Friday, 15 December 2017

Fallowfield Loop damson gin

In the 1960s, Dr Beeching paved the way for the reduction of the British rail network, closing small village stations and branch lines and catalysing the ascendancy of the motorcar as the dominant mode of transport in Britain*.

Some of long-closed lines are now reopening, after decades dormant. Others, their tracks removed permanently and their station buildings now converted into shops and supermarket cafes (as is the case with the former suburban Manchester stations of Levenshulme and Fallowfield), offer cyclists miles of dedicated bike path free from the traffic and aggressive motoring that increasingly chokes our towns and cities.

Manchester’s Fallowfield Loop stretches around eight miles, looping around the south and east of the city. Beginning in inner-city Openshaw in east Manchester and ending in leafy Chorlton in south Manchester, it undulates through the former industrial dormitories of Gorton and Levenshulme, passes picturesque Debdale Reservoir, skirts the boundary of Stockport at Reddish, and cuts through studenty Fallowfield and leafy Whalley Range.
The Loop has the feel of a linear park, offering a backdoor view of the city and its patchwork of official and unofficial green spaces. The Loop itself is an underacknowledged green space. In spring and summer it’s overgrown with branches forming a green tunnel, although in autumn the slipperiness of the accumulated layers of leaves can be treacherous. In winter, the foliage drops right back to reveal numerous back gardens, allotments, recreation grounds, school playing fields, overgrown brownfield sites and industrial land reclaimed as country parks. It links up with other traffic-free routes, too, from the Ashton Canal, with its miles of recently resurfaced towpath, to former branch canals such as the Stockport canal.
The Fallowfield Loop has become a place of community activism and communal litter-picks. It’s also a place of memorial, to young people who have killed themselves. Recently, it’s become a site of protest, with large EU flags unfurled unmissably from road and railway bridges; when removed, they reappear again soon afterwards, imported en masse from China. Pro-EU graffiti sprayed along the path places the UK at the heart of the EU, and the Manchester bee motif is placed centrally within the circle of stars that represent the EU member states; it’s a reminder that Manchester, along with the neighbouring local authorities of Stockport and Trafford, which the Loop passes close-by, voted remain in the EU referendum, in common with several other northern cities. It’s also a place for creativity, from street art murals celebrating the city’s architecture, to hand-written personal declarations (and accusations – ‘Louis K has a tiny penis’). It’s a place to encounter culture, from bicycle theatre troupes offering outdoor Shakespeare performances to public artworks sponsored by the cycle charity Sustrans, which document and draw attention to the flora and fauna of the route. It’s a place of learning and instruction, for small children to gain confidence and practise their bike skills away from the road. It’s also a place for family time: on father’s day, it’s noticeable how the number of men with small children increases.
Not all is benign – once or twice a year the ambush of women or opportunistic robberies make the deadlines, and mounted police undertake regular patrols. However, generally it’s a place of conviviality and sharing: if a cyclist stops at the side of the path, the next to pass will stop to see if all’s okay, and offer help fixing a chain or a spare inner tube.

Although cyclists benefit the most from a safe cycling environment uninterrupted by the frequent stops and starts of traffic lights, the Fallowfield Loop is also well-used by walkers, joggers, dogwalkers, students, and schoolchildren on their way to and from school, as well as shoppers just getting from A to B. It’s a meeting place, too, particularly for groups of teenagers.
These looplines are also fruitful places for the urban forager. Depending on the season, edible mushrooms, horseradish, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, plums, damsons, sloes and apples can all be found along the Loop, whilst in late-summer individuals and groups of people of all ages gather with an assortment of receptacles, from large yoghurt tubs to seaside buckets, Tupperware tubs and carrier bags, to gather blackberries, and offer hints on the best spots.

This year’s damsons were picked along the Fallowfield Loop, in a year that was unusually fallow for apples, yet plums and damsons of varying hues were in abundance.

* For a more detailed account of cuts to train services in Manchester see

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Guest lecture, Bradford School of Art, 15 November: 'The Campus as Art Gallery: The Past, Present and Future of Educational Art Collections'

I will be doing a guest lecture at Bradford School of Art at 12 noon on Wednesday 15 November, drawing on an emerging interest in further/higher educational art collections, which has arisen from my PhD research into Pictures for Schools and post-war art education. The lecture, which takes place as part of the 'Random Lecture series', is free and all are welcome.

The Campus as Art Gallery: The Past, Present and Future of Educational Art Collections

Like many institutions, universities and colleges often publicly display portraits of grandees such as chancellors and vice-chancellors in order to convey a sense of tradition, heritage and prestige. Less common but more interesting are those further and higher education establishments which have sought to display works of modern art around campus, turning the educational environment into a gallery space. Universities that have chosen to collect and display contemporary art range from modern, post-war universities, where brutalist 1960s architecture is offset by landscaped grounds filled with sculpture by artists such as Henry Moore, to redbrick Victorian universities, to former technical colleges which attained university status in the 1960s. Here (primarily) paintings were purchased for display in communal areas such as corridors and lecture rooms, as well as more privately in staff offices. Between the 1940s and the 1960s, many teacher training colleges also became enthusiastic buyers of contemporary art as part of a broader culture of artistic patronage among educational establishments such as schools, and art became a part of the training context for a future generation of educators.

Some educational establishments continue to take pride in these collections, make a point of promoting public awareness and access, and continue to actively acquire work. In other cases artworks have been lost, faded into the background or become hidden in the everyday fabric of the institution as universities and colleges have merged, been expanded, modernised and redeveloped over time. This has been due to insufficient documentation and knowledge about the optimum conditions for the display of artworks, a lack of dedicated resource and staff time, or a lack of planning around care and maintenance for the future.

This lecture will explore the historical establishment and development of some of these educational art collections in colleges and universities in the twentieth century. It will explore their perceived educational impact and appeal, the types of artworks that were considered to be of value and use for display in educational settings, and what this says about changing ideas about the nature and purpose of education. It will ask what an educational art collection might look like now and what it might add to the educational experience of today’s students.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Folkestone Triennial: a town transformed by art?

“It’s the best job in the world,” enthuses Folkestone Triennial curator Lewis Biggs, as he bounds along the Leas promenade in a straw hat and tropical shirt. The Victorian seaside splendour of the Leas, lined with grand hotels and mansion blocks, is one of the locations currently displaying new artworks for the fourth instalment of the town’s triennial. Some require the viewer to look hard to spot them – David Shrigley and Camille Biddell recreated one of the Leas’ traditional, ornate lampposts from memory and installed it on the Leas, where it differs only slightly in height and colour from those around it – whereas Richard Woods’ brightly coloured holiday chalets stand out garishly around the town. His fantasy structures float in the harbour and perch on the top of the cliffs, aiming to highlight the impact of second home ownership on the south east’s overheated property market. 
Across the town, the triennial opens up new spaces to residents and visitors alike. This includes a former Baptist burial ground, hidden among a huge redbrick railway viaduct and tall, austere rows of terraces. Accessed via a steep row of steps, it hosts sensor-activated sound compositions by Emily Peasgood. Anthony Gormley invites visitors to descend into the dank, cavernous space under the Harbour Arm, where one of his characteristic figures surveys the dramatic white cliffs of Dover and the passing of cross-channel traffic. Hoycheong Wong makes the invisible visible, giving a new façade to an otherwise anonymous Islamic cultural centre, which for 28 years has served the area’s 300 Muslims from a nondescript industrial building. Other pieces blur the boundaries between the private and the public, as in Amalia Pica’s seashell sculptures, positioned in people’s front windows, which reference souvenirs, kitsch and collecting. Other work literally illuminates, in the case of a lamppost in the dingy market square, powered by an experimental mushroom battery, installed by Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas. Some of the work highlights familiar locations or landmarks. Alex Hartley’s 'Wall' appears to balance precariously at the edge of the white cliffs, constantly at risk of erosion. Other artists bring attention to aspects of the town’s history and economy, as in Jonathan Wright’s small-scale replicas of Folkestone’s fishing fleet – only ten of which remain in operation – developed in collaboration with local fishermen and suspended on posts around the town. Lubaina Himid, meanwhile, suggests an alternative history in her beachfront jelly mould pavilion, that encourages us to think about the links between leisure and pleasure, slavery and sugar.
This is Biggs’ second triennial – he took over from Andrea Schlieker for the 2014 edition – and it’s clear that he considers it a job for life. His enthusiasm stems partly from the opportunities offered by Folkestone’s architecture and geography – “I’m obsessed with art and place,” he explains. “They are constructed in the same way – through material and stories.” The process of choosing work for the triennial starts, Biggs explains, “with a list of places I want to illuminate”.
In large part, too, Biggs is driven by working “in a town small enough to see a difference”. As much as the excitement of opening up places and bringing artists to work in the town, Biggs is interested in urbanism, civic life, democracy and the long-term effect of the triennial. “It’s really important that art is seen as part of life,” says Biggs. “It’s the glue between people in society.” He explains: “I believe that if we get better at constructing art then we get better at constructing place.”
Biggs’ concern with place-making and transformation is shared by Alastair Upton, Chief Executive of the Creative Foundation. The Creative Foundation was formed in 2002 by the philanthropist Roger De Haan, founder of Saga, a major local employer based in nearby Sandgate (De Haan is still chair of the Creative Foundation). The Creative Foundation set out to explore the potential for creative-led regeneration in a town that had “lost its economic purpose” following the decline of tourism in the second half of the twentieth century and the loss of its channel crossing in 2000. For Upton, the raison d'être of the Creative Foundation, which he joined in 2011, is to ask: “How can creative activities make Folkestone a better place to live, work, study and visit?” The answer, for Upton, is by creating a place that has “interesting architecture, buildings and things going on – a cultural life”. 
Both Upton and Biggs previously worked in Liverpool, Biggs as curator of Liverpool Biennial from 2000-2011, before which he led Tate Liverpool, and Upton as Director of the Bluecoat in Liverpool. Upton explains that “historically all the stories about Liverpool were negative”. Liverpool’s designation as the Capital of Culture in 2008 was an opportunity to change the way the city was perceived, both by residents and by outsiders. “The defensive pride that people felt has became positive,” says Upton. 

Biggs, too, explains that he learnt a lot in Liverpool: “I found that I needed to relearn and think again, because art and audiences behave differently in and outside of the institution. In the gallery, the primary reference is always to other art – you are always working in the parameters of art history and it is circular, as it appeals to people who are already interested in art.”
Having seen how art can change places in Liverpool, Upton and Biggs share a sense that there is potential to “make more of a difference” in Folkestone, a medium-sized town of around 50,000 people. In the nine years since the first Folkestone Triennial took place in 2008 the town has undeniably undergone something of a transformation. When the work of the Foundation started, the town had been subject to decades of decline. Like town centres across the country, the high street has been in a sorry state for years: one of the largest retailers, M&S, abandoned the town in 2006, leaving empty shops in its wake. Although community arts company Strange Cargo was long-established in the town, there was little in the way of contemporary art of national or international quality in Kent. For many years the Metropole Gallery, founded in 1961 with the support of the critic and broadcaster Sir Kenneth Clark – a resident of Saltwood Castle in nearby Hythe – brought a varied programme of changing exhibitions by emerging and established artists to the town. However, constrained by its base in an old-fashioned Victorian building dominated by parquet floors, large windows and wooden panelling, it finally wound down in 2008.
One catalyst for the revival of the Folkestone’s fortunes has been the opening of the high-speed train route from London. In 2007, the Kent coast was connected to St Pancras by high-speed train: the journey from Folkestone to London, which previously took around an hour and fifty minutes, can now be done in under an hour. This has had the effect of bringing the Kent coast closer to London; it has also prompted an influx of incomers, including artists, attracted by cheaper property and a better quality of life, still within commuting distance of the capital.

The cultural offering in the county, too, has improved dramatically in the past five to ten years, with the opening of the Turner Contemporary in Margate in 2011 and the Beaney in Canterbury in 2012 (as well as the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, East Sussex in 2012), as well as new music venues along the coast, from Ramsgate Music Hall to Dover’s new Booking Hall venue.
However, Upton sees the Creative Foundation as offering an alternative to the “concept or consumption-led” gallery model, which relies on a landmark building to create a trickle-down effect in the town’s economy. Instead, Upton sees a need to “make a place for people to make”, believing that it offers a “firmer base for development” and a “change that brings the whole economy with it”. The Creative Foundation started this process by “making a place for artists to live and work, a production base”. It bought, did up and hired out ninety buildings in a derelict and unloved area of town; these spaces are now at full capacity.
Today, the old town is almost unrecognisable. In the picturesque old high street, derelict shops have been smartened up and painted bright colours. The cobbled streets are now lined with coffee shops, small galleries and boutiques. The triennial is just one aspect of this transformation. Alongside the triennial is an established fringe festival, and independent galleries and artist spaces proliferate in the old town. These include the Brewery Tap, which showcases work by artists and academics from the University of the Creative Arts. Folkestone Museum has recently reopened in a new space in the former town hall, telling the stories from the town’s natural and archaeological history, as well as hosting changing exhibitions.
One of the biggest transformations of all has been the reopening of the Harbour Arm, in a run-down part of town that few had any reason to venture into following the demolition of the Rotunda amusement park and the closure of the ferry crossing. Until recently, the Harbour Arm station connected Folkestone to the continent via the Orient Express; although trains no longer run there, it’s been reinvented as a leisure destination, with pop-up bars and food stalls in the former station buildings. Snaking dramatically out into the sea, it offers views out to France and the white cliffs of Dover in one direction, and around the bay to Dungeness power station in the other.
For Upton, another of the big success stories is the Quarterhouse, which hosts gigs, film screenings, comedy and spoken word and other events. Unlike many arts venues, whose subsidised programme is patronised mainly by those in the upper socioeconomic groups, he says its audience represents a very similar demographic to that of the town. Upton also emphasises the Foundation’s work with young people. For example, “every single child” from the town’s schools visits Folkestone Book Festival, there is a drop-in arts club, and there are opportunities for work experience.

There’s still work to be done, for example in promoting and developing jobs and livelihoods for local people in the creative industries. There are opportunities for further connections to be made with projects exploring digital futures. There’s also a need for the art scene to be more visible in between triennials, and for Folkestone to be linked up more with other cultural initiatives across the South East: neighbouring East Sussex, separated from Folkestone by Romney Marsh, now has a Coastal Cultural Trail connecting up the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea and the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings.
The main challenge now, though, says Upton, is “How do you make it inclusive? How do you make sure it remains for everyone?” Upton regards the changes that have taken place so far as “rebalancing” as much as “gentrification”, but the town will change considerably again over the next ten years, as a large area surrounding the harbour area is redeveloped with a much-discussed and long-stalled residential and commercial development. The challenge, says Upton, is that, “as Folkestone changes we’ve got to make sure artists are involved in the very fabric of the town and how it sees itself”. As Biggs puts it: “Folkestone is changing at such a rate. We need feedback between development and the arts. People are now in conversation.”
Upton highlights that “lots of artists in the triennial describe themselves as socially engaged”, and some of the most interesting work at the triennial is that which encourages interaction, or provides spaces for people to come together to talk, think and play. This ranges from Sol Calero’s brightly-painted and participatory 'Casa Anacaona' beach pavilion, which is filled with movable furniture and acts as a social space for young people, to Bob and Roberta Smith’s ‘Folkestone is an art school’, which is working with ten local young people as well as celebrating the artistic activity that already goes on in the area: as Biggs explains, “Folkestone is an art school already – you need to change your attitude so you can see it”. A new ‘Urban Room’ in the recently restored former Customs House at the Harbour Arm houses a library of books about the history of the town, alongside texts on urbanism, art and citizenship, as well as maps and drawings showing the ways the town’s landscape and its uses have changed over time. It’s a place not just to learn about the past, but to add to, to imagine and to discuss the future.
Folkestone Triennial: Double Edge takes place at various venues in Folkestone from Saturday 2 September until Sunday 5 November. For more information, including locations, opening times and the accompanying programme of events visit

Friday, 25 August 2017

Phyllida Barlow and the seaside architecture of the south coast

Phyllida Barlow, untitled: dunce (2015)

One of the defining features of Phyllida Barlow’s sculptures is their scale. Often reminiscent of natural forms such as rock formations, they tower over you, sometimes with immersive effect. This was the case, for example, at her 2015 solo show at Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, which transformed the space into a claustrophobic series of close-up encounters with her work as the viewer navigated through various pinch-points.

Rock formations are an apt starting point for Barlow’s work, which could be placed in a lineage of twentieth century British sculptors who have referenced organic forms such as the beach pebble – most obviously the modernism of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Whereas their sculpture takes the humble seaside stone and transforms it into something sleek and abstracted, carved from stone or cast in heavyweight bronze, Barlow’s sculptural forms are rough, messy, eroded, often showing the material or process of their making and incorporating appropriated and ephemeral materials.

Barlow’s work has been brought to Margate as part of the ‘Artist’s Rooms’ series of touring exhibitions. This places a regional spotlight on Barlow’s five-decade career at the same time as she represents Britain internationally at the Venice Biennale; her work is shown alongside that of the British-Kenyan artist Michael Armitage, a former student of Barlow’s at the Slade. Armitage incorporates imagery from African mythology and current social and cultural issues into a series of remarkable narrative paintings in densely worked, luminous paint on textural lubugo bark fabric.

Phyllida Barlow, untitled: holder (2014)

Designed by David Chipperfield, the Turner Contemporary is an iconic building overlooking Margate harbour, which created a new physical and cultural landmark in the town when it opened in 2011. The self-consciously modern development stands alone at the harbour’s edge; it is made particularly striking by its setting in a Victorian townscape of tall, narrow terraces.

Phyllida Barlow, untitled: upturnedhouse, 2 (2012)

A strong architectural influence is apparent in Barlow’s work. This runs through her work on paper, in particular her pencil drawings, which have an air of the study or plan about them, all angles and perspectives. Sometimes they suggest interiors, at others a maze or labyrinth, or the footprint or outline of a building. It’s also apparent in the materiality of her work, which uses material such as wood, sand and mesh frames, overlaid with crude and thick layers of paint. Most of all, it’s visible in her sculptures, which suggest the Colosseum in Rome (‘untitled: holder’, 2014), at one extreme, and the garden shed at the other (‘upturnedhouse 2’, 2012).

Richard Wilson, 18 Holes (2008)

‘upturnedhouse, 2’ also brings to mind Richard Wilson’s ‘18 Holes’, commissioned for the first Folkestone Triennial in 2008. For this large-scale public work, in another former seaside resort looking to art for regeneration and reinvention, Wilson recycled large slabs of crazy golf surfacing from the nearby Rotunda amusement park, demolished to make way for a residential, retail and leisure development, in order to build a trio of new beach huts. In doing so, he brought together two archetypal forms of seaside recreation, inserted into a uniform row of standard issue concrete huts to be stumbled across as an unexpected encounter with art.

The constituent parts of Barlow’s sculptures often resemble building blocks; they appear unstable, as if in a state of perpetual assembly and dismantling, caught between balance and stability, strength and fragility, much like the architectural and natural landscape of this stretch of coast.

Collapsed Martello tower, Hythe, Kent


One of the Turner Contemporary’s selling points is its panoramic views out to sea. Seen in this setting, Barlow’s sculptures invite comparison to the defensive architecture of this area, which acted both as deterrent and as vantage point from which to spot any potential attackers. From Essex in the north to Sussex in the East via Kent and Romney Marsh, these largely flat lands have been subject to successive layers of attack, from anticipated Napoleonic invasion to wartime bombing raids to the ongoing onslaught of the sea. The response to these threats has left its mark in the landscape, from solid brick Martello towers and redoubts, some still standing and other crumbling slowly into the sea, to modern rock groynes and concrete sea walls. Barlow’s 2015 work ‘Tryst’, though not shown here, resembles the monumental Maunsell Sea forts, fortresses built during the Second World War and raised high on stilts above the sands off the coast of Kent. Others make more utilitarian references, suggesting steps, staircases and stacks, as seen in ‘Untitled (Yellow Racks)’ (2006). ‘Awnings’ meanwhile, suggests a series of flags: a coded message or warning.

Phyllida Barlow, Untitled: (Yellow Racks) (2006)

More than any sculptor, the reference point that seems closest to Barlow’s work is the painter and photographer Paul Nash. It’s easy to return to Nash, yet his depictions of Romney Marsh are still unequalled, and he found much inspiration in the Kentish landscape. Just as Turner is celebrated for drawing on the particular qualities of light and skies that characterise Margate, Nash’s recognisable brand of British Surrealism conveys the ultra-vivid strangeness of Romney Marsh, 35 miles to the west. In a muted palette of dusty, desert colours, Nash depicted the expansive vistas around the bay, the luridness of its light, and a landscape still punctuated with defensive architecture, from sea walls to pillarboxes now silted up neck-high with shingle. Like Barlow, his paintings suggest layering and stacking: the steps that separate the promenade from the beach below, the wall that guards the farmland from an encroaching sea, and the overlapping waves that stretch out like ominous slabs towards the moon.

Pill box, Hythe, Kent


Like the work of Nash and other British surrealists, Barlow’s work transforms our perception of forms and materials, and the nature of sculpture. It suggests a negotiation between the familiar and the mystical, and an ability to transform the everyday. In ‘Hoard’, a tube is suspended above an uneven surface of tables, stacked like crazy paving or stepping stones. It could be a pipeline, a piece of functional infrastructure, or it could be the moon, illuminating anew in its particular way a landscape below.

Phyllida Barlow, Hoard  

Phyllida Barlow: Artist Rooms is at Turner Contemporary, Margate as part of Every Day is a new Day (with the paintings of Michael Armitage) until Sunday 24 September. For more information visit

Friday, 4 August 2017

Guest DJ set, Recordsville, Stockport, Friday 11 August

The Shrieking Violet is teaming up with Steve Hanson for a guest DJ set (vinyl only!) at indie-pop night Recordsville Social.

Recordsville is taking place at Seven Miles Out (opposite Stockport market) on Friday 11 August from 8pm-12am. Free entry!

For more information see the Facebook event.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Review: Available Light, Manchester International Festival

Someone once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, to convey the absurdity of arbitrarily juxtaposing two very different forms of creative expression. Available Light is not quite dancing about architecture, but it shows what can happen when an architect, a composer and a choreographer collaborate outside of their unusual comfort zones.

In Available Light Frank Gehry’s sparse, architectural stage design sets the scene for Lucinda Childs’ choreography and John Adams’ modern classical score. Dominated by a huge chainlink fence and raised platform, the setting brings to mind several places familiar from American pop culture: the sidewalk, the bleachers of a sports event, or a seaside pier, sitting atop exposed, crisscrossed supports. Though simple, it plays a key part in the performance, bathed with stark light and silhouetting the stage.
It’s hard not to think of bathers when viewing Childs’ lithe dancers, in their skimpy, figure-hugging costumes; their regimented movements recall synchronised swimmers or the discipline of early morning communal exercisers. At times, they stand still, resembling Anthony Gormley’s rows of figures looking out to sea at Crosby beach. At other times they swarm, reminiscent of a flock of birds. One of the best moments comes after a brief caesura suggesting nightfall; the dancers are lit as if by moonlight, drawing the eye to follow their flitting shadows rather than the movements themselves.

John Adams’ effervescent, multilayered soundtrack steals the show. It swells and ebbs, sometimes muffled and distant as if emerging from underwater and at other times crowded with bright bursts and silvery toots. It suggests found sounds collaged from technology, work and nature, from radio broadcasts and typing to trilling telephones to the creaking of gates, the rumble of industry, the passage of boats, the murmuring of owls and the whining of the wind.
Like much of the best American art of the twentieth century (it was originally performed in 1983), Available Light takes its inspiration from life. It sounds and looks like the city. Though small in numbers, Childs’ performers suggest a crowd, incorporating everyday movements such as stretches, twirls and kicks. The dancers move towards each other and pass by, around and through, yet never meet, appearing to follow some unspoken but long-established rules of the street. 

Available Light is at the Palace Theatre, Manchester until Saturday 8 July. To book visit

Review: Last and First Men, Manchester International Festival

Deep in the former Yugloslavia are a series of strange, silent monuments known as spomeniks. Out of scale to their surroundings, many are remote, hidden and accessible only on foot. Commemorating long-forgotten battles and scenes of atrocity, they’ve been brought back into view for glossy, coffee table consumption by photographer Jan Kempenaers, who invites us to revel in their strangeness and unfamiliarity in picture book form as part of the aestheticisation of modern ruins. 

Unlike many monuments, these huge concrete sculptures are not representational, and are deliberately devoid of any religious associations. Instead, they as act as viewing points for the landscape, framing the sun, clouds and stars, or tower over it, remote and untouchable, arms outstretched as if about to take flight. Distanced from politics, memory and culture, this leaves room for imagination, as Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson demonstrates in Last and First Men, which revisits the spomeniks to construct new stories, narratives and associations. Taking its title from Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 sci-fi book, Jóhannsson uses the last two chapters as the basis for a dystopian tale that explores what it means to be human, how we communicate through physical and cultural distances, and the rise and fall of civilisations.

Last and First Men is primarily a film work, using black and white 16mm film to document the spomeniks and their relation to earth, landscape, light and sky. Often, our view is partial, abstracted and deliberately disoriented – close-up the sculptures could just as easily be fossils, ancient rock forms, rock carvings or primitive totems. There’s something of Paul Nash about the way Jóhannsson presents them; suggesting organic forms such as wood, seeds and bones, they take on the anthropomorphic qualities of surrealism.

Jóhannsson is well-known for his work scoring films and his soundtrack, performed by the BBC Philharmonic, is a minimal and slow-moving exploration of the landscape on screen. It roves not just through space but through time, suggesting ageing, loss and decay. The familiar textures and instrumentation of the orchestra lend themselves to this grandiose tale told on a vast scale. Jóhannsson's score is at once heroic, romantic and fragile, conjuring the drama of entering into a battle – against the passage of time, against the inevitable entropy of the universe – that’s already lost.

Taken by themselves, the visuals have a formality that reads like a slideshow or set of textbook illustrations, freed from their captions, but it’s Tilda Swinton’s calm, authoritative narration that binds Last and First Men together. Swinton imbues it with the air of a nature documentary or anthropological report, but Jóhannsson’s orchestral soundtrack restores a sense of humanity, communality and emotion to these man-made monoliths in a way that's rooted in the enveloping, escapist fantasy of the sci-fi genre.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Review: What If Women Ruled the World?, Manchester International Festival

Premiering in the week that North Korea claimed a successful intercontinental missile test, and the columnist Owen Jones sparked a social media row by suggesting the British people should present large-scale public resistance if the President of the United States visited the UK, What If Women Ruled the World? feels scarily prescient and necessary for an art performance.

Rather than a hackneyed invitation to smash the patriarchy – although the need to replace established hierarchies is, unsurprisingly, a recurrent theme – What If Women Ruled the World? uses a creative platform to imagine a situation in which humanity is forced to start anew, and to learn the lessons of the past (and the present).

Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s commission for Manchester International Festival takes the ambiguous end point of Stanley Kubrick’s classic film Dr Strangelove as its starting point, positing a female-led world in which women outnumber men ten to one and asking what would happen next if the slate was wiped clean and we could start again – with women in charge.

To start with, the piece has an air of amateur dramatics about it – think stick-on-moustaches, exaggerated accents, women in drag and ‘survival kits’ containing lipstick and nylons alongside sustenance and weapons – but the piece convincingly navigates between fact and storytelling, entertainment and debate, information and polemic. It’s both historically grounded and contemporary, incorporating possibly the first literary reference to ‘covfefe’, to knowing audience laughter.
What If Women Ruled the World? comes into its own when the five actors in the war room are brought together with five women who are real-life international experts in their fields, ranging from economics and development to archaeology and feminism. The women discuss major and recognisable challenges facing the world outside – from climate change, the threat of nuclear war, pandemics and the depletion of natural resources to ongoing conflict and systemised violence against women. Behind them the Doomsday Clock ticks away, offering archival glimpses into natural and manmade disasters, with both personal and global impacts, as a rapidly deteriorating post-bomb landscape is alluded to, building a very real sense of urgency.

What If Women Ruled the World? is an invitation to imagine things done differently, and to ask questions of our actions and priorities as individuals, as city dwellers, and as British, European and global citizens. It starts with a lighthearted premise, exploring serious issues with personality and humour, but it’s a simplistic title for a piece that suggests not just overthrowing the patriarchy, but our entire economic, social and political systems and fundamentally rethinking the way we relate to each other and to the planet. At a time when socialist ideas such as equitable taxation and economic redistribution are apparently back in vogue, much of the discussion captures the zeitgeist, but ultimately, it serves as a warning about bigger dangers such as the power of individuals and the cult of personality. It poses not just the titular question, but asks who should be allowed a seat at the table of power, whose knowledge and expertise we take on board, and what measures we need to take to ensure those voices are heard.

What If Women Ruled the World? is at Mayfield, Manchester, until Saturday 8 July as part of Manchester International Festival. To book visit

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

An education in art: The University of Salford Art Collection

Darren Nixon, The Intern (2016)
Mixed media
Courtesy the artist, photograph courtesy Museum Photography North West

Fifty years ago, the newly inaugurated University of Salford – previously a mechanics institute and technical college – started an art collection for the benefit of its students, staff and the public. This followed a national trend towards the establishment of art collections with educational aims. In the post-war period many local authorities became patrons of art, alongside education committees and sometimes schools. Teacher training colleges also started collections, as did some universities, including the University of Warwick, founded in 1965, whose collection is still on display around the campus today, and which still actively acquires work. These collections were part investment and part expression of prestige and modernity at a time when not just physical but social, cultural and educational experiences were changing.

The precedent for collecting contemporary art for educational purposes lay partly in the ideas of influential educationalists like Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire, who sought to create beauty in educational environments – and believed in the potential for the places by which people were surrounded everyday to be visually and aesthetically educational. In the 1930s Morris commissioned renowned architects such as Walter Gropius to design school buildings, and after the Second World War he worked with the planners of new towns. He also advocated displaying works of art in educational buildings, believing that they would act as a ‘silent teacher’.

Although aspects of these ideas are laudable, including taking art out of the museum to be encountered and experienced as part of everyday life, today the University of Salford Art Collection is challenging ideas about what form a collection should take, who it’s for – and where and how it should be displayed. Although there are a number of items from the collection around campus in communal spaces, and the New Adelphi Building hosts changing exhibitions, this isn’t the main focus of the collection. “Buildings change and offices move, but the collection is for public benefit,” explains Art Curator Lindsay Taylor. For this reason, she explains, “we don’t just put it on the walls but carefully consider what stories we want to tell or what themes we want to identify when installing work across the campus”.

As part of the University of Salford’s 50th anniversary celebrations a new exhibition at Salford Museum and Art Gallery, What’s in Store?, displays highlights from the collection, showing how the collection has evolved and what has influenced collecting themes over time. It also offers an insight into how the notion of collecting for educational purposes has changed over the decades.

The exhibition references the collection’s historical context, containing paintings by twentieth century northern artists such as LS Lowry and Adolphe Valette. Lindsay explains that print-making was also historically important, including prints from the Manchester Print Workshop, which was based at the university in the 1970s. The collection also acquired international work from early on and includes the archive of South African painter Albert Adams, paint brushes and all; changing works by Adams are now hung in a room dedicated to his work in the university’s Old Fire Station building.

Lindsay, who joined the collection in 2013 after many years of working at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston, admits that “there is historically a lack of documentation and knowledge about the collection”. She explains: “There are some works that we don’t know who they are by and we don’t know if they’ve been shown before. There has always been an interest in collecting contemporary art – however sadly documentation procedures and collections care were not as important as they should have been!” Eventually, one of Lindsay’s aims is to build the archive material in the collection in order to enable its story to be told better, and to work with other collections such as the University Archive and Special Collections, Salford Museum and Art Gallery, and the nearby Working Class Movement Library.

Today, Lindsay’s priority is commissioning new work for the collection, particularly in digital media, and by Chinese and northern artists, often working in partnership with other galleries and studios in the area. At the Harris, Lindsay had assumed that established artists working in new media were in collections, but found that this often wasn’t the case. She explains that the aim is to “take a risk and help artists make new work they wouldn’t do otherwise” and, by collecting work by artists at different stages of their careers, show that “there is a story to tell”. Co-commissioning has been a way to raise the profile of the collection and the university: work has been loaned to galleries across the north, shown at festivals and exhibited internationally.

One of the most fruitful relationships has been with the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, which has thirty years of expertise but no collection. Lindsay explains: “We live in the Chinese century but no-one else is really collecting Chinese art in a significant way.” When displayed alongside one another pieces from the collection can show “surprising connections between artists”. For example, both Cao Fei’s 2013 work ‘Haze and Fog’, which examines the new middle- and working-classes in China, and Lowry’s paintings of workers in the UK in the early to mid-twentieth century, are engulfed in smog and pollution. Contemporary art is important, says Lindsay, because it “addresses the issues of the day and represents the time we’re in: ideas about what’s ‘contemporary’ change”.

Another collecting theme is ‘About the Digital’ because, as Lindsay says, we live in the digital age. This does not necessarily mean work created digitally: Jai Redman’s painting ‘The Lovers’, on show in the exhibition, concerns communications, showing “invisible threads and networks”. Other work in What’s in Store? includes the trailer for the young Scottish artist Rachel Maclean’s film ‘It’s What’s Inside That Counts’, first shown as part of an exhibition at Home in Manchester in 2016, as well as composite aerial images by Mishka Henner using digital technology.

Mishka Henner, Wasson Oil and Gas Field, Yoakum County, Texas (2013-2014)
Archival pigment print mounted to aluminium
Courtesy the artist and Carroll/Fletcher gallery

Another focus is acquiring work by artists based in the immediate area, such as Maurice Carlin and Rachel Goodyear, both of whom have a long association with Islington Mill in Salford. “It’s really important to work with artists living and working in the region,” Lindsay explains. “There are some great artists here and they deserve to be at the next level. Artists can trial things here; we can be a stepping stone to them achieving the national or international recognition they deserve. I feel it is important to understand that all the different aspects of the ecology are needed.”

For Assistant Curator Steph Fletcher one of the highlights of the collection is Manchester artist Darren Nixon’s ‘The Awkward Ambassador’, which came about through a partnership with Mark Devereux Projects. This comprises a series of unstable-looking wooden sculptural constructions responding to the collection that have been “purposefully installed into the collection, fit into the store and hide among the other works”.

Darren Nixon, The Awkward Ambassador (2016) 
Mixed media 
Courtesy the artist, photograph courtesy Arthur Siuksta

Perhaps most significantly for a collection with educational value at its heart the University of Salford Art Collection is committed to supporting students’ practice as artists through schemes such as the Graduate Scholarship Programme, where a small number of graduates are given studio space and opportunities such as mentoring for a year in return for giving work to the collection. Another initiative involves commissioning students to make formal portraits of the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor. Students also have the chance to have their work shown to a professional standard in the Old Fire Station, which houses the offices of the Vice-Chancellor.

Claudia Alonso, Jackie Kay (2015) 
Digital photograph 
Courtesy the artist

Lindsay aims to ask “what can make Salford different?” and create “real world links” with the city’s studio spaces such as Islington Mill, Artwork Atelier and Hotbed Press, as well as the International 3 gallery. She explains: “We really want to develop an ongoing relationship with students. It’s really important to demonstrate to students that you can live and work here without going to London or Berlin. It’s about changing how you think as an artist.”

Salford Museum and Art Gallery itself has a “really good and relatively unknown collection of modern British art”, says Lindsay, and an aspiration to show more contemporary art. Lindsay hopes that the show will enable the collection to “feel more valued and understood” as it’s “public and for everyone to enjoy”.

At a time when both Salford and Manchester are undergoing extensive redevelopment, including the relocation of long-established studio group Rogue from Manchester city centre due to property speculation, Lindsay says she is interested in Salford “as it’s not Manchester, but can complement Manchester”. She explains: “There are a number of artists relocating to Salford and it has the potential to be such an exciting time. I want to bring together the good things happening here: there is potential to make a difference.”

What’s In Store? is at Salford Museum and Art Gallery from Saturday 20 May-Sunday 19 November and will be accompanied by a series of talks and events. For more information visit