Changing cultures: class, place and cultural institutions

By Kenn Taylor

In the 2000s there was a boom in new cultural facilities opening in the English regions, often in places whose economies had struggled since the 1980s. Many of them subsequently had significant challenges connecting with local audiences. Most of these new facilities were based around a particular model of art and cultural consumption that had its centre in London and other global megacities. Such organisations, when they opened, largely employed in their senior roles white middle- or upper-class people who were drawn from elsewhere and who often shared remarkably similar career backgrounds.

Nevertheless, some junior jobs were created in such places. I began my career in one of them in my native Merseyside on a zero-hours contract. Despite being passionate about art and culture, I soon became alarmed at how such organisations often seemed more focused on recognition from their peers than from the communities they were based in; as well as a wilful lack of acknowledgment that inequalities existed within and outside such institutions. Experiences such as these drew me to work in what was then called community arts, a field which seemed to at least try to address the relationship between key practices in culture and wider society.

Much of course has occurred since. Such community practices, once written off by the ‘mainstream’ cultural world, are now seen as part of the fore of contemporary culture. Class, for a time dismissed by many as irrelevant, has come back to bite.

There has also been a move away from that previous model of cultural development in the regions, with programmes such as Creative People and Places (Arts Council England) having shaken up things up a little. Yet much more needs to be done. Too many organisations still fail to employ people from working-class backgrounds and from the communities they’re based in, especially at management level. Even now, many organisations still struggle to seriously engage with many communities and cultures.

While class is our focus here, it is important not to privilege it over other inequalities. Nor by taking about organisations engaging with local cultures do I mean separating out the ‘white working class’ or a specific requirement to have been born somewhere. Class has had renewed attention recently, partially because it was almost written out of the conversation for 20-30 years. Notably it was removed from 2010 Equalities Act upon its introduction into legislation.1 Yet we must be careful not to fall into the rhetoric of divide and conquer when it comes to change in the cultural sector. I refuse to allow the exclusion of those from my socio-economic background as an excuse to further marginalise working-class people of colour who face even more barriers.2

The cultural sector more seriously engaging with class and regional identity is at its heart about social justice. It is also, though, about making cultural organisations more effective and sustainable. As is well established in business studies, having personnel from diverse backgrounds is a powerful driver in creating more successful organisations of all forms.3 Perhaps none more so than in the sector where culture is both the main input and output, and new ideas and perspectives are often vital to success.

Yet, as evidenced by an array of research and demonstrated in rigorous detail in the 2020 book Culture is Bad for You by Brook, O’Brien and Taylor the majority of the cultural workforce is still drawn from narrow sources and it remains one of the most elitist areas of work.4 This has real impacts on the culture that is produced by the sector, which in turn significantly impacts on how society views itself. Some of these inequalities are structural and beyond what the cultural sector can change in itself. However there remains much that the sector can do.

Currently the vast majority of culture workers have similar entry routes via university. While this works for many, to increase diversity in the sector we need to create more varied forms of entry. Requiring a degree is a class barrier in itself, especially as higher education has become more expensive. That divide is further widened for those who have to work alongside studying, to support themselves. There has been a positive movement away from unpaid internships in the sector, but some still remain and these are a major obstacle for those who can’t afford to work without pay.

Increasing school and college leaver entry into employment into cultural organisations is vital. There has been a growing array of initiatives for this, though the way apprenticeships were reformed in recent years has made it harder for some smaller cultural organisations to access them. However, too often things fall down in how staff are developed after they take up such entry-level roles. There need to be serious career development pathways put in place, especially in medium and large cultural organisations, where people can start as an apprentice and work their way up to senior management, especially in the ‘creative’ side of organisations where this is most often lacking. We need to develop sustainable routes to entry, including those with part-time study alongside on-the-job training, which is common in other fields, for those who cannot, or who don’t want to, take the full-time student route beforehand.

A new model needs to be cultivated where people can develop their career both within organisations and within a region. This is especially important outside of London, where even the largest cities only have a modest number of cultural organisations and jobs and so the tradition is for key management and leadership positions to be taken by highly mobile people from elsewhere. Currently, to not move about like this is to significantly reduce your career options. This is something I had to face when, having spent my whole life in Merseyside, it became apparent to me in my late 20s that unless I was prepared to work in other places, I would hit a career wall, so I spent several years moving around. While this had many positives, it also meant losing connections with family and friends as well as much financial strain. At a structural level of the cultural sector, this reduces opportunities for development for locally based candidates. It also undermines the depth of local engagement by institutions, as personnel move around and constantly have to acquaint themselves with new situations.

Those who grow up in a particular place, even if they have lived away for a time, tend to be more rooted in its stories, its cultures, its complexities and its contradictions. Thus their understanding of audiences can be much more enhanced. It’s also vital for younger participants and junior staff to be able to see someone who is from a similar background to them in the top positions when they are starting out — both in terms of class and regional identity. This is not to ignore that there are also benefits of having worked in a few different places, for staff and the organisations they work for, but to argue for the need for more plurality in how people are recruited and developed in the sector than now. Of course, being from somewhere in the regions and being working class are not one and the same, but class and place have particularly important crossovers in the regions, in terms of access to opportunity, mobility, experience and connections.

Recruitment processes also need to take better account of socio-economic diversity. For example, removing the qualifications requirements for jobs unless they are actually needed and taking account of the challenges to career development that people may have faced due their backgrounds and circumstances; with cultural institutions taking up opportunities to collaborate with specialist organisations who can help with diversifying recruitment. As well as for staff, the same goes for the recruitment of artists. This means enough open application opportunities, but also enough direct support for artists to apply who may have less confidence and experience, including ‘payment for pitching’ when appropriate.

The need to recruit artists from diverse backgrounds is even more acute in collaborative projects with communities. Too often artists from middle-class backgrounds are commissioned to engage with working class communities. While this meeting of different experiences and ideas can be powerful, just like with management of cultural organisations, it reinforces the idea that a certain type of person gets paid to make culture and lead projects. While of course having similar backgrounds does not always result in equivalent understanding or equal power relations, some shared experience between an artist and a community they’re working with does tend to make the navigation of such intricate relationships easier.

It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking working class = better, as comfortable as it can feel given the unequal relations across the class sphere and the long tradition of dismissal of working-class cultures. This can be inadvertently patronising. Power, space and support is what working-class people need in the culture sector, not sympathy or awkward deference. I’m proud of my working-class background, its richness, vibrant culture and energy, but aspects of it, like all cultures, had its share of prejudice, narrowmindedness and exclusion. Employing and platforming working-class people and those from other structurally disadvantaged backgrounds helps create the conditions to tackle these issues and complexities in culture, because they have the direct knowledge and experience to do so. However, this then has to expand back out beyond specific projects to impact the wider operation of a cultural organisation, its relationship to its audiences and how it communicates its work.

One of the biggest issues stemming from the lack of diversity of those employed in the cultural sector is how this helps generate a kind of shared perception of ‘how things should be done’ and of what has value. Shifting organisations away from this is vital for change. That is not about completely abandoning professional practices built up over years, as these are often hugely effective in creating powerful culture. More, it’s about how cultural organisations, especially those distant from the biggest centres of cultural production, take on board what happens when their established knowledges and practices meet and intersect with different forms of knowledge and experience. I think of a quote from the Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey, who grew up in the same area as me, upon his retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain in 2019: ‘This is the world I belong to now. But at one point I belonged to another intelligence.’5

The current model places institutional ideologies and practices, which may cross national borders but tend to be governed by particular classes throughout, way above other perspectives, and this is increasingly being challenged. When a space can be created where different types of experience and intelligence can respect and acknowledge each other and find crossover, that is a really interesting place from which many great cultural productions have resulted. This goes back to the traditions of things like Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed6 but such thinking is now expanding into other forms of culture and I feel we’re just at the beginning of it.

Now more than ever, cultural organisations need to reconsider their traditional value and production systems, to be more responsive, more dynamic and distribute resources more evenly across all forms of programming; not just in terms of financial investment, but how things like time, space or personnel are allocated. If organisations are to be more engaged with the places they are based in and attract a wider range of people, a focus on a constant stream of big productions which need large audiences and significant media attention to justify them, is not always the best method. Projects at scale can be powerful, inspiring and popular, but often take up so much resource that other forms of programming can be held back. Allocating resources more evenly and working in a way so that the often artificial barriers between ‘types’ of cultural project are broken down would allow for a greater variety of more innovative and open-ended programming. This will also benefit less experienced employees in being able to lead their own projects at an earlier career stage and work with less experienced artists and practitioners, meaning organisations can invest more of their resources in new voices. Crucially, this will also aid those who enter the cultural sector from more diverse backgrounds in not being siloed into particular areas of work just focused on community engagement, so they are able to bring their ideas and experiences to influence across an organisation’s work.

Of course, any form of programming takes up resources and doing ‘lots more’ might not automatically result in more depth, more diversity or better relationships with communities, but rather in exhaustion and even audience fatigue. Yet as we need to look hard at how cultural provision is done, stepping back from the current model could mean that new and more diverse forms of programming can emerge in the space that is created. In doing this, some organisations will need to shift their focus from getting validation within their particular field to gaining recognition from the communities which surround them. Yet the two need not be mutually exclusive. Doing work more rooted in particular places can often create more original programming that in turn attracts more critical attention and wider interest, rather than merely replicating the sort of bourgeois contemporary culture that can be found all over.

Some argue that current cultural organisations need to be replaced entirely. The fact is, people have been calling for the traditional academies/museums/theatres etc. to be abolished for almost as long as they’ve existed and it never happens, rather they change and adapt under new influences. Even new and radical organisations, if they don’t burn out, have a tendency to solidify and become ‘institutions’ themselves soon enough.7 While funding should certainly go to new and different organisations and new cultural forms, this doesn’t negate the need to change existing ‘pillar’ organisations to make them more relevant to contemporary life, because they’re not going anywhere.

There are also arguments that too many resources have been put into buildings rather than programmes over the past couple of decades. Yet we should also not forget how many cultural facilities have also closed in recent years, in particular those in more underinvested towns and cities. Many people live a long way from good quality facilities where they can create or experience culture. Buildings are not bad in themselves, it’s about the right type of buildings being used in the right way to meet people’s wants and needs. If you find your building doesn’t fit your organisation’s mission, change the building, not the organisation.

In the regions the largest cultural funders were traditionally local authorities,8 however, many of them now struggle to do this. Thus as culture has become something increasingly set, defined and funded by people based in the largest cities, this has perhaps added to the alienation felt by some people from the cultural sector. Especially as cultural provision in smaller towns and cities and rural areas has in many cases become increasingly vulnerable if not closed completely. By changing how cultural funding is allocated and distributed so more power is put into the hands of the people in the regions themselves, they could better allocate resources to meet complex local structures and needs.

A not dissimilar feeling of alienation is often felt by working-class people when they enter the cultural sector and find organisations, even ones they are passionate about, have an awkward relationship with people from their background. If supported, they can be positive agents of change. Yet for now, as it says in Culture is Bad for You: ‘Those who have the most insight into the problems are often given the least power.’9

This is a process of both short and long-term change. As someone from a working class background who now has a relatively established position in the cultural sector, like many others I can bring a particular perspective that can hopefully contribute to this. Yet, getting a handful of working-class people into positions in the cultural establishment is not enough. There needs to be a pipeline created to ensure there is a constant renewal of people from diverse backgrounds, including socio-economic, entering the sector, and crucially, developing in and changing it.

Given the huge tectonic shifts presently shaking the very foundations of many cultural organisations, if more do not change faster, they will struggle. If the sector embraces some of the above though, it could become more sustainable and produce forms of culture that engage a wider diversity of people. It could also contribute more to our contemporary communities, encouraging greater understanding of our society, the issues it faces and changes we need to make.

This essay was published in Engage Journal 45: Class and Inequality in July 2021.

Notes

  1. D. O’Neil and M. Wayne (2018), ‘Putting Class Back onto the UK’s Equality Agenda’ in Open Democracy, 14 January 2018, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/putting-class-back-onto-uks-equality-agenda/ (Accessed 6 February 2020)
  2. O. Brook, D. O’Brien and M. Taylor (2020), Culture is Bad for You: Inequality in the Cultural and Creative Industries. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p.65
  3. Eswaran, V. (2019), ‘The Business Case for Diversity in the Workplace is Now Overwhelming’ in World Economic Forum, 29 April 2019, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/04/business-case-for-diversity-in-the-workplace (Accessed 4 February 2020)
  4. Brook et al. (2020), op.cit.
  5. Leigh, D. (2019), ‘Mark Leckey: From Art World Outsider to Tate Britain’ in Financial Times, 20 September 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/7c15167a-d897-11e9-9c26-419d783e10e8 (Accessed 6 February 2021)
  6. Actingnow.co.uk, ‘What is Theatre of the Oppressed?’, http://www.actingnow.co.uk/what-is-theatre-of-the-oppressed/ Accessed 6 February 2021
  7. Cranfield, B. (2016), ‘It Should Not Be to Its Past that the ICA is Beholden, Rather the Needs of the Present and Future’ in Apollo, 31 October 2016, https://www.apollo-magazine.com/past-ica-present-future (Accessed 6 February 2021)
  8. Hill, L. (2020), ‘Let Councils Lead On Arts Funding, Says New Report’ in Arts Professional, 7 September 2020, https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/let-councils-lead-arts-funding-says-new-report (Accessed 13 February 2021)
  9. Brook et al. (2020) op.cit., p.51

Two Cemeteries, Two Cities

Undercliffe Cemetery, Bradford

Words by Kenn Taylor
Images by Kenn Taylor and Chris Gibson


Two old cemeteries in two Northern English cities are as striking as they are little-known outside of their own regions. They are marked by their dramatic and very contrasting settings, one up high, one down below. 

Liverpool’s St James’ Cemetery is the antithesis to the adjacent soaring Anglican Cathedral, which is one of the world’s largest. My infant grandmother was taken to the laying of its foundation stone by King Edward VII in 1904. A few weeks prior to this ceremony though, Fred Bower, a stonemason, poet and socialist, buried a tin time capsule under where the foundation stone would be placed. It contained the message “within a stone’s throw from here, human beings are housed in slums not fit for swine”. Accompanied by copies of the Clarion and Labour Leader, it was signed “Yours sincerely, ‘A Wage Slave’.” Bower only revealed this secret 32 years later in his autobiography, Rolling Stonemason.

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral

On top of this foundation stone, at the crest of St James Mount, was built Giles Gilbert Scott’s vast edifice of a cathedral. It’s remarkably similar in profile to his Bankside Power Station, now Tate Modern. You have to admire a designer who sees the same basic shape works for both the House of God and the House of Electricity. However, the cathedral was built beside a precipice. The void below was originally a quarry for several hundred years. Its stone used for Liverpool’s first dock and Town Hall. With the city growing rapidly, the stone running out and demand for burial space increasing, the quarry was ideal for conversion. In 1826, architect John Foster Junior was commissioned to design a cemetery in the space along the same lines as Père Lachaise in Paris. Grand ramps to convey coffins down from street level were constructed. As was a mortuary chapel in the style of a Greek Temple, the Oratory. This still stands today as an occasionally opened museum of funerary sculpture. The area around the cemetery when it opened was packed with Georgian terraces, home to the city’s colonialist merchant class. Later it became one of Liverpool’s main multicultural and bohemian areas, home to John Lennon, Roger McGough and David Olusoga at various times, amongst many others.

View of Canning from St James’ Cemetery, Liverpool
Entrance to St James’ Cemetery

The cemetery was well used over the following decades. As its space began to become exhausted though, this coincided with the search for a site for a cathedral. The cemetery’s use continued after cathedral construction started. However, by the 1930s, it was packed with gravestones and the population increasingly sought newer, plainer cemeteries out the suburbs, as the move away from the Victorian taste for death began. The cathedral had no interest in taking on the graveyard and St James’ closed in 1936 after 57,774 burials. Like many similar cemeteries around the UK, it began to fall into disrepair after WWII.  By the 1960s it was in a real state of decay, frequently used by sex workers and their clients as it was close to Liverpool’s then red light district, before the area above was gentrified. In the 1970s the City Council came and cleared the majority of the gravestones. Many were stacked and covered in earth, creating an artificial slope. Others were made to tightly line the sides of the cemetery and even the interior of the snaking tunnel and walkway that takes you down into it. Other memorials still were grouped together in odd arrangements, presumably by Council workmen at a whim. Only a handful of the graves remained untouched. This however created much more green open space that was once dense with memorials. In 2001 the Archbishop’s Council and the Conservation Foundation set up The Friends of St James’ Garden to lead the preservation and the reclamation of the site.

Descending down the winding ramp of St James’, carved through the bedrock itself, could not be more gothic if you tried. It would seem like a B-movie film set if it were not so genuinely marked by the passage of time. The tunnel is cut through multi-coloured, multi-grained stone scarred by tools, strange, runic masons’ marks and carved graffiti with dates in the 1700s. Lined at ground level with those tightly-packed gravestones, To The Memory. In Memory Of. In Affectionate Memory. Now all those with memories of the dead are long gone too. It’s like going through the gullet of a HP Lovecraft story — thankfully though, a short one, as the tunnel opens out and light gets to you again, filtered through the many trees. It seems all the brighter illuminating the sides of old quarry that surround you, the dark grey-green walls shored up with yellow stone and brick. Many of the memorials themselves are so worn and unstable they have begun to be absorbed back into the landscape. Only those made of marble remain clear and bright, albeit cracked and stained. Down here there’s a feeling of being very far away from the world, even though it’s just on the edge of the city centre.

The dramatic ramps constructed for the horse-drawn hearses, with catacombs underneath, crumbling in places and with vines hanging over them, now look like the ancient ruins they were inspired by. Various ominous bricked up and barred tunnels lead off from different corners of the site. On the memorials, anchors, intense Masonic eyes, coats of arms and moons. Beyond the symbols, stories too. A few famous people. Edward Rushton, the blind anti-slavery campaigner; Kitty Wilkinson, the public wash house pioneer; William Huskisson MP, who helped make the world’s first inter-city railway happen. He would also end up being the first person to be killed by a train at its opening. His domed monument is by far the largest in the cemetery. The graves of all those old sea captains, but also children. Too many children. Several gravestones hold a long list of those who died in the Liverpool Orphan Boys Asylum. Aged 12, Aged 9, Aged 9, Aged 14, Aged 10, Aged 9, Aged 8, on and on. No poems or Bible quotes or symbols for them, just name, age, date of death. We may be equal in death but not in memoriam.

From a wall in the centre pours one of the few natural springs in Liverpool, with many different coloured bands of sedimental rock above it. When there are few people around, it is one of the few sounds down here and adds to the lost world feeling.

At the centre of St James’, the cathedral looms above, appearing even larger and overwhelming now you’re literally underground below it. In the evening, those sunsets which drape themselves over Liverpool flow down even into here, and the dark sandstone of the cathedral goes a deeper shade of red until the sun eventually dips behind it. Getting in and out of St James’ requires descent and ascent through that hand-carved tunnel at the city end, or through a solid stone arch atop a wooded hill at the Liverpool 8 end. Emerging out upwards to higher ground, but often no better light than can be found in this sunken place.

Higher still is another graveyard, way over the Pennines. Undercliffe Cemetery stands above Bradford with striking views across the city and the surrounding hills and valleys. Prominent in the distance is the vast edifice of Lister/Manningham Mills. Once the world’s largest silk factory, a strike there was a key event in the founding of the Independent Labour Party. Now, it is half converted to luxury flats and half empty. If that isn’t a symbol of much that has gone wrong in this country I don’t know what is. The well-known local photographer Ian Beesley has said you could once count 100 mill chimneys from Undercliffe. There are a lot less these days, but even now still plenty in the eyeline. Undercliffe’s origins are similar to St James’: built to meet the demands of another rapidly growing industrial city. A group of businessmen formed a joint stock company to deal with the increasing demand for burials. They purchased one hundred acres of the Undercliffe Estate in 1851 and the site was landscaped and planted, including a great promenade right through its centre with a terrace at the western end. It was consecrated in 1854 and even early on, with its fine views, the burial ground was popular as a park too.

Lister/Manningham Mills, Bradford, from Undercliffe

Between 1854 and 1928, 105,742 internments took place at Undercliffe, but by then its use was in decline. The cemetery company eventually went into liquidation in 1977. During the next few years there was growing concern over the condition of the site and the Friends of Undercliffe Cemetery was formed. After considerable pressure, Bradford Council purchased the site in 1984, declared it a conservation area and sponsored a two year restoration programme. In 1985 a new cemetery company was formed and has since become the Undercliffe Cemetery Charity. Unlike St James’ though, plots remain available — you can still be buried in Undercliffe.

This high up the air is bracing and even when the atmosphere is thick, you can see some for distance. Lines of dark yellow Yorkshire stone terraces step-climb the hills in all directions in neat, slanting rows. In the valleys, the flat grey retail sheds that replaced the mills are themselves now often empty. The sweeping main promenade through the graveyard is as dramatic as its designers intended, flanked on both sides by towering graves. Whereas St James’ is sparse, Undercliffe remains dense. A forest of obelisks, urns and crosses, trying to outdo each other in reaching upwards to the sky. Unlike churchyards where rich and poor were buried side by side, the ability to pay governed the site of a grave in Undercliffe. Plots near the promenade were the most expensive. We may be equal in death but not in memoriam.

As to be expected in a city built on wool, textile makers and merchants have some of the largest graves, including the muscular Egyptian-style Illingworth monument, still guarded by two mini sphinxes and a carved Ra — a reminder that so much of this seeming ancientness was an affectation. Age gives it an elegance, but despite the quality, most of it was pretty basic following of fashion: a smattering of Celtic and Roman, Egyptian and Greek. Fashion always changes though, and now we’ve come a long way from even the rich having such elaborate graves. Many question if we want money to be spent after death on a chunk of marble with our name carved in it. At least back then there was more variety. From the dandyish foliage, fruit and swirls of the Behrens monument, to the solemn, almost modernist, column of architect William Mawson’s grave. Mawson was the co-designer of local landmarks like Bradford Town Hall, the Wool Exchange and Saltaire Congregational Chapel. Also buried here is Miles Moulson, whose firm built large portions of the famous village of Saltaire, and Joseph Smith, the agent who bought the land for Titus Salt that Saltaire would be built on. Salt himself was one of the sponsors of this cemetery. A full circle of the dead who built Bradford.

All the symbolic codes of these graves were once familiar to anyone walking past, and now they’re obscure. After only a handful of generations, we need a translation to understand much of it. Along with the more familiar crosses and slabs, there are veiled urns and weeping willows carved in stone. Cylinders, pillars, pediments. Prancing horses and clasping hands. As well as our lost understanding of these symbols, the information in English, despite best efforts, gets lost too. Letters worn. Texts cracked. Pieces sheared away. Names, even whole stones disappearing under thick, bright green grass. Vines wrap themselves around the needles of obelisks. Armless angels and headless saints. All the decay of course makes it more visually interesting — a fractured saint is more photogenic than a polished one. The enduring appeal of the mysterious ruination.

Old cemeteries such as these are amongst the strangest parks you’ll find. Given most urban areas have plenty of green spaces, why do so many people enjoy spending time in places intended to house the dead and provide for the occasional visit from the connected living? There is of course, the romantic, melancholic notions that such places can spark in us. What better way to contemplate your situation in life than being reminded of its shortness? Indeed, all our folly in trying to make permanent things, especially about ourselves. Such things are even more apparent in graveyards now largely shut down, less tended by relatives and where nature is doing its best to take it all back. Such notions of course are a little ironic when you consider the deeply practical and financial reasons both cemeteries were founded as private, for-profit outfits, mainly to benefit those with money to spare.  A forbear of today’s public-private spaces. That said, many of our Victorian public parks themselves were founded in part to sell the big houses around them. Anything which looks old we can find all too easy to separate from its often practical, even cynical, origins by virtue of the grace that the passing of time gives.

Yet regardless of how they came to be, such places of romantic, if managed, decay, gives them a feel of being somewhere a little out of time and out of the commercialism that now intrudes into every sphere of life. Both these sites are popular perhaps just because they’re quiet spaces, with a sense of isolation from the wider world. Places high and low and away from the centre to escape the troubles and intensities of city life. Somewhere those with busy lives can briefly forget about them and those with time to kill can go for a while. More prosaically, both cemeteries remain popular with young people as places to indulge in their own lives away from guardians. Playgrounds amongst the dead.

The cities these cemeteries are in are no longer the commercial powerhouses they once were. Though along with the (sadly still more often than not) empty mills and dock warehouses that drove the need for such cemeteries, they are an echo of that time. Reminders that, however big the boom, the scale of wealth accumulated, or grand structures built, everything eventually goes the same way. To quote Geoff Dyer: “ruins don’t make you think of the past, they direct you towards the future. The effect is almost prophetic. This is what the future will end up like. This is what the future has always ended up looking like.”

This piece was published by Caught by the River in June 2020.

Culture Shifts: urban growth, decay and art in the post-industrial city

By Kenn Taylor

Birkenhead was built around a shipyard, Cammell Laird. When I was nine years old it closed down. Our school was taken to the yard as the last submarine built there was launched. As we waved our little flags, we had little understanding that we were effectively waving away the local economy and our own future. That year, 1993, male unemployment in some parts of Birkenhead was 52%. Our town just a microcosm for the wider region around Liverpool, which faced huge challenges of economic decline and all the negative social impacts that cascade out from that.

What is the point of a shipbuilding town, or any kind of place, when the economic or strategic situation that brought it into being no longer exists? What happens to the culture of a place and its people when it is left to rot? Urban areas have always been the cradle of art and culture. These are also amongst the few things left when urban civilisations throughout history have collapsed. If culture is all somewhere still has, can a place survive on it?

‘The logic that created the city also destroyed it.’
Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre[i]

As long as there have been cities, they have attracted artists. In fact, the professional artist, distinct from a member of a community who makes art only as part of what they do, is dependent on a wider superstructure to support them. To be a professional artist, someone, somewhere else, has to be growing the food, generating the energy, erecting the buildings and removing the rubbish.

With the rise of industrialisation from the 18th century onwards, nouveau riche cities that grew rapidly powerful on the back on industrial wealth were earnest to stress their cultural credentials by funding artists and major cultural buildings. Such buildings often adopted Neoclassical styles inspired by the ruins of the ancient urban civilisations of Rome and Greece. These new cities viewing themselves as the heirs to such power and culture. Aping Rome, Liverpool even wrote SPQL in its grand civic hall’s metalwork, such was the imperial confidence. These buildings were often built far from the factories, docks and warehouses that paid for them, industrial cities and towns wanting to avoid notice of the grime and ‘unsightliness’ of the very things that made them rich. Indeed, while some artists of the industrial period celebrated the rapid changes taking place, most initially sought refuge from it. Seeking out in their art an alternative to the dark satanic mills and the poverty of the over-populated city. These artists favoured the romantic ruin, the rural idyll, the ‘lost beauty’ of pre-industrial times, like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a movement which ironically found favour with rich industrialists in Britain’s urban North. This would not be the last time that an artistic protest against social and economic change ended up being consumed by those who were at the heart of such change.

In the later 19th and early 20th century, the movement against the urban blight and poverty begat by industrialisation grew. Figures such as William Morris and John Ruskin were influential in inspiring the likes of the Garden City movement. This, along with the development of public transportation and technological changes, led to an increasing movement away from industry and human habitation in the inner-city.

After WWII, a range of factors formed a pincer movement against the industrial city. Businesses wanted new, large single-storey industrial buildings, with ease of vehicle access and parking, close to new motorway networks. No longer brick multi-storeys near railway and river. Residents began to leave too. Where suburban rail lines led in the first part of the 20th century, the rise of the car accelerated the trend. Once only the wealthy could have their ‘house in the country’ and still get to a place of work, now this was open to many more people. Rising incomes, easier access to mortgages and record house building saw a trickle become a flood. Some people were forced to move though. Many architects and artists were desperate to make the world anew after the horrors of the two World Wars and the Great Depression. They saw the only possibility of getting away from such corruption and destruction in urban areas was pretty much starting from again from scratch: creating new urban areas along more ‘rational’ lines after mass demolition. With such Modernist planning ideas reaching their zenith in the mid-1960s, the development of New Towns and vast overspill estates far away from the centre saw a large inner-city exodus. With housing in inner urban areas often being replaced with high rises, further breaking up older urban patterns, their structures and communities.

By the late 1960s, all these shifts had created vicious circles which sucked away people, activity, wealth and power from central cities. Expensive infrastructure and services that had developed over decades became ever harder to maintain with the declining tax base that came with people and organisations moving away. This was starkly illustrated in the population changes of post war cities. From Detroit’s population height of 1.8 million in 1950 it is now down to just 700,000. Liverpool’s population meanwhile shrank from its 1939 peak of 857,000 to 439,000 today. In 1939 the population of inner London was 4.4 million, by 1988 it was 2.5 million. In 1980 New York City’s population had dropped a million from a decade before and the city narrowly avoided bankruptcy in the 1970s.

The solutions proposed to arrest this decline were again heavily reliant on Modernist planning ideas. The future of these inner cities, it was said, was for large, office-based businesses, while the remaining urban population were condensed into housing blocks. So huge new office complexes were built. Examples include the Renaissance Centre which today dominates Detroit’s waterfront, and the similarly grandiose but never built ‘Aquarius City’ office complex in Liverpool, which would have seen the now Grade I listed Albert Dock complex razed for it. However, as the western economy declined into the 70s, the funding and demand for such schemes dried up, leading to pockmarked and devastated urban areas and remaining populations with few employment opportunities.

Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities critiqued what had by then become orthodox planning, noting: ‘This is the most amazing event in the whole sorry tale: that finally people who sincerely wanted to strengthen great cities should adopt recipes frankly devised for undermining their economies and killing them.’[ii] Jacobs was incredibly influential in getting wider society and those in power to take a different look at the qualities of the older, inner-city. However, her passion and those she inspired, for such areas and their communities, would later have malign consequences around gentrification and development that Jacobs and her followers did not foresee. Or perhaps wilfully ignored, because of the role they played in them.

There was a point in the 1970s when London, Liverpool, Detroit, and New York all seemed to be on a roughly similar path, but from the 1980s there was a strong divergence between cities who re-forged a new base of existence, along finance and creative capital, even if it didn’t offer a new future for all these cities’ existing residents, and those cities who found it harder to adapt to the growing Neoliberal, ‘post-Fordist’ world.

‘Through its complex orchestration of time and space, no less than through the social division of labor, life in the city takes on the character of a symphony: specialized human aptitudes, specialized instruments, give rise to sonorous results’[iii]
Lewis Mumford

Art and culture in industrial cities was traditionally bankrolled by either the city’s authorities or its wealthy industrialists, who were frequently one in the same, This was usually limited to ‘high culture’, with ‘grassroots culture’, consumed by those working in the factories, warehouses and dockyards owned by these industrialists, often existing on its own terms. This culture was paid for by its mass popular base rather than by a small number of wealthy individuals. Thus, the industrial city had two aspects of artistic production supported separately by its small number of very wealthy individuals and by its large, mostly poor mass.

Often there was artistic and social tension between these forms of artistic patronage. Just as the United Auto Workers were gaining strength in 1930s Detroit, Edsel Ford was sponsoring Communist-sympathising Diego Rivera to paint his Detroit Industry Murals. At the other end of the spectrum, occasional autoplant worker Berry Gordy later used his experience on a production line to influence the creation of Motown Records’ system of ‘hit’ production. In Liverpool meanwhile, dominated by its vast port, the arrival and departure of many different sailors brought musical influences from around the world, especially the US, helping to influence the sound of Merseybeat and The Beatles.

It was this flux between large, diverse mass populations and a relatively small number of extremely wealthy individuals that helped produce the vibrant cultures of industrial cities. But the gulf between these two parts of society fuelled increasing tensions between them, which were played out through the 20th century. The 1960s would see the start of a decisive break in culture, cities and industry. Merseybeat and Motown were at this time reaching their peak, their global influence far outreaching the impact of all the ‘high culture’ that industrialists had bankrolled in their respective cities the whole century previous. These Black and working-class, marginalised cultures, rooted in the cities they were created in, ended up far surpassing in importance the elite’s version of art in their host cities, so often based in replicating the past of other places and cultures. Yet even as this was happening, Liverpool and Detroit were already on the path to their economic decline. The increasing power, wealth and leisure time of the mass working class which helped fuel these scenes was also reaching its peak before it began to fall.

By the late 60s culture and artists were frequently seen as having a dangerous power by those in charge of increasingly challenged and struggling city authorities as the power of the patrician elite began to decline. The actions in Paris in 1968 were the most famous, but London too was rocked by art school occupations and anti-Vietnam and anti-nuclear protests. In Detroit the devastating 1967 riots were a key turning point in the city’s fortunes. In 1970s Liverpool, the city already by then desperate to develop its economy, gave little opposition to The Cavern Club being demolished by British Rail for a new underground line. Both Liverpool and Detroit becoming globally known for their vibrant music, which replaced their previous reputation as centres of industry, transitioned quickly to them being seen as bywords for economic decline and urban decay.

All this went in tandem with the continued thrust by civic leaders in the virtues of Modernist planning, but with diminishing returns and increasing opposition. In these cities, like many others, hard drugs like heroin and later crack cocaine began to flood into deprived and desperate communities with an attendant rise in street gangs and crime. This in turn saw even more people and businesses leave and more urban decline. The city, many declared, was dead.

Yet, it was in this very atmosphere that some inner city cultures began to flourish. In New York, unwanted tenements and industrial buildings began to be utilised as new spaces by creative people making new forms of art, exemplified by Andy Warhol’s Factory. Clubs like CBGBs developed in run-down parts of the city, with Television, Talking Heads and Patti Smith emerging as New York sailed towards bankruptcy. Detroit had the MC5 and Iggy Pop. Eric’s nightclub in Liverpool helped birth bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and The Teardrop Explodes. Hip-Hop and the culture surrounding it grew, generating interest globally even as New York’s leadership despaired about the ever more elaborate graffiti covering its run-down Metro system. The very fact that parts of the centre of New York were so empty made it a magnet for people who were not accepted or couldn’t afford to live elsewhere.

In Detroit and Chicago meanwhile, the empty factories and warehouses made redundant by industrial changes became home to flourishing dance music cultures, House from Chicago and Techno in Detroit. This in turn found favour in the UK, with clubs emerging in the abandoned industrial spaces of Liverpool, Manchester and London and rave culture finding popularity amongst their disenfranchised and unemployed youth.

In the late 20th century the inner city was a place of tension, decay and poverty, but it was also the cradle of change. Far from being dead, the spaces left by the receding economic tide became home to some of the most cutting edge aspects of global art and culture. Yet, in many of these cases, those in charge of these cities did their best, not only to not sponsor, support or even cash in on this, but to shut it down. The pop culture flourishing that saw the birth of Motown and Merseybeat, while initially being seen as harmless and positive, began to upset the status quo and subsequent radical cultural outputs were treated with concern and often hostility. Being targeted more often than not with enforcement action by local authorities and police. But as the hope for Modernist style mass renewal began to fade and crumble, a different perspective slowly began to grow. As the old dense urban landscapes were being swept away. Because of the very fact they were disappearing and were associated with radical, even dangerous, culture, such landscapes soon began to attract a new generation, the children especially of those who’d for one reason or another, left such places for the suburbs. 

What would start to save these cities, it began to seem, was their radical cultures. Something which could have only reached its peak as the contradictions inherent in these places began to cause their decline.  

I find myself back in Stanley Dock, the huge, crumbling warehouse on the edge of the city. When I was a kid my dad used to take me to the rough and ready market held in it so he could buy ‘second hand’ tools. What brings me here over a decade later is a party for the Liverpool Biennial art festival. There’s free booze, good music, dancing. Having grown up wanting to be part of the creative world, but worried I might never be able to, it feels good. I end up chatting to an arts person who isn’t from Merseyside. They say: ‘It’s great that Liverpool has all these abandoned buildings you can do stuff like this in.’ This sentence sticks a little in my craw. On the one hand, who doesn’t love a party in an old warehouse? But then, to not realise while abandoned buildings are fun and adventurous for some, for many more who walk past them every day, they’re not exotic or interesting or an opportunity. They’re tragic. Palpable symbols of decline, of lack of opportunity, of deep-rooted decay. But hey, it is a party, I go back to dancing.

‘The Birth of Gentrification’ by Lees, Slater and Wyly, describes succinctly the change in how such urban places were perceived by a new generation from the 1960s onwards: ‘In both the United States and in Britain, post-war urban renewal meant the bulldozing of old neighbourhoods to be replaced by modern housing and highways. As the destruction spread, so did the rebellion against it. In the beginning the protesters were mainly historians and architecture buffs, but slowly these were joined by young, middle-class families who bought and lovingly reconditioned beat-up, turn-of-the-century houses in ‘bad’ neighbourhoods.’[iv]

One of the roles of artists from the industrial revolution through to the post-industrial one has been that of highlighting the value of things which wider society has discarded. Those in the Romantic movement in the 19th century wanted to highlight the beauty that they saw was being lost in the fields and hamlets and small workshops, the long-established ways of life being swept away by industrialisation. While the artists moving into New York’s emptying loft buildings and London’s decaying docklands in the later 20th century also wanted to reflect and argue for the worth of such places and cultures that had been written off as economically unviable and of the past.

As documented by Sharon Zukin in Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change[v], art and artists played a particular role in the development of gentrification in decayed urban areas. The ‘character’ and relative ‘wildness’ of such places was a draw, with them seen to be outside of mainstream culture, just as the countryside was for artists 100 years before. In these locations, artists could live cheaply and relatively free, with plenty of space for venues, studios, galleries and parties. Yet creative communities formed in this way also tend to be short lived, relying on a rapid turnover of young people moving in. Within a few years most leave these ‘authentic’ localities, as they begin to settle down into family units in more ‘conventional’ places. That is of course, if such areas don’t reach a tipping point and those moving in shift the nature of the neighbourhoods they inhabit to suit their changed needs. Such changes attract more people who wish to buy into such developing locations. This drives up property prices, which in turn attracts further intense private investment and price rises. Once an area starts to gentrify, it is almost impossible to stop – a single building or even a block may be kept in old use due to protections or campaigns of one form or another, but usually everything around them still changes.

This pattern has now become so familiar to be almost banal. It’s important however to note the date of the publication of Zukin’s Loft Living, 1982, and how long it took for her points to become mainstream. This is related to the speed of gentrification. Slow, at first, almost unknowable in the 1960s, moving through to today where districts can go from ‘off the radar’ to impossibly expensive at a speed where the process is clearly visible to all.

However, importantly, this phenomenon predominantly only has significant impact on economically successful areas with a large enough creative and media bases; the post-industrial cities which became leading centres of service industries such as London, Berlin, LA, San Francisco and New York. Places like this have become so hyper-successful and keep growing at such intense rates, that not only have their former industrial communities and artists been pushed out from the centre of the city, but much of their professional middle classes too.

‘London may soon be faced with an ‘embarrass de richesses’ in her central area and this may prove to be a problem too.’
Ruth Glass, who coined the term gentrification, writing in 1964[vi]


‘The problem in the South Side of Chicago is the same as it is in Liverpool, or wherever, it is: what do working people do now the industry has gone?’[vii]

Theaster Gates

In cities which didn’t catch this bandwagon though, like Detroit and Liverpool, communities don’t really face being pushed out by Modernist development as in the past, or gentrification now, rather many are instead pushed to leave by the lack of opportunities and declining local infrastructure and services, or risk getting trapped in negative cycles of deprivation. Such cities lose more talent than they gain. Job opportunities can be few and those available often low quality and not well paid. Fewer companies being headquartered in them means such places have less agency and a lower tax base, being dependent on the whims of central governments re-distributing national taxes or big companies choosing to invest there. Educational attainment is usually lower, meaning there’s a lower skills base and fewer new companies and organisations are founded. Gaining media attention for anything other than a negative story is hard as most media is usually based far away and mainly interested in things which re-enforce the existing views of its audiences.  

Yet, as gentrification is a major issue in the cities that are amongst the biggest centres of arts, the media and urban academic discourse, it presented as something that is a key threat to all urban areas. When instead, it is a symptom of a wider issue where a smaller number of global megacities become ever larger and more powerful and ever more exclusionary for people without wealth and other former industrial cities and their populations increasingly struggle.

Art and culture in these latter cities, while often vibrant, are always threatened by their weaknesses. There may be plenty of ‘cheap and wild’ places for artists and culture to happen, but markets and support are limited, attention hard to find. Artists which do emerge often are attracted to better opportunities elsewhere and while individual success happens, wider cultural scenes tend to be fragile, transitory and dependent on student/graduate populations moving in and then often, back out again. As well as come-and-go subsidy from elsewhere. Cultural institutions, if they still exist, are often impoverished and risk averse, reducing opportunities for new work and new artists.

Despite the arguments by people like Richard Florida in his The Rise of the Creative Class, cities attracting artists are not in themselves a solution to their economic problems. Artists moving in can help an area be revitalised, as repeatedly seen, but that cannot form the whole economy of anything other than a small, specialised settlement – for example Japan’s ‘art island’, Naoshima. The megacities such as London, Berlin and New York which have huge creative and cultural sectors, still always find them playing second fiddle to the bigger still corporate and public administration sectors.
 
A taxi driver in Detroit asked me, ‘Do you want to see the abandoned Packard plant, lots do?’ I thought for a while and replied, ‘No thanks, you know we also have a lot of abandoned factories where I’m from too.’ My time was short and I wanted to see some of the community arts and renewal projects, decaying warehouses I could get in Birkenhead. The familiarity in visiting Detroit from the Northern England was stark. However, Detroit was in a worse condition, though of course it was nothing like the stereotypes of the media. There were plenty of beautiful, fully occupied buildings, lots going on, There was also the real positivity people had that you were visiting and interested in the contemporary life of the city and what had been restored, not just what was decaying.

I visited the Motown Museum and it was joyous, seeing the original recording studio, the enthusiasm of the local tour guide. Afterwards, I understood better why people got so excited visiting Penny Lane in Liverpool. When we consume culture, there’s a fascination that can grow about the origins of that culture which propels us to engage with it. Of course though, engaging with a real city is always different. And living somewhere that had a vibrant past culture is not the same as living somewhere that has a vibrant contemporary culture. The tour guide reminded us that Motown Records left Detroit for LA in the 1970s, and I was reminded of Warp Records leaving Sheffield for London in 2000.


We tend to love cities for their culture, be that food, music, architecture, literature, sport, film. That view of a city though is of course a projection, often many projections laid over each other to create a powerful, chimeric image. It must be tempered by the actuality of a city: its messy, complicated reality; that most cities are ever changing. And if they’re not, they’re often dying.

Art and culture can help drive social change. It can even form part of an economy, but you cannot run a major urban settlement on cultural production alone. Trying to do that leaves cities, their populations and the culture they create vulnerable. Since its industries left for more modern places and it became a wholly a tourist city, the population of Venice has declined significantly. The fact is, far less interesting things, dull even, are also needed to help the residents of declined cities: hi tech manufacturing, decent government jobs, a diverse economic base. Yet, as anyone who works in economic development in a depressed city will tell you, getting such ‘good jobs’ and the social benefits that come from them is damn hard, especially when you’re battling against the seemingly ever growing power of the global megacities. Meanwhile, the fallout from the still relatively new phenomenon of post-industrial cities continues to grow, causing profound political shifts, as exemplified by the rise of Trump and Brexit, both significantly backed by those living in places smashed by industrial decline. Though it must be noted both also drew support from other demographics too.

The cultural tragedy is for Liverpool and Detroit is, in becoming less sustainable, in seeing a lot of their young talent leave for other quarters, even if a handful of arts graduates moving in find their ‘edginess’ more interesting than where they grew up, is that the vibrant, transformational, radical art that grew out of such bustling diverse working class cultures, like Motown and Merseybeat, is far less likely to be repeated. An economic underpinning giving their working classes power, time and money is needed to create these conditions. These beautiful cities and others like it deserve better, but they cannot do it on their own and years of laissez-faire rule by successive central governments has allowed them to fall so far it will be hard to pull it back.

I’d been working in Hull a couple of years and not been into a bigger city for a while. Arriving in London for a day’s training, the effect was alarming. I’d lived in London in the past, but after so long in a city struggling, with its retail centre in decline, to suddenly be dropped back into the intense stream of the capital running full tilt – every shop occupied, every park filled, every piece of shining new public transport packed and constant, was jarring. It dawned on me how, if this is all you saw every day, how hard it would be to understand or even comprehend the challenges of a struggling city. What it’s like to live in a place where every decent job created is cancelled out by a job lost. The grinding down of any belief in anything ever getting better if you have to fight for every single thing to even be kept afloat. How easy it would be to think your urban problems – house prices, gentrification, too many tourists, a transport system that’s too busy – were the only urban problems.

London and New York are becoming gilded cages. Art and culture helped rebrand and reshape them, but this was just the surface section of the much larger iceberg of dematerialised capitalism honing into view. The culture that renewed them is now being driven out. Of course, they are not short of culture to consume: every possible permutation of art can be experienced and bought. Places like this will always attract artists because there will always be a market, but will they again be the epicentres, the crucibles of art and culture that cuts across classes and national identity, culture that helps change the world? Or rather, just rich places that can deck themselves out in the best they can buy? Much as the city fathers of the industrial age did in aping the styles of Rome and Greece to cover the fact they were built fast on hot money largely derived from exploitation. While there’ll probably always be shows on Broadway and in the West End, even after Covid, as the poor and even the moderately well off are forced out of London and New York by hyper-development, how many of them will be written by people who can afford to live there?

At the other end are the under-invested cities. Detroit and Liverpool, Glasgow and New Orleans, Baltimore and Hull. Places which despite everything against them, still have vibrant cultures. Yet they face a crisis not just economic, but existential. These cities will always produce talent, have creativity within them, but with the jobs, markets and media elsewhere, how often will people have to leave to make it? How much will any cultural success provide a future for their wider urban populations? To quote the film Billy Elliot: ‘What about us? We can’t all be fucking dancers.’

Post-industrial cities didn’t really start to emerge till the 1970s and the finance driven megacities are an even newer phenomenon. So, just at it seemed cities were doomed in the 1970s, there could yet be decisive turns for places on either side of this dichotomy. The huge impact of Covid-19 has thrown things up in the air in a way not seen since the Oil Shock and we can only speculate as to what will follow. I hope for change and want to see underinvested towns and cities get a break so can thrive not just survive. As well as the overgrowth of the megacities reined in so they can breathe. At the moment both are being slowly strangled by the deep imbalance between them. 

Our cities are screaming to live, but they can’t do it on their own. With the right investment and support, and public control, perhaps we can see again a more balanced urban life, which supports thriving cultures. Only then will the new equivalent of Motown or Merseybeat be able to rise from them again to change the world.

Detroit Is No Dry Bones. Detroit You Shall Live[viii]
Street graffiti

This piece was published by Entropy in May 2021.

Notes

[i]  Y. Marchand & R. Meffre, The Ruins of Detroit 2005-2010 (http://www.marchandmeffre.com/detroit) Accessed 17 Oct 2020
[ii] Jacobs, J. (1993), The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage, p.21
[iii] Fraser, B. (2015), Toward an Urban Cultural Studies: Henri Lefebvre and the Humanities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, p.61
[iv] L. Lees, S. Slater & E. Wyly. (2008), Gentrification. New York: Routledge, p.5
[v] Zukin, S. (1989), Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
[vi] Bevan, R. (2014) ‘From Ruth Glass to Spike Lee: 50 years of gentrification’ in The Guardian, 27 February 2014 (https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/feb/27/ruth-glass-spike-lee-gentrification-50-years) Accessed 22 November 2020
[vii] Adams, T. (2015) ‘Chicago artist Theaster Gates: “I’m hoping Swiss bankers will bail out my flooded South Side bank in the name of art”’ in The Guardian, 3 May 2015 (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/03/theaster-gates-artist-chicago-dorchester-projects) Accessed 22 November 2020
[viii] National Building Museum (2013), Detroit is No Dry Bones (https://www.nbm.org/exhibition/detroit-no-dry-bones/) Accessed 22 November 2020

Frequent Electric Trains: new culture in Birkenhead’s empty spaces

Future Yard venue during development
Future Yard venue during development

By Kenn Taylor
Images by Robin Clewley and Graham Smillie


Growing up in an overspill estate of Birkenhead, with Liverpool being a short bus ride away, the city always seemed to be the nearest place where things happened. Where those posters and flyers led to. Where independent shops and venues existed which gave further glimpses of a world of art and culture. One that seemed fascinating but also closed off. Later, when I did enter that world, I found that while it did open up so much for me, some of the cultural scene was indeed elitist and exclusionary. Remote from how many people in Merseyside lived their lives. Trying to navigate a way into the creative industries when you had no family connections or real understanding of how it all worked was not easy, and there seemed to be nothing to help you to figure it out. It was experiences such as these that later led me to spending much of my career doing community cultural projects.

Birkenhead itself did have its own cultural gems, including the brilliant, long-established Skeleton Record Exchange, where I would visit regularly to part-ex CDs so I could buy new ones. Trying to get the best deal so I could hear enough new music in a time when there were few other options. Skelos and its big, brightly painted red arrow are, I am pleased to say, still going. Meanwhile the music chain stores in the ambitiously-named Pyramids shopping centre, which represented the future in Birkenhead in the 1990s, have long shut down.

Interior of Future Yard venue
Interior of Future Yard venue

Birko was the classic boom town of the 1800s, which grew rich quickly off the back of the shipyard set up by the Laird family. This wealth paid for the fine Hamilton Square, the largest concentration of Grade I listed buildings outside London, and Birkenhead Park, the world’s first municipal public park, with Europe’s first street tramway running between them. Since then, the town’s fortunes have been inextricably linked with the rising and falling tides at the shipyard which still looms over Birkenhead physically, psychologically and economically. The dramatic vista of Hamilton Square, with its station tower promising FREQUENT ELECTRIC TRAINS, retains its visual impact though. However, for the moment, many of the buildings around the square are empty, including most of the Town Hall itself.

Exterior of Future Yard venue
Exterior of Future Yard venue

For a long time, the centre of Birkenhead was dominated by its post-war shopping centres, while this older part of town slowly died off. However, as retail struggles, new attention is being paid around here. The founders of the key Liverpool region music magazine, Bido Lito!, have set up a Community Interest Company (CIC) and turned an empty building into a new 350 capacity music venue. Called Future Yard, it’s planned to be the UK’s first carbon neutral grassroots venue. As a precursor, they painted THE FUTURE IS BIRKENHEAD in bright pink letters on the front while work went on inside. The venue builds on the Future Yard music festival held in 2019, which took place over several locations including the historic remains of Birkenhead Priory. Hidden behind an industrial estate, the Priory, which includes the oldest standing buildings in Merseyside, represents the history of ‘the headland of birch trees’ before the industrial revolution. Its tower gives dramatic views across the Mersey and the waterfront, with you standing high above the massive vessels in the shipyard propped up precariously for repair.

Future Yard’s venue opening was hit by Covid, but they have delivered online shows and have an array of gigs lined up as restrictions lift. As a CIC, Future Yard has a social mission which asks questions like: ‘How do we leverage the social and economic power of music in struggling towns?’ and ‘How do we provide new career pathways into the live music industry?’

Nearby meanwhile, in what was once the Borough Council’s Treasury building, a new venture called Make Hamilton Square has opened up, set up by another CIC which already runs successful studios in Liverpool. Housing creative workspaces, it also includes a new small urban farm and an events space. Make similarly has a social mission which includes: ‘to remove barriers to people joining the economy, by making things themselves and becoming self sufficient’.

Make Hamilton Square
Make Hamilton Square

As central Liverpool has redeveloped, areas which I knew as largely derelict have become the Ropewalks and Baltic Triangle and cultural centres in a way I couldn’t have imagined. As sure as the wind blows though, cultural spaces in them have been threatened by redevelopment. As such development in Liverpool grows, could Birkenhead become a new local mecca for culture and music? Or is this just the cultural scene being pushed further out – a ‘temporary utopia’ to facilitate more traditional forms of redevelopment?

Garden, Make Hamilton Square
Garden, Make Hamilton Square

Hopefully, with Future Yard and Make being CICs planned with sustainability in mind, this could make the difference. Future Yard recently received financial support to buy their own building. A long way from trashy but cool venues existing until their landlords get offered a better deal. If these initiatives and others like them are to succeed, they need to be able to control their spaces and receive proper protection and support long term from institutions, authorities and funders.

Still too many young people in Birkenhead and many places like it are not given enough opportunities to experience creative arts, develop their interests or get their own work out there. Despite everything that’s happening at the moment, places like Make and Future Yard are progressing and offering people new spaces to grow in. Projects such these could create a situation where those FREQUENT ELECTRIC TRAINS are bringing more people to the town than they’re taking out. They point to a different kind of future for Birkenhead. A different kind of future in general.

This piece was published by The State of the Arts in May 2021.

Dark: Season 3

Image from Netflix's Dark
Image from Netflix’s Dark

By Kenn Taylor

The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end. So completes Dark, one of Netflix’s best original productions. A series deeply loved but that never quite seemed to break through to the mainstream imagination. 

But I have a feeling its influence and popularity will be long lasting.

Dark draws you gradually into its world. The first few episodes – a missing child, troubled police officers, a small German town filled with secrets – felt like the kind of Scandi-Euro murder drama that has increasingly become a cliché with diminishing returns. Yet, little by little, the speculative nature of the series creeps out from the cave at its centre. Soon enough, you’re dealing with things across space and time and of intense philosophical and technical complexity.

What really sets Dark apart though, pushing it beyond so many other good series, is that it never loses its emotional depth. Your feeling for many of the characters is matched only by your fear and anger towards the ever-expanding cast of people that seem intent on manipulating and destroying them.

Dark leads you by the hand to a place where it presents you with a litany of big, horrifying questions. What we do to each other. What we do to ourselves. What we cover up. What we try to forget. What we will do to get what we want. But also, what we are prepared to do, what we would sacrifice, what we would go through to prevent suffering in others. 

Trauma. Jealousy. Grief. Power. Control. Betrayal. Lust. Fate. Free will. Life. Death. The search for meaning. The desperate grasp for salvation and the flight from endless darkness. Choices that we all hope we’ll never have to face, but which certain characters get wrapped into ever more terrifying spirals of. Not just on our plane of existence either, but on so many other levels that become ever more labyrinthine. 

Dark’s genius though is that throughout, the characters remain painfully, relatably human, as the series always retains at least one finger grip on lived reality. Fundamental questions about existence, quantum physics and morality, are threaded perfectly between the joys of shifting popular culture and the angst of teenage love. You spin me right round, like a record baby.

These factors alone would render Dark a remarkable television series. Yet more things set it apart. 

Its stellar casting, as different actors play characters at different ages, in different ages, but without a blink of disbelief from the audience except of the uncanniness of resemblance. Striking design and cinematography across a small number of settings, the series contained entirely within Winden, the centre of the characters universe. So many of the shots could be photographs, I was not surprised to learn that director Baran bo Odar had shown every department the work of photographer Gregory Crewdson and told them “that’s our look”. The visual impact of the series deepens over time as the same locations, symbols and colours loop through the lives of different characters, creating a powerful sense of recognition and unease. The soundtrack too, varied from Nena to Ben Frost, is often subtle but always resonant.

Dark is not without its flaws. It is incredibly hard to sustain all of this, especially the twists, without it becoming tiresome. They just about manage it by the skin of their teeth. The third series is clunkier, with less intense, thrilling drama and more extrapolation as it tries to cope with the various threads unwound in the previous two. Occasionally, the plot straining the seams can be seen, as so many different lines of speculation are pulled back together so rapidly you get whiplash. 

There are also a few points in this final season when you sense the programme falling a little too much in love with itself. Too many swipe cuts like an 80s kids’ TV show; a few too many melodramatic montages in which the characters stare into the middle distance as a song plays over. Some of this is part of the programme’s mise-en-scène, but this season pushes it towards self-indulgence. These things can be forgiven though, such is the power elsewhere.

The weight of Dark on you, can feel as dense as the uranium in Winden Kraftwerk. Throughout the last few episodes, such was the emotional investment, I kept gripping the chair at some of the more awkward moments, willing them not to fuck it up. As it draws to its resolution though, on that Winden crossroads. Well. The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end. Somewhere, somehow, sometime.

This piece was published by The State of the Arts in March 2021.

Berliner Mauer

By Kenn Taylor

One of my earliest memories is watching on television the fall of the Berlin Wall. Of course, I have other early memories of less geo-political consequence. But seeing the joy of the people stood on top of the narrow, graffiti-covered wall as they smashed it down, really did stick with me. Even if at the time I had limited understanding of what was happening or why it was important.

From then on, the Berlin Wall that no longer existed, held a fascination for me. My father had left school at 15 but had a huge knowledge of history and I absorbed this interest. While the Merseyside I grew up in was a place in itself where the weight of history was everywhere. The wall coming down would also have unintended consequences here too. The end of the Cold War meant a big drop in orders for the shipyard that Birkenhead had been built around. The yard’s subsequent closure was a devastating blow to the area. So many British towns are like this – trapped in a death spiral of dependence on a deeply cyclical defence industry for the want of anything else. Such places are usually where the military recruit from as well for the same reason. As Elvis Costello, who grew up in Birkenhead, wrote in Shipbuilding:

It’s just a rumour that was spread around town / Somebody said that someone got filled in / For saying that people get killed in / The result of this shipbuilding


I remained interested in Berlin as I grew up. Our school arranged its only ever foreign trip to visit WWII sites in Germany and Poland, including of course the now unified German capital. While I wasn’t sure my family could afford it, I was incredibly excited at the prospect. However, I needn’t have worried as my class was labelled the ‘bad class’ and not invited. Something which incensed me. Yet as an awkward young teenager I didn’t, as I probably should have done, march to the headmaster’s office and demand a fair deal. Rather I just took it as another sign that, even if history was one of the few things I was interested in and good at, there wasn’t much point in trying at school and I might as well piss around, so I did.

It would only be years later, after dropping out of education, going back in and eventually completing a degree, that I made it to Berlin. And I loved it. Returning many times since at different stages in my life.

Like most visitors to the city, I went to find traces of the wall which I’d watched the destruction of broadcast live hundreds of miles away. There are various fragments in different states of condition around Berlin. Probably the most prominent is the East Side Gallery, which was covered with murals in 1990 after the fall of the wall. It is also one of the most striking.

When I first saw the East Side Gallery in 2007, it was still on the fringe of a rapidly changing Berlin. Quiet, with only a handful of similarly interested tourists milling around. The murals, now around 17 years old, had faded and been tagged a great deal. On one of the murals had been written over in marker:

‘I am claiming this space. I am defacing the visual record of a history which is not my own. But why not? This sight is now a site which has been split from the continuity of Berlin culture. It is heritage which belongs to tourist culture. We are recording our own history, here, now, and I was here.’

This powerful statement was a harbinger of things to come. On repeat visits, I saw the area around the East Side Gallery develop more and more. When I returned 10 years on, the murals had been repainted, the site now visited by many more people. It seemed incongruous for such raw expressions from 1990 to be really bright and fresh again, even if necessary to preserve them. Huge construction sites lined the opposite side of the road from the wall, with developments all along the river Spree. A vast entertainment arena had been constructed and its illuminated advertising sign towered above the wall. To return only every few years and see this pace of change in snapshots was uncanny. While the negative impact of this aggressive speed and scale of development on some of Berlin’s communities is well documented.

I often thought though of that earlier statement written on the wall, dismissing its preservation as a relic for visitors. It would have been worse to prevent a new history being written around the site of a wall that has terrible memories for most Berliners. Just so as people like me could observe a place in the dramatic, run down state it held after the fall of the wall. That this once divided city was once again growing and attracting people and that day to day life was now taking place right over many sites associated with past darkness, was largely positive. Even if development should have been done with more care.

Another noticeable memorial to the wall are metal strips in the pavement which trace its line around the city. I took an early ‘shoe selfie’ over a section marked ‘Berliner Mauer 1961 – 1989’ when I first visited. As I was travelling on my own, it was a way of locating myself in the story my photos told. On later visits, I happened upon similar markers in different places and took the same shot. Creating my own personal record through time of my visits to this city. Shoes, jeans and me changing along with Berlin.


When we visit somewhere, we are often seeking ghosts; past histories, past cultures, past moments of trauma or triumph. Sites of things no longer there or in ruin. Perhaps even scenes from old films that never really existed in reality. We follow history to the place it happened and temporarily insert ourselves into it. Even parts of history recent enough to have occurred in our own timelines of existence. Meanwhile, different people and cultures that have often long moved on, pass over and alongside it. The last time I visited Berlin, I noticed while having a drink outside a café, that metal line again under the tables and chairs. Forgotten about underfoot while people enjoyed themselves in the sun. A café in the middle of what was once a death strip, peaceful life going on right over it. That didn’t feel incongruous. It felt like a good thing.

Yet, our desire to seek out and engage with the darkness in history remains. Is this just ghoulish, egocentric? Perhaps, but maybe also because we know we need to remember such things even as we want to move on from them. We trace these histories because they haunt us and affect us even if in distant ways. While it never does quite repeat itself, the waves of history do flow back and forth, leading to consequences that are not always immediately apparent. I didn’t realise the impact the joyous fall of the Berlin Wall would have on my hometown a few years afterwards. Decades on, a friend told me he voted for Brexit because the factory he’d worked in had been closed, shifted for cheaper labour onto the other side of what was once the Iron Curtain. To a country where the brief space of democracy is once again being screwed down by totalitarianism. As we watched the fall of the wall and celebrated the freedom of a people, we didn’t realise this would also lead to the increasing freedom of capital. Which we now see hurting communities in Berlin through hyper development and former industrial towns in Northern England through capital flight. Today there is growing angst at the iniquity and corruption of our system, as there was in Berlin in the 1980s.

What way will history flow next? Will we see the rapture of people pushing back against capital’s seemingly intractable might, or will the walls start closing in once again? Whether we want to seek out history, or carry on regardless over it, we do need to remember what we hate and treasure from it. The Berlin Wall is gone, but it should linger in our consciousness like all dark history, as a reminder of the depths we can go to. The ghost of the wall snaking its way under pavement cafes and past entertainment arenas remains ever relevant, looming over all of us, not just in the city which it once cleaved in two.

This piece was published in Issue 2 of Creeping Expansion in December 2020.

Loch Hotel

By Kenn Taylor

Just how far out can you go in mainland Britain in terms of isolation? With a journey many miles down a long, empty, country road, an owl flying low at the windscreen at one point, and a long, single track road before you reach the destination, this place certainly felt like a candidate.

At the end of that private road there’s a luxury hotel. Not for the likes of you and me. I am here not as a real guest, but because a friend had bagged a job there.

Adjacent to a mighty loch, it is as rural a Scotland as you could possibly imagine. Scenery flowing off into the endless distance. Dramatic landscapes in every corner of your vision: mountains, forests, streams filled with huge glacial rocks. Orange highland cows. Even the multi-coloured moss seems dramatic.

In isolation, in a vast landscape, things seem to have greater visual power. A strikingly white solitary house. A lone, worn-out boat. A fallen tree. At this altitude, and with few buildings, the slightest change of light or shift in the clouds that touch the mountain tops is instantly noticeable.

The hotel itself offers luxury in such seclusion. Old red leather chairs, worn but in the way that loos classy, not knackered. A roaring fire in a grate, the size of a small car, surrounded by dark wood and polished brass. A table lamp in the shape of a stag. The hotel itself looks ancient, but in reality is a fake. A Walter Scott image from the Victorian era.

What’s it like to live out here? I fear that the quiet and lack of stimulation would drive me mad. But there is plenty to do. Walk. Swim. Climb. Build. Read. There’s television and the internet but even then, my friend tells me, you do feel distant from everything. Terrible things happening on the news feel like dark fairy stories from far off lands, rather than things that will reach you here.

This has an allure, like some Arcadian fantasy of times past perhaps. But then this place is predicated on selling that. Charging an astronomical amount for the experience of ‘proper Scotland’. The staff, while they may also appreciate the fresh air and idyllic location, have to labour most of the time while those paying to be here can just enjoy it all. Hike the hills, fly in helicopters, drive fast cars, drink expensive whiskeys. Though labouring here is, my friend assures me, much better than some of the other places we had both laboured.

Of course, we can’t afford to even eat in the hotel. Instead we go over to the nearby inn for a pint, before driving the long way back to the nearest town to truly catch up. Nevertheless, I can see the attraction of this place, of going out to the furthest reaches. If you really have the money, you can pretend the world is not like it is. And forget, perhaps, the role you played in making it that way.

This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in January 2021.

A Spotlight On…Claire Walmsley Griffiths

Claire Walmsley Griffiths is a photographer from Blackpool, Lancashire who explores the possibilities of human connection through photography. She uses a camera as a tool for conversation, engaging with the psychology of people, place, identity, what community is, was and what it might become. Claire talked to Kenn Taylor about her work, her experiences as an artist and the cultures that she wants to explore and platform. 

South Pier, Claire Walmsley Griffiths, 2020

Kenn Taylor: How did you become a photographer?

Claire Walmsley Griffiths: I went to study fine art in Northampton in 1998. I started to photograph things to draw or paint from. Then I found people like Sophie Calle and Nan Goldin. What photography did for me, I just found it very accessible and much more of an accessible language in general for the audience. I became interested in how audiences could become involved in artwork or become part of that experience. And I think I’m still really interested in that.

It felt very different being at university in the south to what it was like in the north. A lot of pretence. I remember on one occasion one of my peers at art school calling me a ‘pleb’. It felt really obvious that I was from the north even though I’d never really considered it before. But also feeling very protective to the north and to Blackpool. I’m an overly-protective person of the place I live, but it has so many qualities that do not get celebrated.

Blackpool is often used as the poster child for ‘broken Brexit Britain’ by journalists and photographers. What do you feel about that, photographers coming in looking for a particular narrative they’ve decided on even before they arrive?

It is easy to feel that jolt when the media reflects images back at Blackpool, to say ‘this is your life’. Images that might suggest lack of hope or no alternative. As someone who lives here, it can be very difficult and there is a feeling of, where is the bigger picture?

It’s what we have been fed in Blackpool over a long period of time. I don’t think it’s helpful. Not that I’m like everything should be brilliant or Disney. But I think you have a lot of power with a camera and where you point it and that needs careful consideration. It’s really tempting for people to photograph the dark side of Blackpool. It’s too easy. Street photography has changed a lot in recent times. I think it was Susan Sontag who referred to taking a picture as an ‘aggressive act’. Perhaps social media has allowed people to question it more and also be more mindful of the camera’s power. But the stories that often get told of Blackpool are often not by the people of Blackpool. I think you have a right to document or photograph your own story.

Do you feel Blackpool gets ‘used’ or ‘othered’ by the media? This happened a lot to Merseyside in the 1980s and 90s when I was growing up there. Do you think the media commissioning more locally-based artists would create more balance?

I am interested in the psychology of a place, how residents, creatives and local artists feel in response to this consistent narrative. Othering is an easy route I guess especially using a medium such as photography because how much of creating a photograph can be non-reciprocal for the subject, it’s dangerous ground. I think there is a different narrative though in places like Blackpool that often does not get explored, through social and community approaches. Everyone has a right to be creative, it’s part of the human condition. People need to feel part of something, in a conversation or their voice valued. 

What did it feel like capturing those Covid lockdown images that became part of the #WorkTownGhostTown project [commissioned by The Grundy, Blackpool]?

Initially I did really enjoy the sense of peace, and there was a feeling of it being very ethereal. You could really see the buildings of Blackpool, when you look above and see the old architecture. I’d never really been able to do that as much previously I think because of vehicles going past. But then I really began to think about the performance industry and the music industry in Blackpool and the buildings that they take place in. Thinking about being younger and not being able to go and have that experience of meeting friends or drinking in pubs, or being able to dance and have a shared experience. I just really began to feel for those people and I started to speak to some of them and photograph them.

I went out again on the last day before the second lockdown, and I went on to Central Pier. It was completely quiet and I started to talk to the man who had the darts stand. If you’re someone who has grown up in Blackpool you probably will have done a job like that. He let me take his portrait and I wanted to make sure he was happy with it. He was just someone who worked for the stall owner, but he really seemed to love it. And that’s a really interesting aspect of taking photographs of people, just having time to listen to their story if they’ll share it with you.

The space of the Pier without people felt very unique, but it is really important that we do have people coming through Blackpool and spending money to support these small businesses, these music venues, grassroots venues that attract unique acts.

Central Pier Dart Stall, 30 Days Of Lockdown, Claire Walmsley Griffiths, 2020

You did a series, Seasonal Workers; is it important for you to show the story behind the seaside artifice?

I do think it’s really important. The seasonal workers stuff is ongoing. I photographed some horse and carriage owners having their, sort of, MOT last year. Their stories seem so important for Blackpool, the seasonal jobs make up part of Blackpool’s heritage. The horse owners I’ve met, they absolutely love their horses and seem to do it more through a connection to their animals than for the job. The generations of people who own the horses and donkeys, they go back for years and years. I think the carriage owners have had a very hard time with their season cut short.

Is it important to you to tell these stories, I’m also thinking of your Retired Performers series?

I think I’m just more and more interested in the shared experience and how people can connect and photography feels really accessible for that. The reason Retired Performers came about is I was photographing a circus festival. I met this lady and there was a photograph of her as a young person and she said ‘I used to be a foot juggler’. I said ‘what’s a foot juggler?!’ And she said ‘I used to spin people on a plank on my legs’. Then she said ‘oh yes my husband performed for Hitler’. Only in Blackpool! So she was the person who sparked the idea.

It was completely different to what I anticipated the project to be. I learned a lot through doing it. I wanted 30 people who had worked professionally in Blackpool. It’s like an underground scene really, all the retired performers know each other or have connections with each other, so they were introducing one another to me. They loved the experience of being able to talk about what they’d done. I wanted it to be a collaboration. I wanted them to feel happy with their photographs and that they were aware of what was happening with the work as much as possible. I wanted to create or encourage an exchange between sitter and audience. An invitation to be part of that backstage life, what goes on behind the curtain of and how we can feel part of that. The series of images allowed me to invite performers back into spaces such as The Tower Ballroom or Winter Gardens theatres where we kind of co-created an experience.

Stage Manager at North Pier Theatre Blackpool Denis, Claire Walmsley Griffiths, 2018

Is that one of the things you enjoy about social practice, connecting with people?

Within photography, I do like social documentary. I’m interested in that. But people like Mary Ellen Mark who was photographing her own life and stuff going on around her, just feels more genuine. I think it takes years and months to build those relationships. That, or it’s already going on around you or it has a strong connection to you. I am interested in people, I guess this is all about having that collaboration and finding a way to build relationships. That level of trust, that you’re already part of that community or have a connection to it. I think that’s really important.

What do you think of socially engaged practice as a term?

It’s a tricky term. I prefer socially based to socially engaged in some ways. I feel like it’s an inherent thing in people to want to be involved in the community. I think it’s within care workers, nursing professions, teachers. Socially engaged practice is something I came across by chance really. I guess it has been discussed as community art in the past. But the idea that you might be able to collaborate with a group of people to make work or give people a camera to tell their own story is really powerful.

Do you separate your socially engaged work from your other photography?

I don’t think I separate it from stuff I do generally. If I was photographing for tourism, if they let me arrive early and talk to people, that’s really helpful. If I’m photographing some civic event or street performance it feels uncomfortable if I haven’t said hello to people or found out a little bit about them. And the photograph seems better if I’ve had that experience already or if they know who I am.

Do you feel you were doing ‘socially engaged practice’ before you knew of it as a term?
I definitely do feel that. It’s because I’m in that community and I am that person from a one parent family, who’s had someone close to me with addiction, who’s had a friend that was homeless at a young age. I am that person and so are they, but we are also people with a bigger story. I keep thinking about how it is easy to demonise people who are living through difficult circumstances. That those voices do not have a chance to be heard and the stories that get communicated through other mediums are often regurgitated in the same old ways. I am interested in projects where the voice is a collaboration or the story or image highlights hope and space for exchange.

Tell me about your Retired Ravers project?

Retired Ravers is in process currently. I’ve been documenting an ex-cinema space that was later a nightclub and that has now been taken over by a theatre, come art space currently being regenerated by that very community. So it’s an amazing space, the perfect space to invite in people who were in that scene.

I’ve been thinking about that loss of community and shared experience and coming together isn’t happening at the moment. But I have spoken to someone who had been there in the late 80s rave scene in Lancashire and they were quite keen on the darker drug taking aspects being addressed, leading onto darker times for some people, so I’m just considering that at the moment. I see a lot of demonisation of addiction which is really damaging for people in recovery. Perhaps it’s a class problem, you have to pay for good recovery programmes. It just opened a new layer to what I had been thinking about photographing that counter culture.

I’ve also come across quite a few women who were involved in the scene who would want to remain anonymous if they were to become involved in the project. I’ve done some test shots where I’ve photographed people anonymously, so just a soft light silhouette around people. Again I’m thinking of it as a collaboration with the sitter and the idea you could take a journey with people being involved in the project. One of the questions I want to ask those people is, was it a very accepting scene, but things feel very polarised now. Did they feel that youth culture would stay with people forever? The idea of freedom and liberty within that scene that perhaps some people felt. At its best that’s what it promoted. It feels like the places folks congregate or have a shared experience creates a kind of tangible energy.

Anonymous volunteer portrait at The Old Electric, Claire Walmsley Griffiths, 2020

Through your work in Blackpool as a photographer, what do you think you have discovered about community, and its future?

I am interested in how we come to believe limitations and our place in the world. That as human beings we look to identify with groups, that is my take on community – how we feel when sharing a story or relate to one another is powerful. It feels like people need to feel like they are part of something and how do we find that?

How important is class, and in particular working-class cultures, to you in your work?

I do feel like, what’s wrong with being working class? It used to be a celebrated thing and people shouldn’t be ashamed of it. I would like to see more celebration of all those working-class codes, the Working Men’s Clubs, Bingo, Rose Queens, everything. At Uni in the south, especially studying fine art, the last thing my peer group were interested in were working class stories and values, but it still gets fed back to us by media created by some who perhaps have not had that lived experience. I feel like there is opportunity now to see, hear and experience art and photography created by communities and working-class artists who are able to tell their own stories or collaborate in an empowering way. It feels like we are heading into a time where there is nothing to lose as long as we all keep listening, viewing and communicating whilst checking our own routes to what we believe is our destination.

This piece was published as part of the A Spotlight on Social Practice series by Open Eye Gallery in January 2020.

The Path of Least Resistance

By Kenn Taylor

– I never thought I’d live in the countryside.
– This isn’t the countryside, it’s the edge of a city.


In Yorkshire though, the rural and the urban have a more indistinct relationship than elsewhere. Something not always appreciated by those born there. For those of us who moved in though, the ability to walk in an hour from Bradford city centre to, yes, up on a wild and windy moor, is not taken for granted.

The place that meant most though, was the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. I’d known the same waterway at its other end too. Liverpool though, is a river city, dominated in every way by the huge estuary. The canal there is an afterthought, just another body of still water amongst the many docks.

In West Yorkshire though, the canal has a central function, having helped define the districts and towns that it passes through. The shape of the cities too. When I shifted once more in my life, this time from London to the outskirts of Bradford, the Leeds-Liverpool became, by accident, hugely important to me.

Another canal, the Regents, had played a significant role in my brief time living in London. The dense urbanity of East London was exhilarating. To the point when I sometimes had to grip to manage the intensity of feeling. Like it had been in Liverpool too at its absolute best, but that was a deeper, more personal feeling of shared experience, communal understanding and expression. In London, it was an external force and you knew you were just a tiny cog spinning in it, which had its own allure. The canal represented calm in London. A long straight place to head along without a particular purpose. Somewhere to burn off energy when collected fears and ghouls and ideas threatened to overwhelm.

Moving from Bethnal Green Road to Bradford district meant no longer trains to Liverpool Street thundering past the front of my flat, instead expansive fields and skies. The canal though was a rare constant and still a place for mental space. In London, this had meant a deep walk through every shade of urban life, in that city now mostly polished to within an inch of its life. In West Riding though, it was a walk through increasing ruralness, striding into ever wider, open spaces. All along the way, the black and white mile posts at various angles of lean, reminding me that my origins in Liverpool were just a, long, walk away.

Without needing a car, the canal was a place to head where tension could be felt lifting from the shoulders, often with every step. Where tasks, troubles and frustrations could be put aside to go deeper about ourselves and everything else. On the surface, a straight graded route next to the murky mirror shimmer of water which required no thought or strain to navigate. Really though it is a winding, up and down route through the path of least resistance. The idea of this once deeply capitalistic functional waterway, now vintage leisure route, as a way of working out a way through lives which had involved some wandering and some extremes, was not lost on us. The passage of time felt slowed and so better to consider it. 

It helped. Both of us. Not having to think about the direction helped us to figure out where we should be going. Sometimes, breathing in as we passed further out with nothing around but fields sweeping away in the distance into hills, that same exhilaration again. Where you almost need to grip something, but now, sucking in fresh air rather than the dense electric hum of the city.

There have been more moves since, but I find somehow the canal keeps coming back. A much needed place to pace along the path of least resistance and think about then, now, the future, nothing at all. 

This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in December 2020.

Trans-Mongolian

By Kenn Taylor

Lying on my back on a bunk bed, on a very long, very bare train. Going a very long way through a very bare landscape a long way from anywhere.

At this point, I’d been travelling on it for so many days, that whenever the train stopped and I briefly stepped onto the terra firma of a platform to buy food, I had sea legs. Well, train legs. So used to the constant shaking and rhythm of the railway journey that, removed from it, everything seemed unbalanced and off kilter.

Being on a train for so long, there is nothing but time. To be filled in many ways. Looking out for the arresting moments between endless tress and endless desert. Games. Chat. Drinking. Lots of drinking. Someone brought a laptop with downloaded films and music, which in back then seemed over the top and now seems like common sense.

With me always being a late adopter, I’d brought books. Although like everyone else I’d been very affected, if not traumatised, by the animated film, I’d never actually read Watership Down. She had recommended it in her usual passionate way, so I thought, why not get a copy for my travels. In what was no doubt another daft attempt at maintaining a connection.

So, with an incongruity recognised by myself and others, I found myself reading a novel about anthropomorphic rabbits filled with descriptions of the lush, green and wet English countryside, whilst sat on a train going through the depths of dry, summer, eastern Siberia. With this being August, Siberia of course was nothing like the snow covered images of popular culture. A week earlier we had sunbathed near the Kremlin. As you do. It was odd but all the more vivid to be down the, er, rabbit hole, of this book about the loss of an arcadian England, whilst being on the other side of the world in a moving metal box going through a striking but unforgiving landscape.

Of course, wherever you go though, you are still you. I dived into the depths of this book and this journey, trying to concentrate on reading whilst also sucking in the vast stream of everyone and everything going past. On this bunk in the quiet afternoon though, in the world of rabbits as the eternal human struggle, I still found myself thinking of her and the chest pressing gulp of the pain swept back in.

Back then though, the wider world seemed brighter. This journey just another example of it opening up ever further, ever faster. Here we were crossing continents, a multiplicity of backgrounds filled with camaraderie, in a world of expanding global interconnection, dialogue and understanding.

Yet the warnings of how thin a veneer this all was were already on display here. A guide telling us of the racism he experienced all the time. Russians more than happy with Putin telling us ‘we need a strong leader’. The call to Free Pussy Riot provoking indifference, ‘they shouldn’t have behaved like that in a church.’ No one likes us, we don’t care. What now stares us in the face as the growing threat to democracy in the 21st century was all there lurking in the background. We had thought then perhaps that this was just the leftovers of an old world that was dying. Really though, the post 2008 trauma was still just sinking in. The thwarted ambitions and dreams of millions, many struggling now even for a basic standard of living. Their sense of injustice ruthlessly diverted to other targets by those in power, so they could maintain the status quo, despite its diminishing returns for the majority.

The world has turned darker in the last decade. So many of the places we visited then, even if it still possible, we might not choose to now. Borders going back up. Minorities oppressed. Rights shredded. History coming roaring back to bite. Wherever you go, you are still you and you take your experience and culture with you. Sometimes though, what you see when you go elsewhere follows you back home much later.

This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in November 2020.