Tuesday, 29 December 2015

The Shrieking Violet guide to the public art of central Salford

This guide was created as a tour for a group of human geography undergraduates in November 2015. This tour aims to offer a brief introduction to the historical context and development of public art, and some of the debates, concerns and issues surrounding it, asking questions such as ‘What is public art?’ and ‘What form does it take?’.

The guide takes as its starting point the post-war era, widely regarded a time artworks began to step down from the gallery plinth to be installed in public places and buildings, though many of them used the same form and materials, and relied on the same assumed distance between artwork and viewer, and framework of interpretation, as artworks which might be seen in a traditional institutional setting. It concludes in the present-day. The guide moves from a presentation of object-based artworks to highlighting artworks which are ephemeral, activity and performance-based, and may leave the viewer with little or nothing to look at on a permanent basis, but nonetheless contain the potential to transform the way their participants think about and experience the city, and interact with certain spaces and situations. On its way, the guide takes in artworks which aim to engage with communities and local people, as well as artworks linked with specific places and pieces linked with wider agendas of tourism and regeneration. 

It was assumed that students had little, if any, familiarity with the area, so this publication also acts as an introduction to an area of Salford which has undergone several phases of development, decline and renewal and is currently undergoing transformation and attempted gentrification at an accelerated pace. It starts at the University of Salford, progressing down the Crescent and Chapel Street. This guide draws on a number of sources, including original interviews undertaken with artists, curators and others involved in public art in the area and published elsewhere, including on this blog.

Thanks to those who came on the tour and interacted with, discussed and commented on the content. Read online:

Monday, 21 December 2015

Why I call myself the Shrieking Violet

I wrote this in response to a recent article in the Guardian about the decline of the name 'Nigel'.

Why I call myself the Shrieking Violet

I call myself the Shrieking Violet because of a man called Nigel: Nigel 'Nig' Hodgkins, my Year 9 English teacher, who had a bowl haircut, big, round glasses and a 'flying jacket' (and as a result was mocked a lot by the girls at my all girls' school for being hopelessly uncool). At the age of 13/14 I didn't say very much (didn't know how), but wrote copiously. My main ambitions in life were to be editor of the Times (the family newspaper of choice, and therefore my main source of cultural knowledge), a rock 'n' roll music journalist or on Top of the Pops (or possibly all of those).

A lot of the time I felt like if you weren't loud you were ignored, seen as being stupid or dismissed as having nothing worth saying, but Mr Hodgkins noticed that I did have things to say and once said he knew that I was 'no shrinking violet'. This stuck with me and I determined that I was going to be a 'Shrieking Violet' instead of a 'shrinking violet', and that I was one day going to have a band with that name. 

One day after class someone asked Mr Hodgkins who his favourite band was. He said 'oh you won't have heard of them' and wrote 'L-o-v-e' on the board. I loved them, and excitedly exclaimed 'I love Forever Changes'! It turned out Mr Hodgkins wrote for the Penguin Book of Rock & Pop in his spare time. I used to get the bus to Canterbury to go record shopping at weekends, so I started going and standing in the 'music' section of Waterstones, on the first floor, and reading 'Nig Hodgkins'' entries in the Penguin Book of Rock & Pop – which included Pixies, Beach Boys, Husker Du and Public Enemy. 

After a couple of years Mr Hodgkins left our school. He'd always said that the '80s were the worst decade for music, which I vehemently disagreed with (I still think the eighties might be my favourite decade for music), so as a leaving present I made him a tape of my favourite '80s songs, called, of course, 'Making Plans for Nigel' (I stretched '80s slightly to include 1979/1990). I first heard 'Making Plans for Nigel' when I taped it off Steve Lamacq's Evening Session, and it's still one of my favourite ever songs, with one of my favourite ever guitar solos (when I moved to Manchester they used to play it at Smile at the Star and Garter, and I used to think of Mr Hodgkins as I danced around).

The last time I saw Mr Hodgkins was at the Canterbury Fayre music festival, when I was 16, in the summer holidays after my GCSEs (the same summer holidays I spent recording my first ever album, on cassette tape), out in the rolling Kentish countryside surrounded by hop fields. Love were headlining, playing Forever Changes in its entirety, complete with horns and strings, and it's one of the most transcendent musical experiences I can ever remember having, ferocious and mellow at the same time, of its time but also still so forceful and so bright and fresh. Arthur Lee died a couple of years later, so I'm so glad I got the chance to experience it. I still wear the Love t-shirt I bought at the festival, which is increasingly washed out and ragged but I intend to keep wearing it until it falls apart.

I hope Mr Hodgkins is still writing about music and going to gigs and being passionate and inspiring about what he does!

The Shrieking Violets on Bandcamp

I recently digitised the first album I ever made, on cassette tape, when I was 16, during the summer holidays after my GCSEs. It was recorded in my parents' attic, in a very rudimentary fashion, on a Sony shoebox recorder. It can now be listened to at https://theshriekingviolets.bandcamp.com/album/first-album. I'm not sure why I felt the need to put it online, except that I guess it's the first thing I ever made, by myself, just got on with, produced, because I had to, needed to. For that reason it's still my most treasured possession.

By way of introduction, here is a piece I wrote about my teenage music-making for Black Dogs' publication Hope From Dead End Town a few years ago.

'A View from (under) the Bridge': a short story about growing up weird

I grew up in a small town called Hythe on the south coast of England, a picturesque and pleasant, yet quiet, town nestled between the English Channel and rolling Kent countryside which is populated predominantly by two groups of people: pensioners and Conservative voters. Hythe is in the south eastern corner of England, not really on the way to anywhere, and it's a place where time passes slowly; when I was a teenager, the social life of one group of old men consisted of sitting in a row on one of the town's bridges for a chat at the same time every day, resting halfway between home and the shops, their walking sticks propped up on the pavement. As a child who was never conventionally pretty, girly or interested in subjects deemed fitting topics for discussion by teenage girls, I didn't really fit in there, or at my all girls' school a twenty minute bus-ride away, and as much as I tried to make friends my overall experience was of overwhelming loneliness, from which I tried doggedly to distract myself by making music and art.

In my early teens I became obsessed with playing the guitar, both as an outlet for my creative frustration and as something to do to pass the time. I asked for an acoustic guitar for my fourteenth birthday, and when my mum and dad took me to a guitar shop in the nearest city, Canterbury, I knew that the black Fender I picked up, so shiny I could see my face in its surface, was the guitar for me; it was love at first sight. Later, I talked them into buying me a hard, black guitar case lined with what looked liked luxurious red velvet, a fitting home for my precious instrument, and was given a hippyish, rainbow-woven guitar strap which contrasted nicely with its stylish, unbroken blackness.

I took to lugging the guitar everywhere with me as if it was my best friend, the awkward, slippery handle of the heavy case wearing red marks into my hands as I wandered around the town from spot to spot, an unlikely, roving busker singing songs no-one else knew the words to. I tried to play songs like Shake Some Action by Californian band Flamin Groovies (with lyrics like "If you don't dig what I say/Then I will go away/And I won't come back this again. No/'Cause I don't need a friend”, Shake Some Action was the rousing, defiant anthem of my teenage disaffection, and it's a song I still play from time to time today), and underage romance 13 by Big Star, little realising that potential listeners wanted something familiar they could hum along to like the Beatles or Oasis. I clung onto the hope, however, that if only someone who shared my love of sixties and seventies American power pop would walk past one day and stop and talk to me, I'd finally meet someone with whom I had something in common, and find a companion.

I used to sit and play on a smooth worn step in front of the town hall, my legs dangling down onto the paving slabs of the High Street, struggling to make my voice heard over the uninterested shoppers, or on the uncomfortable, stony beach and the distinctive, pink-painted promenade which ran alongside it, and sometimes on the gently sloping banks of the historic, tranquil Royal Military Canal which meanders placidly through the town, built centuries ago to defend the Kent coast from the threat of invasion by Napoleon, amid daffodils and swans and under the shade of weeping willow trees.

One day I decided to take this to its logical conclusion and go and sit and play under one of the bridges which takes cars and pedestrians over the canal, to find out how it echoed, and make some recordings on my portable 'shoebox-style' recorder. I was inspired partly by my favourite guitarist at the time, John Fahey, who wrote a piece of music based on a 'singing bridge' in Memphis, Tennessee (as a teenager, I spent a disproportionate amount of time daydreaming about visiting the Southern States of the United States, inspired both by its completely alien landscape and the potential for adventures suggested to me by its literature and music), and in part by the episode of the Simpsons in which Lisa Simpson, another hero of mine, joins saxophonist Bleeding Gums Murphy in a jam on a moonlit bridge, an homage to the famous story of jazz musician Sonny Rollins practising on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York over on the equally remote, exciting and exotic East coast of America. Despite my parents' concern – they teasingly called me 'troll', and warned me of vermin and the dangers of waterborne Weil's disease – I became obsessed with going and sitting, alternating depending on whichever took my fancy that day, under two facing bridges at opposite ends of the town centre. I found the bridges to be perfect practice rooms to experiment with different sounds and try out the metal and glass slides and capo I'd bought from the nearby music shop in the High Street, which was run by one eccentric, opinionated man who would talk your ear off if given half a chance. Eventually, I put voice to my own songs and lyrics.

For me, the bridges were both private and a magical places, giving me space to sit, think and watch the world go by. In sunshine, I watched elusive ripples of light dance above me, reflected on the bridges' low roofs, trying again and again to capture the fleeting dashes of sunlight and recreate the essence of the place as short films on my digital camera. In stormy weather, rain and hail fell onto the surface of the water in small circles and the bridges became my refuge from thunder and lightning, an experience I found more exciting than frightening. I was usually undisturbed, save from occasional hired rowing boats going past bearing noisy families and the occasional sunburnt couple, some of whom appeared to be pleased by my music, which must have broken up the physical monotony of their oar strokes, and some of whom didn't seem sure how to react.

For a couple of years, it felt like I spent all my weekends and summer holidays under bridges – so much so that I even had my sixteenth birthday party down there and convinced some of my classmates to get the bus into Hythe to join me, eating cake and sheltering from the half-hearted rain of a mid-May day.