, a gradual incline towards those hills in the distance. Victorian house conversions, flat piled on top of flat, thin out into neat, polite 1930s semis for families in cul-de-sacs and back routes, with the odd solid detached. The houses start to retreat further back from the road. No-one is going in or out. They never do. Their lives are lived to the rhythm of commuter jobs – and perhaps they get all their shopping delivered too. The street signs change as you leave Manchester to enter another town. Stockport Road becomes Wellington Road North. But it's the smell that says, more than any municipal road sign: 'You are now in Stockport.'As you pass the McVitie’s factory on the edge of Stockport. Industrial strengths and quantities of classic baking ingredients mingle in the most intense olfactory hit of sugar, butter and chocolate chips you'll ever experience. Digestives, the nation's favourite, heightened into a smell that is overpowering and all-pervasive.

The next day I read in the Manchester Evening News that there was a new year’s drama on the Stagecoach bus I’d nearly caught. Held up by a gunman in Longsight. Perhaps it’s better I took the bike after all.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Shrieking Violet issue 23 and fifth birthday party at Castlefield Gallery, Thursday 14 August

The Shrieking Violet 'zine is five, and will be celebrating with a mini-birthday party at Castlefield Gallery on Thursday August 14 (turn up and drink cocktails, eat cake and look at the current exhibition as part of the gallery's one-off late-night opening) from 6-9.30pm.

North West-based designer and curator Robert Carter, who contributed the cover design, has work on display in Castlefield's current exhibition, I Would Like to Join a Club and Hit Myself With It, until Sunday August 17. The image, by an unknown artist (though possibly a member of La Libre Esthétique, an artistic society formed in 1893 in Belgium), is taken from the periodical Arte et décoration, Volumes 1-2, 1897, encountered whilst undertaking research for the Exhibition Centre for the Life and Abuse of Books' upcoming exhibition Butterworth at the Anthony Burgess Centre (opening on Thursday August 14). Robert has worked with a number of artist-led projects, including Auto Italia South East (London), Malgras|Naudet and Lionel Dobie Project (both Manchester). He was editor of the kuboaa publication from 2011-2012 and is currently co-curating a pilot programme at The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books with Daniel Fogarty and Lauren Velvick. Robert and fellow Manchester artist Monty, who also has work in I Would Like To Join a Club and Hit Myself With It, also contribute 'A structure for standing' (2012), a drawing of a wall structure Robert made for an exhibition that he then got another artist to draw on in situ – a still life of an exhibition.

In the meantime, copies (printed by Marc) are on sale in Piccadilly Records and Cornerhouse bookshop, Manchester, costing £2. Alternatively, download and print a copy here or read online:

Listen online to an interview about the Shrieking Violet's fifth birthday on Fiona Ledgard's Anything Goes breakfast show on Manchester's All FM radio station, broadcast on Thursday August 14 (9am-10.30am), alongside a number of tracks inspired by self-publishing, DIY culture and Shrieking Violet content past and present:

In issue 23:

Claire Hignett explores the story of a group of 1930s Basque children in Salford. Claire is an artist interested in the transience and accumulation of memory, using textiles as a means to express the erosion and piecing together of memory and its beautiful fragility. She is particularly intrigued by the way we attach memory to objects, creating souvenirs of our past. Stumbling on the story of the Basque children has sparked an interest in the period between the wars, which she intends to mine for her own creative projects on memory. She earns her living as a community artist and facilitator.

Stephen Marland documents some of the varied former Co-operative premises of Greater Manchester, many of which have found new and diverse uses. Stephen was a van lad, BR goods guard, gardener, taught photography for thirty years and took early retirement in order to explore the world on his bicycle. He also takes pictures. Stephen is interested in almost everything and has recently started a blog dedicated to bus stops in Greater Manchester and beyond.

Adrian Slatcher, who has poetry and fiction in the Rialto, Sculpted: Poetry of the North West and Unthology 4, delves into the secret history of the synthesiser. Adrian blogs at and makes electronic music as Bonbon Experiment.

Artist Jade Montserrat explores art and gender with reference to the recent AGender conference in Leeds. Jade is currently based at Islington Mill, Salford, where she is continuing to research and develop work issuing from a project called 'Josephine and The Rainbow Tribe'. Her practice includes printmaking, books, performance, writing, sculptural objects and installations, which are generated through the merging of opposite processes, both revealing and concealing information.

Rob Jackson, a cartoonist from Bolton, takes a trip to Fleetwood, Lancashire. Rob, whose day job is making and selling home-made ice cream, has also self-published a lot of comics over the years.

Kyle Baddeley-Read, who used to live in Manchester but now lives in Norwich, contributes his latest comic. Kyle spent a few years writing and drawing the absurdist comic saga Silent V, and is now co-editor of the sci-fi anthology RhiZome.

This issue also features poetry by Kenn Taylor, a writer and journalist from Merseyside who now lives in Yorkshire. He has a particular interest in the relationship between community, culture and the urban environment.

Manchester-based filmmaker and musician Richard Howe continues his series on mental health in the movies with 12 Monkeys by Terry Gilliam. Richard is currently co-editing the films ‘Realitease’, and ‘The Were Squirrel’. Tweet him about films @rikurichard and watch short films about a variety of things at and

Steve Connor, co-founder and CEO of Creative Concern, contributes a summer recipe for satay tofu and aubergine skewers. Steve does a lot of writing and brand-related work and helps make campaigns happen for organisations working on sustainability, climate change, regeneration, culture and a whole bunch of other issues, together with a talented team of 20-plus people at Creative Concern and with a host of other gifted people across England and the rest of the world.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Woman's Outlook talk, Cafe Kino, Bristol, Tuesday June 17, free

I've been invited by the lovely Roxy Brennan (Shrieking Violet issue 21 contributor and Two White Cranes singer), who programmes events at Cafe Kino in Bristol, to do my talk about the co-operative women's magazine Woman's Outlook at Cafe Kino on Tuesday June 17, 7pm, free.

Facebook event.

Woman's Outlook – a surprisingly modern magazine? 

For nearly five decades, Woman’s Outlook was the voice of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, the campaigning organisation which worked to raise the status of women both in the co-operative movement and in society, and its onetime editor Mary Stott later became a longstanding editor of the Guardian women’s pages. From its origins in Manchester in 1919, Outlook provided an enticing mixture of articles addressing both the personal and the political, combining fashion, fiction, features and recipes with advice for working women – in many ways, not dissimilar to the content of women’s magazines today!

Woman’s Outlook: a surprisingly modern magazine?’ will explore some of the key issues addressed in Outlook, and look at how the magazine encouraged women to get involved in campaigning for a better world. Topics covered by Outlook such as female representation in parliament, equal pay and healthy eating remain highly relevant today, and the talk will end by considering whether the type of content provided by 21st century women’s lifestyle magazines has really changed much since the days of Outlook.

Research for the talk was undertaken in the National Co-operative Archive in Manchester, and I also conducted interviews with some inspiring women who were members of the co-operative women's movement at the time.

Please pass this on to anyone you think might be interested.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Introducing the Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books, Salford, opening Thursday May 8

Books are an integral part of our communications and culture, from education and learning to enjoyment and leisure, but the content within them isn't always finished with as soon as the last page has been turned. A new library and publishing project in Salford goes beyond the idea of books as a closed matter, where the author has the definitive last word on the subject, by placing publications at the heart of an ongoing conversation and dialogue around words, images and ideas.

Based at Islington Mill, Salford, in May and June, before it moves on to other venues around Manchester and Salford for the duration of a six-month pilot programme, The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books is part reading-room, part-library and part publishing house, revolving around two-month cycles of collaborative residencies by artists, designers, writers and curators. Visitors will be invited in two days a week – each Thursday and Friday starting from Thursday May 8 – to browse a permanent reference library dealing with “books about books and books about collections of books”, as well as temporary libraries curated by practitioners from different fields, with the space also bookable by reading and discussion groups. This opportunity to read and share ideas will be complemented by information about the books as well as talks and other events which will provide a way to approach the ideas under consideration, as well as an exhibition or new piece of writing commissioned at the end of each residency. “It's a way of building up materials but it's also a feedback loop, rather than just regurgitating content,” explains artist Daniel Fogarty, a co-founder and director of the project. “Publishing takes in everything from the Sun newspaper to academic articles, so it's the perfect tool.”

Kicking off the programme is a library and series of talks selected by Manchester-based writer and promoter Marcus Barnett, which celebrate “all sorts of things relevant to what a 'DIY culture' could mean”. Selections include books published by Zer0 and Unkant, which Marcus describes as “shoestring operations run by really thrilling people who care”, with three books being launched during Marcus's residency: Robert Dellar's Splitting in Two: Mad Pride and Punk Rock Oblivion and Esther Leslie's Derelicts: Thought Worms from the Wreckage (Saturday May 10) and Agata Pyzik's Poor But Sexy (Wednesday May 14). Marcus explains that each author covers “with palpable excitedness post-punk, communism, cultural clashes and exchanges”, and that “all want another, better world from the mire of the old based on creation and excitement”. For Marcus, part of the appeal of the The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books was helping to address a perceived atomisation among different areas of DIY culture. “We're all in agreement that the type of people who create art, put on shows, play in the DIY music scene, write 'zines or read communist books are rarely in the same rooms and rarely deal with or socialise with each other, when generally speaking all of their creative output stems from similar desires of collective excitement and wanting things to be better,” he explains. Another event taking place is the second annual SPRING conference (Saturday May 17, £10/5), which brings together people from around the country to discuss the current status of leftist politics and provide another experience of the Left than “self-righteous idiot guys being smarmy at each other all day in empty rooms”. Among the speakers are Mark Fisher, Julian Stallabrass and Yassamine Mather, who Marcus describes as “really interesting people with colourful lives and perspectives”.

This bringing together of writers and artists, both from the local area and further afield, to forge connections between often disparate groups of practitioners and creators, is a key aim of the The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books. “Artists and activists usually talk about things in completely different ways, so we hope they can have a more productive conversation,” explains curator, writer and co-director Lauren Velvick. “We're going to be facilitating dialogue and not just waiting for it to happen.” Designer and curator Robert Carter, the third director, added that is hoped that a crossover in interests can be found: “We want to attract an audience based on the content of the books and events, not on loyalty,” he explains. “The first curated library, chosen by Marcus, is about ways of functioning and thinking about things and making things work, so it's going to attract critical writers and people who are politically active – but we are going to be inviting the same people to come to an exhibition of Daniel's work later in the project.”

The Exhibition for the Life and Use of Books initially grew out of a feeling that the Manchester art scene was too 'predictable and safe', lacked an impulse for critical conversation (perhaps inevitably given that exhibitions are often attended, curated and written about by people drawn from a relatively small group of friends, colleagues and peers) and did not provide a place for these kinds of ideas to express themselves. “There is a lot of art in Manchester that is either very grassroots, or museum and gallery-based,” explains Daniel, “but there is nothing in the middle and nothing that is supportive of activity on that level – the Manchester art scene doesn't do a good job at reaching out to other people, groups and institutions. There is a lot of that kind of activity in London but it sometimes doesn't feel like it is an option for people up here. The Lionel Dobie project set a good precedent, but you got the same people there who went to all the shows. We're bringing a critical dialogue to Manchester that's not immediate in some exhibitions.” Lauren added: “We're not afraid to be more politically committed and go beyond art and theory. We're bringing in people from outside who can be more critical and who aren't completely ensconced in the Manchester art scene where you have to support each other.”

The first six months of the project are very much about “a series of experiments to uncover unknowns” so the founders can encounter new people and ideas and “find out what kind of platform we want to make for artists and writers”, before a framework is found for the future of the project. Although one inspiration is London's X Marks the Bokship, which Rob says “created a type of accessible, common space where the material published occupied the grey area between exhibition, magazine, live event and thing you put on your shelf”, the organisers admit they don't know what's going to happen and say it's a case of trying out a number of different things and seeing what works. As Rob explains, “you can't just adopt a model from London and bring it to a different city. Its an excuse to do something different outside all the noise of London.” Lauren adds: “We will set set up a few boundaries and things that are definitely going to happen and the rest is just left to chance and who turns up. Quite a few people have already said they're looking forward to it and have been looking out for something like this.”

There will be an opportunity to get involved in the library at a Hackathon at Islington Mill (Saturday June 7). Also in June, Daniel will have an exhibition at nearby Artwork Salford (Thursday June 19-Thursday June 26), coinciding with a publication looking at design language. Later in the summer the second temporary library will be drawn from the collection of Manchester-based publisher Michael Butterworth and his science-fiction imprint Savoy Books, bringing together visual art and writing to discuss questions around creativity. Alongside this will be a residency by artist and designer Ann-Marie Milward, who uses weaving to translate sound and text into visuals. The final curator will be chosen following an open call.

As the project progresses, it is anticipated that it will move from pure text to more visually-engaged work, with Rob explaining that “people are becoming more sensitive to graphicacy – the visual equivalent of literacy” as people increasingly read online, and that the project is hoping to understand how shifts such as this affect learning. The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books aims to strike a balance between publishing digital and physical material, with Rob observing that even in the digital age publishing is more important than ever. “I know a lot of people who access material online but print it before reading it, he explains. “Everyone has got their own private publishing and editing process and journal, even if it's just bookmarking pages and links. Everyone organises their own collection of books in a way. We are creating a physical space, not just an online archive, and physically our presence will inform that process.”

The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books can be visited by appointment in the first floor common room at Islington Mill, James Street, Salford on Thursday May 8 and Friday May 9, and will be opening on the following Fridays and Saturdays throughout May and June. For more information about how to visit and get involved contact, visit or follow on Twitter @ECLUB_.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Interview with Huw Wahl, director, To Hell With Culture (free screening at Federation House, Thursday May 1, 7pm)

From poet, novelist and critic to anarchist, educational theorist and co-founder of the ICA, Herbert Read was known as many different things at different times. From the First World War until his death in the late-1960s Read was responsible for a prolific outpouring of books and essays, with many of his ideas pervading the way art, culture and education were seen in relation to society after the Second World War. However, despite being a towering figure at the time, today Read is far from being a household name. A new film by Manchester-based filmmaker Huw Wahl, which premiered at the ICA earlier this month, offers a portrait of that re-presents some of Read's ideas and invites the viewer to consider what currency they might still have today.

While Read wrote on everything from child art and industrial design to existentialism and Jungian psychology, Wahl's film, entitled To Hell With Culture, takes as its starting point Read's 1941 essay of the same name, which launched a searing critique of an elitist notion of 'culture' as something which is rarified and separate from the rest of society. Another equally rousing assertion, 'to hell with the artist', derides the concept of an artist as a special person who stands above other types of workers. Read's message, says Wahl,  “seems quite complicated but can be very simple”: culture isn't something to be collected and set aside to be accessed in museums, but it's there everyday, as an integral part of life, and every person has the capacity for creativity.

It was Read's take on creativity, and the direct terms in which it was stated, which attracted Wahl to the essay. “'To hell with the artist' is a wonderful thing to say,” he says. “It's a very powerful statement. I liked that a very meek and mild man wrote a very strong essay about how culture should be something you shouldn't really have to talk about, saying 'it's just there'.” He adds: “One interviewee in the film said 'he writes very good English', and the the way he writes about creativity is very vibrant and direct. He allows contradictions in what he's saying, but there's also some kind of continuity. It's different from a lot of writing today. A lot of writing now is very embedded in the institution and critical theory, post-modernism, structuralism, etc, whereas Read's was a very modernist, vital, loving way of writing.”

More than seventy years after To Hell With Culture was written, the film presents Read's ideas in aesthetic form, as a visual essay which draws a line from modernism to the present-day. Wahl went back through Read's archives at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, which houses correspondence and manuscripts, and his library, which is now held at the University of Leeds where Read studied, to get closer to the man and his ideas. A shy, bookish figure emerges, who was completely absorbed in his work and avoided the limelight; very little footage of Read exists. “He was a poet so he knew how to communicate, which was probably a good thing as he wasn't a charismatic man by today's standards of mouthy celebrities,” explains Wahl. “Although he has a lovely presence on film, gentle and deeply thoughtful, he wouldn't have been on the Culture Show. He was lucky to be around at the time of men of letters.”

Although Wahl is a member of the Manchester-based Castles Built in Sand collective, which takes an anthropological approach to film-making and culture, To Hell With Culture is his first solo venture into full-length film-making. Wahl embarked on the film at the start of 2013, shortly after finishing an MA in photography at the University of Central Lancashire. As well as interviewing members of Read's family, including his son, the art critic Benedict Read, Wahl spoke with artists who were directly influenced by Read. Among these were Canadian artist Luis Jacob, as well as Wahl's father Ken Turner, a painter, performance artist and co-founder of radical environmental art collective Action Space, which took art out of the gallery and into everyday life; Turner read and was inspired by Read's work in the 1950s.

Something else which comes across strongly in the film is Read's connection with the Yorkshire landscape, and his ideas about the authenticity of nature. “He was very patriotic as a Yorkshireman,” explains Wahl. “He was very rooted to that land and to nature.” The voices in the film are also punctuated by Read's poetry, including a reading by the Mersey Sound poet Brian Patten of 'My Company', a love poem about Read leading his company into battle at a young age during the First World War. “I've never really been into poetry,” admits Wahl, “but I really got it. I was really touched.”

Although Wahl acknowledges that “many of Read's ideas have been carried out”, and he by no means agrees with everything Read had to say, he believes To Hell With Culture can still pose important questions about the way culture and creativity are viewed in society today. “I was told that 10/15 years ago people would laugh at you if you started talking about Herbert Read, but now people are going back to modernism because they want something a bit more solid again,” he observes. “In some ways society is a lot more free but in other ways there are a lot of restrictions. Systems are a lot more closed now.”

At the time Read was writing, and in the years immediately following the Second World War, there was concern that craftsmanship and British culture was under threat from cheap, mass-produced items and imported cultural forms. Educators and critics placed a strong emphasis on fostering skills of 'discrimination', promoting sincerity and honesty in design and attempting to 'improve' public taste. “Read was talking about beauty,” summarises Wahl, and though this type of discourse can seem naïve, paternalistic even, today, post-modern society has seen the culmination of the idea of culture as commodity that Read cautioned against, with creativity recognised insofar as it can be packaged and sold back to us. “We live in a disposable, consumer culture where culture is dictated to us and everything we're surrounded by is ugly,” says Wahl. “There is still a sense that some people know better than others – we place some people on pedestals and say others are scum. Culture is controlled as a commodity and it's all about the free market and what can benefit the market. The artists who do well are those who have a brand or who can shock. It's the opposite of what creativity's about: it's not about being successful or competitive. There is something very basic and human about being creative but it's been corrupted by the idea that money is a good exchange for creativity. Read was saying that culture should be there within society and that a very different society can be created through education and art.”

Wahl considers the three tenets of a natural society Read identified in To Hell With Culture – all production should be for use and not for profit, each should give according to his ability and each receive according to his needs, and that the workers in each industry should collectively own and control that industry – to be “very simple and incredibly relevant”. He also finds the idea of everyone being a special kind of artist to be “still such a strong and important thing to say”, and has been encountering present-day parallels in Ken Robinson's ideas that creativity is “something that is there to work on and something everyone should be given the opportunity for”.

To Hell With Culture has been kept deliberately short – it clocks in at just under an hour – so that space could be left for discussions afterwards where people can create their own conclusions and ideas. As Wahl says, the film is a way to “remember the person but take the ideas”. He explains: “Artists are always questioned about what they are trying to do and their purpose. It is useful for artists to think about what an artist is in society, what they do and what they might be aiming for.”

To Hell With Culture will be shown at Filmonik, 3rd Floor, Federation House, Balloon Street, Manchester, on Thursday May 1, 7pm for a 7.30pm start, free, followed by a Q&A with director Huw Wahl, art historian Danielle Child (who appears in the film) and Castlefield Gallery director Kwong Lee.

Keep an eye on Huw Wahl's blog for screenings around the country this year, as well as at Leeds International Film Festival.

Huw Wahl and art historian Dani Child are organising a screening and accompanying one-day symposium, 'To Hell with Culture? Re-examining the commodification of culture in contemporary capitalism', at Manchester School of Art on Thursday October 30 as an opportunity to discuss some of the ideas raised by the essay and the film further in a contemporary context.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Star and Garter: secret history of a nightclub

I can vividly remember the first time I went to a nightclub. I was 18, had recently moved to Manchester and followed the flow of freshers to 'indie' club 5th Avenue, where I had my bum pinched and objected to a lanky youth 'playfully' stealing the hat off my head: not the greatest introduction to going out at night. I can also remember the second time I went to a nightclub, because I went alone, unable to convince fellow students to walk five minutes down the road to the Star and Garter, in the bleak and unprepossessing red light district behind Piccadilly Station. I spent the rest of the evening talking to strangers, engaging in what I probably thought at the time were deep conversations about things like the influence of Albert Camus' The Outsider on 'Killing an Arab' by the Cure.

At the Star and Garter's flagship night Smile, billed as the longest-running indie night in Manchester, I realised for the first time that other people of my age liked the same kind of music as me – and what's more, that it was actually possible to dance to this kind of music (or in my case, shuffle awkwardly whilst staring at the floor and/or jump clumsily up and down to more energetic songs). As a club for people like me, who might not otherwise go out, it's been sad to see the venue gradually wind down Smile after the night celebrated its twentieth birthday last year, with the long-term future of the building looking uncertain. Proposals to add a platform to the east of Piccadilly Station as part of the Northern Hub scheme – construction is due to start in 2016 – would see trains pass window-rattlingly close to the already ramshackle Victorian building, leaving its future as a club unviable. Although several different proposals have been put forward for the distinctive triangular building's place in the development, from relocation (urban legend has it that the building was already moved once, in the mid-nineteenth century, although the council disputes this) to rebuilding to extending the station around it, none seem feasible in the long-term. As current licensee and upstairs resident Andy Martin says: “You can't hide us behind a station and expect to have passing trade. It will either fall down or be out of business within a year of the platform opening – and if it closes Wetherspoon or another chain will take it over (although no big business in their right mind would).”

Andy, a former computer game reviewer, grew up under the influence of bands like the Smiths in Blackley, on the northern fringes of the city, surrounded by his siblings' record collections. Like mine, his first memories of Smile conjure the joy that comes from realising that there are other people who feel the same way as you about the songs that have soundtracked your life. “There was a circle of us all jumping up and down to 'Teenage Kicks',” he reminisces. “I'd never had that in a club before – a load of people who didn't know each other just loving a song. We all shook hands at the end. It was very polite.” However, he also admits that, like any other club, its basic function is the same: “It's a meat market. You go out and notice people and the guys wear cheap aftershave.” He observes that the traditional pub layout of the Star and Garter, with seating downstairs and a function room upstairs, helps facilitate this: “A massive USP is the club being on two floors. You can go upstairs in a darkened room and dance around and come downstairs with whoever you've pulled and realise you've made a massive mistake and go upstairs again.” The only difference to other clubs is the clientele. “We attract intelligent people here,” says Andy. “People who are now GPs, archaeologists, psychologists and who work for the CPS. I've helped every single one of them into a taxi. Thick people stick out here like a sore thumb.”

Andy's involvement with the Star and Garter initially came about through another cult band, Nigel Blackwell's Half Man Half Biscuit, following a gig at long-departed Manchester venue the Boardwalk in 1996, where he got talking to the band's manager, a “cantankerous old Scouser” selling t-shirts. To cut a long story short, Andy “fluked it with Half Man Half Biscuit” and ended up putting the band on the following year. A friend had heard good things about the Star and Garter, which could be hired out for £50, and the gig attracted a gaggle of “forty-something-year-old men forming mosh pits”.

Andy later started working behind the bar and, when the Star and Garter's owner started looking for someone else to run the pub, Andy and sound engineer Dermot O'Dea took it over. Andy made a few changes such as extending the opening hours of Smile, replacing skittering vinyl with CDs, employing long-running DJ Andy Woods and hosting one-offs such as album launches; previously, says Andy, “every night was like a Manic Street Preachers fan night – City Life said it was like gatecrashing a house party, just playing songs to mates”. Then followed the “halcyon days” of Smile, when the NME made it club of the week, there were queues around the block by 9.30pm and the club got so crowded that Andy had to operate a one-in-one-out policy. “Our USP has always been that we're off the beaten track,” says Andy. “There's no passing trade so it's an effort to make it. You have to know what you are going for and what night is on. You don't go for the massive selection of craft ales at the bar or the cocktail list – you go because you like the Smiths or the band playing.”

However, the Star and Garter has always been far more than just Smile. It's had its own line in nights dedicated solely to one artist – from the Belle and Sebastian disco started by Roxanne who later moved to Glasgow and now plays in Veronica Falls, to evenings dedicated to Depeche Mode and Pixies. Most famous is the Smiths night, which has now been going for twenty years and attracts everyone from teens to hardcore fans in their sixties.

The Star and Garter has also been a place for unsigned bands to get onto lineups with more established punk and metal bands. It's been a stepping stone, too, for several bands who now sell out far bigger venues, from hosting Low twice in the 1990s – where everyone sat down – to Jeffrey Lewis. Even Status Quo played there in 1999, after the venue was shortlisted for their Under the Influence tour. “It was the most surreal experience of my life,” recalls Andy. “150 people dancing to the Quo – it was like something out of a Michael Jackson video. And I had to record United versus Juventus for Parfitt and Rossi while they played.” A similarly surreal experience was heavy rock band ArnoCorps' 2012 gig, where 150 fans arrived dressed as Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It was like really good Smile party – everyone happy,” remembers Andy.

The Star and Garter has also acted as a showcase for local musicians and comedians, including at an open mic run by Akoustik Anarkhy which was attended by Manchester luminaries such as Badly Drawn Boy, the Longcut and Nine Black Alps. Andy remembers it as “glorified karaoke without the words on the screen and just mates doing cover versions on guitar” – including Andy's own renditions of Half Man Half Biscuit songs. Another night, Anti-Hoot, played host to unknown comics as well as fondly-remembered Bolton poet Hovis Presley. A poster paying tribute to Presley, who died prematurely in 2005, now hangs on the wall, featuring excepts from his wryly romantic poem 'I Rely On You', which pops up as a reading in local wedding services.

Pre-social media, the Star and Garter also functioned as a meeting place for unlikely special interest groups, from holding Anti-Nazi League meetings in the 1980s to the 30-strong West Bromwich Albion supporters' club of Manchester to a PSV and HGV drivers' club which “used to show slides of 1950s buses to a ripple of applause”. With its haunted house looks, the Star and Garter must have provided a particularly fitting venue for the Vampire Society, whose members sat and read excerpts of Dracula. Most recently, the venue hosted Smiler, a spin-off group from the Rod Stewart fan club, with special guest Don Stewart (brother of Rod) making an appearance. And he's not the only person with a claim to fame to have visited. Andy has a special Smile poster signed by Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks as well as members of Half Man Half Biscuit, TV stars and, most obscurely, people who made music for vintage computer games.

The Star and Garter has also itself been a screen star. Although it's purported, probably incorrectly, to have featured in Manchester film noir classic Hell is A City, it has definitely appeared in Cracker and the Body Farm as well providing as the locale for a John Simm fight scene in Prey and a murder in Prime Suspect. Unfortunately, though, its seedy location could well be the Star and Garter's downfall. Big plans have been proposed for decades for this area, hemmed in by a train station, a taxi rank, a major bus route into the city and a collection of forbidding, slime-ridden railway viaducts, from the Whitehall of the North to an inter-city hub at derelict Mayfield station to an urban park. None have yet materialised, although Andy says, “there's nothing wrong with the area other than that it's never been invested in”. The Grade II listed status of the building, too, doesn't help, with the building suffering from damp and work needed on the roof yet no grants for like-for-like building work forthcoming. But it's part of the fabric of the area, and Andy's picked up snippets of information about its history and former inhabitants over the years, from its first licensee, a Miss Wetherspoon, to being a hotel with its own living quarters and dumb waiter to housing a a brewery and, later, a “trainee MASH type place for the home guard during the war”.

The Star and Garter's recent decline has coincided with the ascendancy of other areas of the city such as the Northern Quarter. Part of the problem, says Andy, is that Smile's audience has grown up – and “the new generation suddenly got hit by a massive choice of places to go, so Smile became a fallback”. Andy explains: “When we first started there was the Night & Day, us and the Roadhouse – we were the small venues. Then the council threw a load of money at the Northern Quarter and every Tom, Dick and Harry started opening a bar. It was even mentioned on the news.”

In the meantime, as both the Northern Hub and, further down the line, HS2 loom over its future, the Star and Garter soldiers on, continuing to host regular "cheap and cheerful" punk gigs. Alternative karaoke night Guts for Garters is proving popular, along with new music showcase and indie-pop disco Light it Up (Saturday May 10), '90s nights A Different Class and This is Uncool, queer party Bollox (Friday April 18) and guilty pleasures rock night Party Hard (Saturday May 3). Other upcoming events include a fundraiser by online Morrissey fanclub the Mozarmy (Saturday April 26), with special guests including Hayley from Coronation Street. It's also hoped that Smile can be resurrected for doorman Ian's 70th birthday in June.

As Andy says, the Star and Garter might not be renowned for its cocktail list or craft beer, but as the city gains in sophistication it's all too easy to lose out on opportunities for genuinely life-affirming communal music experiences. What we lose if we lose the Star and Garter is the bread and butter of Manchester's night life, the type of place where you can go just for the sheer joy of the music and any pretensions to post-industrial glamour or the array of drinks behind the bar are only a secondary concern.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Manchester Histories Festival talk: Woman's Outlook – a surprisingly modern magazine?

I've been invited to repeat my talk about the co-operative women's magazine Woman's Outlook, which was published from Manchester between 1919 and 1967, at the People's History Museum on Saturday March 29 at 1pm. The talk takes place during this year's Manchester Histories Festival and Wonder Women series of events about Manchester's radical history and accompanies the free exhibition The People's Business - 150 Years of the Co-operative.

The talk is free but should be booked here. Facebook event.

Woman's Outlook – a surprisingly modern magazine? 

For nearly five decades, Woman’s Outlook was the voice of the Co-operative Women’s Guild, the campaigning organisation which worked to raise the status of women both in the co-operative movement and in society, and its onetime editor Mary Stott later became a longstanding editor of the Guardian women’s pages. From its origins in Manchester in 1919, Outlook provided an enticing mixture of articles addressing both the personal and the political, combining fashion, fiction, features and recipes with advice for working women – in many ways, not dissimilar to the content of women’s magazines today!

Woman’s Outlook: a surprisingly modern magazine?’ will explore some of the key issues addressed in Outlook, and look at how the magazine encouraged women to get involved in campaigning for a better world. Topics covered by Outlook such as female representation in parliament, equal pay and healthy eating remain highly relevant today, and the talk will end by considering whether the type of content provided by 21st century women’s lifestyle magazines has really changed much since the days of Outlook.

Research for the talk was undertaken in the National Co-operative Archive in Manchester, and I also conducted interviews with some inspiring women who were members of the co-operative women's movement at the time.

Please pass this on to anyone you think might be interested.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Keywords feature: Art Culture and Society in 1980s Britain at Tate Liverpool

I was recently asked to write this feature for the Skinny about a new exhibition which opens at Tate Liverpool this week (Friday February 28). It was a last-minute commission, and it would have been nice to have spoken to more people involved in the exhibition, but it was good to have an excuse to read more Raymond Williams as his books Culture and Society and the Long Revolution, along with his essay Culture is Ordinary, which concern the development of culture and social change, were among the best things I read last year.

Keywords: Art Culture and Society in 1980s Britain

In 1976, a book was published which offered a new way of understanding and using language, defining and interpreting familiar and inter-related words such as culture, art, revolution, family and society. Written by cultural theorist Raymond Williams, Keywords is a social, historical and cultural guide to the evolution and meaning of everyday words we often take for granted. Taking Keywords as its starting point, a new exhibition at Tate Liverpool continues the conversation Williams sparked around language more than three decades ago. Artworks from the 1980s, the decade in which the book's ideas found particular resonance among a generation of artists responding to upheavals in society, are juxtaposed with a selection of words from the book in a specially-designed exhibition space by artists Luca Frei and Will Holder. Aiming to enhance the visual and conceptual legibility of the artworks, the installation will encourage visitors to ponder the complex and often charged relationship between what they see and the language which can be used to describe it.

“The impetus of the exhibition came from conversations we had about the book with artists making work in the 1980s, who said that at the time they were beginning to be influenced by the growing field of cultural studies and by books such as Keywords as much as by art history,” explains Gavin Delahunty, Head of Exhibitions and Displays at Tate Liverpool and curator of Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain. “Keywords is a good read and an easy, not over-academic way for people to engage with key ideas about culture and society. It is one individual's attempt to unpack complex words and what they meant for him and his time, which provides a tool and filter for people to understand the world around them.”

The exhibition uses artwork and language to present a very complex and diverse moment in both British history and British art. “It was an extraordinary decade where there were so many shifts in culture and society that continue to have an impact today,” explains Delahunty. It was also a confusing time. On the one hand was the affluence of the City of London, but elsewhere in the country miners' strikes, the Liverpool riots and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament were taking place. “A whole raft of social issues were bubbling to the fore,” says Delahunty. “The old histories were being dissolved and disintegrated, creating a fragmented moment which we have tried to capture in the exhibition.” 

Keywords also aims to showcase the work and ideas of artists who did not necessarily receive widespread recognition at the time but reflected the increasing plurality of voices in the art world. Through provocative and challenging visual and performative acts these artists helped change not just ideas around what belonged in the art gallery, but the vocabulary which was used to describe it. “In the 1980s one of the huge changes was that new voices were starting to be introduced into the art world, often drawn from what had previously been seen as marginalised communities,” explains Delahunty. “Artists were immersed within powerful new movements based around Second Wave feminism, race, sexuality and ethnicity and wanted to point out the historical and social imbalance, which wasn't representative of the diversity of the UK.”

To help the audience engage with the work and messages on display the curators went through the whole of Keywords and chose thirteen words to show alongside the artworks, looking for both their frequency and their resonance today. Among the words chosen was 'materialism', which Delahunty points out “was associated with the 1980s catchphrase 'greed is good', but is also a word that is in people's conversation at the moment and is linked to our understanding of the world and morality”. Another is 'criticism', which Delahunty links to the critical approach artists used to protest gender stereotypes and the invisibility of black and female artists in the 1980s. One word which was quickly agreed on was 'liberation', which Delahunty says is related to the development of identity politics. “A whole generation of artists were making art addressing questions of ethnicity, gender and sexuality, against a backdrop of the horrors of the British colonial past,” he explains. “There was a whole new generation of artists who were touched by that.”

The energy of the 1980s and the desire for artists to tell their stories comes across strongly in the exhibition in a series of very powerful visual statements. The curators asked artists active in the 1980s which artworks they considered to be game-changing at the time. Although several of the artists they came up with are not household names, and some of the artworks in the exhibition haven't been on display in decades, they have had an enduring influence in the art world. These include work by socialist feminist artists such as Rose Finn-Kelcey, as well as Helen Chadwick's provocative 'Carcass', last shown in 1986; this is a work which Delahunty says has “stimulated and inspired so many artists”. Displaying 'Carcass' is a logistical feat, comprising a column filled with food waste which will transform into a living sculpture as nature takes its course over the lifespan of the exhibition. Another key work is Sunil Gupta's 'London Gay Switchboard', which is grounded in the near-hysteria of the 1980s AIDS climate. The work, initially shown on a slide projector but now updated to a digital format, depicts the central information point which helped thousands of men and women access expert information on the virus. “It had a huge impact,” explains Delahunty. “It shows the day-to-day aspects of the work at the gay switchboard as well as people going out socialising. It demonstrates how, in a time of confusion and fear people still had time to hang out and be friends and get on with life.” If one work sums up the exhibition, it is Donald Rodney's multimedia sculpture 'Visceral Canker', which uses coats of arms depicting aspects of slavery, bloodlines and former colonies to speak of Britain's colonial past.

The keywords incorporated into the show do not directly correlate with or illustrate the artworks, but rather provide a 'jumping-off point' and stimulus for thought and discussion. They ask questions such as 'could you apply the word 'violence' to this artwork, or are they worlds apart?' As Delahunty explains, “the exhibition is more about slippages of language and how it changes over time, just as artworks evolve over time.” He adds: “We live in a world with a strong desire to contain life within language, but artworks can't be reduced to single words. They are complex, nuanced and textured and constantly changing and mutating.”

This is very much in the spirit of what Raymond Williams intended to show with the publication of Keywords; he hoped that the book would provide a starting point for ongoing discussions and prompt further collections of words and meanings. The exhibition at Tate Liverpool perfectly demonstrates this potential. Keywords has been reprinted to coincide with the exhibition, and is as relevant today as ever as language continues to evolve to meet new times and new contexts. As Delahunty says, “The book is so open-ended it still allows the freedom to have conversations about what words are, how we use them and how we make sense of them in everyday situations.”

For more information visit

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Shrieking Violet issue 22

Read the Shrieking Violet issue 22 online now:

This issue's cover is by Alex Humphreys. Alex uses two-dimensional imagery with a high emphasis on the use of colour and composition. With the enjoyment of combining bold shapes and techniques of mark-making, Alex aims to make work with an experimental, abstract outcome. Alex's work is hand-screen printed and lies heavily in the form of traditional print. Alex also plays in Sex Hands, one of the Shrieking Violet's favourite Manchester bands; see them at Night & Day on Thursday February 6, and at Gullivers, on Wednesday February 26, in support of another of the Shrieking Violet's favourite bands, Trash Kit.

In issue 22:

Manchester-based craftivist duo Warp & Weft introduce their Stature exhibition in Manchester Town Hall (February 24-March 9), which examines how women’s lives and achievements have been recorded in history. Warp & Weft are Helen Davies and Jenny White. Helen is an artist specialising in needlecrafts; she is interested in the social history of craft and women. She also makes monsters at Historian Jenny White is interested in the way different sections of society are represented in the media and history, and is drawn to those whose stories aren’t usually told. She also takes photos for Trash Gallery.

Tom Whyman takes a look at the legacy of football pundit Alan Hansen, and the growing impossibility of having an opinion and engaging critically with the world. Tom is a writer and philosopher currently studying for his PhD at the University of Essex. Before that he lived and studied in Manchester. He blogs at and tweets as @HealthUntoDeath.

Cazz Blase explores the alternative realities of Manchester and London in the work of Jeff Noon, Ben Moor and Neil Gaiman, where the real meets the unreal. Cazz is trying to establish herself as a freelance journalist while working as a library assistant at Manchester University. She normally focuses on music and/or feminism, but has a long term love of radio comedy and sci-fi and thought it was time to share it with a wider audience than bemused friends in cafes.

Joe Austin pays a visit to one of London's overlooked Modernist landmarks, and a hidden sculptural masterpiece, at the TUC's post-war headquarters, Congress House. Joe is a qualified architect, originally from the Midlands but a naturalised Londoner for the last 24 years or so. Joe's interests are wide (his blog best illustrates his scattergun mind), but generally revolve around writing, design, architecture, art, culture and history. He likes nothing better than learning new aspects of things he thought he knew about.

Artist and musician Henry Ireland reflects impressionistically on his experiences over the past year, accompanied by photographs from his summer-2013 tour of the UK with Two White Cranes and the Nervy Betters. Henry helps run Polite Records and lives in London with his wife Frances.

David Wilkinson discusses The Fall, The Blue Orchids and the working class autodidact, drawing on interviews with Martin Bramah and Una Baines undertaken during his PhD. David lives in Manchester, where he completed his PhD on post-punk last year. He is currently research assistant on the project ‘Punk, Politics and British Youth Culture 1976-1984’, led by Matthew Worley and John Street. He has also written for the F Word, Manchester Histories Festival and Manchester District Music Archive. At the moment David is thinking about punk and sexuality and will be doing a talk on this for LGBT History Month at MMU (Geoffrey Manton Building Lecture Theatre 6), Wednesday February 12 at 6pm. The Blue Orchids, meanwhile, are playing at the Star and Garter on Saturday February 15 at the Light it Up clubnight.

West Yorkshire-based photographer and eternal wanderer Jonathan Salmon presents some atmospheric images contemplating a new life in the country, capturing both the freedom and suffocation caused by vast open spaces. Jonathan lives down the hill from the old Yorkshire town of Queensbury, one of the highest towns in the UK, and often wakes up to an eerie fog. Jonathan is currently artist of the month, and his photographs are on display, at Trof in Levenshulme (Trof have contributed this issue's recipe, see below).

Writer and journalist Kenn Taylor contributes a poem about austerity. Originally from Merseyside but now living in London, Kenn has a particular interest in the relationship between community, culture and the urban environment.

Manchester-based filmmaker and musician Richard Howe continues his series on mental health in the movies by looking at Temple Grandin by Mick Jackson, which stars Claire Danes as a young autistic girl. Tweet Richard about films @rikurichard. Watch his latest short film, Beware, at

Jared Szpakowski introduces ALBUMCLUB, a monthly theme-based music exchange. Jared is an NHS administrator and an artist based at 3rd Floor Studios in Manchester. His work documents everything from the life and death of houseplants to the decomposition of airline chapatis, NHS paraphernalia and the contents of his wife's granddad's Bible who he never met and is no longer with us. He keeps an almost-daily blog at and has just launched a monthly soundtrack to accompany the visuals. He is also the chairman and founder of ALBUMCLUB.

Book and print-maker Jo Wilkinson has contributed an illustrative drawing. Jo constantly battles with time, finding that there are never enough hours to draw, collage, collect ephemera, fold, cut or sew. Her small, pamphlet-style books are usually non-narrative pieces, with her drawings comprising illustrative, one-off stories on a page, although she has created one love story. 

Husband and wife team Trove, who believe in making good food from scratch, tell the story of how their cafe and bakery came into being and contribute a recipe for beetroot hummus. Trove's organic, homemade, artisan bread, from sourdough to rye, is used both in the cafe and can be found in Unicorn Grocery in Chorlton, Back's Deli in Heaton Moor, Polocini cafe, Romiley, Fig and Sparrow lifestyle shop and cafe, Manchester, Cowherds Vegetarian Cafe, Trafford, Volta bar and restaurant, West Didsbury and Eleckrik cafe/bar, Chorlton. Trove has won two Manchester Food and Drink Festival awards, one for being 'Truly Good Food Heroes' and the other for being the best 'Cheap Eats' venue in Manchester. Find them in Levenshulme, opposite the Antiques Village.

Download and print your own copy here. Read issue 22, along with back issues of the Shrieking Violet, in Salford Zine Library at Nexus Art Cafe in Manchester's Northern Quarter. Paper copies can also be found in the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.