The Reliquary of the (Late) 20th century: Mark Lecky’s O’ Magic Power of Bleakness

Mark Leckey Dream English Kid 1964-1999 AD

“That over-reaching proletarian drive to be more, (I am nothing but should be everything)”
Mark Fisher

“Art inevitably arrives here to be celebrated. This is the world I belong to now. But at one point I belonged to another intelligence.”
Mark Lecky

By Kenn Taylor

Inside Tate Britain’s cavernous, Modernist extension, Birkenhead-born artist Mark Lecky has overseen the construction of a replica of the M53 motorway. Specifically, of the bridge at Eastham Rake. A place where Lecky spent a significant part of his youth, hanging out and having the kind of experiences that young people do, ones that burn into the memory with an intensity that few do in adulthood. The bridge has appeared with increasing frequency in his work over the past few years. Now, here, removed from context, reduced to a symbol, elevated to a monument, it is used as a canvas for the video and multimedia works that have formed the most well-known parts of Lecky’s practice.

Like Lecky, I also grew up in the shadow of the M53, the motorway’s bulk abutted my primary school, its grass verge consuming many sacrifices of footballs. Here the motorway cleaved through the heart of the various overspill estates of Birkenhead and snaked down along to Ellesmere Port, a route Lecky took himself when he moved aged nine to what was then still, just about, a booming new town of growing industries. Ellesmere Port may not be conventionally pretty, but it has a striking landscape. The elevated motorway, even still in the 1990s cutting through an oversized terrain of oil refineries, car plants and paper mills, all at night dramatically lit. A place where the houses and civic buildings of the town seemed almost an afterthought. Not unlike the Teesside landscape which so influenced a young Ridley Scott when he made Blade Runner. Much of this industry is now shuttered.

Already an admirer of Lecky’s work, on hearing he’d got Tate to rebuild a bit of the M53 in its hallowed halls on the elite riverbank of Pimlico, my immediate reaction was LOL, go ‘ead. This was something I must see. Yet of course, I should have known the actual structure, diligently fabricated by Tate’s technical team, wouldn’t have the atmospheric power of the sodium lit exhibition poster, a still from one of Lecky’s films. Looking to indulge in the uncanny of seeing something humdrum from my own youth made large, placed on the altar of culture, was always likely to result in a degree of disappointment. Though this motorway played a far less significant role in my life than it seems to have done in Lecky’s. Here in the Tate he is reconstructing his own remembrance of things past on an epic scale. Yet, the further time passed for me from being sat crossed legged under the fake motorway, the clearer I could see what Lecky was reaching for, how the installation embodies so much of what he has always been getting at.

The bridge serves as a base for a selection of his work from 1999 to the latest piece created for this exhibition, Under Under In, all played on a loop. Starting with his most famous work Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, a cut up amalgam of recovered footage of young people in urban Britain, charting the passage of musical time from Northern Soul in the 1970s to rave in the early 1990s. Fiorucci has an uncanny, dream like quality, but at the same time flows with a rhythm intensely related to the cultures that it embodies. Often forgotten are the intercutting shots of post war housing estates and shopping precincts and the young people in them, forming these nascent cultures quite different from the earnest rationality the designers of such landscapes imagined. A deadpan voice reads out a list of clothing brands popular with the causals to which Lecky once belonged. A desire for individual expression and colour away from the mass concrete and brick of Modernism. A desire that still ends up with uniformity to an extent, though no more or less than most subcultures. In Fiorucci too the occasional glimpse of the possibility of transcendental feeling despite everything – and many more at least reaching for it. The potential for magic in bleakness. Northern Soul danced to by industrial workers, rave danced to by their unemployed children. Decades are cut through in 15 minutes.

The next piece is Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD another filmic collage. This one more personal to Lecky, exploring his own memories of time passing through found and created footage. A portrait of the artist through the images and culture that made him who he is. In Dream English Kid, the optimism of the 1960s abounds at the opening, from the images of the space race and the single twang of a Beatles chord, cutting to that more day-to-day vision of the future from that era – the ever flowing path of concrete, steel and tarmac, the motorway. A bright white sun shines down on it as Lecky overlays a fractured version of Harold Wilson’s ‘White Heat of Technology’ speech that talked about the optimistic potential for socialism driven by modern technology. Good Quality Well Paid Jobs and Better Homes in Bright New Town Britain. Few people remember Wilson actually grew up in Wirral and spent his career as a Merseyside MP. Ellesmere Port and many places like it were at the heart of Wilson’s dream. A record player spins. A chrome hubcap spins. The post war dream moving forward fast.

View of Dream English Kid 1964–1999 AD at Cabinet London 2015

In Lecky’s book of this exhibition, he has a picture of the first Vauxhall car made in their new Ellesmere Port plant, rolling out during the same period that Lecky was born. It was then and for some time after, the largest employer in the whole of Wirral. Across the UK, many families like Lecky’s moved, or were moved, along the motorways, promised a better life in far out new towns and overspill estates with new industries. All intended to replace the old darkness of inner-urban Victorian landscapes. Landscapes like the now long gone Liverpool sugar refineries of Henry Tate. The fortune from which paid for this very gallery and a packet of whose sugar Lecky lingers on in Dream English Kid. How soon though that dream died, the workforce of the Vauxhall plant more than halving by the 1980s and a host of negative social impacts cascading out from that. The populations of these areas then often written off and blamed for the arrogance and failures of others. The ghosts of lost industries, broken promises and hopes that were too rigidly cast in concrete still haunt much of the UK.

Dream English Kid shifts too from the warm, sunny white heat of the dream to the sodium lit, dirty, graffiti covered reality. The emergence of a new working class youth culture inside of the shell of the increasingly crumbling Modernist vision. In the film, urban decay grows. Amongst deteriorating brick and concrete, just a snatch of colour from a Benson and Hedges shop sign. The red glow and grey dust of a feared nuclear winter. A bottle of Cinzano and dancing. The interrelationship and disconnect between day to day life and geopolitics. Dream English Kid then moves to Lecky’s squat life in late 80s London, the undercurrent of culture carrying on in the cracks after Thatcher’s victory. The strange new alienation and optimism of the approach of the millennium and the empty threat of Y2K. As Lecky’s memories become sharper, more contemporary, the intensity of the film fades.

Under Under In is Lecky’s most recent piece, produced for this show and perhaps the most expansive. An extensive multimedia work, featuring young actors, dressed in casuals. Again, uncanny, they mess around, but in a strangely alien way, later contorting their bodies to ‘recreate’ the shape of the bridge. It’s now no longer a dream of a bright future, nor the underground base of young subversion, but a monument of uncertain origin, site of rituals unclear. “You’re away with the fairies!” is shouted at one point. A Merseyside phrase frequently said from adults to children who dare to question cold, dead, decaying perceptions of the world in any way. Lecky talks in interviews of a supernatural experience he had under the bridge as a child. It being unclear if his cleansing of doors of perception was induced by the sonic vibrations from cars overhead, fumes from industry, or just his own imagination.

It seems the further Lecky travels from his youth on the urban fringes of industrial towns, the more he reaches back into it. The more successful he his, the greater the complexity and sophistication with which he can reconstruct his own memories and snapshots of the cultures of the time he has passed through, cultures in the past rarely paid heed to in the mainstream art world. Leading on to now, one of the foremost art palaces investing in this huge replica motorway and complex multimedia production. Yet the further he reaches back, the more elaborate the recreation, the more distant it feels. Under Under In is I think the least resonant of the three pieces.

Like so many born away from cultural power, Lecky worked a long time before he was heard in the place where art is acknowledged and recorded in the official annals. Yet on reaching that point, the more he is listened to, admired and platformed, perhaps the greater his realisation that the most important stuff remains out there, in places that continue to be ignored and talked over. The harder perhaps it is for him to reach back and grasp something that is never quite there, really, that magic. As the DJ Shadow record says, You Can’t Go Home Again.

Jeremy Deller, another artist with a deep interest in the culture of dance music, is of the same generation as Lecky, but, as he freely admits, a far more privileged background. Lecky and Deller’s paths of experience intermingled in London squat culture, where wealthy ‘slummers’ and the working class in the arts once crossed over, but no longer. Deller seems more interested in placing that culture formally in an art historical background. Lecky’s response is more emotional, intuitive. One inside reaching out, one outside reaching in. Yet both respecting one of the most important aspects of culture of the last 30 years.

Still from Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore 1999

As Deller puts it in his film Everybody in the Place though, we should not forget that the hedonistic youth culture of rave was also in part of an admission of failure. Hedonism as a reaction against the state when it became clear they could not change the structure of the state. The time when the dream of the White Heat of Technology bringing a stable utopia of everyday life, changed into the dream of a temporary White Heat from Technology, the fleeting utopia of a rave in an abandoned warehouse or airfield. The pattern endlessly repeated to escape the cold tomorrow that reminds us of the decay of the everyday.

There’s something particular about being an artist from one of the many unloved, fringe places, where access to art and the ability to be creative is all the more important due to scarcity, discouragement and narrowness of stimulus. Especially pre-Internet. Romance and intrigue are in the eye of those who hold it and project it. The bleaker the situation, the harder the gnashing desire for magic, the deeper the thirst for colour and stimulation in whatever form it can be found. Lecky’s first monograph On Pleasure Bent has a brilliant choice for its cover, the alluring gold of a Benson and Hedges cigarette packet. In the late 20th century, cigarettes and stimulation and socialising and the close but always unobtainable magic glow of golden consumerism promised by packet and magazine, bus stop and billboard. B&H, Cinzano or whatever. A need to be away with the fairies. This intense craving never appreciated by those for whom art, stimulation and opportunity was not a dearth, but a deluge.

If like Lecky, you become one of the rare people who do get to fill marble halls with your imagination, why not tell people about what you are and where you are from? See people sit amongst it in appreciation of something few would be able to point to on a map. Demonstrate that such a place has its own drama and as much capacity to drive a fevered imagination and be worthy of depiction in culture as anywhere else. I see this too in the work of George Shaw, his paintings of the Tile Hill estate in Coventry he grew up on, imbued with the intensity of feeling that is more conventionally draped over the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the monuments of Rome or the streets of Berlin.

Yet if Lecky was haunted at the bridge, something about this bridge should haunt us. This installation is, to quote Lecky’s Exorcism of the Bridge @ Eastham Rake, a reliquary of the 20th century, containing now, finally, venerated and established relics of the past for us to appreciate. Yet however alluring nostalgia can be to all of us, I still pay heed to the historic view of nostalgia being a disease, a comfort that ignores the raw and uncomfortable of the here and now. This is all a culture of the past, no more or less valid or important than what young people create and experience now. Lecky reminds us that such cultures and experiences often don’t have their importance respected or acknowledged. That’s if they’re not actively demonised. This was just his and it deserves its elevation to monumental status.

But in absorbing a bit of the magic he recreates we shouldn’t forget that the social decay that accompanied the rise of these past youth cultures remains. The layers of paint applied to the bridge during the New Labour era have long flaked off. The future of the Vauxhall Motors plant at Ellesmere Port, having shrank even further in recent years, now hangs in the balance, overshadowed by Brexit, lost in the horse trading of the global motor industry. And little of the urban regeneration that has recharged Britain’s inner cities, many now increasingly reoccupied by the middle and upper classes, has reached out to the overspill estates and new towns where former inner city dwellers got moved. Young people living in Ellesmere Port and all the many places like it, are no doubt still having just as intense experiences. Loitering in underpasses, now both physical and digital. But will they be afforded the same opportunities as Lecky was, who was able to redo his O-Levels aged 20 and attend art college at no cost. Things which helped him to (eventually) be heard and represent the culture he came from. Will they get the opportunity to fill the marble halls of the Tate in future with their own dreams and memories?

This piece was published by The Double Negative in January 2020.

Images: Dream English Kid, 1964–1999 AD 2015 (still) Courtesy of the artist © Mark Leckey; Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore 1999 (still) Courtesy of the artist © Mark Leckey; Installation views of Dream English, Kid 1964–1999 AD at Cabinet, London, 2015 Photo: Mark Blower

Socio-economic diversity in the arts: reflections on the Toolkit for Employers

The publication of Socio-Economic Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts is both timely and important.

I’m the son of a railway worker and a hospital cleaner and was the first in my family to go to university. When entering the cultural sector in a junior position, it was soon clear to me that it was, by and large, not really diverse
nor reflective enough of the communities it was funded to serve. Trying to raise the issue of socio-economic diversity (SED) in the sector in the mid-2000s was largely seen as unfashionable, irrelevant, something from the 1980s. An attitude that helped to hide some the inequalities that era glossed over.
 
Encountering classist cultures in the arts

Upon graduating, I got an interview for a diversity scheme for a major media organisation. I had been brought up in a culture in which presenting yourself well at interviews was seen as the main thing. So I bought my first ever suit for it on a credit card. I expected to talk about my portfolio of work, but was a little surprised to be asked to justify why I had been disadvantaged and why I deserved this opportunity. Being from a background were hiding poverty was key and that, ‘there’s always someone else worse off’, I was a bit stumped by this. In addition, in spite of being to a scheme to encourage the disadvantaged, it was led like a typical tough interview. These days I’d be able to answer all their questions quite eloquently, but then, I struggled, lacking the cultural capital that encourages public speaking and aggressive self-promotion from a young age.
 It was hard enough then to enter and survive in the cultural sector and it’s gotten worse in the last few years, especially in the more deprived regional parts of the UK where museums, libraries, youth facilities, further education colleges and theatres have all seen huge cut backs and closures.
 
The importance of measuring and monitoring socio-economic background  

The conversation on SED has, however, thankfully now started to shift and be taken seriously by the sector. When talking about measuring socio-economic background, quite often I’d be told ‘But how!’ as if it was impossible, rather than complex. The Bridge Group and Jerwood Arts’ Toolkit can help organisations to move into robust and applicable ideas, systems and actions. What’s great is it encourages a strategic rather than an ad hoc approach and uses methodologies with decent evidence behind them. Crucially, it advises how to practically gather this information properly and use it to make a difference in organisations.
 
The report highlights why this information really needs to be gathered: it exposes damming facts such as those from lower socio-economic backgrounds earn on average less than colleagues from more affluent backgrounds doing the same job.  

Top tips from the Toolkit 

Amongst the things that stood out for me in the Toolkit include being supportive, warm even to candidates in job interviews, so they can perform at their best. Rather than, sadly as I have personally experienced, some interviewers being cold or combative like it was some strange game. Another solid piece of advice is asking applicants to self-describe any barriers they may have faced in gaining access to the arts in an application statement. This is something that gives a candidate time to consider this in advance, as with the usual questions on a job description, rather than it being dropped on them at interview.  Its focus too is on recruiters considering skills and competencies over qualifications or direct experience is important, as is its advice on use of terminology. It’s also great that the Toolkit is split into baseline and advanced practice for organisations at different stages and scales.
 
The Toolkit also identifies where progress is happening in organisations. At Artlink, for example, we have already removed qualification requirements from job adverts, unless specifically needed, asking only for relevant information and stating clearly that we’re open to non-standard application formats. However, like any organisation, we can’t be complacent, even if we have made positive changes. Other areas we still need to think more about include avoiding, or at least explaining, cultural world jargon in job adverts, as well as ensuring adverts go to places beyond the usual outlets.
 
Next steps to make progress in diversifying the arts sector 

Practically, challenges remain with regards to gathering data. For instance, the socio-economic background survey for employees is long in order to ask the detailed questions needed for enough data for serious measurement. This could be off-putting for those filling in forms, especially if it is combined with gathering others forms of equality and diversity data. More work needs to be done as well to support the micro organisations that form much of the backbone of the cultural sector in how to get to grips with this area.
 
Change in the sector needs to happen though, with urgency, and positive action is crucial. Increasing socio-economic diversity in the cultural sector is harder in a society were inequality is increasing and some things are beyond what the sector in itself can achieve. For example, more work could be done around developing state-supported, multi-year creative apprenticeships.

Crucially this Toolkit also identifies correctly that this isn’t just a moral issue, a more diverse workforce, as a lot of evidence shows, creates healthier and more dynamic organisations that produce better art, which is something all cultural organisations should be aiming for.

This piece was published by The Bridge Group in November 2019.

Thirty Years: from the Berlin Wall to Brexit

By Kenn Taylor

My earliest real memories are of 1989. I can vividly recall the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had of course no understanding of the geo-political context, but the powerful images of people dancing on the graffiti covered wall as it was smashed down, have always stayed with me.

So too do the very different memories I have of that year’s Hillsborough disaster. I was not at the ground – as a family of Evertonians, our focus was on the simultaneous FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. However, though young and, again, not fully understanding, I do remember the mood afterwards, the grim television images of the empty terraces.

There for me, the two sides of what followed, in the 1990s and 2000s, are laid bare. The freedom and optimism, the darkness underneath.

One impact the fall of the Berlin Wall played out in Birkenhead, where I’m from, was the end of the Cold War meaning a cut in naval orders for the Cammell Laird shipyard. With the Thatcher government having focused so much of UK industry on defence, this meant the closure of the yard around which the town had been built. The year the yard closed in 1993, in parts of Birkenhead – one of the poorest areas in Europe – the male unemployment rate was 52%. Economic decline and its social effects ate away at the local fabric. Many people moved away to seek work. My father, who worked for British Rail as a maintenance engineer, itself being decimated by cuts, had to work away for several years in the Midlands due to a lack of local opportunities.

Of course, when something is all you know, it’s all you know. It was only as I grew older that I became more aware that others lived differently. Not only were we a poorer region, many people elsewhere thought it was hilarious that our community had declined, jobs had gone, poverty had increased, that decay eroded our buildings and infrastructure, and that our cultural institutions were run down and closing. Not only did they find it funny, they thought this had happened not because of a complex range of political, geographic and economic factors over a long period of history, but that it was our fault because of our deficient character. As I consumed more media I saw this was rife, from Loaded magazine to the Sunday Times to the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who said in a speech as an attempt at a joke: “You know scousers, always up to something.”

His comments were symptomatic of how easy it was to get away with this sort of prejudice in that era. On the football terraces, meanwhile, you could hear: It could be worse / You could be scouse / Eating rats in your Council House. And much worse. The towns many of the football supporters who sang the above and similar lived in, these days have worse poverty and unemployment rates than Merseyside, but those fans continue to sing it.

This was of course fuelled by the right wing corporate media. It couldn’t be denied that Government policies had helped impoverish certain areas, that life in them was getting worse. So, it suited the Government and its media supporters to pretend that places like Glasgow and Liverpool were poor through their own choices and, as such, were irrelevant, not to be worried about, that they even deserved it. Places to be wholly dismissed, certainly in cultural terms. However, let’s not just blame hacks like The Sun’s Kelvin Mackenzie, that lets people off too easily. A large proportion of the British public lapped it up and ran with it. They wanted to be told, even if they were on a low wage elsewhere, that they were still better than the Scousers or the Scots. This reached its grimmest culmination in the public reaction to the Hillsborough disaster. Of course now, finally, after decades of hard grassroots campaigning, most of the public has a very different view of what happened in that disaster.  Yet until the Hillsborough Independent Panel reported, this was not the case. Even as a young adult, long after the Taylor Report and Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough, upon hearing I was from Merseyside, random people would make snide comments relating to the disaster.

Looking back, I think it’s something to do with a particular deficiency of the British national character, the need to always think we’re better than someone else. Even those who consider themselves liberal-left often revel in sniffing at the tastes of others. This is fuelled of course by the fact that, in order to keep the current system ticking over, we need to keep buying into lifestyles that we think make us better or different from other people. From city centre dwellers who spend a lot in independent coffee shops to suburbanites straining to pay a mortgage they can’t afford for a double garage: We may be struggling but at least we’re not like them lot.

By the time Labour got into power in 1997, I was mid-way through my high school years in a tatty secondary modern in the Wirral suburbs. Educational resources in the borough were of course all diverted to the grammar schools in this 11 Plus area. My dad was a trade unionist. My family Labour. We’d been brought up to believe that things could only get better. Even in our school, not the kind to have a debating society, someone on the day after the Labour election victory stole a Vote Labour sign and propped it above one of the main doors.

It was a time of optimism, further fuelled by the opening up of many countries after the fall of the wall and other profound changes like the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Culture in many ways was booming too, especially the wild and hedonistic kind, embodied by the rise of dance music after the ‘second summer of love’ in 1989 and later the ‘Cool Britannia’ world of Brit Pop, all documented by a rising number of glossy magazines. All the sugar high joys of our consumer society, growing since the 1980s. Public spending went up after 1997. There were more university places. New technology it seemed would create new jobs to replace those lost. It doesn’t matter, we were told, if your old ways, your old towns, are doomed. Go to university, live in a regenerating city, get a new job in a new industry.

It felt like there was a new growing and exhilarating openness then. We could mix with a wider circle, helped by the ever expanding world of the Internet. With the advent of cheap flights, we could see more of the world. Borders seemed to be falling everywhere. It seemed too, we hoped, that racism, homophobia, misogyny, were at least on the retreat, even if still prevalent. Sexuality too was, a little, more fluid. What we lacked in declining security, was made up for in the appearance at least of more freedom, more options. The idea of a traditional structured life, deemed irrelevant, old fashioned, just as it was becoming slowly more unobtainable. The Government, media, society, did its best by and large to encourage you to look away from how shallow though a lot of this was and dream instead of the computer generated futures on the hoarding boards of regeneration projects.

Of course though, for people like us, in a place like Merseyside, things did not really get that better that much. Labour brought in Education Maintenance Allowance, but also Tuition Fees. It invested in the regions, but didn’t undertake serious economic reform, thus seeing ever more of the regional economic base of Britain slip away. Many Labour voters became sceptical of the party around the Iraq war. For those of us in small post-industrial towns, the scepticism began much earlier.

That era I think was never better described than by Sue Townsend, the creator of Adrian Mole, referring to it in the title of her book, The Cappuccino Years – it was all so much froth on the surface. While it seemed things were getting better, underneath, the rot of the 1980s continued to eat away at our economy and civil society. Those of us from working-class backgrounds were I think more sensitive to how thin much of all this was. Despite being just as into the cheap thrills on offer, we could not forget what happened to those at the vulnerable end of society in the 1980s and 90s, even if we had no faith in what had been lost returning. At the lower end of the economy where insecurity was normal, the gaps in the system were easier to see. It was also felt by many of us though, that we had fought, and we had lost. That some posh academics still wanted to pick over trade union banners and the like, tried to invoke a supposedly more glorious past, seemed tasteless. That culture, our culture, had been beaten to death. Leave it be, let’s embrace what little, unintentional good that came out of that destructive revolution: the dance music, the style, the freedom, the openness. We had no industries anymore, our towns had lost their reason to be, but at least we were no longer trapped by their traditional strictures. All we had was a small degree of liberation amongst the corruption and we were going to embrace it, because that’s all that was left.

Some would occasionally raise flags; the numerous unresolved injustices of the past, the unlikeliness, if you had even a scant knowledge of history, of this boom being sustained, that economies were still declining in more regions than ever, but so often to do so was to be seen as boring, a throwback, a crank.

On the eve of the credit crunch in 2008, I had a junior insecure job in the cultural sector, while Liverpool was caught up in the whirlwind of the being European Capital of Culture. It was all a lot of fun, much of the programme was really good too, but running around at the bottom of the cultural system, it was easy to see it was on shaky ground, with money being spent wildly with little thought to the long term. A booming culture sector built on the sand of money flowing into the economy from high finance. Of course, the culture sector saw only a fraction of the cash compared to what was being thrown around elsewhere. Culture was, as it does, merely reflecting the wider system, from the financial markets to the construction boom and all interconnected. Don’t stop that carousel! Because so many people deep down knew that as soon as the music stopped, everything would start to fall apart. And so it did. Those at the bottom were the ones to really suffer, while so many who had kept the Ponzi scheme going, ran off or had enough stashed to keep themselves afloat.

I wrote an article in 2009, soon after the credit crunch started to kick in, about what the future might hold for the UK. The recession was biting but the public cuts hadn’t come in, the wheels were still spinning just slowing down. I could not of course predict how long, how deep, how fundamental the decline would be, but I knew it was going to be a bumpy ride ahead. My piece was deliberately over the top, the theme of the publication was ‘apocalypse’, but I think I managed to capture some things that have, sadly, turned out to be true ten years on:

“Although many of these events have been happening on a global scale, the crisis has also served to highlight Britain’s inherent weaknesses and its seemingly terminal decline. Pretty much the same path it has been on for decades. We can now see the 90s as simply an opiated high amidst abject squalor.”

“Life would become much cheaper. Ignorance and disease would grow. Social mobility would become almost non-existent.”

I was far from alone in seeing some of this on the horizon. We couldn’t predict that the crunch was merely one of the more dramatic stages in a more fundamental shifting of tectonic plates. However, while people who had been spared the worst of 1980s and 90s thought it would just be a blip, like the dot com bubble of the early 2000s, then things would return to ‘normal’, those of us who could recall the bitter devastation of the 80s and early 90s to much of Britain could see the cracks spreading more easily. So much of the UK though was still in thrall to its supposed ‘betters’, the ‘leaders’ and ‘entrepreneurs’. They still wanted to be told the problem was that lot, over there and that lot would be the only ones to suffer. They wanted to be told that they would still be fine. Yet it all kept on falling, until it started to catch up with even those who’d been alright at the first hurdle. Those who thought they’d be okay.

For me, the tragedy of Britain in my lifetime wasn’t that Merseyside got worse, in many ways it has improved from the nadir of the early 90s. The tragedy is that so many other places have experienced the same decline or worse.  The economic decline of the majority of UK regions and its inverse, the overheating of London on the gilded roulette wheel of high finance to make it increasingly unliveable for ordinary people, has spread to impact on everyone.

But don’t say people in places like Liverpool didn’t warn everyone more than 30 years ago about all this and were mocked for it.

Now, over 10 years further on from 2008, people are starting to turn around and say ‘no more’. But the battle is so much harder. So much has already been lost. The anger being felt across the nation is from people feeling cheated. However, many people were being cheated a lot more for a longer period of time.

I visited Poland soon after the credit crunch and, by accident, ended up being taken around Krakow by someone around my age. We talked of the horrors of the past. The new openness. That we would have not been able to meet just a decade or so previously. It felt good. Just another personal anecdote, but these are the things we need to cling too. We must remember the fall of the wall. We need to remember too though the decades of darkness that accompanied its construction and how it came to be. And, indeed, remember that there was an emptiness underneath all that openness after the wall came down. Many people were still getting thrown under the bus even during the boom. Often forgotten by the mostly well-meaning, well-educated technocrats who had become much of the political class. Those who had absorbed the idea and parroted back to us that ‘There is no alternative’. When that system did, as they all do in the end, collapse, they had no idea how to respond. Other than wasting years propping it up hoping the magic would return while they were overrun by smarter and more cynical disaster capitalists who wanted to make sure, as ever, that they benefited from the chaos.

Meanwhile the dreams of ordinary people lay shattered and ever further out of reach. At the same time though, as the propulsive positivity of the Berlin Wall falling receded, hope grew elsewhere. The unrelenting, never give up attitude of the people behind the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, who should to a man and woman get OBEs for fighting every prejudice; against football fans, against Scousers, against the working-class, managed to turn the tide around the Hillsborough disaster. A campaign driven and led by those at the bottom with the least resources. We should not forget that in the case of the Berlin Wall and Hillsborough, it was ordinary people who led the path of change, taking down walls of different kinds.

Really, a lot of what is happening in Britain, is the scales falling from people’s eyes. We as a nation have to face up to our problems, not ignore them. The previous model of allowing just enough people with ambition to get on and giving everyone else just enough to get by and not cause any trouble has collapsed. In the end it always benefited those with the most and abandoned those with the least. We don’t need to try and ‘get back to normal’ because, while things may have been much better than they are now, really there was just a thin veneer over a set of huge challenges that helped us avoid facing up to the issues. What we need now is to go forward, address those challenges, acknowledge that the race to the top, the throwing of whole communities under the bus has not only screwed them, but ultimately, screwed the whole country and undermined the wider world.

Drunk on the freedom of the individual, too many people forgot about those who were, one way or another, losing their freedom. The great feeling of loss that this country has experienced will carry on and get worse unless we realise we aren’t atomised individuals. We need to remember, acknowledge where things went wrong, who has suffered and goes on suffering. Brexit, whatever it ends up meaning, approaches and things are more uncertain than ever. They may well get worse. We cannot forget the need for solidarity though, the need for working together, fighting injustice, not letting the weakest be crushed, because, the alternative is unthinkable. Things can be turned around again. If I live for another 30 years at least, I dare to hope, we may get back some of what we have lost. Perhaps even, gain some new things as well. Walls will still be built of course, and we will still need to make them fall.

Tobacco Warehouses, Wind Factories and Ten Streets: abridged version

Stanley Dock complex (Kenn Taylor)

Text: Kenn Taylor
Images: Kenn Taylor and Kevin Crooks

Liverpool’s Stanley Dock Tobacco Warehouse is the largest brick built warehouse in the world and looms over all it surrounds. It’s now also at the centre of change in a largely post-industrial area north of the city centre. I’ve known this area since going as child to the now defunct market once held in the Stanley warehouse. While the much of the area was falling into decay, I’d be reminded by my dad who’d worked nearby, that this had once been a thriving hub of industry, how tragic it’s decline was and how that had negatively impacted on so many people. Merseyside had so much dereliction when I was a child, I’ve never seen urban decay as particularly romantic, or interesting, but shit. Something that needed to be changed. Yes, to preserve history, but also to create an economic engine for people in the area again.

Now plans for the nearby area include a new Everton FC stadium (the fifth such plan in my lifetime, but I remain an optimist – you have to be as an Evertonian) new port terminals bringing parts of the docks back to life, a slow-to-progress ‘Docklands-lite’ plan called Liverpool Waters, with the usual flats and offices, as well as the further redevelopment of the now partially refurbished Stanley Dock, described as “the biggest adaptive re-use challenge in Europe” in a Heritage England article.

Stanley Dock complex (Kenn Taylor)

Perhaps the most interesting change though has been in the streets between Stanley Dock and the city centre. The cheap land, large ex-industrial spaces, as well as further development of the city centre, has attracted several arts and music spaces including Make Liverpool, Invisible Wind Factory, Drop the Dumbulls and more. The City Council has subsequently developed a Single Regeneration Framework for this area, named Ten Streets because, well, it’s ten streets from Saltney Street to Oil Street. The SRF envisages the further development of this area as a creative district. The involvement of the local authority and external planning consultants has provoked understandable scepticism in some quarters and the usual cries of gentrification. However, the situation with Ten Streets deserves unpicking further. While there have been some negative impacts of gentrification in Merseyside, the area faces far more fundamental challenges than that. While it has come a long way, the economy remains weak and with the resulting lack of decent jobs, young local people often still leave for better opportunities, and experienced locals often face long commutes. It also means the local tax base is low, reducing the city’s ability to pay for services for the needy and develop its economy and infrastructure. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that makes issues around urban change in Liverpool and other under-invested cities like it, distinct from that in the overheated global metropolises like London and New York which dominate urban discourse, who face the inverse issue of too many jobs and not enough affordable space.

Invisible Wind Factory
Invisible Wind Factory (Kenn Taylor)

So how to create quality jobs, that local people can access, develop a more sustainable economy and also save historic buildings decaying through lack of demand and funds, are a troika of huge issues for Merseyside. Jobs in creative fields could form part of a solution. Yet the potential for developing creative jobs in the area has been undermined in the past by low-grade property speculators driving creative organisations out of buildings, hence why many moved out to this north docks area. Most notably this has been seen in the Baltic Triangle which I wrote about here, where the promising development of studio spaces by a CIC and a subsequent growth in venues et al is threatened by aggressive speculative residential development. Some of what drove this plan for the Ten Streets is trying to stop that happening again. As Claire Parry, Liverpool City Council’s planning lead on Ten Streets, details: “One of the things we’ve learnt from with Baltic Triangle is that didn’t benefit from an SRF. While it’s got a mixed land used designation, the feel with that is that it has become very residential dominated. What we have tried to do with Ten Streets is retain the employment focused designation to try and retain the job creating focus of the project.” This SRF should help prevent speculation in the area, by controlling building heights, building styles, use designation etc. Having heard similar sentiments before, I ask Claire to state in black and white, if a speculator buys a load of old buildings in this area and wants to kick a creative occupier or traditional industrial business out for flats, they’re now going to come up against this framework? “Precisely that,” she says.

Baltic Triangle area of Liverpool
Baltic Triangle area of Liverpool (Kenn Taylor)

Parry thinks though for it to be successful as a creative area, a delicate balance is required between the Council protecting the area from speculation and being too heavy handed: “It’s a difficult thing we have to balance. If there was one of these documents in place for Baltic it might have actually helped, but it seems though if the Council steps in it all becomes very kind of clinical and the organic nature is lost. What the hope is with this is we can have the best of both worlds, it’s not too prescriptive, things can just happen, but within the parameters set in the document.”

Liam Kelly, Director of Make Liverpool, set up in the area because they a wanted long term base: “We wanted a big fat lease where we could put down roots and make it sustainable. We didn’t want to repeat the same old, same old temporary use of space with no exit plan, eventually get gentrified out, wash, rinse and repeat.” Kelly feels they have been brought on board with the Ten Streets plan: “There was no consultation pre giving it a name and an identity and all that sort of stuff. But then they obviously consulted on the SRF, that then came out. Then they set up a steering group to which we were invited to and we host in our building.”

Liam Kelly in Make Liverpool (Kevin Crooks)

This is echoed by Liam Naughton from Invisible Wind Factory: “They sort of said it’s all going to change, and they want to do this in the right way possible. A Councillor was getting involved and they were like, ‘can you contribute to the aspects you care about in this area and inform this masterplan document, the SRF?’”. Crucially Naughton feels that they have had impact in the process too: “I believe we have had a good influence on it. What’s added to it is they want to keep the creative industries at its core.”

Yet this positive vision could yet go unfulfilled. Liam Kelly feels the biggest threat to the Ten Streets idea is from speculators: “Concerns are really obvious,” he says. “Spiralling uncontrolled rising rents and property values before anything has actually happened. He continues: “It’s all pretty complicated stuff and the Council doesn’t really have the power that people expect it to. So, unscrupulous people who want to cash in are the biggest threat.”

Naughton feels if Ten Streets is given the opportunity to fulfil its potential, it could be powerful and have UK wide impact in terms of how such areas are developed: “I would love it if just doubled down on being an exciting place for culture and arts. If there’s opportunities, there we’ll fill them in this city. We could do something interesting here. Grabbing those challenges, we’re seeing in the arts right now. You could be ambitious with it.”

Bramley-Moore Dock, site of planned Everton stadium (Kenn Taylor)

However, power imbalances remain, albeit with perhaps with a wider circle of involvement than most urban development plans, as Naughton details:
“The big players are quite clear, it’s the City Council, with Harcourt the main developer and then Peel [developer] as an important thing to factor in as they’re right next to each other. So really, they’re the major voices in the room as they’re the ones who can make the big decisions. That said, I’m not cynical. They have listened to us. [Cllr] Ann O’Byrne Chairs a meeting we get invited to which is about having our say on certain things. It’s an Advisory Group, so they don’t have to do it. But there’s so many important voices in the room, if you suggest something that makes sense, it will get explored on some level.”

The focus of the discussion and plans for Ten Streets have been the former warehouses and factories adjacent to the docks. While some people do live in the immediate vicinity, it’s always been principally industrial. Not far away though are residential districts that once relied on this area for their economic life. Vauxhall, Everton and Kirkdale are amongst the most historic areas of Liverpool and some of the most deprived parts of the UK.

Joel Hansen runs Scottie Press, a community newspaper which has long given a voice to the area. Joel too wants to see the decay in this industrial area reversed: “I’d like to see Stanley Dock and the Ten Streets put Liverpool on the map again. It would be fantastic to see a resurgence in those streets. I’d like to see all them abandoned warehouses flourish again.”

Joel Hansen, Scottie Press (Kevin Crooks)

Crucially though for Joel, this must involve creating opportunities for people living nearby: “Where they talk about a collaborative approach and celebrating heritage, does that count Vauxhall and Kirkdale, or is that for the artists who are living around there? I think there could be more effort to include the further community.” He feels Ten Streets linking to its neighbouring districts will be vital to make it a sustainable success: “I think there needs to be something that’s going to integrate this changing time and hopefully educate people on what’s going to happen in Ten Streets. If there are these companies moving in, are community centres, training providers and schools putting the effort in to prepare the younger generation to get these jobs? There needs to be a lot more awareness.”

There’s a real opportunity with this plan for Ten Streets to do something different in terms of creating much needed jobs, protecting space for arts and culture and restoring important historic buildings, if managed carefully. Yet it could just as easily go the other way. The City Council needs to show leadership by focusing on the good work that has already been done by small, tightly resourced, organisations, and ensure that developers can’t have things all their own way. The creative sector itself meanwhile can no longer pretend does not have a role in gentrification and that naive ideas about ‘organic development’ only leave them open to being pushed out. All parties meanwhile need to ensure that this creative district offers opportunities to those living in residential areas nearby.

Leeds-Liverpool Canal, Vauxhall (Kenn Taylor)

For Ten Streets to work, it can’t just be done on trust, even if it does currently exist, relatively, between the different parties involved, as the power imbalances remain huge. The SRF will help, but more needs to be done. Protected land ownership is the next step. If certain key streets or buildings could be passed to a Community Interest Company, as in Baltic Triangle, this would give a core base of locked in spaces for creative outfits. Beyond this, a formally constituted board with equal voting rights for all members and actual clout on planning matters covering the area, could help formalise the relationship between the stakeholders, protect and steer development in the area in the right direction.

Such a model could see a CIC as a lead ‘developer’ in the area, generating rental income to keep sustaining and investing in more creative space. Yet at the same time leaving room for other initiatives to set up and operate in other buildings within a wider protective framework. Combined with the SRF, these things could make Ten Streets a potential model for other places dealing with the now well-established cycle of post-industrial to creative. If successful, it could attract artists and creative outfits being displaced from elsewhere, helping the city develop. Any CIC or formal board with power in the area should also have baked into its constitution that having representation from and creating opportunities for residents in north Liverpool was part of its remit.

Dock Road (Kenn Taylor)

Ten Streets marketing talks about Ten Big Ideas. Really, for this area to be successful and sustainable, it just needs one big idea to work. That is to put formal structures and ownerships in place to give its mixed stakeholders a real say and control in how it develops. Ten Streets is just small enough to get some people with power and money to be bold and innovative, just big enough to test if it actually works. To help create a real and long-lasting creative district and in turn encourage some more inclusive economic growth. Liam Naughton feels that the opportunity is there, if the positive ambitions of the project are maintained: “It’s going to be a challenging one to please everyone in the Ten Streets and we sort of think, if people just do a good job of it and keep it to the ambition we all said it was going to be a while ago, and not retreating on the big ideas.”

This piece was published by New Start magazine in October 2019.

This is an abridged version of a longer piece you can read here.

Architecture, fashion and time

Waterfront_pre_liverbuilding-640x426
Pier Head Liverpool, before the Royal Liver Building was built. The original dockland regeneration scheme.

By Kenn Taylor

I once had a pleasant, short lived freelance job researching the history of two twentieth century buildings for a property company. One of them was an Art Deco cinema, Grade II listed and well loved. I was amused to find in contemporary press reports from its construction period, people arguing against it being built. They complained about it being constructed over an old pub, about its garish modern appearance, of the negative impacts of cinemas proliferating in cities – which were opening pretty much week to week in the 1930s.

It made me think of the distaste many in our era have of say, chain coffee shops or supermarkets. It also reminded me of our very limited ability to understand how buildings either contemporary or of the recent past will be judged in future. Anyone advocating for the saving of say, a Victorian railway station in the 1930s, an Art Deco lido in the 1960s, or a concrete bus station in the 1980s, would have risked being laughed out of the room. But of course, here we are.

I used to joke when talking with people about this phenomenon that, at some point, there’d be a campaign to list a supermarket, which always raised a laugh. Now in 2019, Nicholas Grimshaw’s Camden Sainsburys has just been listed. “Ah, but that’s a rare, quality exception”, you might say. True, but also true that an awful lot of Victorian or post war Modernist buildings were crap and derivative. Far from everything is as good as St Pancras Station or Park Hill. After a certain point, age often confers a degree of grace and ‘authenticity’ on certain buildings even if they don’t have much particular merit, simply due to the virtue of having survived.

grimshaw-high-tech-listed-english-heritage-camden-road-sainsburys-hero_b
Sainsbury’s Camden designed by Nicholas Grimshaw

In my native Merseyside, important well-loved, Grade I listed buildings like the Albert Dock and the Royal Liver Building were, in the era they were built, deeply disliked by historians and many contemporary architects, who considered them crass and commercial. Similarly, Liverpool’s attractive Oriel Chambers, the first glass curtain walled building in the world, was memorably described as a “vast abortion” in a contemporary building magazine when it was constructed. Even the seminal Glasgow School of Art provoked upon its completion the suggestion that its architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh should be horsewhipped for having “shown his bare arse to the face of Glasgow.” And these critics were often the well-educated and well connected architects, academics and historians who you think may have been able to see past their own prejudices and personal tastes. But, to quote Eric Hoffer, “both the radical and the reactionary loathe the present.”

OrielChambers
Oriel Chambers, which was described as a ‘vast abortion’ upon its completion.

In general, we remain terrible judges of what will be valued from our own time in the future. This is of course why, Dinky Toys from the 1950s are worth a lot of money, while many ‘collectables’ that granny kept carefully in her cabinet, are worthless. Of course, much of this is to do with the unrelenting cycle of fashion, turning every 20, 30 or 40 years, depending on who you ask, which applies as much to buildings and politics as records and clothing. The current generation rejects the work of its immediate forbears and often looks further back for inspiration from a supposed better time. The trouble with buildings is, they can’t exactly be stored away when they go out of fashion. They remain right there our faces, reminding us uncomfortably of past failed dreams and now crumbling ideologies.

I’m of a generation that in the 1990s saw many concrete buildings as unfortunate reminders that we’d come a long way down from the optimism of the 1960s. It was a later generation that could see their beauty. Every age of architecture needs its revisionist. John Betjeman inspired in the 1960s a love for a Victorian era he never knew. More recently Owen Hatherley helped to popularise the architecture of a Sixties era he wasn’t born in either.

Glasgow
Glasgow School of Art before the fires, which has been described as one of the great works of world architecture, but upon its completion prompted suggestions its designer should be horsewhipped.

We need to protect architecture during its period of inevitable malaise, making sure the best of each era is preserved. This is of course why listing was invented, but it remains a flawed system. As highlighted, ‘experts’ don’t always get it right. Yet we must also be careful to protect the urban environment from those who think all change is bad and everything contemporary is awful. Those who now love Brutalism would have nothing to love if the Victorian preservationists, who really began their work as Brutalism was emerging, had wholly got their way.

One of the greatest weaknesses of the Brutalist era, was its arrogance, its desire to sweep away the perceived failure of what went before it. This rose its head again in the Blair era. Much of the architecture of that time now seems overblown and empty, associated negatively with the period I think best described by Sue Townsend as ‘the cappuccino years’. Yet I have no doubt it will be looked back upon more fondly in the future, as the product of a more optimistic age than the one that followed. Like the way we now view some of the decadent buildings from the first part of the twentieth century.

Cities must not forget their past, because they lose something of themselves if they do. Equally, a city which doesn’t change and develop in each new era, is usually a city that is dying, or becoming a living museum. The latter of which in the long term, also often results in the former. Because in the end, even the cleverest amongst us doesn’t know what buildings will be thought important in the future, what that is hated in the contemporary will be considered fit for preservation, or what future monuments haven’t even been thought of yet. Remember, the campaign to save a Costa or an Amazon warehouse is probably just a few decades away.

This piece was published by The Double Negative in October 2019.

Making a Difference

By Kenn Taylor

I’ve been working on arts and heritage projects with communities for nearly 15 years. In that time, I have seen community engagement shift from being, literally in an early role, down the corridor from everything else, to something that even the largest and most prestigious cultural institutions are trying to adapt their practices to include.

My interest in this field comes from having a working class background and getting tentatively involved in the arts sector; feeling that, as much as it was stimulating and great, how much of a disconnect there was between where I had come from and the world I was now entering. Working in community engagement seemed like an interesting way of bridging that gap.

Spring Bank Art. Photo Sergej Komkov

It was clear that much of the wider cultural sector regarded us as ‘nice to have’ or, ‘necessary for funding’. Something that should not have the same recognition, space or budget as ‘real culture’. This was immensely frustrating when, at the coalface, it was easy to see how important and powerful such work could be at all levels.

Community engagement can mean many different things, so first of all it’s important to step back and ask, why do you want to do it? Being clear in this is key in deciding what approach to take. Do you want to diversify or perhaps increase audiences? Are you trying to understand audiences better? Do you want to work with people in the development of a new project? Make your programming more representative of your local area or wider society? Are you involving people in a more radical rethinking about what your organisation is and does? These things can intersect and crossover, but also all have distinctions.

Portraits Untold by Tanya Raabe-Webber. Photo Jerome Whittingham

If you want to engage a community of whatever form, you have to ask, what’s in it for them? Community engagement purely because you feel you have to for political or financial reasons or because it’s currently fashionable may work for a while. However, if there’s nothing underpinning such engagement, if it doesn’t, to a greater or lesser extent, influence and change how you do things, it’s a route to failure in the long term.

Doing community engagement well can be hard work. So, why do it? Simply, the publicly funded cultural sector can no longer have any complacency about the broad communities it is intended to serve and still exist. This doesn’t mean every bit of culture will be coproduced in future, but it does mean more change. That many people, often the most disadvantaged, still feel alienated from the sector remains a huge issue. Furthermore, in a multimedia world, people are far less willing to be passive consumers of culture and want to ‘participate’ in many different ways. Many do still just want to see that exhibition/play/performance. However considering the many ways people might want to otherwise interact with the art and culture that is being made and those involved in making it, is vital for the future of organisations.

Making It Home As We Go Along by Julia Vogl. Photo Hannah Holden

When I began to realise in the last few years, that participation, community engagement, the various other intersecting types of work and terminologies we use, had become à la mode, initially it felt positive. That this sort of work was finally being recognised. However, as people and organisations who’d never given it a passing thought started diving into it and shouting from the rooftops about how good they were at it, concerns emerged. For example, of the risks of organisations doing it with little experience and alienating the very people they’re trying to engage. Or of heavily funded traditional institutions adoptingthe ideas of smaller focused organisations and crowding them out from funding rather than trying to work in partnership. That more organisations are doing this kind of work though, does acknowledge the power of community engagement. However more still needs to be done.

Mad Pride Hull discussion. Photo Jerome Whittingham

Community engagement on the side is on the way out. This does not mean that specific and targeted programmes led by experienced practitioners can all be replaced by vague statements about how ‘community is considered in all things’. It does mean that such engagement though should impact right across what a cultural organisation does, from the toilets to the marketing. Crucially, the sector also has to make sure that the artists and other workers it employs are more representative of the diversity of British society: they will know best how to engage and indeed challenge communities that they themselves come from.

When I started in this field, I wanted to learn how to do community engagement as best as possible and perfect it. What I found out instead was that, as soon as you think you’ve answered it, you find another question to ask, another parameter to consider, another level of depth to go to.  Criticality and theory is, quite rightly, catching up and taking the world of participation and engagement ever more seriously, but there still is, I think, no perfect model. Just different ways of doing things well in the context that you do them in. Though there is a world of good practice to take inspiration from. But tread carefully and slowly as this so often leads to better results. The more successful you do something in engagement, the main thing you’re likely to learn is how to do it better again next time. And for me really, that’s where the joy in it is. Working with people and trying to do it well around art and culture to make a difference in a very imperfect world.

This piece appeared in the September 2019 edition of JAM, the Journal for Arts Marketing. Issue 73: Community Engagement.

Access and the Arts

Images of critical fish pages Access and the Arts article

By Kenn Taylor
Magazine design: Joe Cox

Access is a fierce concern in the arts in the UK. Government cuts have dragged on for years, reducing equitable access to culture on all fronts and undermining the progress that had been made in recent decades. Couple this with a period of intense cultural shifts and the spotlight has been turned on access, not for the first time, and hard questions are rightly being asked.

Access to the arts, or lack thereof, has to be considered on different levels. This includes physical and sensory access to art and art venues, financial access to art or the tools to make it, and access to education facilitating the consumption, critique and creation of art. To this we can add access to the platforms that help define the art that is valued, paid for and consumed by large numbers of people, and lastly access to the time and space it takes to even think about art.

The challenges vary between access to the consumption of art and access to making and platforming it. In this multimedia age, these have to an extent blurred. However, a hierarchy remains. A large number of people may be able to put their pictures on Instagram or sell works on Etsy, but it’s not a meritocracy as to who gets their images selected by a major gallery or has their jewellery designs used in a shoot in Vogue.

Let’s talk first about who gets to consume. Though not impossible, it’s hard to produce art without having consumed a significant amount of it first. With the Internet there is ostensibly more access to all forms of visual culture than ever. There are also now more contemporary arts centres in the UK than ever before. So, there’s potential abundance. However, if your personal circumstances are such that you may never have been given the opportunity to think about what you’re consuming, to examine it in detail or explore beyond what major organisations want to feed us through powerful communication channels, access is not equal.

Not everyone is given the chance to explore and create art from a young age. For many reasons art is not just in the purview of a lot of families, often after parents have been denied opportunities themselves. With life getting harder for poorer families,Ilocal cultural services and youth support being shut, (II) and disability support services being axed,(III) fewer young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have opportunities to develop their interests and talents. So, the first layer of people who have been denied access to the arts falls away.

Schools once offered young people at least some chance to engage with different aspects of the arts. Now we see the stripping out and devaluing of arts education at all levels. Except of course, in the elite, private schools, which have heavily invested arts programmes.(IV) Meanwhile school trips to cultural venues – which for many are the first if not only opportunity to experience such things, my own first visits to a theatre and an art gallery were with school – are being hugely cut back.(V) Those who may have interests in creative areas and talents they’re not even aware of yet, are not being given the chance to develop. Instead they are pushed down narrow and often irrelevant paths of learning, and told they’re stupid or a failure if they don’t conform. Any attempt to change access to the arts further upstream are always going to have minimal impact unless things change within the mainstream education system. So, another layer of people denied access to the arts falls away.

Some have concerns about imposing art upon people. It is true that ideas of ‘high art’ have historically been used to devalue and undermine popular culture and those ingrained in it. Yet it can’t be ignored that there are always dominant artistic forms linked to power. People from all backgrounds should have the opportunity to get to grips with these and choose whether to adopt them, adapt them or to reject them. Those within the arts who care little about ensuring people’s access to it, who even see it as patronising, are usually those who have always taken it for granted. They have been fed enough art to be able to reject aspects of it even as others are barely getting their first taste.

It’s not just young people who are having opportunities removed. The slashing of Further Education colleges and other routes for lifelong learning has cut people’s chances to develop interest and skills in art in later life. Simultaneously, austerity and its resulting negative impacts on work, family and community life leave less space for other things. Even if you have a keen interest, the costs for visiting many exhibitions have soared as subsidies have been cut. Disabled people, who now struggle to access enough support even for their basic needs, find it even harder to find support to engage with the arts. More people denied access fall away.

We then need to consider who gets to create art. Making art requires no license, materials can be cheap and some people have made a success of this. However, for most people making art does require first having experienced it, as well as having the time, drive and, crucially, confidence to begin. Inevitably those facing the most disadvantages are cut off first. Without early opportunities, the field of those who may pursue art has already been narrowed. That’s before we get to the Governmental and growing societal narrative pushed even on those who do know deep down that they want to create, that studying the arts at a higher level is a bad or irrelevant thing. Thus, another layer of people who may have had a path in the arts falls away.

For those who do want to study, the cost of arts higher education in the UK is extortionate, our fees are now the highest in the world,(VI) while at the same time arts studios and facilities are being ‘value engineered’ out of institutions. The number of tutors and student contact time with them is also being reduced – time which is perhaps most vital for the more disadvantaged students. Some places have seen the de facto end of visual art higher education, leaving local young people with little option but long, expensive distances to travel should they want to pursue study. Yet another layer of people denied access to the arts falls away.

Then there are those who find it hard to make it through study even once they’ve started. Without significant financial support from their family many arts students have to work long hours outside study as well as having to live at home.(VII) Often this means having less time to devote to study and to develop practice and less opportunity to build a support network, and the extra independence and confidence this would bring. The dropout rate amongst students from disadvantaged backgrounds is generally higher than for their more comfortable peers. So, the next layer of people denied access to the arts fall away.

After study in the arts comes the difficult period when there isn’t a direct, clear or easily accessible path to develop and sustain yourself in the field. The pressure to make a living gets harder as the structural support of being a student disappears. Those with financial backing do not to have to fully support themselves at this stage. Those without disabilities, mental health challenges or caring responsibilities are inherently advantaged: able to focus on developing their creative practice, getting it out there and building further networks. Even if you can avoid some of these challenges, which have been powerfully discussed by Anna Berry on Disability Arts Online,(IX) what if you find networking hard? I myself have an anxiety condition that can flare up and make that essential networking exhausting, even at this stage in my career. Others face far greater challenges and prejudices. Thus, another layer of people who can’t sustain themselves through this period falls away from the arts.

Even for those who do make it onto the first rung of the professional ladder, how does an emerging artist get from a popup show in an empty shop to being exhibited at a major gallery? The path remains remote, distant, unclear. There are more arts centres around the UK than ever, and some do have programmes supporting emerging artists. Others feel the need to focus on artists already on ‘the circuit’ especially as they’re also dealing with funding cuts, which can make them risk averse and pushed to ensure popularity and critical support. Getting on this circuit is often an arbitrary and unfair process, which requires a lot of time and energy building networks and getting seen. It can also be difficult to apply for grants without some form of track record, not to mention draining and time consuming given the likelihood of rejection. Even for those able to create space in their lives to maintain a creative practice, trying to move beyond local recognition is difficult. Again, in this period of an artist’s development, those who don’t fear destitution and who have been taught how to sell themselves from an early age often win out. For those who struggle, another layer of people falls away from the arts.

Who gets to work for those cultural organisations and funders? The arts is a small sector and like all small sectors it can be a deeply interconnected world. People get to know each other and develop close working relationships as they move around organisations, compare themselves and try to impress each other. To an extent this is inevitable. However, it also leads to a narrowness of ‘how things are done’ and a circle of who knows who. While things are improving, diversity in the sector has a long way to go. Those from diverse backgrounds who do enter the sector are often moulded by very similar educational backgrounds, their ideologies dominated by whatever is current in universities at the time. Questions around ‘taste’, ‘quality’ and ‘relevance’ remain decided by a small circle, one that can be very hard to enter. There’s still an unspoken division between cultural organisations that are ‘taken seriously’ and the rest. As a recent article highlighted, burnout amongst arts leaders is growing.(X) There’s a constant battle to get enough funding, keep everything running, deal with unstable governments, a slashed public sector, ever more pressure and paperwork. Inevitably the burden of this falls on the smaller arts organisations who are less able to call on powerful friends, and who don’t have a team of fundraisers. Already things are deeply skewed against working in the regions: four of the richest areas of London received more National Lottery cash per person than any other part of the UK over 20 years.(XI) Even though this is slowly changing, the larger cities with big organisations inevitably benefit the most ahead of often poorer cities and towns. Climbing the ladder in the sector can be hard and slow, requiring difficult choices about moving around. Pay at all levels remains low.(XII) Many people leave the arts sector as they approach middle age, unable to support families in these situations. Another layer of people is lost from the arts.

Which brings us to who is left?

This country did very well after the Second World War: allowing more people from different backgrounds into the world of art and culture, helping lead to a revolution in everything from commercial design to visual art and music loved across the world. This has generated immeasurable benefits to the economy. Yet diverse access to the arts is now in decline at all levels. We seem to realise the importance of a rich cultural life to the wellbeing of society more than ever, just as galleries close, local colleges shut arts classes and schools are turned into privatised exam factories. It is certainly not all doom: there has been progress in the increasing acknowledgment of diverse perspectives, more effort towards meaningfully engaging the wider public in the arts and a growing number of places to show work. There will also always be a random and arbitrary element to who and what becomes popular or powerful in the arts. Lots of us want to create, not all of us what to consume what others create. Some people are just better artists or curators or whatevers than others. What we can avoid though, what we must work hard against now more than ever, is the compound unfairness at which every layer more people who don’t fit or who are facing disadvantages in life fall away from the arts. Many never even get the opportunity or space to think about art because so many of their other needs are not being fulfilled. These issues are not confined to the the arts sector. They are fundamental to the multiple challenges the UK faces as a society. This social decay started much further back than 2010, when public sector cuts following the financial crash of 2008 really began to kick in. It’s just grown to cover more areas and affect more people. Much needs to be done, but in small ways we can all do things to create better opportunities for access to the arts, so less people fall away before they have even begun.

This piece was published by The Critial Fish in May 2019.

References

I Hannah, Felicity, ‘Why low-income families won’t ever be able to make ends meet’, The Independent, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/money/spend-save/low-income-families-outgoings-personal-finances-poverty-a8432991.html

II Bulman, May, ‘Spending on children and young people’s services cut by nearly £1bn in six years, figures reveal’, The Independent, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/children-young-people-services-uk-cuts-funding-local-authorities-labour-tories-angela-rayner-a8285191.html

III Ryan, Frances, ‘PIP is a disaster for disabled people. At last the full horror is emerging’, The Guardian,2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/07/pip-disaster-disabled-access-report-benefits

IV Norris, Rufus, ‘Creativity can be taught to anyone. So why are we leaving it to private schools?’, The Guardian, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/17/creativity-private-schools-uk-creative-industries-state

V Kershaw, Alison, ‘Cash-strapped schools axing classes and cutting back on trips, headteachers say’, The Independent, 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/education-schools-struggling-financially-axing-gcse-a-level-courses-cutting-class-trips-headteachers-a7620931.html

VI Kentish, Benjamin, ‘University tuition fees in England now the highest in the world, new analysis suggests’, The Independent, 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/university-tuition-fees-england-highest-world-compare-students-student-loan-calculator-a7654276.html

VII Busby, Eleanor, ‘Poorer students three times more likely to live at home while at university, study says’, The Independent, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/poor-students-live-at-home-university-sutton-trust-social-mobility-a8229816.html

VIII Sellgren, Katherine, ‘Rise in poorer students dropping out of university’, BBC News, 2017, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-40429263

IV Berry, Anna, ‘How The Art World Exclused Introverts’ Disability Arts Online, 2018, http://disabilityarts.online/magazine/opinion/art-world-excludes-introverts

X Romer, Christy, Increasingly high risk of burnout among arts leaders, ArtsProfessional, 2018. https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/increasingly-high-risk-burnout-among-arts-leaders

XI Evans, Felicity, ‘Lottery good causes: Is UK lotto cash shared fairly?’, BBC News, 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-46468787

XII Hill, Liz, ‘Pay crisis builds as arts workers struggle to make ends meet’, ArtsProfessional, 2019, https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/pay-crisis-builds-arts-workers-struggle-make-ends-meet

Tourists, Travellers and Changing Landscapes

By Kenn Taylor

Foreign travel was once something largely reserved for the well off. Improvements in transportation and communications in the latter half of the 20th century though, saw the opening up of international tourism for the masses. In tandem with this came the growth of the self-proclaimed ‘traveller’. Those who distinguished themselves from tourists by aiming to go variously; off the beaten track, to the edgier spot, in search of ‘authentic’ culture, while avoiding the popular or things that smacked of package style organisation.

Being such a traveller in the late 20th century usually required having surplus money and, perhaps even more so, surplus time. However, with those ever-advancing improvements in transport and communications and other factors such as borders being relaxed and increasing global economic development, the goals of the traveller became more accessible. Thus, with the world continuing to get ever smaller, ever faster, those who place personal satisfaction in self-consciously being travellers find themselves having ever less options. At the same time as this and deeply linked, we have seen growing critiques of tourism in parts of the press that, ironically, did very well for years from advertising selling foreign dreams to its readers.

Of course, this isn’t entirely new. In the 1970s, travel writer Paul Theroux talked of the typical curmudgeonly snobbery about travel, finding it going back to at least Evelyn Waugh’s When The Going Was Good of 1946 and even further to William T. Brigham writing in 1886: “Old travellers know how soon the individuality of a country is lost when once the tide of foreign travel is turned through its towns and by-ways.” Nothing new under the sun.

Even if going solo, off beaten tracks or engaging positively with locals, by definition you, I, are still tourists. There is of course deeply damaging tourism; landscapes destroyed by over development or over visitation, hooliganism, exploitation, local residents driven out. However to blame all tourists for this or to try and entirely distance yourself from all the issues tourism can create when you go on foreign trips by defining yourself as a traveller and ‘them’ tourists, is, frankly, silly. It’s also laced with class prejudice which can be seen in some of the articles emerging about ‘over tourism’.

Talk about the growing cruise industry is an example of this. Seen as a big symbol of over tourism, ships are inevitably described as ‘huge’, ‘monsters’ with their ‘tides’ of passengers, and usually more subtle references to the undesirable class status and habits of those passengers. There are some genuine environmental issues about large ships in certain, specific water bodies and big engines pumping out fumes close to urban centres. Nevertheless, I remain unconvinced that one large cruise ship with thousands of passengers is any more environmentally damaging overall than a dozen medium sized jetliners moving the same number of people to an airport in a suburb, out of sight, out of mind. With those passengers then needing various often individualistic forms of transport to get to the place they actually want to be. Not to mention the impact of the half dozen hotels they then occupy. But as cruising is generally more of a working class and lower middle class dream, it’s easier to single it out for blame than acknowledging the role that anyone who goes on holiday abroad plays in the damage that tourism can indeed cause.

Amsterdam is one key European city struggling with tourist numbers. Dutch writer Joost de Vries noted in his article in The Guardian his angst at it becoming “like Venice”, as he describes, shorthand for a city so flooded by tourists that it no longer feels like a city at all. Yet he is also self-aware enough to admit that, he too becomes someone else’s tourist problem when he leaves Amsterdam: “Someone in the south of France will be writing the exact same article I’m writing now (bonjour!). That’s the whole point of complaining about tourism. Are you staying home this summer? If not, you are someone else’s tourist.” Indeed, how many writers in major metropolitan centres even as they complain of the damage done to their city by visitors, are soon booking their next flight elsewhere? Most people want to go on holiday and for the majority, going somewhere abroad is the ambition. As the world has got generally richer, tourism has become the world’s biggest industry. I remain an optimist that this demonstrates our common interest in each other and the world. Which in the present political climate, now more than ever is a good thing. To quote Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

Some of the angst around tourism is about how it changes a place, becoming less ‘authentic’. It is true a certain kind of hipster aesthetic has proliferated in urban areas, washing outwards from London, New York and Berlin with diminishing returns. That however ignores that cultural exchange has always prompted change, especially in urban areas and that as the world got smaller, this was always going to speed up. Cities have always copied popular things from each other – witness the glaring similarity of most Victorian town halls and museums across the UK, long before people started shouting about clone towns. Not to mention that seeking ‘the authentic’ while deeply human, is also in itself, pretty inauthentic. A chimera given that, like in physics, as soon as you observe something, you change it.

The reason many people who live in areas popular with tourists work in the industry, especially in developing countries, is that it frequently has better pay and security than the traditional jobs that were available to them. Travellers may bemoan somewhere they once saw as authentic see its people move from say, farming, to running a hotel, but then I doubt many travellers ever had to experience the precarious life of being a sustenance farmer. Tourism also offers opportunities for areas with few other options for a sustainable economy. Venice may now indeed be over visited and needs to manage that, but its traditional economic powers (for all its beauty, much to do with slavery and exploitation) have long been in decline, with the city largely relying on tourism now for well over 100 years. After the last of its port and shipbuilding moved away in the 1950s as it became impractical to use its quaysides, without tourism, the city, with its huge maintenance costs, would have struggled to sustain itself at all. With its own population in decline well before the age of mass cruising.

City breaks to the likes of Venice, Amsterdam or wherever, were once the solid preserve of the middle to upper class. However, with the emergence of low cost airlines, the expansion of hostels, the Internet in general, an industry of alternative travel guides that rose out of the grassroots Rough Guides and Lonely Planet (now both part of global corporations) not to mention the general opening up of Europe through the EU, such city breaks become common place. Thus, the traveller now sees them as problematic, now that everyone visits cities rather than just ‘people like them’.

The potential negative effects of increasing tourism on existing urban residents are true, from stag do drunkenness to people being priced out of apartments for Airbnbs. But the traveller critiquing this is a hypocrite. All the disruptive businesses and technologies that made such travel increasingly possible and affordable to more people, were originally popularised by such travellers from the tech-savvy middle class. Airbnb was once talked about as a radical alternative to corporate hotel chains and a way to engage with local people and culture. So much so that it proliferated. Now the same people who helped it catch on judge others for using it. Of course, there’s a long history of the middle and upper class making something popular then judging others for adopting them, from microwave meals to out of town supermarkets.

That’s the thing with capitalism in general, however punk and radical you convince yourself something is, if it works, it becomes mainstream, see everything from Starbucks to Uber. As ever with such problems, the solutions are to use the power of democratic structures to reign them in. Not bemoan and blame that more people can travel than ever, but take hold of these changing patterns and technology. Tourist taxes, to make sure visitors contribute to local services; regulating the likes of Airbnb to stop it destroying residential areas; limiting visitor numbers to fragile sites; imposing taxes and environmental controls on transportation providers; ensuring local small businesses gain from tourism not just big chains, are all ways that we can reduce some of tourism’s negative impacts.

That more people want to see more of the world is a good thing. Don’t blame the desire, but those who exploit that desire with no thought for what they’re doing to these places or the planet. And even if you see yourself as a traveller, however you behave, accept that, in the end, you’re still just another bloody tourist.

An abridged version of this piece was published by New Statesman CityMetric in January 2019.

‘Fear helps keep people in their place’: art, culture and class

By Kenn Taylor

Is wanting to be an artist of any kind, or otherwise work in the cultural sector, stupid? It’s often poorly paid, if at all, and achieving ‘success’ can be arbitrary, unfair. If you’re from a working-class background, it’s even harder. So why would you bother?

For me, art and culture are about ideas. If you control ideas, you control everything. If only a narrow stratum of society controls the ideas, only their views and experiences will be reflected in systems of communication and power. And a far worse society, especially for those with the least power, will result. Art is too important to be left to a privileged few. Yet year by year, it seems to get harder for people from working class backgrounds to find space in culture, media and the arts.

Working in the arts can be a risky option for anyone, but the risks are compounded for those without family money or connections to fall back on. For those who somehow must generate an income to support themselves and perhaps others. Those who’ve probably been told quite often in life not to dare to imagine other worlds they could enter because of the risks involved.

When architect of the NHS, Nye Bevan, wrote a book about the foundation of the welfare state he called it ‘In Place of Fear’. Over the last few decades, what has increased exponentially in this country is fear, and not accidentally. Fear helps keep people in their place and too overwhelmed and frightened to try and challenge the limited parameters forced upon them. Part of that, despite lip service to the contrary, is to return culture to a field dominated by a narrow circle.

It was difficult enough when I entered the cultural sector in the 2000s. The child of a railway fitter and a cleaner, I grew up on benefits when my dad got sick, in a deprived industrial town in Merseyside. I was the first in my family to go to university. In that era, I got help. I lived in one of the pilot areas for Education Maintenance Allowance. The Connexions service helped with university applications when I’d left education to work. There were waived university fees and top-up maintenance grants for those from poor backgrounds. After uni, paid entry-level arts jobs were available, like the one I got – albeit a low paid and zero hours one. Now, so much of that has gone, it’s unreal. I can’t imagine I’d have been able to get to where I am today without any of those opportunities – yet working class people in 2018 get none of this support.

The issues are not just economic. It’s important to talk about the invisible barriers that exist on entering the sector and remain even when you’re in. At its best, the cultural field can be a place that welcomes those from different backgrounds; creative, open-minded, full of ideas. However, sadly, at its worst it can be too convinced of its own radicalism that it can be blind to the prejudice and structural unfairness that exists within it. Despite some progress, too many cultural organisations suffer from the ‘groupthink’ that comes from being dominated by people with incredibly similar backgrounds and educations. It was recently revealed that the key art, music and drama schools in this country are more elitist in their student bodies than Oxford and Cambridge. This doesn’t surprise me, but it’s a damming indictment of inequalities in the sector.

Many people who have experienced an elite education from a young age are given constant reinforcements of their confidence, get taught how to network and how to ‘sell themselves’. Sadly, some of these things are more respected and important to success in parts of the cultural sector than talent and depth. I mentioned ‘imposter syndrome’ recently to a few people in the sector from a similar background. There was mutual acknowledgement of this and past experiences of being made to feel inadequate, talked over, or willfully ignored by those who think you can’t benefit them in their own ambitious trajectory in the arts.

This is, of course, not to privilege class over other forms of structural injustice within the arts. Intersectionality is vital when looking at diversity in the sector. However, class has been an area ignored for too long, especially as it cuts across other areas of inequality yet is not covered by the Equality Act 2010. Similarly, I don’t mean to privilege one class over the other. Working class cultures at their own worst can be oppressive, prejudiced, and suspicious of difference, but it’s clear that working class people are not well represented enough across the sector. In addition, while thankfully it’s a minority, the sector still has too many people from comfortable backgrounds ‘slumming it’. That is, adopting performative tropes of being working class in some strange grasp for authenticity, who then drown out the voices of people who have actually come from such backgrounds.

It’s important to note it’s not just big cultural institutions that have these issues. The artist-led grassroots sector is not immune. Often relying on tight, cliquey networks and people with huge amounts of free time, it can also be blind to its own unspoken exclusions and prejudices. The self-confidence of members from elite backgrounds often dominating groups despite their supposed ‘fluid’ or ‘no hierarchy’ structures.

Now I am the director of a small arts charity, part of the establishment, albeit at a low level. The air is even thinner in terms of those from working class backgrounds when it comes to leading organisations. Though as I’ve chosen to work regionally and in a socially-focused field, not as much as in some other areas of culture. I have achieved a modicum of ‘success’. What does sometimes keep me awake at night though, is, do I do enough to make a difference for others from disadvantaged backgrounds to be heard in the arts? Is it all just a waste of time when there are so many huge structural inequalities in society over and above that in the cultural sector? Especially now things are even harder than 15 years ago. This is perhaps again an anxiety that comes from being working class. You think that you can never do enough even as those leading some of the largest organisations pay lip service to diversity.

So, what can be done to make a difference? It’s not actually that complicated, but it would require change on a large scale beyond just the cultural sector itself. For example; free higher education at the point of access; arts schools reserving spaces for those from disadvantaged backgrounds; a stop to the stripping out of the arts from school curriculums; the Arts Council continuing to push organisations to diversify (while other areas of culture such journalism, film, publishing, games and heritage should do the same); ensuring volunteering is only supplementary support to paid jobs; serious government funding for multi-year creative apprenticeships and an end to the qualifications arms race in the sector – let’s have proper respect for on the ground experience and not raise the bar too high for entry level jobs.

Listen to people who are working class; employees, artists, fans, participants, visitors and especially those trying to enter the sector. What they have to say is crucial. It’s time to ensure people from all different backgrounds are given decent opportunities. It won’t just be better for individuals and society, it will be better for art.

These things might seem utopian now, but that’s how far we’ve fallen. I spoke to an older man once, who as a young working-class boy had applied to art school. He never heard back. So, he got a job, only getting into art after his retirement many years later, to his sadness. Only after his father had died did he find the letter of acceptance from the art school that his parents had hidden. Whose fault was this opportunity being denied him? His parents? Or this country, for creating the climate of fear that to work in the arts is to be destitute and especially dangerous if you’re working class? And here we are in those times again. Let’s start to say no more. Now.

This piece was published by The Double Negative as part of their #classisabigdeal series in October 2018.

Time and Tom Wood

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Text Kenn Taylor
Images Tom Wood

The Pier Head – Tom Wood
Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool
12th January – 25th March 2018

“They were outside the groove of history and it was my job to get them in, all of them.”
The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

The thing that gets me most in Tom Wood’s series of images on and around the Mersey Ferries is the intensity of the eyes. Across years, generations, genders, locations, so many of his subjects in these photographs either look intently into the distance or, more strikingly, straight into the lens and into you. I’m drawn to an old video clip of former Open Eye Director Paul Mellor – an early champion of Wood’s work in the gallery he has returned to with this show: “I think he has a care and empathy for the subject matter and the people. I think he’s a humanitarian photographer, if there is such a thing.”

Full disclosure, seeing Wood’s images years ago and how they captured places, people and an era so familiar to me in such a powerful way, was one of the things that drew me into visual arts. Merseyside, like many deprived areas, has had no shortage over the years of photographers keen to bob in and capture ‘poverty porn’. Which when you know a place well, its layers and complexity, can become deeply tiresome. Even if the photographer’s intentions are well meant, their ‘truth’ is usually two dimensional.

Wood is one of a few whose work stretches far beyond this, no doubt in part due to his deep familiarity with his subject, having photographed the area as a local resident over decades. In contrast to others, Wood captures his subjects not as types, but individuals as significant as in any high society or celebrity portrait. Sure, in some expressions or behaviour is humorous, but in others it is sad and still more it is powerfully dignified as he gets that shot of the confidence of youth, the resigned wisdom of old age, the cynicism of having been pushed to the fringe of society. And of course, the boredom of waiting.

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Like his previous work that focused on bus travel, All Zones Off Peak, here Wood captures the commute and its varied humanity. His Pier Head images differ from All Zones though in that the ferries and their terminals were, much more than the busses, also a ‘sit off’. Somewhere for the young and old especially to hang around, mess about, chat, linger. He photographs friends, couples, individuals’ heading somewhere or just passing the time. Snapping different generations over several decades, Wood captures continuity and change. Faces seem ever familiar. In contrast, fashion and hair styles shift rapidly. It was a particular part of the poisonous stereotypes pushed to the area in the 1990s to attack Scousers for a fondness for sportswear. These images remind that was only part of the fashion story. Not to mention that the often unique ways clothes were worn in the area was done with an originality rarely matched when such looks were copied elsewhere. Again, the particular detail of fashion in cruder hands could become voyeurism, but not here. You look at his subjects and their styles, but they look back into you.

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People are the heart of Wood’s images but the background detail is important as well, as much a part of their role now as social document as the fashions. While the images here span from the 70s to late 90s, the bulk are from mid 80s to mid 90s. This is a time in Merseyside history that artists, writers and academics rarely look too, preferring to tap into the swinging, for some, 1960s, the radical era of the late 70s and early 80s, or the more recent, if patchy, renaissance. Yet the period between the 80s and 90s that Wood captures so powerfully is important as well as it was perhaps Liverpool’s nadir. Coming as it did after the collapse of the brief Militant period when Merseyside was largely cut off and left to rot. Treated so often nationally with either contempt or indifference, negative stereotypes about the area came to the fore even in supposedly polite and liberal circles.

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This was the Merseyside I grew up in. Almost nothing new was built. Most of the theatres and gig venues closed. So much seemed of the past, decaying, like the ageing, smoky 1960s busses and ferries we waited for, while opportunity, change, a positive future, seemed distant, if not impossible. The local media became deeply nostalgic for ‘the better times’. What radicalism existed largely retreated to educated urban circles and had little impact on the city’s poor and unfashionable fringes.

Wood, intended or not, captures this atmosphere. Both the crumbling grandeur of the Victorian docks and jetties, rusting, grassed over, silent. But also the decay of 1960s optimism as exemplified by the rotting Modernism of the graffiti covered Pier Head terminal. Today its concrete and steel would be lauded by fans of once-again fashionable Brutalism, its Formica’d cafe turned into a themed eatery. Then, it was just a reminder of how everything had fallen apart. The Merseyside of today still remains highly deprived and faces numerous challenges, but it has come far from being so unrelentingly crushed in a way that people who came to know the area later on struggle to grasp.

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What Wood also captures though is that, despite the national mistreatment, life in Liverpool did indeed go on. People survived and even occasionally thrived despite the shit they had been given. Not crude stereotypes or even that other media trope, ‘sympathetic victims of a cruel system’, but individual human beings with their own stories, part of a culture that carried on despite seemingly impossible odds.

The landscape of the river and those who travel across it, as they have done so since around the 12th century, has now changed from that photographed by Wood. Just as the young, moody people in sportswear in 1987 confused and in turn were confused by the older people sporting headscarves and flat caps, so young people today must look these images with a distance hard to bridge. The differences in fashion and scenery though are just the visual demonstration of the bigger gap. That of experience and understanding between generations in an ever faster rapidly changing word, each one with its new sets of opportunities, joys, problems and challenges. Wood captures his subjects with dignity, young and old, but the generational gap remains for them as it does for all of us. We look at them, they look at us, but never quite understand what the other has seen and felt, like looking across a river into the distance.

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This piece was published by Corridor 8 in March 2018.