Friday, 12 July 2013

“The beauty is in the possibility”: Jen Wu's 'The Wall'

Halfway up Chapel Street, a busy car, bus and pedestrian route which links the city of Salford with Manchester city centre, a motley assortment of old buildings punctuate empty stretches of rubble and high fencing, a familiar sight in many post-industrial cities. The bricked-up pubs, burnt-out office buildings and an old theatre covered with 'danger' signs are suggestive of a time when the street was a busy shopping hub, before abandonment was forced by the area's subsequent decline. With details like bell towers, faded signs and curved frontages these buildings capture the imagination, standing out in a landscape dominated by vacant sites and new-build apartment blocks (so much so that it is possible to buy postcards featuring unconventional landmarks such as the derelict Old Nelson pub from Salford Museum and Art Gallery up the road, hoardings and all). Appreciating these buildings aesthetically, though, is ignoring the inevitable: Chapel Street is due to be transformed with extensive residential and commercial development over the next few years, aimed at attracting new residents into the area. Many of the existing buildings will be demolished.
As the demolition crews finally move in this summer, it is hoped that one wall from the Old Bank building, which was used as a community theatre in the 1950s and 1960s, will remain standing as a readymade sculptural artwork, a 'barometer' which will remain constant as the area changes around it. Working with bricklayers and structural engineers, artist Jen Wu will stabilise the wall before inviting the local community, which ranges from tower block tenants and artists to 'young professionals' resident in newer flats, to take part in dismantling and then moving and rebuilding the wall in an act of 'creative DIY', soundtracked by free and open 'demolition' and 'reconstruction' rave parties. For Jen, who has a background curating projects in London such as transforming major art gallery the ICA into a nightclub, the focus of the project is not just on demolition, but on action, creating a cycle of activity that will help bring people together to celebrate the past at the same time as looking to the future and channelling the DIY spirit which drives places such as nearby arts venue Islington Mill.

At least that's the idea. Jen conceived the work in collaboration with Islington Mill directors Bill Campbell and Maurice Carlin in early 2012, and in December started discussions with English Cities Fund and Urban Vision, which is responsible for overseeing the regeneration of the area. She says the regeneration firms “took a leap of faith” in supporting her ideas, seeing the project as a positive way of empowering and involving local people in the changes taking place their immediate environment. The buildings were due to come down in February 2013, but demolition was delayed – and then around May time the council started to get cold feet due to health and safety concerns and the changes it would entail to the original demolition contract. Now the fences have gone up and demolition is imminent, meaning Jen faces a race against time. She has been meeting with Salford City Council and Bagnall, the demolition contractor, to find a solution so that the events can take place in September rather than July as originally planned, but the future of The Wall is still uncertain; the latest news is that it looks like Bagnall will have to take down the wall and save Jen the bricks, meaning the community action will be just the reconstruction. Jen says:“A compromise, but at least it can still happen!”
Jen's interest in the process of demolition initially grew out of a three-month residency at the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester which started late in 2011, where she researched the history of Manchester's former musical landmarks which have been demolished, such as the Hacienda nightclub (now rebuilt as apartments – Jen “kept wondering why I couldn't recognise it – it's depressing”) and the notorious Hulme Crescents, which were once the venue for famous parties. She also went out on Manchester's club scene and met those suffused with DIY energy in Manchester today, from Unity Radio and Islington Mill to Kraak space and the Volkov Commanders, finding that “there is something real about it. It's not like it's just setting itself up as an alternative”. Jen became interested in the ways in which spaces where people used to come together, such as nightclubs, have been destroyed and started to explore narratives of regeneration, demolition and starting over again. She documented the demolition of buildings such as the former seaman's mission and Salvation Army centre Stella Maris, which stood just behind Chapel Street next to Islington Mill, becoming interested in both the material process of demolition and the communal psyche of what the building meant to its former users. Despite both Islington Mill and Manchester Modernist Society proposing future uses for the building, which once boasted facilities such as a sprung dance floor, the council was insistent on its demolition, and it is now used as a storage space for building work in the area. Jen made a film about the demolition which was shown at suitably avant-noise band Gnod's Gesamtkunstwerk night at Islington Mill, and Gnod will reciprocate by playing at the parties accompanying The Wall events, closing the circle of Jen's convergent interests in rave and regeneration.

By holding rave parties, Jen hopes to resurrect the spirit of rave in a positive way, bringing together some of the protagonists of the 1980s rave scene in Manchester with musicians who are influenced by their music today and connecting them with the creativity energy flourishing in Salford now. The Wall is also an opportunity for people to reconnect with the materiality of what's around them, and appreciate the solid sturdiness of brick in a city which is, after all, built predominantly of the material. Jen explains: “Everything is so virtual now, but if you help to take down a wall and rebuild a wall you are contributing to something longer-lasting. People will be able to walk past and say 'I built that'. It doesn't take specialist skills or support any ideology.” Jen has met with representatives from community newspaper M3, and the local residents' association, to gauge interest in the project, and it is hoped that the wall, rebuilt nearby, may then become the starting point of something new, such as a community centre (in an interesting parallel, one local resident was involved in a similar project to save a wall in an old aircraft hangar, which contained a half-finished wartime mural, interrupted by its artist being called up to fight, and succeeded in moving the wall to a museum).

The parameters of The Wall are constantly shifting, and the development of the area is gathering pace. As Jen says, “It's extraordinary what's been happening. Every day something new is there or something is no longer there.” Sometimes The Wall seems impossible to realise, but Jen sees Manchester as an ideal space to try things out and doesn't think The Wall could take place anywhere else. She has now been in Manchester far beyond her original residency period, doggedly trying to see the project through. She explains: “I just want to do something truthful and that I can stand behind as an artist. I didn't give up, because it could happen. Because I got a glimpse of it happening I had to carry it through. So many people said yes and got excited that I couldn't go back.” Jen has convinced those around her of the beauty to be found in a brick wall, and The Wall still exists as a possibility, just in reach of being realised. As she says: “The beauty is in the possibility. I'm always optimistic. If I'm not then who's going to be?”

For the latest news on The Wall keep an eye on www.islingtonmill.com/visual-arts-events.php.

Jen is hosting a 'supper' at Islington Mill on Saturday 13 July from 6-9pm. She will be talking about The Wall for around 45 minutes, then use the rest of the time to get feedback from people about how to re-think the work. For more information visit www.facebook.com/events/467844653307944.

3 comments:

M.Titley said...

Hmmmmmm yaaaa really interesting and all, but she's only gone and got the wrong wall. The one with the whale is the one worth saving. If it's brick walls people are longing for then a day trip to Miles Platting might be a good shout.

Christel said...

This is fantastic!

Jen said...

Hello M.Titley - really interesting you say that. I only found out very recently that the wall with the whale is coming down... I think that mural is pretty amazing too- in one of my poster sketches for The Wall there's an image of a wave, which was in part a nod to that wall. Unfortunately I can't do anything to save it (I don't think!) but I had an inspiring conversation with a local mural/street artist recently - maybe the Bank Theatre wall could be used for a new mural, or which changes now and again... you never know what can happen, especially if people want it to. Definitely something to think about!