A Tate of the North

A look at Tate Liverpool as it approaches its 25th birthday with new director Francesco Manacorda.

By Kenn Taylor

Much has been written over the last few years about the proliferation of new art galleries in the UK regions, especially the north. Often this is seen to have started with Gateshead’s Baltic, which opened in 2002 in a huge converted flour mill on the Tyne waterfront. Much has also been written about the viability and role of such institutions, particularly those located in deprived areas, especially since the public sector cutbacks have ensued.

Before all of this though, there was Tate Liverpool. One the first attempts at creating a modern art gallery in a post-industrial setting in the UK, and certainly so in the north, it will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. In that quarter century, modern and contemporary art has moved from the fringe of elite culture to something approaching the mainstream while the idea of using culture as a regeneration tool has both risen and fallen.

In an era when the Imperial War Museum has a branch in Tameside and the V&A is building one in Dundee, it might seem common sense to have a Tate gallery in a northern city, but at the time, it was a radical idea. In the early 1980s Sir Alan Bowness, then director of Tate, began formulating a plan to create a ‘Tate of the North’. Bowness later reflected, in a letter now in the Tate archive, on the project’s beginnings: “We made it clear that we wanted if possible to find some great 19th century building that had lost its original purpose, and would lend itself to conversion into an art gallery.”

Having met with positive responses about hosting the gallery from cities across the north, he visited them all, reaching Liverpool last. There he was given list of potential sites to explore by Merseyside County Council. He recalls: “At the end of a stormy and blustery winter’s day we arrived at the Mersey, had a quick look at the Liver building (not suitable) and then went into the totally derelict Albert Dock. It was immediately clear to me that this was the place.”

Pushed along by the then ‘Minister for Merseyside’, Michael Heseltine as a key regeneration project for the city in the wake of the 1981 Toxteth Riots, the idea made rapid progress and in 1985 Liverpool-trained James Stirling was commissioned to design the new gallery in the dock. His work left the exterior of the Grade I listed warehouses largely untouched, but transformed the interior into galleries suitable for the display of modern art. The building opened to the public in May 1988.

There was some scepticism about this ‘branch of the London art world’ opening its doors in Liverpool, yet in the decades since, the gallery has firmly established itself as part of the city’s cultural landscape. Under its last director, Christoph Grunenberg, Tate Liverpool developed from a relatively quiet branch to holding some of Tate’s biggest exhibitions, including Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life in Vienna and Picasso: Peace and Freedom. Although some visitors from London and other exotic places occasionally asked gallery staff “Why on earth is this up here?”, Tate’s presence was a factor in Liverpool winning the title of European Capital of Culture in 2008. The gallery’s hosting of the first Turner Prize that year helped to pave the way for the current system of a regional venue every other year.

At the end of last year Tate Liverpool appointed a new artistic director, Francesco Manacorda, to steer the gallery through its next phase. The 38-year-old has previously been curator at London’s Barbican Art Gallery, curated various pavilions at the Venice Biennale and ran the Artissima international art fair in his native Turin. Manacorda acknowledges the importance of Tate Liverpool’s legacy: “Tate Liverpool was a pioneer in making modern and contemporary art accessible to a wider audience outside London. The results it harnessed have no doubt provided inspiration for the creation of institutions such as Baltic in Gateshead, Nottingham Contemporary and the Hepworth Wakefield.”

He feels that it was not just the regions that were influenced by the opening of Tate Liverpool, but London as well:  “The commissioning of a prominent contemporary architect to convert a monumental piece of industrial heritage into a contemporary art venue was very successful in Liverpool. I am sure this influenced the decision to transform the abandoned Bankside power station into what we now know as Tate Modern.”

In the immediate future Manacorda’s focus is on the Liverpool Biennial, the largest visual arts festival in the UK, which opens this week. Since the Biennial’s inception under the stewardship of a former Tate Liverpool director, Lewis Biggs, the gallery has played a major part in it. Manacorda says: “Tate Liverpool’s relationship with the Biennial has been very good since the Biennial was established in 1998, and I would like to continue this. The Tate Collection is a great asset which allows emerging artists to look at history in an innovative and unconventional way.”

Tate’s contribution to the festival comprises two elements. The first is a new commission, ‘Sky Arts Ignition: Doug Aitken – The Source’, in which Aitken asks a variety of creative practitioners including Jack White, Tilda Swinton and Mike Kelley where their creativity comes from. The work is situated in a glass pavilion situated outside the gallery designed by David Adjaye. Manacorda comments:  “I think it is a great piece and it has been a real privilege working with Doug. The work makes a very important point manifest, that conversations are one of the most important sources of creativity.”

There will also be a new Tate Collection display entitled Threshold, featuring a wide range of artists from Martin Parr to Gilbert and George: “The show was curated by Sook-Kyung Lee as a response to this year’s Biennial theme of ‘Hospitality’. She took a very rigorous and imaginative approach to looking at how both inclusion and exclusion can become social, political and economic tools that manifest in a variety of, not always visible, ‘thresholds’.”

As Tate approaches its 25th birthday in May 2013, plans are already in place to mark the occasion, though Manacorda will only reveal a brief amount at the moment: “We are planning a major re-hang of the Tate Collection at the gallery to coincide with our 25th anniversary. We will be reflecting on the past twenty-five years, using the re-hang to do something different, exciting and revelatory with the collection.”

Nearly a quarter century after its inception as part of a plan to regenerate Liverpool, I ask Manacorda what role he sees the gallery playing now in a city in many ways transformed, in many ways still struggling: “Tate Liverpool was at the forefront of re-imaging the city’s industrial heritage through culture, helping people project new meaning into it. Culture has literally and metaphorically moved into the empty industrial space following the economic evolution of the North in recent decades. Tate Liverpool has a larger audience than other regional galleries, which means that while we have a loyal and growing Merseyside audience, we are also able to attract audiences from further afield. This of course is what brings regeneration effects to the city. We bring visitor spend to Liverpool and work in partnership with organisations across the city to make it a focus for cultural tourism.”

Though he sees the gallery as having a deeper role than just being a tourist magnet: “In addition to considering the economic effects of regeneration, we also consider the other beneficial effects that art can have on people’s lives. Art can speak to people and become an emancipatory tool for people to innovate, question and reinvent. Tate Liverpool’s role is to bring international, top quality practices to Liverpool, activating a conversation between the local and the international.”

Finally I ask, as Manacorda settles into his new role and can start influencing the programme on a deeper level, what is his vision for the future of Tate Liverpool? “I see the museum as a space for learning that provides the public with edifying experiences, critical space for reflection and access to the enjoyment that art can grant. Since Tate Liverpool is a modern and contemporary art gallery, I’d like to involve artists in reinventing how we look at history.”

This piece appeared on The Guardian in September 2012.

Liverpool Biennial 2012 – Sally Tallant interview

  

By Kenn Taylor

In September, the seventh Liverpool Biennial, the UK’s largest and most visited visual arts festival, takes place in a city and a global environment very different from its first edition in 1999. With former director Lewis Biggs moving on, the Biennial has just appointed a new Artistic Director and CEO, Sally Tallant, formerly Head of Programmes at London’s Serpentine Gallery.

Despite having arrived a few just months ago, at a festival which began its planning as far back as 2010, Tallant has already made her influence felt: “Many of the artists had already been selected, but nothing was confirmed when I arrived. I’ve mainly been focusing on shaping the curatorial coherence of the Biennial across our programme partners.”

This year’s Biennial theme, ‘hospitality’, which unites all of the disparate artists, works and exhibitions, was already in place when she took over. However Tallant has focused this down further to a title – ‘the unexpected guest.’ “The notion of a guest is interesting,” she says. “We’re guests in the city, the artists are our guests. The art itself is a guest. The notions of hospitality; how long does hospitality last? How long are you willing to offer that? It’s very interesting also with the way in which Liverpool is transforming itself into a tourism and leisure orientated economy.”

When the Biennial began, Liverpool was yet to undergo its vast redevelopment or win its European Capital of Culture title, a status aided in part by the Biennial itself. This is something which has placed both the festival and the city at the centre of debates around arts-led regeneration. Tallant sees this as the Liverpool Biennial’s key point of difference from all the other art festivals in the world: “Liverpool has an amazing history of arts-led regeneration, going back a very long way. I think it’s absolutely crucial to involve artists, writers and philosophers, poets in thinking about how a city reinvents and builds itself. In particular in Liverpool, a post-industrial city, where it’s possible to ask questions around the value of art and its role in urban contexts.”

The Biennial takes over virtually all of Liverpool’s cultural venues, along with numerous public realm interventions and temporary sites across the city. In the past, because of this vastness, the festival has been criticised for lacking coherence. This is something Tallant has been focusing on since her tenure began: “I’ve been working closely with my colleagues to ensure that when people come to Liverpool, they’ll experience something that feels very fluid, integrated and coherent. I’m thinking about the Biennial as a period of time. So it lasts ten weeks, but has eleven weekends. We’ve developed themes programmed with content for each weekend, so each one will be a mini festival in itself.”

Many of the artworks in this year’s festival will be kept under wraps till nearer the event, but one project Tallant can revel continues Liverpool Biennial‘s tradition of interventions into the public realm, literally bringing contemporary art out into the streets: “We’re working with an Israeli artist called Oded Hirsch, who is making a very large-scale intervention into Liverpool 1. It is a sculptural work that will appear to burst through the very fabric of the shopping district and it will be asking a question around ‘what are those places?’ and what is it that lies beneath. I think it will be a very uncanny interruption into the everyday.”

Despite the scale and scope of the Liverpool Biennial, the festival has still often lacked critical attention or recognition and this is also something Tallant wants to address. “If you look at the artists that we’ve had in the Biennial,” she says, “it’s incredible really. Some the most important contemporary artists of our time and there’s been a few hundred of them. What I think is we haven’t always done is communicated that. So I am building on the existing partnerships the Biennial has, but also bringing in stronger, I hope, ones that I have built up by working in London for the last 15 years.”

One of her key aims is to highlight Liverpool as the ‘UK’s Biennial’ and emphases its international role: “By positioning us as the UK’s Biennial, I think we’ll be able to work more productively in terms of collaboration with other partners in the UK, as well as thinking about strong research partnerships internationally. Building on the idea of research with other cities in the world facing similar issues to Liverpool in terms of post-industry and the necessity for rethinking around urbanism and reinvention.”

Liverpool Biennial

15th September – 25th November 2012

This piece appeared in f22 magazine in June 2012.

2012: A Sea Odyssey

By Kenn Taylor

2012 marks one hundred years since the Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage and Liverpool is commemorating its links to the famous ship, with the key event being a huge street procession called Sea Odyssey. From Friday 20 to Sunday 22 April, various city spaces will become focal points in a story about love, family and communication.

Sea Odyssey will be delivered by renowned French street theatre and marionette experts Royal De Luxe (RDL) who were responsible for the hugely popular ‘Sultan’s Elephant’ event in London in 2006.  Sea Odyssey is one of the most complex events Liverpool has ever staged and will involve hundreds of people in its planning and execution, with the hope that around 250,000 people will attend over the course of the weekend.

Talks have been taking place between Liverpool City Council and RDL since 2006, when their Artistic Director Jean-Luc Courcoult visited Liverpool. He was inspired by a letter he saw in the Merseyside Maritime Museum written by a young girl called May to her father, William, a steward aboard Titanic. Her letter did not reach Southampton in time for Titanic’s departure, and tragically, her father was lost with the ship. This forms the basis of the Sea Odyssey story.

Much will be kept under wraps until the event, as Alicia Smith, Head of Participation and Engagement at Liverpool City Council explains. “We’ve already revealed that there will be two giants visiting Liverpool; the Little Girl Giant standing 30ft high and her Uncle at a whopping 50ft. There will definitely be a lot of surprises to come. It’s very much part of the Royal de Luxe mystique to keep parts of the action completely secret until the big day.”

Beyond the procession itself though, Liverpool City Council has done much work to develop the event on a wider level.  In the lead up to Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture year in 2008, there was much criticism of the remoteness of those organising cultural events in the city. This has prompted a new way of working that focuses on community involvement, as Smith explains. “The Wider Participation Programme focuses on providing opportunities for local organisations, businesses, community groups and education facilities to become involved with the event by taking ownership of and embracing what’s happening in their city. Partners have devised a series of ways to interlink their programming to create a cohesive approach.”

There has also been criticism in the past of the city centre or South Liverpool being the focus of much of the city’s cultural programme, so this event, though beginning in the town centre, will very much focus on North Liverpool, incorporating Stanley Park, Everton Park and Anfield.

“Liverpool has experienced an incredible resurgence in the last few years and culture has played a big part in this,” says Smith. “But North Liverpool in particular still faces some very real challenges. Sea Odyssey will be a crucial chance for the North of the city to kick-start a new phase of regeneration by showcasing investment opportunities, demonstrating the drive and ambition of the area and by empowering local communities to take a central role in future regeneration plans.”

Local business is also positive about the possibilities of the event. Gemma McGowan became the youngest licensee in the country in 1996 when she took over The Sandon pub – famous for being the place where both Liverpool and Everton Football Club’s were founded. In 2006 she also became the operator of Stanley Park’s newly restored Isla Gladstone Conservatory.

Gemma is organising one of the many fringe events connected to Sea Odyssey as she explains. “On Saturday 21st and Sunday 22nd April, we will hopefully be welcoming a large number of people for the first ever Stanley Park Festival where we will bring the park to life will lots of activities including dancing for the school children, a Family Active Zone which will include free activities for the children. There will also be live music and a Community Zone for all local organisations to showcase what they have to offer to the residents of Liverpool.”

Gemma also hopes that Sea Odyssey could be a turning point for the area.  “Opportunities like this don’t come along often. We will be attracting people from all over the country and I was determined to highlight just what an amazing place Stanley Park is. When this Sea Odyssey success has been recognised, we intend to organise several events over the calendar year which will bring the park to life.”

Ruth Little, Manager of Anfield Breckside Community Council, has been engaging with local people over the event. “There’s a programme to encourage local people to sign up as volunteers,” she says. “We’ve got people involved in the mechanics of the giants, activities in the park, stewards marshalling, to people making tea and coffee, so that everybody’s got a chance to get involved. It’s all coming out slowly, and everyone’s starting to get a bit of giant fever now!”

Ruth also thinks it’s a good opportunity to promote the area and generate civic pride. “Given that we’re top of the Indices of Deprivation, it gives us the opportunity to show that people here are very close knit and very willing and very supportive of each other. And for local people as well, you know we’ve had lots of regeneration, and now we’re stuck with the failure of the HMRI, so it’s nice to have something joyful to look forward too, something nice in the area that involves the Anfield area.”

Overall, Alicia Smith has high hopes for the legacy of Sea Odyssey for North Liverpool. “Like the Capital Culture did for the city centre, major events can be
catalyst for change and if two giants can come to the north, anything can
happen.”

Sea Odyssey Giant Spectacular, 20 – 22nd April 2012, Liverpool

www.giantspectacular.com

This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the 2nd April 2012 edition of The Big Issue in the North.

Culture as a Commodity

By Kenn Taylor

On a preserved section of the Berlin Wall, specifically the East Side Gallery, now used as a canvas by various international graffiti artists, I once saw written:

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

Quite a statement, one that made me think of my home city of Liverpool’s biggest tourist draw: The Beatles. While they were a product at least partially of Liverpool culture and do remain part of the local collective memory, there is also an undoubted and growing Beatles industry in the city. A cultural experience created to be sold to visitors.

Football is also going the same way. As much as Liverpool Football Club is still part of the city’s culture, it is now an entity that exists outside of it. A brand followed from Brazil to Thailand that is far removed from the streets of Anfield itself, and another tourist draw to Merseyside for those worldwide fans. Even Liverpool’s history as a maritime centre is sold to visitors via the museums and the souvenir books of the old docks filled with liners, the remnants of something that was once an actual industry employing thousands, now largely a distant heritage.

Since Liverpool won its bid to be European Capital of Culture for 2008 there has been an increase in attempts to package various aspects of the city’s culture to attract more visitors and boost its fragile economy. This has been met with some resistance from those who are wary of the city’s culture becoming commodified to serve the tourist industry and who fear that this might detract from the new, raw creativity in the city.

These may be local examples, but the same thing goes worldwide; that which was once part of active, live, perhaps even dangerous culture, becomes popularised, accepted, sanitised and sellable. Many places that have had their landscape and way of life represented by famous artists now find themselves selling back that expedience to visitors; the Yorkshire moorland of the Brontës, the rural Welsh communities of Dylan Thomas, Thomas Hardy’s ‘Wessex’ version of Dorchester.

Even St Ives, the Cornish fishing community whose remoteness from the metropolitan art world attracted sculptor Barbara Hepworth and others, is now a favoured second-home location of those same metropolitan elite, happy to be somewhere remote and pretty but also reassuringly ‘cultured’.

What was once real culture and lived experience, once transformed into art, becomes something that can be appreciated by others far away. Something people will come seeking so that they too can experience it. To be in the place that bore the art that they love.

Pushed to extremes, these things can be distasteful. Those seeking Bob Marley’s Jamaica can apparently purchase skin care products, headphones and even a Marley-branded ‘calming beverage’ licensed by his estate. While the recent book Eat Pray Love by American journalist Elizabeth Gilbert, detailing how she found love in South East Asia, has apparently sent thousands of other women to Ubud in Bali, Indonesia in search of their dream guy, much to the despair of some locals.

Yet it is also naive to pretend that any artist or any artwork can stand entirely outside of mainstream culture and the wider economy. If any art is of value, interest and importance, even if it is initially rejected or dismissed, however underground and alternative it may seem in the first instance, it will almost always be absorbed into the mainstream eventually. Often to be used in ways the original artist may never have imagined.

James Joyce’s seminal Modernist novel Ulysses, was banned for obscenity in countries across the world, only for less than a hundred years later the Irish national ferry company to name its huge flagship after it. A critic meanwhile once dismissed Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise thus: “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.” I’m not sure about wallpaper, but Monet’s work is now certainly popular on everything from tote bags to place mats.

This phenomenon is especially strange when it happens in a short space of time. As I started university, the largely unknown graffiti artist Banksy painted a rat on an abandoned pub in a run-down part of Liverpool. Now less than ten years later, the city’s Walker Art Gallery has a sculpture of his alongside works by Rembrandt and Turner.

Such things may provoke aversion from those at the cutting-edge of culture, but we should acknowledge that today’s cult fanzine is the next decade’s collectors’ hardback edition, this year’s subversive underground film is the next decade’s National Film Theatre special screening. Culture may be at its rawest and purest at its beginnings, but it is constantly in flux, dying and reforming. One of the few ways to capture the fleeting, ephemeral nature of beauty in existence is to turn it into art and for ultimately it to become part of cultural history.

Attempts to preserve the spirit of any given place or way of life are often precisely at the point they are ending. Writer Rachel Lichtenstein even admitted that in creating the book On Brick Lane about that East London street’s raw culture, diversity and creativity she was unavoidably contributing to its gentrification as the latest hotspot for urban trendies.

There is almost an inevitability of locations with connections to great artists and artworks selling themselves on the back of their cultural links. Small places such as Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, or Grasemere in Cumbria, former home of William Wordsworth, who in his lifetime was suspected as a spy by rural locals, are almost entirely reliant on such cultural tourism to sustain them.

However, it can also be important for bigger places too. Venice for example was once a great centre of power, trade, technology and innovation, now it is a museum. All it has left to sell is what it once was. Similarly in the UK, York and Chester were the centres of power in the north before the Industrial Revolution, but with the growth of neighbouring cities they are now mostly forced to trade on their heritage.

Even Liverpool and Manchester are now also to an extent places which sell their culture to survive, be it The Beatles or Manchester United. The once brash centres of industrial and social change have become places to be looked back upon now such growth and production is mostly elsewhere. Like Venice the culture that once grew out of their economy and industry is now a vital part of their economy and industry itself.

And why not sell what they have? The case often made against this is that the tourist industry is a weak base compared to an industrial or business one. This may be true, but for all those keen to point this out, few are able to suggest viable alternatives, and a weak economy is better than no economy, which is what many rural towns and post-industrial cities face. A city like Manchester or Liverpool cannot rely on cultural tourism alone in the way somewhere like Grasemere may do, but it can form an important part of the wider economy.

After all, the art and artists linked to such places often to a greater or lesser extent exploited these localities, with artwork frequently inspired by the poverty or rawness of a place. So why can’t these places do the same back, especially when they often have few other options?

I do find the carbon copy of The Cavern constituted to lure visitors here in Liverpool sad when compared with the new, exciting venues in the city, but don’t we all like to visit similar things when in towns and cities abroad? Liverpool would be mad not to have a Beatles museum, even Hamburg, a city with a much more tenuous connection to them, has one. The Beatles are the greatest thing this city is ever likely to produce and we should rightly celebrate and acknowledge that. Liverpool also really needs the visitors, and once they’re here, it’s a hell of a lot easier to engage them in the contemporary culture also.

As for the difference between raw culture and that which becomes absorbed into the mainstream, surely what ultimately those of us who make ‘art’ of one form or another hope, even secretly, is that we may produce something that one day will be considered good enough to last beyond our own existences. To be preserved, catalogued and commodified and to become part of cultural history, even if we know few of us will achieve it. Maybe there is no better tribute to a great artwork of transcendent humanity to end up on a tea towel or a postcard on a student’s wall. Better that at least than for it to be lost to obscurity.

This piece appeared on The Double Negative in February 2012.

Independent Thinking

By Kenn Taylor

When the arts funding cuts were finally announced last year, there was trepidation in Liverpool as in the rest of the country: what would close? What would be cut back to the bone? There were inevitable causalities, and Liverpool lost the A Foundation, a huge complex of former industrial buildings which had opened in 2006 as an independent contemporary art space.

Yet, it was not the end for the site. Three creative businesses already located in the vicinity; architects Union North, design agency Smiling Wolf and the Elevator Studios complex, got together with building owner, arts’ patron James Moores, to develop a new broader and more sustainable model for the venue. From this, Camp and Furnace was born.

Venue Manager Ian Richards describes Camp and Furnace as a “constantly evolving, independent, cultural destination”. Since it’s reopening a few months ago, it has hosted several club nights, the Liverpool Food and Drink Awards and even Google’s first ‘engagement day’ in the UK. On 16th December, the venue will host a ‘Winter Picnic’ promising ‘fake snow, real food and open fires’.

The ‘business’ end will develop next year, with the opening of a bar and eatery, alongside a hotel with a difference: “Camphotel will be part boutique hotel, part indoor festival campsite,” says Ian. “We will be taking a selection of vintage caravans and re-appropriating them in an ‘outdoors indoor’ setting.”

Though Ian insists the cultural offer is still at the core of Camp and Furnace: “We’ll be rolling out a varied cultural programme over the coming year. Events to watch out for include art installations, exhibitions and performances; collaborative theatre, avant-garde cabaret, comedy and music.”

Based in the Baltic Triangle, which local authorities are pushing as the next ‘cultural quarter’ in Liverpool, the plan is to have the venue more deeply connected to the city’s creative grassroots, rather than operating in isolation as an arts centre. Ian explains: “We’re fortunate to be neighbours with Liverpool Biennial and similarly Elevator studios which is home to numerous creative firms. We’ll be looking to strengthen our engagement with these and others in the city over the coming months, providing them with a place where they can meet, exchange ideas and socialise.”

With the pretty much consistent shortage of funding for the arts in Liverpool, there’s always been a tradition of DIY culture, which has led in more recent years to a more entrepreneurial spirit in the arts. Another example is Mercy, a creative collective which came to prominence during the build up to Liverpool’s Capital of Culture year and has gone on to do commercial design work for everyone from Diesel to Arctic Monkeys. Throughout though, they have also organised their own boundary-pushing arts programme, most recently a series of events in collaboration with the Abandon Normal Devices festival.

Doug Kerr one of Mercy’s Directors, explains the relationship between Mercy’s ‘arts’ side and its ‘agency’ side: “The two sides operate independently of each other, but with the same set of values and principles. Our job descriptions straddle both sides of the business, and each side feeds the other creatively.”

And Doug feels having two sides to the operation does not lead to compromises: “Far from it, we’ve found a way of working that suits all of our skills and personalities and the result is that we’ve got two self-sufficient models. It’s not necessarily right for everyone, but for us we’ve been able to have our cake and eat it – at a time when it’s not easy to sustain an arts organisation. Our general policy is to unify disciplines and encourage collaboration and we feel like it’s that kind of approach which will stand us in good stead in the future.”

Whether we like it or not, the arts are changing from a model dominated by public-funding to something more fluid, and those organisations that are flexible and self-sustaining are the ones that will likely survive and thrive in this changed climate.

This piece appeared in the November 27th 2011 edition of The Big Issue in the North.

A Discerning Eye

Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery reflects on its pioneering history as it prepares its move to a new home.

Liverpool, with its mixture of grand buildings and dockland dereliction, strong characters and deep poverty, has often been a favourite subject of photographers from around the word. Everyone from Cartier-Bresson to Candida Höfer and Rineke Dijkstra has shot in the city. Aside from being a subject though, Liverpool has also been home for over 30 years to one of the most important galleries in British photography, Open Eye. This autumn it will move to its first purpose-built home, a striking building on the city’s waterfront, thus beginning another chapter in its chequered history.

Director Patrick Henry is leaving the Wood Street space which has been Open Eye’s home since 1995. The gallery’s now filled with boxes, books and files in preparation for the move. After seven years at the helm, Henry has overseen the long process of finding the organisation a new home, not easy in the midst of a recession. Having studied history of art at Manchester University, Patrick worked for several years as a freelance photographer and then a Curator at what is now Bradford’s National Media Museum, before becoming Director at Open Eye. He says: ‘Cities like Liverpool have always had a romance and fascination for me. So when I was working in Bradford and looking for something new, more freedom and autonomy that you can have working in a big institution, when the job here came up, I was very interested in it.’

Open Eye originally emerged in 1973 as part of an organisation called the Merseyside Visual Communications Unit (MVCU). In its early days, MVCU was a heady mix of art and activism, a DIY operation run on a shoestring by artists, volunteers and a tiny staff team. Patrick says of those days: ‘It had a mission to do with media education, activism, and community arts, making facilities and equipment available at affordable rates. Making it possible to produce culture in a democratic way and also to present the kind of culture that at the time you couldn’t necessarily find in the official venues.’

But, as Patrick details, keeping such an operation afloat in those times was an unenviable challenge: ‘Some of the stories of the storms that were weathered through that period are almost biblical. They had really severe floods and there was a series of fires. There were even firebomb attacks by a far right-wing, racist organisation.’

In 1976, MVCU moved into an abandoned pub, the Grapes Hotel in Whitechapel, central Liverpool. The Open Eye Gallery itself followed in 1977, occupying what had been the public bar. It was one of the pioneering galleries in that period, fuelled by a growing sense of photography’s artistic, social and political potential. ‘It was part of a network that was growing through the ’70s and the ’80s of independent photography gallery spaces around the UK,’ says Patrick. ‘Showing photographers like John Davies, Paul Graham, Tom Wood and Martin Parr, who were increasingly confident and assertive about the voice they wanted to have as artists, though they were for the most part excluded from the gallery scene and museum collections in this country.’

During this time, Open Eye’s exhibitions had a strong role in promoting some of the photographers now regarded as Britain’s finest, as Patrick details: ‘A really important one was The Last Resort. That exhibition was produced by Open Eye and toured. That was actually a joint exhibition of work by Tom Wood and Martin Parr. It’s very well-known now because of Martin’s work, and his book, but the original exhibition was the two of them. “The Last Resort” was of course New Brighton, across the river from Liverpool.’

Later, the gallery moved to Bold Street and shared premises with several other community-focused arts groups until funding and organisational problems saw Open Eye separate. In November 1996, the gallery was re-launched in Wood Street and began to show a stronger element of moving image work, as well as adopting an increasingly international photography programme.

Fueled by a desire to expand its exhibition spaces and increase and diversify its visitors, in mid-2009 Open Eye entered the main phase of its relocation project, which will culminate in its new, purpose-built space opening in autumn 2011. The main gallery on the ground floor will showcase an international programme of contemporary photography. A mezzanine gallery will display exhibitions drawn from Open Eye’s archive of over 1600 photographs, while gallery’s exterior wall will be also be used for a series of large-scale vinyl commissions called, ‘Wall Work’.

The ability to show images from Open Eye’s extensive archive regularly for the first time is one of the key developments of the move. ‘The archive dates to 1980,’ says Patrick, ‘and it’s been growing ever since. There are the big formations; social documentary, portraiture and urban landscape and so on, but there are also countless, odd, fringe things as well. From a programming point of view for the archive, we just want to explore that over time and set it up in dialogue to the contemporary work we are showing.’

Open Eye’s launch programme in the new gallery reflects well both its past and present. Its main exhibition will be Mitch Epstein’s first solo show in the UK, American Power, which examines how energy is produced and used in the American landscape, questioning the power of nature, government and corporations. The archive show meanwhile will be Chris Steele-Perkins The Pleasure Principle, a photographic portrait of England in the 1980’s.

Patrick is keen on the contrasts and similarities between the two exhibitions: ‘Steel-Perkins project is about the 1980’s in Britain. It’s more photojournalistic, social commentary; whereas Mitch’s project is more art documentary. So that pairing was about a resonance, but also about a series of contrasts. Mitch’s work is kind of contemporary photography on a grand scale, while Chris’ is shot on 35mm. For our first show to connect to the culture and politics of the 80’s seemed like a good thing for Open Eye as well as it points back to our own history.’

Open Eye has changed with the times, as photography itself has changed, becoming more accepted as a fine art medium, whilst also contemporary arts spaces have become a more accepted part of the landscape of English cities. It is good to see a gallery so focused on the photographic move to a grand new space in prominent location. But is Open Eye in danger of losing its edge in its new, tourist-friendly home? ‘Historically, there has been a real edge to what Open Eye has exhibited, and we really want to retain that,’ says Patrick. ‘So we want to be popular and widen our audiences, but the key challenge, and something that’s not negotiable about what we do, is to be both popular and also be critical and provocative. Which is something that I think resonates well with Liverpool as a city.’

The new gallery opens to the public on 5th November 2011.

www.openeye.org.uk

This piece appeared in the September 2011 edition of f22 magazine.

   

Images Copyright Open Eye Gallery.

Art Station

Sat in a circle in the world’s oldest operational passenger railway station, Liverpool’s Edge Hill, are a disparate group of individuals united under the banner ‘Future Station’. As trains rattle past regularly, the group, a diverse mixture of ages and backgrounds, debate, discuss and crack jokes about creative projects, plans and ideas, helping to animate this historic space operated by art organisation, Metal.

Metal was founded in London in 2002 by Southbank Centre Artistic Director, Jude Kelly, as an artists’ residency space in a former metal workshop. The organisation came to Liverpool soon after, when current Director Ian Brownbill visited the London space and decided that Edge Hill, a central but deprived district of Liverpool he was working in, could do with such a facility. Beginning in a nearby house, Metal Liverpool moved into the underused station buildings in 2009 after their careful restoration. The larger space allowing the organisation to develop as a community-focused, multi-arts’ centre.

Metal seems to have managed that rare knack, of being popular with local people and attracting arts fans from far and wide. Project Manager Jenny Porter says the reason the organisation has been successful at engaging the community is pretty simple:

“I think we just make sure to listen and support people’s ideas. It helps being a small team and having built up a reputation in the area over the five years we’ve been based here. We don’t think people should have to always travel to city centres to access culture and that in the future it will become increasingly important for cultural provision to exist within towns and neighbourhoods.”

Metal Edge Hill is many things to many people. Its space home to several artists’ studios alongside activities and organisations as diverse as the annual Liverpool Art Prize competition, Suitcase Ensemble, who run a range of popular cabaret nights, and even a recent celebration event about Liverpool’s infamous 1911 Transport Strike.

Metal has also been keen to more deeply reflect the area in which it is located. The Edge Hill Archive Project, launching in November, is the culmination of two years’ work to record the history and culture of the local area for posterity, both online and in a permanent installation at the station.

Jenny says: “It will be exciting to finally see something permanent in the space that conveys its magnificent history. Hopefully it charts some of the many changes that have already happened in the area at a time when it is undergoing another transformation. It is as much about capturing the present as it is the past.”

The Future Station group acts as an entry point and steering group for Metal, and has managed to unite local residents, international artists, heritage enthusiasts and many others besides. Jenny explains more:

“Future Station is important in that we try to encourage in the group a sense of ownership by allowing them to bring their own ideas to the space. We also hope that the meetings help give the members of the group the confidence in their own creativity, no matter how extensive their past experiences are, as well as offering the support needed when it comes to setting up their own projects and ideas.”

Local resident Terry Eagles, who created his first art installation for the recent Future Station Festival, which showcased the group’s work, sums up why the arrival of Metal in the area has been important for people like himself:

“My background, I never had an art lesson in me life. But I always had an interest in it, and it’s been fascinating to me to stick it out down here, because I was something of a fish out of water when I first came down. I’m filling that gap now, and quite enjoying it, so that’s what I’m getting out of Metal now.”

This article appeared in the 29th September 2011 edition of The Big Issue in the North.  

The Loud Return of Quiet People: The Pixies Reform

A man in the queue for the The Pixies reunion gig at Brixton Academy is asked why he thinks they broke up: “They were too good. They had to stop sooner or later.” And why he thinks they got back together: “They were too good. They had to sooner or later.”

Between forming in Boston in 1986 and splitting amid animosity in 1992, The Pixies created five albums from the combination of Charles Thompson’s distinctive wail and strange lyrics versus the drawling whisper and tickling bass of Kim Deal, the guitar brilliance of Joey Santiago and the precise, infectious rhythms of David Lovering. It was rock music so distinctive and powerful that it captured the hearts and ears of nearly all those who heard it.

Despite this, they achieved only moderate success during their first incarnation. Unlike so many other acts of their era, The Pixies never managed to crossover. Splitting up just as America’s alternative scene was heading into the mainstream. But celebrated by everybody from David Bowie to Radiohead, and eulogised in the music press, they became everyone’s favourite discovery. Never truer than when it was said about the Velvet Underground, not a lot of people bought their records, but everyone who did formed a band.

The playing of their song ‘Where Is My Mind’ in the closing scene of über-alt film Fight Club further helped introduce them to a new generation. And so when they began a reunion tour in 2004, it made them a lot of money, made a lot of fans happy and forced them to face their legendary status.

That reunion has been documented in loudQUIETloud, a film by Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin. Its title coming from The Pixies oft-copied sound dynamic. Likely to be as close a portrait as we’ll ever see of them, we get to witness the triumphant shows and the devotion of their fans worldwide. But we also see the blisters, the boredom and signs of the tensions that broke them up the first time around. There is little high drama though. This is more a story of four middle-aged people dealing with their own problems and priorities, while coming together to reform a strange force they were once part of all those years ago.

A fan long before he filmed them, I ask Cantor if anything about the band surprised him when he finally got to meet them: “I think what was most surprising was how utterly normal they all were. I think they’ve all been humbled by the fifteen years since they broke up, so they were just really regular, down to earth, easy-going, approachable people.” Though this was to change as their confidence in their own status grew: “As the tour went on I think they kind of regained their rock star swagger a little, which was interesting to observe.”

We talk about one of the key things the film captures, the fact that the band hardly communicate. “Well I think it’s there in the film that they don’t interact with each other,” Says Cantor. “There is an amazing dynamic when they get on stage, they have this amazing electricity, this chemistry and you think they must love each other and love their music and love their fans. But if you’re privy to what’s happening backstage you sort of think, ‘Wait a minute everything that was going on stage must have been artificial, they don’t even talk to each other’. He goes on, “The Second they got of stage they went off in their own directions and said goodnight.”

But what of The Pixies own view of their staring role and return to the stage? After several calls, a “Can you call me back in five minutes?” and a “Can you hold on just one second?” I finally get to speak to Charles Thompson, AKA Frank Black or Black Francis. Apologies and explanations out the way, I ask him how he feels about his portrayal in the film. After a long pause he says:  “Mildly inaccurate but I kind of like it. I mean, it’s a documentary, they’re not just turning the camera on randomly you know. Even subconsciously they’re kind of looking for something that fits their hunch about you.” He continues, “But in a way, maybe it’s better. For once I’m shrouded in a little mystery and you know, jeez, I don’t think I’m a very mysterious guy.”

Twelve years is a long time in anyone’s life. Did he find it difficult to go back to the old band and those old songs after such a gap? “No it wasn’t difficult. It was difficult the first time around,” he says with a slight laugh. “Once we got over the stress that led up to it, the tension, the apprehension about it all, once we all got back together in a room and said ‘Hi’ it was like all those years apart were disappearing and we were like ‘What were we doing five minutes ago?’ except 5 minutes had been 12 years, so it was kind of surreal.

Their 2004 tour was one of the fastest selling shows in music history, but Thompson appears to be little surprised by the massive popularity of their reunion: “Even when we were nobody, playing our first gig to like 50 people, I remember there was this general kind of feeling of support from people we didn’t know and we were just this band starting out, tuning our guitars for five minutes in-between songs. But even then there was this kind of reaction like ‘Whoa, you guys are really special or something’ and people seemed amused, confused and delighted all at once and it’s always been like that.”

So does he feel they’re finally getting the recognition they’ve always deserved? “Deserve is not how I feel, I think it’s nice. I subscribe to the showbiz attitude of ‘You get what you get.’ If you’re blessed, then gather ye and say thanks and if your not blessed then try hey, try again, that’s showbiz.” He adopts a high voice, “Showbiz baby!”

Despite being cited as an influence by so many, Thompson refuses to be drawn about The Pixies legacy on music: “I’m the classic wrong guy to ask. I’m on the inside looking out and you and other people have that shared perspective that you can see things in this comparative kind of way. Whenever people bring up this ‘Oh, you influenced the so and sos’ I don’t really hear it. I hear rock music. Whether it’s Nirvana or it’s anybody, I don’t hear it the way other people hear it.”

He has his own views on what made them such a special band: “Erm, well of course there is my genius,” he says in deadpan tones. “But besides that my perception of things is that we are just regular people. Even if people exalt us, whoever it is, I think exalts us because we’re not up there trying to be all pretty, we have a diamonds in the rough kind of quality and people like that. People like an underdog you know.”  The Pixies – ordinary people who made extraordinary music.

By Kenn Taylor

Liverpool’s modern music scene: the class of 2008

This was my own personal ‘Capital of Culture’ project, and was published in two parts on Drownedinsound.com

According to the Guinness Book of Records, Liverpool is the world capital of popular music, with more number-one hit singles produced by it than any other city. On closer inspection, a lot of these records are absolute shite. Atomic Kitten anyone? But, nevertheless, Liverpool has produced a fair few important musicians over the years.

The city’s musical vibrancy has gone up and down throughout the history of pop. Top of the world in the early ‘60s, by the hippy era the scene had lost its spark. It didn’t recover again till the late ‘70s, when a strong scene emerged out of the famous Eric’s nightclub that was the inspiration for Tony Wilson’s Factory. But whilst Factory and Manchester went on to change the face of popular culture, Eric’s was closed by the authorities, and in the face of continued economic stagnation and social decay, the music declined once more, driven underground and fragmented.

By the ‘90s, venues had dwindled and the music scene in Liverpool was dominated by people getting fucked in generic dance clubs where Scouse House ruled. During this period, only The Lightning Seeds, Space, Shack and Cast made any sort of impact in the mainstream. With some noble exceptions such as Clinic, most local musicians formed generic Oasis/La’s-style rock and roll combos and did little other than mooch about local venues looking for blow jobs.

There was a brief resurgence of the city in the national musical consciousness a few years ago when The Coral, a band from nearby Wirral, created some brilliant, surreal prog-pop, and spearheaded a scene based around a series of gigs with like-minded bands at The Zanzibar venue. The Coral and The Zutons continue to plough their own furrows with a dedicated fanbase and a measure of fame, all the other bandwagon riders long since disappeared in a puff of media overexposure.

But, it seems, things are on the up once more. Musically, in the last year alone, The Wombats have stormed that archaic thing, the pop charts, with their witty, indie-dancefloor anthems. Hot Club de Paris have won both critical acclaim and a dedicated fanbase with their poetic and dynamic sound, while long-time local resident Eugene McGuinness’ debut album has had DiS readers salivating. None of those artists worked together much. There’s is no ‘movement’ there. But that’s the point; there’s a lot of good music coming out of the city and there are many other musicians biting at their heels.

One guy who’s been a driving force in local music for the last few years is Stevie Law, sometime music journalist, DJ, promoter and band manager. Originally from Essex, Stevie, like many, originally came to the city to study, but stayed for the music.

“The music scene in Liverpool is like no other in the country,” he says. “For a band to make it in Liverpool they have to have songs and they need to be tight. You can’t pretend to be a rock star here. Everybody really knows their music and everybody can REALLY play. I mean, you can be sat at a house party and be sat next to a rocky-burned shell-suited scally and he’ll pick up an acoustic guitar and play the most beautiful piece that you have ever heard. That was probably the biggest shock to me.” Dave McTague, another local promoter whose Mellowtone acoustic night gave an early leg-up to Eugene McGuinness, The Wombats and John Smith, also sees music as something intrinsic to the fabric of the city itself:

“I suppose it can be attributed to some extent to Liverpool’s links with Ireland, where you go into a bar and someone will be in sat in the corner playing the guitar, playing the fiddle, whatever. And while it’s not quite as extreme as that in Liverpool, if you walk down the street you’ll be ten buskers, music coming out of all the bars. There’s a real buzz about the music here, so while other cities have more venues and bigger venues and better venues, there’s something about the music scene here. I suppose the key points are the vibrancy of it, and the frequency of it, it’s all the time, not just at weekends: it’s embedded in the culture.”

One of Stevie’s charges, and one of the hottest-tipped of the current crop of local bands, is Elle S’appelle. Since their June 2007 debut, the trio have quickly gained popularity for their surreal, giddy pop. They’ve been tipped by the likes of DiS, Zane Lowe, Steve Lamacq and had their first single out on trendy Moshi Moshi records. They’ve also just completed a national tour with another fresh local act, goFaster >>. The tour went under the name ‘Bosspop’, a banner under which both bands are happy to unite. They see it as the perfect description of the sound that them, and others like them, are currently creating in the city.

Elle S’appelle’s co-singer and keyboardist Lucy Blakely explains the thinking behind the label: “I think a lot of people are scared of pop music because they think it makes them less credible, but I think ‘It’s pop, it’s great, you’ve got to embrace it’. We’re having such a good time. And I think the phrase ‘Bosspop’ is great, ‘boss’ is such a Liverpool word and I think if we didn’t coin it ourselves, the NME, or someone just as cool would have come up with something worse.”

“It’s not like we’re trying to adhere to anything,” continues Andy Donovan, singer/bassist of Elle S’appelle. “It’s completely genuine, it’s not like, ‘Oh, we should sound like goFaster >>, how did they get that sound?’ If we influence each other it’s happening because we’re literally in each others houses and flats listening to the same music.”

Chris Smith singer, guitarist and synthman for goFaster >>, details when he felt that the Bosspop ‘thing’ was coming together:

“[The band] 28 Costumes have got a practice room, and they started putting on warehouse parties and stuff and pretty much everyone who went was in a band who played on the night, it was just great fun. I think at that point, everybody realized that there was, not so much a scene, but a big group of like minded people. That was October/November last year. It was in the run-up to Elle S’appelle’s single coming out, and ours had been out not long before, 28 Costumes has released and EP, and at that moment, that’s when it all came together, I think personally like.”

But, although they may all know each other, Hot Club de Paris’ Paul Rafferty is extremely wary of calling it a scene.

“I don’t know,” muses the frontman, “it’s one of those things, I’ve been in Liverpool eight or nine years and I’ll go to [trendy local venue] Korova and I’ll know a bunch of people there, because my band’s played there loads of times before. I do a lot of music with a lot of musicians in Liverpool. We’re all mates, but then again, the only reason I can work is that people aren’t self-consciously assuming they’re part of a scene or a movement. In my experience, the only way that scenes exist is in retrospect. And then when people form a movement, it looks shit, and it is shit and flawed. If you look on a larger scale at New York in the ‘70s, you’ve got The Ramones, Blondie, Television and Talking Heads, and it’s like ‘fuck man, those guys all played together.’ But you think, that’s four bands from that time, there must have been 40,000 piece of shit bands were everyone knew each other and stuff. It’s only when all those bands got really fucking massive that you could take a step back say, ‘right, okay, that’s the New York scene of the ‘70s’.”

He’s also keen to point out that geography can only be a small part of the myriad of influences of the individual creative:

“Just because The Wombats are getting all massive now, it doesn’t mean that because we’re from Liverpool as well that we have anything in common. It’s a shame when journalists are more interested in geography than music, when people don’t have their own frame of reference to measure bands on their own merit.”

Ouch, but despite this understandable fear of scenedom, there’s an undeniable level of friendly collaboration in the city. Liverpool is a small city, but a small city where a lot of people like music and don’t have much money. This means people meet, hang out and play together. This creates a culture of record swapping and cross-pollination, as different random bands and sounds discovered by one individual one crazy evening filter out into all the other music makers.

It is this friendliness which is consistently what people say they like the most about making music in the city. Despite the difficulties of working in the arts outside the capital, it is this attitude which keeps people like Dave McTague working in Liverpool: “What I like is that, although it’s a big city, obviously one of the biggest cities in the country, but it still retains more of a villagy sort of feel, especially within the wider creative industries, the arts, and the smaller scenes within the music scene: ‘everybody knows everybody.’ Whereas in other places, you find people are cagey around each other and treat each other as competition, here people are much more willing to just help each other out to make it be a good event or a good party, they’re not as bothered seeing who’s better than who.”

Nik Glover, frontman of The Seal Cub Clubbing Club, prog-pop masters who are one of Merseyside’s most original acts of the moment, leads a band that like The Coral comes from ‘over the water’ on the Wirral peninsula. They still class themselves as a ‘Liverpool band’. But, he also thinks that the ‘friendly’ scene in the city can also have the air of an exclusive club about it sometimes, for those outside this tight-knit circle:

“There’s the whole lifestyle thing about Liverpool,” says Nik. “I’ve got no problem with that, I wouldn’t mind being part of that if they actually had a good venue to play at. But we’re actually quite choosy about the venues that we play at, because we want really, really good sound. But we can’t be part of that scene whether we want to be or not, but I don’t think we really sit in with any of the Liverpool groups. We’re not weird enough to play at Class A Audio (more of them later) and we’re not cool enough to play at Korova really.”

Unlike many of the currently successful local bands, recent press and pop chart darlings The Wombats operated largely on their own, being graduates of LIPA, the city’s often mocked school of performing arts and an institution of which many in the music scene are suspicious. This despite the fact that LIPA graduates are responsible for many positive things in the city’s music scene, including adding exponentially to the skills base in booking, programming, sound engineering, PR etc.

“We didn’t feel part of anything,” says Wombats frontman Matthew Murphy. “I felt there was a scene but we never felt like we fitted in, or wanted to fit in. We played with other bands, but we never got really suited with anyone.”

But Nik Glover also thinks that the city has improved immeasurably over recent years in terms of musical diversity: “Liverpool’s got a great thing at the moment, that there’s so many different bands that play in the city. When I started going to see gigs like six or seven years ago, there was like the future Emo scene, then on the opposite side of that The Coral and The Zutons, and there wasn’t really a great deal else on then.”

Indeed, despite appearances, the city does produce more than catchy and witty guitar pop. Class A Audio is a night of… well, alternative music doesn’t cut it. They’re constant champions of underground esoteric sounds, and their gigs have been some of the only shows at which this writer has been genuinely lost for words. Certainly it’s a million miles away from Bosspop.

One of the key acts to grace the stage of Class A is a.P.A.t.T.. One of the most interesting and idiosyncratic bands ever to emerge from Liverpool, a disturbing and wonderful musical project, utilising laptops and violins and many other things: they will blow your mind. They epitomise the maverick and uncompromising spirit of music in the city, perhaps the same spirit that saw Lee Mavers of The La’s reject what is still one of the most popular indie records ever released because it wasn’t quite good enough. General MIDI, a.P.A.t.T leader, elaborates:

“The minute we started it, it was slightly anti-music or something like that, but it’s absolutely guaranteed, set on, to be our life’s work, whatever goes on with it, this is what we’re going to do, even if it’s just goes back to giving out CD-Rs to our friends or something. And it’s me learning, the band learning, it’s us all learning together, and that’s why we enjoy it loads.”

People work incredibly hard to make music work in the city, even though they almost certainly have to have a second, often shit, job, and even though any financial reward, or even any measure of recognition, is also hard to come by, especially, when infused with that maverick spirit.

“[Class A Audio is] basically a small circle of people who work hard to promote music that they enjoy,” General MIDI explains. “And you’ve got to appreciate that. We’ve got a split 12″ coming out that we’re doing with Stig, and that’s being done with funding we’ve got from the nights, so it’s a self-funding little vehicle for us all. Being creative is the only thing that stops us killing people with biros.”

But does MIDI feel any connection with bands like Elle S’appelle or The Wombats?

“I don’t know, I suppose not,” he says. “But, even though we make oddball music, we don’t try and isolate ourselves into an oddball music bracket, we want to be on lunchboxes,” he laughs. “we’ve got no qualms about playing Pebble Mill at 1 or the National Lottery or something like that, it would be great.”

Music journalist and occasional DiS scribe Joe Shooman is sceptical about talking about any sort of ‘scene’, but in general terms of people making music in Liverpool he sees the culture of ‘getting on with it’ and the general anti-authoritarian and non-deferential nature of the city as something which helps to create good music:

“There’s a kind of bullishness to just DO stuff. Everyone seems to be always scheming things which is a very healthy sign. Of course, there’s the occasional whinger but they seem to be outvoted by those who just go out and grab some action – that’s very inspiring sometimes.”

But are the ‘doers’ like that because of the difficulty of doing cutting-edge stuff in the regions and perhaps more controversially, because the general population are uninterested in cutting-edge music?

“Perhaps,” he retorts. “Or maybe just that people don’t give a fuck about people telling them what to do. As in, if someone wants to do something they will; as regards the regions I think it’s easier to do cutting-edge stuff because culturally and traditionally there’s less media and cultural pressure to conform.”

One man who almost epitomises the DIY nature of music in Liverpool is Foxy of growing thrash/hardcore crossover act SSS (Short Sharp Shock) who have recently returned to the city after supporting Gallows on tour.

Foxy is also the man behind Thrashgig, one of the city’s finest underground promoters and constant champions of good new grassroots music. And he’s been doing it for a long time:

“You’re going back about 20 years. Thrashgig is me, and whatever I want to do in terms of music, the music that I like is what gets put on at the gigs. It’s not a question of putting a band on for popularity; it’s a question of the quality of the music. A lot of the time it’s a good mix of bands. If the passion is there, they’ll get a gig. It’s a personal interest in helping people out who are worth helping, not just people who just want popularity or girls or money or anything like that.”

“You’ve got to do it yourself to do it right,” he continues, “because otherwise someone’s going to suddenly say, ‘Right, I’m going to take this off you, what you’ve started and make money off it’. You’ll never fill a bigger venue with it, and if it does get to that stage, you’ll just get dropped. So many things I’ve got into, it just got too big for its boots. You’re talking two thousand people, and all kinds of drinks companies, shoe companies, all kinds of sponsors wanting to get involved, and I just couldn’t be bothered anymore. I just don’t need it. I think it just dilutes everything. This is for us, this is ours, this is what we’re going to do, so some sponsor is not part of what we’re involved in.”

There isn’t a big metal or punk scene in the city, but SSS have gained fans across the music scene for their quality and incendiary live shows. If there is ghettoisation, it’s not along musical lines:

“Again, it comes back to everyone being friends,” says Foxy. “It’s a little bit incestuous and we all know each other and have been in all kinds of bands together. Hot Club [de Paris] have been saying to us, ‘do you want to do a tour with us?’ and we can see were they are coming from, even though we’re going to stick out like a sore thumb. And we do feel part of that, and that’s kind of reflected in the gigs that go on, because they’re not afraid, SSS want to play on this gig, which is poles apart from their musical style, but they just look it as I look at it: you’ve got four different bands and each of those bands has got something good going on.”

One of the aspects of Liverpool’s current changes via urban regeneration has been the transformation of whole areas of town that were considered derelict and dangerous (and thus home to venues, record and second-hand clothes shops, practise rooms and nightclubs) into areas full of trendy bars, expensive restaurants and bland flats. While many accept that without some form of economic renaissance the city will continue to slowly die, the fear of gentrification is strong in this place that is about as far from middle-England, middle-class respectability as you can get, as is the loss of available space for ‘underground’ activity in this compact city. This has provoked a fierce resistance movement that many elements of the music scene have been involved with. Cultural resistance, as often happens, has created some great art, but sadly, has done little to stop the onslaught of pavement cafes.

SSS’s Foxy, has been at the forefront of this resistance in his promoting: “To do gigs in Liverpool is getting really hard. They banned flyposting, clamping down to make the city nice and tidy, new shopping centres, bang. It’s just going to drive everything back underground, where people are just going to do it in little crappy pubs, people doing gigs in their practise rooms and houses. No one will touch it because it’s not an accessible kind of music for anyone. The city as a whole doesn’t want to deal with it; there’re only a couple of places that will entertain it, and then you’re paying through the nose. I think some of the tarting up is a positive thing, but the whole underground is just grinding to a halt, because people are putting up so many fences that people will just give up. Or there’ll be a migration to another area and it won’t even touch Liverpool city centre: people who are interested in it will find out by word of mouth.”

But this drive for authenticity can be as self-destructive as a drive for fame. Refusing to compromise is a quality in Liverpool that is to be admired in people doing creative work, but like so many of the city’s qualities it is an extreme one, which can alienate and disenfranchise others.

Dave McTague, Mellowtone promoter, sees a negative side to the city’s maverick attitude:

“It’s almost a double-edged sword, that the things that are really good about the industry in Liverpool are also the things that hold them back. Opportunities that exist in London aren’t available in provincial cities, so it’s always harder to make a break in that sense. But in Liverpool, there’s almost a bit of a maverick attitude and a dissenting attitude, and I think that unwillingness to fit the mould and do whatever for ‘The Man’ will hold people back. I do know that people in London, and maybe say the bigger Northern cities like Leeds and Manchester, often think that people in Liverpool are quite difficult to work with because they’re quite outspoken and they’re unwilling to do as they’re told, there’s a certain attitude that people in other cities pick up on when dealing with people from Liverpool, that they’re a bit of a pain in the arse.”

At some point we have to poke the elephant in the room. The Beatles ‘thing’ must always be mentioned. The fact that the biggest act in popular music history, a group of people who, whatever criticisms you can throw at them, changed the face of western culture, came from this little port city. That fact is both an inspiration and an albatross. Any musician working in the city knows that they will never match the significance of what went before them. In fact everyone doing anything in the city, art, science, sport, commerce knows that they will never match the ground shaking significance that those four lads had. The Beatles changed the world and they are far more significant to the world than the city itself. But what do they mean to musicians working in the city today?

The Wombats’ Murph seems to sum up the general consensus: “I don’t know, I think the Liverpool music heritage should only really be used as a positive thing really. No matter if you’re from Liverpool or not I think everyone in a band is subconsciously influenced by The Beatles. I don’t know, it seems a case the press are always, ‘Ooh, you’ve got a lot to live up to’. As if any band from anywhere in the world is ever going to be as big as The Beatles. I will just use the rich heritage to spur you on even more.”

And a.P.A.t.T’s General Midi has a parting shot for any musos ready to shoot down The Beatles significance: “There’s always somebody trying to be confrontational somewhere, and if you want to say something profound, you say it against God or The Beatles, it’s an idiot’s profundity.”

So, beyond the Beatles, how much influence does the fabric and culture of the city actually have on the people who create music in it? There’s often talk of a ‘Liverpool sound’, jangley and accessible, with lyrics that are often both humorous and surreal. You can, if you wish, see it in everyone from The Beatles to Half Man Half Biscuit to The La’s, The Coral and The Wombats. Most of them would probably disagree, but to this writer at least, there seems to be something there. The taking of, often obscure, sounds from around the world and putting a unique local spin on them seems to be something that the city does well. American blues rock with The Beatles, The Doors with Echo and the Bunnymen, Beefheart with The Coral, Joan of Arc with Hot Club, Mates of State with Elle S’appelle. This Liverpool filter were things always seem to turn out catchy, surreal and slightly comic whatever you put in at the other end.

General Midi isn’t sure:

“If you could possibly nail what a city sounds like. I could possibly answer that.” But he does think it has a linguistic influence: “I suppose, we’ve got quite a few songs, were there’s maybe a play on, the language in Liverpool is great. You can mock it all day long if you want, but it’s quite enjoyable as well to use. And it’s used in a very different way in Liverpool and it’s demonstrated time and time again by a variety of artists. And I think we do quite a similar thing that pops up now and again. We’ve got one track which is just, you know when you’re walking down the road and you just hear the ends of people conversations and various and it’s made up of just those kinds of things in Liverpool city centre and we’ve got loads of them, so I suppose in that sense yeah, the language impregnates into my mind, every single day that that I’m on the bus in this, place.”

How about the tendency towards surrealism, or at least an off-kilter view of things? The Wombats’ Matthew Murphy has as a viewpoint that seems to some up the attitude of many people in the city:

“Maybe we’re just afraid to kind of say exactly what we see in straightforward terms down a microphone; we like to spin it around a bit. I don’t know, it’s better to laugh in the face of disaster than just shit yourself isn’t it?”

But Murph again, disputes the influence of geography: “I don’t know if physical geography plays that much of a part. Despite what a lot of people think, Ian Curtis wasn’t born in the middle of an industrial estate, [his hometown] Macclesfield is quite pleasant.”

The Wombats seem to the latest in a line of bands from Liverpool to whom quality shiny pop is key. Does Murph, like the Guinness Book of Records, think that pop is in the veins of the city?

“Maybe we’re all just after the buck and we just write three minute pop songs and fuck it. But I’ve never found that myself, there seems to be a pop sensibility all over the UK at the moment. I think the question should be rather, why are the Canadians so weird?”

A fair point. And so to the future, will The Wombats carry on up the charts, will Eugene McGuinness become a troubadour extraordinaire, will ‘Bosspop’ conquer the world, or more likely, will a.P.A.t.T.?

Chris from goFaster >> is upbeat:

“Yeah, the last year or so, there’s been loads of brilliant new bands that have come out of Liverpool, and people are starting to take notice. So I think that fact that we’re going on tour underneath the Bosspop label, is that hopefully if we go to these towns, and play, people will go, ‘Ooh Bosspop, we’ll have a look at that’. And if people enjoy the show, hopefully they’ll look further and to what’s going on in Liverpool, and they can discover a few of the other bands that are just starting up at the moment. I think it’s great that we’ve got to the point were we’ve got to a place were there is a kind of a scene we can go out and advertise, I think we’re glad that people have just started taking an interest in it. Hopefully through this tour, a lot of other bands will be discovered from Liverpool.”

I’d advise you to take his advice and go and check them out, along with links at the bottom of this article. Whatever way you spin it, now and again, some good tunes come out of this town. Who knows what will happen to our music beyond 2008. It could all come crashing down around our ears again. But the city will likely survive and continue to make music and, just occasionally, we’ll get the rest of the world to listen.

By Kenn Taylor

Hub Festival 2008

What’s your opinion on skaters, graffiti artists and breakdancers? Property-damaging menaces to society? Dropouts and wasters who hang around on street corners all day? Or young people carving out their own culture and coping with our frustrating urban environment?

Whatever your view, perhaps few people outside extreme sports and urban culture circles would be aware that Liverpool is home to some of the world’s best skaters and breakers, and the UK’s foremost free urban culture festival.

Since its inception in 2001, the Hub festival has grown from its small origins with a few skate ramps and graffiti boards on the old Chavasse Park, to its current home at Otterspool Park. Here on the 17th/18th May this year, some 20-22,000 people are expected to turn up to catch BMX, Inline skate and skateboarding demonstrations, the UK’s only outdoor international breakdancing competition, an array of musical performances, including Shlomo, one of the UK’s finest human beatboxers, a 250 metre long graffiti wall, open competitions and much more besides.

One of the major groups that will be part of Hub are Team Extreme, the UK’s only professional extreme sports show team, who’ll be running all the competitions for skateboarding, BMXing, and Inline skating, and running demos on the dirtramp from some of the world’s best riders.

There’s a local connection, Team Extreme is directed by Neil Danns, a Scouser and a former British skateboarding champion. But like so many extreme sports fanatics, he had a long journey to reach this position of respectability.

“About 30 years ago,” he reminisces, “I was in town and went to Paradise Street car park to get the bus, and they had a skateboard team on the roof called Holby. They were from America and doing a demo in Liverpool. Straightaway then I just went home and got my sisters’ skates and cut them in half, got a board from the back fence, nailed them together, and that was my first board really.”

Constant practice saw Danns become one of the best skaters in Liverpool and the UK. He won ten out of the twelve competitions in his first entry in the British Skateboarding Championships in 1983, began to tour across the globe, and at one point was ranked number six in the world. He became involved as a demo rider with Team Extreme, and worked his way up to become director.

But Danns’ is keen to point out that he’s not the only person in this field from Liverpool who’s at the top of their profession, and that the city is fact a centre of urban culture:

“Liverpool’s been one of the major skate scenes in the UK for as long as I can remember. Not just me being British Champion, but Geoff Riley who’s been one of the best skateboarders in the world for the last ten years, John Taylor from over the water who’s one of the top BMXers, so Liverpool’s always been a hotbed for some of the top riders.”

This is echoed by Altu Collingwood, also known as Flowrex, the dancer who’s involved in organising and MCing the breaking competition at Hub.

“It’s phenomenal now,” he enthuses. “I’m originally from Hull, that’s where I started dancing. When I came to Liverpool in 2001 there were like four of us dancing. We’re now kind of 70 or 80 dancers strong in the city, there’s a number of groups going on, we’ve got events happening all the time, and hip-hop culture as a whole in Liverpool has really grown. It’s now encompassing the DJ side of it, the graffiti side of it a lot more, it just to be a lot more segregated. So if you mention Liverpool to anybody that’s into breaking, people will know some of the groups. Our group SoulPowered is known in France, Germany, Belgium and Spain now.”

Hub is organised and backed by Liverpool City Council. But urban culture is very youth orientated and underground. How have the council suits, unlikely to know there half pipe from their hash pipe, managed to engage with the kids on the street?

“We consult with the Youth Advisory Group,” explains Sue Whitehead, the Council officer who’s been behind organising Hub for the last four years. “They’re a group of young people that we consult with, to find out what they want, which artists they’re interested in. This isn’t about us the organisers and what we’d like to see, it’s about youth engagement and social inclusion, and finding out what they want, investing in it and putting what they want on really.”

So it seems as though the Council really is making a grand effort to engage and provide for this niche culture that has such a strong following in the city. But in true Blue Peter style, there’s an educational message in their too:

“We consult with the Primary Care Trust and the NHS to promote issues that relate to Hub’s target audience,” explains Sue, “so that’s anti-smoking, sexual health and highlighting the problems of underage drinking and alcohol abuse as well. We’re going to have a well-being zone this year and we’re also going to have a green trailer, raising awareness of green issues such as climate change, sustainability and recycling as well.”

But despite the efforts the City Council has thrown into Hub, Neil Danns’ thinks they could do more to provide full-time facilities for skaters if Liverpool is going to produce more Geoff Rowleys:

“With Hub they are doing something positive,” he says, “not everyone gets the chance to have a big competition in a nice area. But there have been problems down by the Pier Head where the original event was held, with kids getting banned and having their skateboards taken from them, even though we don’t have a free skatepark in the city. We do have Rampworks, which is one of the best skateparks in the UK, but it is a charitable company so they have to charge to keep it running. You go to little towns like Warrington, St Helens, Runcorn, and they’ve all got there own little free skateparks. Even though people would like to go to Rampworks five days a week, we’re talking about kids, and not everyone can afford that.”

Enough of the concerns of B-boys and skaters though, what does Hub offer to those of us unlikely ever to perform Bunnyhop or a Thread Drop? What should get us down to Otterspool in May?

Sue Whitehead thinks 2008 might be the best year for everyone in Liverpool to sample a bit of this particular culture:

“We’re very family friendly. This year on the main stage instead of just having grunge, speed-metal and thrash-metal bands, we’ve got soul, we’ve got funk and we’ve got hip-hop. We’ve also got more of a chilled festival this year, with large outdoor barbecues, bistro seating areas, and the urban retail village. So although it’s mainly targeted at a youth audience, we cater for all really.”
While Danns’ thinks that Hub is a real opportunity for those deep inside urban culture to show off what they can do to the wider community:

“Many people have a problem with skaters and graffiti art,” he says. “But they come along, I’ve seen all cultures at Hub over the years, and I think a lot more people now understand skateboarding and graffiti and breakdancing, and realize these aren’t just kids having a laugh, these kids spend eight hours a day practicing, it’s a way of life. And I think it’s a chance for people who don’t understand it, to come along and check it out and get a bit of the culture. And you never know, maybe they’ll end up picking up a skateboard themselves.”

So, why not check out some of the music, sporting and artistic thrills at this years Hub, who knows, you could be showing your skills off down by the Queen Victoria monument soon enough.

By Kenn Taylor