A Spotlight On…Claire Walmsley Griffiths

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

South Pier, Claire Walmsley Griffiths, 2020

Kenn Taylor: How did you become a photographer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell me about your Retired Ravers project?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece was published as part of the A Spotlight on Social Practice series by Open Eye Gallery in January 2021.

LOOK/13 Liverpool International Photography Festival

Every Man and Woman is a Star by Tom Wood

By Kenn Taylor

From the 17th May until the 15th June, photographers from around the world will have their work on show in Liverpool for the second edition of the city’s LOOK photo festival.

“We’ve worked very hard on learning from our experience of two years ago,” says Patrick Henry, LOOK/13’s Director. “LOOK/11 was very rich and expansive, with loads of activity spread over the city. In LOOK/13 we’ve tried to create a tighter, more focused core programme and to be realistic about what we have the resources to do.”

This year’s festival theme is ‘who do you think you are?’ Patrick tells me more: “Our theme in 2011 was photography as ‘a call to action’. The 2013 theme is a reversal of that. Instead of asking how photography can change the world, it asks what happens when we turn the camera on ourselves and others.”

Patrick describes the festival’s origins: “The impetus to create a festival came from a group of photographers based in the North West. They wanted to get more people involved, create new work, bring the best photographers and photography to the region and share it with a wider public.”

The hope is that LOOK will continue as bi-annual event on the city’s art calendar, running in the opposite years to the Liverpool Biennial. Patrick feels that LOOK fills a niche not just in Liverpool, but the UK.

Alive in the Face of Death by Rankin

“Photography festivals have been hugely successful all over the world, France alone has more than sixty, but they’re very thin on the ground here in the UK.” He continues: “Liverpool is the perfect festival city, with the best collection of galleries and museums of any regional city in the country. This gives us the infrastructure we need to do really ambitious programmes. There are really strong links between the venues and an unusual willingness and ability to work together. The programme grows out of close, long-term collaborative conversations and each exhibition and event is a genuinely collaborative effort.”

And there also seems to be something about photography as a medium that suits Liverpool as a city: “Liverpool also has a very strong photographic culture,” says Patrick. “It’s home to Open Eye, one of the UK’s very few specialist public photography spaces. The city also has great collections of historic photography, some of which we’re mining for LOOK/13. And some of the UK’s best-known photographers have made their most celebrated work here, Tom Wood and Martin Parr to name just two.”

One LOOK/13 exhibition that definitely relates to ‘who do you think you are?’ is Kurt Tong’sThe Queen, the Chairman and I. Kurt’s project, on display in the Victoria Gallery, explores his family history across several continents. He explains: “The title came from the fact that their actions ultimately lead to my grandfathers coming to Hong Kong. My paternal great-grandfather came after the fall of the empire in 1911 and my maternal grandparents came in order to escape from Mao’s advancing army.”

“We will be exhibiting my photographs, found photographs, some of the actual family items and a home movie form 1948,” says Kurt. “The idea is that visitors will get a glimpse into my private history. However the main focus of the exhibition is really in the storybook that I have produced for my daughters.”

The exhibition will have an unusual element: “We will be installing a working Chinese Tea House where visitors will be able to sit down, have a cup of tea and spend some time with the book,” says Kurt. “I have always found that the book gets people talking about their own history and their ancestors.” He continues: “I am basically saying, I have gone and done this for my daughter and in the process, gotten closer to my parents and discovered and gotten a better understanding about myself, go and try it for yourself.”

Chung Zhak and Yun Nan wedding photo: Kurt Tong Archive

Based in Hong Kong, Kurt grew up in London and studied at Liverpool University. Photography has been a second career for him: “I wanted a job that I could travel with and that’s why I chose nursing. I headed out to India during and after my training and started taking pictures for the NGO that I was working for. They started to pay me and I started taking jobs from other organisations. I figured that was a more interesting job and decided to try to do it full-time.”

Meanwhile, at Bluecoat, Liverpool-based Adam Lee will be exhibiting Identity Documents, a project that looks at the identity of others through photographing their bookshelves. Adam elaborates: “It came from a conversation with a friend at university about ten or twelve years ago. We were joking about being robbed and I said facetiously that I would be nothing without my things. While neither he nor I agreed with this statement it got me thinking about the relationship between our possessions and who we are. I came to believe that while we shouldn’t define ourselves through our possessions, we define them, through our interests in the things they represent. I think it’s a reciprocal relationship and that our possessions then come to say about our identities, as representations of these interests and tastes.”

Where does Adam get his participants, and their shelves. from? “I began by asking personal connections of mine. I work part-time for John Moores University and began by asking lecturers there if I could photograph their offices,” he says. “Following on from these, I asked friends, family, colleagues in the arts, and other personal connections.” Identity Documents remains an ongoing project: “I have also had an extensive social media campaign to try and find self-curated participants, which has mixed met with mixed success. I’m always looking for more participants.”

Identity Documents by Adam Lee

I ask him, what is it about books that tell us so much about a person’s character as oppose to, say, wardrobe contents? “I feel the sheer variety of them, in terms of genres, topics and specificity, means that they can give a very broad but also detailed picture of someone’s interests. I feel that it is this massive variety of specificity that makes them more interesting than say clothes, or for me, films or DVDs.”

Lee thinks that LOOK/13 is not only great for visitors but offers good opportunities for photographers based in Liverpool too: “I think that for photographers and artists who get involved, through the core program, parallel program, competitions, conferences and any fringe activities, the festival offers an international and high-profile platform to get work seen and network.”


Liverpool International Photography Festival

17th May – 15th June 2013

Various venues, Liverpool


The piece appeared on The Guardian in May 2013.

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.

Kevin Casey in conversation with Kenn Taylor


















The following was an interview conducted with photographer Kevin Casey about his project Closing Time, for which he photographed the many abandoned pubs across Liverpool. An abridged version of it appeared in the book of Closing Time, alongside an essay on the subject by myself which you can read here.

KT: Tell me, how did this project began and, why pubs?

KC: Basically, it started two years ago on my journeys into town. I live in Waterloo/Crosby, and I take the train to town for my job as a Gallery Assistant in Liverpool. During that journey you stop at Seaforth, Bootle, Bankhall, Sandhills, and at nearly every stop you’d see a pub that was in disarray, or about to close down. I just thought, well, with my background being photography, I decided to photograph them. There’s also a link to my family. We’ve had quite a few pubs over a twenty-five/thirty year period, so I feel like I’ve got a bit of an intrinsic link to them, so maybe that’s why my awareness has been heightened.

KT: How did you go about finding the pubs?

KC: Initially it was ones that I saw on my journeys to work, or going to the football. I also asked my friends, family members who used to run pubs, if they knew of any pubs that had closed. A lot of the time when I was photographing, on the way to the location I’d find two or three pubs I’d never even heard of on the way.

KT: When you were shooting, were you consciously trying to portray anything?

KC: It’s impossible to be impartial when you’re documenting or photographing anything, but I thought when I was taking the images that if I could get them as uniform as possible, then hopefully you can see both the comparisons and the contrasts of each building. Basically my idea was to be as impartial as possible, and to show both the harsh reality, with slight sympathy, but not overly romanticise the images.

KT: When taking these pictures, did you have a desire to preserve something, to capture it before it went?

KC: I think one of the main things photography is used for is capturing the here and now, that is photography’s strength, and I’d like people to appreciate them now. But I also think that they might have greater emphasis in ten, twenty, thirty years time, when we look back on a lot of these buildings, when I think it’s a given that the majority of them will not be standing any more, or at least will not be a pub.

KT: Tell me about your experience of shooting the images. Did it generate a lot of interest amongst passers by?

KC: Yes, there was a lot of interest, and a lot of suspicion as well. Some people are more suspicious if you’re holding a camera than they are if you’re holding a baseball bat. Most people were great though. They’d stop and chat to you and take an interest, and even suggest or point out other places I could go to. A lot of communities, like say Kensington, a few in Bootle, a few of the ones near to town and Anfield, people were quite interested and wanted to get involved and tell you places where to go, and they’d always start talking about their childhood, and the places they used to go out.

KT: What were your own feelings then, whilst shooting the project, having seen all these pubs, going to these communities?

KC: You go through different stages. I think at first you feel, it’s such a sad and alarming thing to see, even before I started to photograph, witnessing and picking up on the fact that these places are closing down. Then you go through the sort of, selfish stage of ‘That’s a good idea for a project. It’s quite unique and it might get me some attention.’ And then you feel a little bit guilty for that, because your project is the fact that these things are in decline. Something draws a lot of photographers to that, there’s a lot of appeal in things that are declining, there’s a beauty, a sort of fallen grace if you like. So you do feel a bit of guilt sometimes that, even though you’re getting a great project out of it and doing good work, you are doing that good work through the misfortune of something else. But I suppose your role as a photographer is to document what you see, whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing happening in front of the camera. But I also had quite a lot of empathy towards it, because my family have been involved in pubs from a long time and I used to spend a lot of time from an early age in pubs that my cousin and my auntie and my nan used to run,. If you can get success out of a project, that’s what you want as an artist or a photographer, but I’m doing it in an honest way I’d say.

KT: Tell me what photographers have influenced you, either in general or for this particular project?

KC: I’m actually a big fan of the modern trend of ‘constructed reality’. Like your Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, and Hannah Starkey as well, because I come from a bit of a fine art background as well as the photography, it’s almost like creating something in front of the camera. But I also love the documentary people, like you’re Walker Evans, you’re Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï. Then there was people like William Eggleston whose colour work was so raw and new at the time. Landscape wise, I love the Becher school; Edward Burtynsky, Andreas Gursky, the grand landscapes, high statements. There might not be a lot going on in the image but the power and size of the image forces you to look at it. Especially in colour, that’s definitely been an influence on me deciding not to shoot in black and white, because with people like Burtynsky and Gursky I think you can see the fading and deterioration of buildings and landscapes a little bit more than you can do with the Becher’s work in monotone black and white. You can see little details of these buildings, like the brickwork that is starting to erode, or the pub sign which has got faded paint dropping off, that was one of the reasons I decided to shoot in colour. It is the influence of them, but also just to retain the detail for future reference.

KT: Was there a reason you decided to shoot them in portrait format?

KC: I was shooting the images in a portrait format because you’re in a very, very tight space with some them, and I didn’t want to include too much background. If you can pick up a bit of the surrounding background, then that obviously adds to it, but I wanted the focus to be on the pub. I thought that the portrait format is a lot more direct in the way it is cropped. I also think it gives the pub a bit more personality, almost like people in a way. They’re all very similar but they’ve also got their own characters and that, which you can relate to portraiture.

KT: You seem to have purposefully shot the buildings largely in isolation. There are no people in the shots and hardly any cars.

KC: I think it was the South African photographer David Goldblatt who purposely used to include cars and people in some of his landscapes because in ten, twenty years time you can see the difference in fashions, or style of the motor car, in shot. So with me, I’ve been battling whether to include cars or people in the scenery. I’ve chosen not to have any people. In a few of the shots there are cars, but ultimately I didn’t want to detract too much from the actual buildings.

KT: So were you trying to get the buildings to speak for themselves?

KC: Yes…and no. That doesn’t really answer your question but…I wanted them to speak for themselves in the sense that, they didn’t need any extra help from me to show either the decay, or the loss, in some cases, of great architecture. I mean some of them are run down shacks that are not very beautiful at all, and some of them are actually beautiful buildings that have been left to ruin, but still have that element of beauty. So they do speak for themselves in that case, but if I said that phrase I think it would sound a bit cheesy. If someone wanted to describe it in that way though, I’ve got no problem with that.

KT: How do you think this work fits in with other photographic representations of Merseyside?

KC: I suppose the most well-known, well the ones that spring to mind, linked to Merseyside, are Martin Parr’s The Last Resort, and any given Tom Wood book. Bus Odyssey I suppose is the one he’s known for. I can understand that people get frustrated the only thing that seems to be popular linked to Merseyside photographic wise are decline, or a working-class way of life. I think there are a lot of other things that the city offers and a lot of positive things that are happening in Liverpool at the moment, I’m more pro-Scouse than anyone, but I think it would be naive to ignore the things that are going on, and that are in decline just to put a positive spin on things. Of course, pub closures are a national thing, but my experience was Liverpool, I’m from Liverpool, I know Liverpool. I feel that, because I’ve got a connection to the area, and even to some of the pubs, I’m not just showing decline in Merseyside of the sake of it, to add to the stereotype.

KT: What do you think it is about Liverpool that seems to either suit the documentary mode, or appeal to documentary photographers? I’m thinking especially of photographers from outside the city that have come to shoot it, some of the most famous in the world; Henri Cartier-Bresson, Candida Höfer, Phillip Jones-Griffiths, Rineke Dijkstra.

KC: From what I can guess, for people coming from outside of the city, when they come to Liverpool, it’s almost like a separate state, even though it’s reflecting what’s happening in a lot of the rest of the country. I think a lot of Scousers see themselves as slightly different. Whether it’s because England is an island in itself, and on the edge of that island you have Liverpool, so close to Wales, Ireland. It’s such a melting pot of people and it’s gone through so many different changes; from slavery, trade, to the industrial revolution to the decline of industry. Right now we’re going through a period were leisure and tourism is the new industry, and there’s quite a lot of documentation of that. I think it appeals to people because it is such a powerhouse of a city, such a melting pot that’s gone through so many transitions, up and down like a rollercoaster ride. As a photographer, you’d be foolish not to want to document it.

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

Sifting the Wreckage – Niall Griffiths

Liverpool, often noted as a city of poets, songwriters and playwrights, has produced surprisingly few novelists. One man too go against the grain of this is Niall Griffiths. His intense and often brutally dark novels, punctuated with an absurdist sense of humour, tell the story of those existing, often forgotten, on the edge of society. They’re written mostly in dialect, and are set against the mixed background of the Welsh landscape and Liverpool cityscape – in all their glory and all their horror. Despite having written five novels, selling thousands of books and having had his work translated into five languages, he has received little recognition in the city he was born – perhaps because of a mixture of the controversial subject matter of his books and the fact that he now calls Aberystwyth his main home. He returns to the city often, however, and imminently is back in Liverpool for a significant period, having been commissioned to write a non-fiction book about the ‘real Liverpool’.

I met Niall in Aberystwth for a chat and a few drinks in the pubs of the seaside town.

Griffiths was born in Liverpool’s Toxteth district, later moving to a new council estate in Netherly on the outskirts of the city. He began writing “basically since I had the motor function to pick up a pen”. He says he was influenced early on by the oral tradition passed down from his Welsh speaking grandparents: “There were not many books in the house but it was full of stories.” In a household lacking literature his early creations were often of a strange fantasy nature involving, amongst other things, giant crabs. “Where it came from I have no idea, it’s just always been there and it needs to come out, if I don’t write for a day I feel like an absolute wretch, it’s almost like kind of having to justify my existence.” An early, and profound, influence was Welsh writer Ron Berry: “I think when I started to read books they gave me a way of dealing with a terribly confusing world. When you read, say, for an hour, you’re away from the world -but you’re also very much here, especially when you are reading very worthwhile literature because it should be telling you about the world outside your window.”

At the age of twelve his family emigrated to Australia, one of the ‘£10 Poms’ that left the UK in their thousands; but due to the homesickness of his mum they returned 3 years later. With little money – having had to pay a full return fare – they were helped to find a house to rent by a relative in West Kirkby, Wirral, where Niall attended the local Grammar School. Often singled out and treated differently by some teachers because of his Liverpool background. He left school at 15 and went through a series of menial jobs – including cleaning muck spreaders. Recalling: “I did a bit of work in any kind of job and all that taught me was I didn’t’t want to do any kind of proper job, that’s one of the reasons I returned to study” He studied for A-Levels in Birkenhead, Later moving back to Liverpool, living in Hope Street in the city centre and various other spots. “I was just bumming around the city till I was twenty-two and left to study, I’ve traveled around Britain ever since, I’ve always come back though and it always feels like home like.”

He finally settled in Aberystwyth, returning to his Welsh roots. He first fell in love with the Wales when as a teenager he was sent to Snowdonia on an outward bound course by a judge after a series of petty crimes. This much maligned policy actually seems to have had the desired effect on Niall: “It showed me how silly I had been and it gave me a creative outlet for my energies.” And it instilled a love in him which remains to this day: “I love climbing – well, walking up. On top of a mountain is such an amazing place to be; it’s almost like being close to God in a way, especially if you are on your own. Incredible. That said it’s fucking brutal as well, nature, birds of prey, full of death. Living in the country isn’t very nice. You leave your house and walk down to the shops and it’s all very pretty looking around but you look down and there is an animal torn apart, I wanted to capture that side of nature in my books too.”

He originally moved to Aberystwyth to study for a Phd. Having to work as a building labourer to support himself, he became annoyed at wealthier students entirely supported by their families – yet less interested than he was – and Griffiths drifted away from his course into a world of week-long parties and binges on drink and drugs. It was then he began to write what would become his first novel, Grits. Published in 2000, it was a book about the flotsam and jetsam of the UK washing up at the end of the railway line in Aberystwyth, trying to escape their problems but only taking them with them. It was well received both critically and commercially: “I got all kinds of people at my readings from people in cravats to people with facial tattoos”.

His next book, the provocatively-titled Sheepshagger, dealt with its disturbed Welsh anti-hero Ianto’s struggle to deal with his identity after his family home is bought by incomers-with murderous consequences. Perhaps his most ‘Welsh’ book, this one was ironically written – for the most part – whilst he stayed in his girlfriend’s flat on the edge of Toxteth. His last three books have either been set in Liverpool or covered characters that, like Niall and many others, have made the journey between the city and Wales. Kelly + Victor is an intense tale of the extremes of love and life in Liverpool at the turn of the millennium, whilst Stump and his latest Wreckage dealt with a wide cast of characters living and dying at the lower end of society’s ladder in both the city and the countryside. .. Griffiths is currently working on two non-fiction books. One of these deals with the ‘£10 Poms’ system of Aussie immigration that he and his family went through, and the other – about ‘the real Liverpool’ – is published by an independent Welsh press for whom he wrote of ‘the real Aberystwyth’. Because of this he is planning to move back to the city for a period of time this year to get to know the city once more and look at the massive changes that are currently taking place. He says: “Writing a book about the real Aberystwyth was one thing – it’s a town of 20,000 people – but with Liverpool where the fuck do you start?”

There are many links between Liverpool and Wales, an issue examined extensively in his novel, Wreckage. “I’ve started to explore those connections. Liverpool has always been called ‘the capital of North Wales’. For a lot of people there Cardiff is a foreign city, it was Liverpool that was their city”. In the light of the Capital Of Culture win, Liverpool bid to host some of the events of the national Eisteddfod, being one of the few places the festival has taken place in outside of Wales in the past. But this was met with fierce opposition by some. “I think that is ignoring the Welsh heritage in the city and also the Welsh influence on the way the city is today. You did have one of what they call the arch druids coming on the local news going ‘No it’s a Saesneg city’ which to me is just fucking bigoted.”

And the Capital of Culture win? “Well, it’s a double-edged sword isn’t it? It will bring money into the city but only if it will make money back for those who invest.” He recalls a conversation with the Glaswegian writer James Kelman about that city’s win of 1990: “He said it brought in a load of money but since then the social problems in the city have only got worse because the so-called scummy people got pushed out to the estates which never got cleaned up.” He continues, “Culture of course is not just art galleries and restaurants, it’s also graffiti and terrace chants and a lot of people forget the grassroots bands, independent publishing presses and everything. They want to focus on culture that is acceptable and saleable, the kind of stuff they talk about on the fucking Late Review”. But he doesn’t think it’s all bad: “I don’t think it will make this kind of hidden culture die down though. It should become stronger to react against it. You just want this sort of stuff to be recognised sometimes you know, but we would be foolish to expect anything more from this sort of scheme.”

Niall has been noted and praised for writing against the perceived wisdom that a pared down, economical writing style is best. He instead mixes the dialogue of different dialects with classical techniques and often highly-charged, poetic prose. “In terms of dialect, and this is something that I have got from the Welsh, is that their politics and identity is all bound up in their voice, in the Welsh language and accent. So I have kinda taken that and looked at all the politics bound up in language and how you speak. In terms of using classical devices I want to cite the stories of local, often poor people, voices that are often not heard. I wanted to give it an epic quality, and one way of doing that is to look back at epic writing.”

I ask if by portraying in his novels life at the lower end of society, he is trying to highlight social problems. “Yeah definitely – both in Liverpool and here as well. For a small town it has a big drink problem, drug problem, homeless problem. It’s often forgotten that these kind of problems don’t just exist in cities. Aberystwyth has all the problems of a city, but also the different the different areas and cultures that make cities interesting places to live.”

His characters often seem to be searching, desiring and fighting for something that they can never quite grasp. Why is that? “I think we live in extreme times, certainly extreme psychological times. People are absolutely aching for things which are not there, for some kind of spiritual fulfilment. If society does not offer any outlet for that, then it will come out in violence, it will come out in any form of extreme experience. So that’s partly it, but I suppose in another more powerful way people are just yearning for some sort of recognition.” I ask him if this is why he, like his characters, has spent so much time travelling: “If you have kind of artistic ideas that is often linked with dissatisfaction and you can think that it is because of where you are that you are dissatisfied and want to move out though that is often misguided. When you reach it it’s never there of course but it’s the journey that counts, that’s how you find yourself.”

In addition to the ‘real Liverpool’ and ‘£10 Poms’ books Niall is working on a series of short stories, a novella and is planning his next novel. A busy man, he must have favorite moments in his work he’s proud of regardless? “Grits is very personal so in some way that’s my favourite; it terms of pure structure, Kelly + Victor. I like Stump too, and Wreckage – that its so barley controlled” He laughs. “That’s all my fuckin’ books isn’t it?” “In terms of favourites I suppose I hope I’m never happy, never write a master piece and keep writing. If I did I think I would probably wither away and die.”

By Kenn Taylor

Daniel Ilabaca

Daniel Ilabaca

18, Parkour Traceur, Merseyside.

“I’ve been involved in Parkour from an early age, since before I had a name for it. I’ve always been into doing extreme things like jumping about and climbing trees though I thought I was alone in what I did. Then I saw a film which involved the martial art Capoeira, I started doing that and I did really well at it.

Then about five years ago I saw a television programme called Ripley’s Believe It Or Not which had a crew doing what was essentially Parkour and I became aware of it as an actual discipline – essentially a way of passing obstacles in the quickest and most direct manner possible. I began to train myself and it’s become a way of life and kept me from basically hanging around on corner smoking and drinking.

I worked with my brother-in-law as a roof tiler for year and a half, but I always knew I didn’t want a normal job and I spent all my spare time training and making videos of my action and putting them on the web.

The Parkour resource group WorldwideJAM saw my videos and asked me if I wanted to join there team, which is great as they’ve helped me show off my skills to a wider audience and allowed me to help others to become involved in Parkour. Now my job is travelling the world doing my thing. A typical day involves lots of training, getting as much footage done as possible and editing it together.

My first commercial work was appearing in he first ever Parkour TV commercial for the mobile phone company Rogers Wireless in Canada which was directed by Mike Christie who did the ‘Jump London’ film. I’ve since done everything from appear on Top Gear racing a Peugeot 207 to the Liver building in Liverpool, perform at the Bahrain Grand Prix and visit Lisses in France where Parkour originated.

I want to get more involved in film and television. Jackie Chan is a big influence on me and eventually I’d like to make my own films and be an action co-ordinator like he does. I’m currently auditioning to appear as a stunt man in the film Prince of Persia with Angelina Jolie – which is something I’ve wanted to do for years – and I’m hoping to go to Mexico in January to work on a film there. I’ve got a lot more auditions coming up and so I’m moving to London soon as that’s where most of my work is.

The best thing about being a full-time Parkour Traceur is being able to live off doing what I really want to do and the freedom that gives you.

I’d like to encourage anyone who’s interested in taking Parkour up to do it. You just have to start small and build up your mental and physical strength; it’s not something that can be taught.”

Interviewed by Kenn Taylor.

Laurence Wilson

Laurence Wilson is a new, up-and-coming Liverpool playwright. His first full work – ‘Urban Legend’ – was recently staged at the Everyman as part of its ‘Life Begins’ season of new locally-based talent. I talked to him about his life, work, and Liverpool.

Laurence first put pen to paper at the age of four and began writing short stories, poems and songs. Despite impressing his teachers, it took him a long time to gain enough belief in his writing ability. “I always wanted to be a writer but didn’t feel I’d be able to do it till I was in my forties or fifties”.

Wilson decided that acting was his best route into theatre, believing that “Acting requires only you being cast in a role and learning your lines whereas with writing you have to put a lot more of yourself in to it”. He signed up for a two year YTS acting course, and despite the bad publicity the schemes attracted, Laurence considered it as good as you could get in a university or drama school. He spent the next few years working in theatre and television, most famously as a copper in Brookside.

When the acting work dried-up, he returned to writing, and planned a showcase with his partner. After disagreeing with her choice of play, he offered to write something instead. The play he started to write became the first part of the ‘Surf’s Up’ trilogy of short plays that went on to win a Manchester Evening News award for theatre. One audience member was Jimmy McGovern who declared it the best work he had seen in ten years. Following that endorsement, the Everyman’s Literary Department soon contacted Wilson to join the theatre’s attachment scheme. It was here that he began working on Urban Legend.

Wilson’s gritty, darkly humorous writing is seemingly a world away from his earliest creative influences – horror and fantasy writers such as HG Wells, Stephen King, and Frank Herbert. When he was a child, Wilson would invent dungeons and dragons style fantasy games for him and his friends to play. However, his first love is music, which he says “has been a greater influence in my life than any writer”, hence the Beach Boys soundtrack to Surf’s Up and the Lennon/McCartney one for Urban Legend. Wilson is a songwriter himself and has one of his own songs performed in Urban Legend, which he says “has finally satisfied the frustrated rock star in me”. Nevertheless, he cites the main influence on his writing as his surroundings, like where he grew up in Crosby and Bootle, and the voices of the other people around him. “Once I’ve got the voice of a character in my head the writing just runs away”.

The tragedy that Wilson has experienced in his own life and seen in the life of others cuts through his writing. In particular, the loss of his daughter, brother and sister influenced the way his characters deal with their own grief in Urban Legend. As Laurence freely admits, “I’ve always been drawn to the darker side of life”. In Legend he examined the way people use humour to hide from their inner demons, and the emotional journeys people go on to come to terms with problems. One of the characters in Urban Legend is Wayne, who tries to escape from his grief by losing himself in drugs, something Wilson himself experienced. Far from enhancing his creativity, he believes this held him back, and has since found writing to be a much more positive way of dealing with his problem. “In the play a lot of things from my life, all the characters have elements of me in them”.

Another reason for Wilson’s return to writing was a desire to be part of Liverpool’s current creative resurgence. “Liverpool is now finally breaking with the legacy of the 1960s. There was always the talent here but it was lost, hidden, the theatres went dark and there was no-one putting plays on”.

Comparing the city to New York, Wilson describes his home city as a “mishmash of clashing cultures on the street”, that fosters a “creative energy”. He sees the Capital of Culture prize as a positive thing, which will give “food” for new talent in the city, whether in theatre, writing, music or art. In particular he praises the Everyman’s Gemma Bodintez and Deborah Aydon, the theatre’s Artistic and Executive Directors, for biting the bullet and “taking an incredible risk” in staging the new writing so missed at the Everyman.

Wilson hopes Urban Legend will have a life beyond this run at the Everyman, with talk of it going on tour. He is already working on his next play and looking for TV writing work “to pay the bills”, but he believes that he is a playwright at heart and that he has finally found his creative voice.

By Kenn Taylor

Jamie Reid

Jamie Reid’s artwork visually defined an era, frightened a government and changed the face of design – 30 years on he is just as influential and controversial.

Few people have ever faced imprisonment in the name of graphic design. Jamie Reid is a notable exception. Creator of all the artwork for the Sex Pistols, Reid’s work with them visually defined an era by trashing sacred cows and reviling in DIY invention. Leaving a legacy on art and design remains today in everything from trainer adverts to TV shows.

But beyond that short period in his creative life, Jamie has produced a varied body of work that has embraced everything from radical newsletters to interior design, though he has not mellowed with age. Reid still produces artwork for protests about everything from legalise Cannabis to No on Clause 28 and his recent participation in a major anti-Iraq war art exhibition in London’s Aquarium gallery shows he is as anti-establishment as ever. But over the years other sides of his work and personality have become more visible.

His latest project is a joint exhibition with his wife Maria of photographs they’ve taken on their travels in the Welsh and Scottish countryside. “This is a beautiful country we live in,” he says to me in the café were the show is to be held, “and we’re doing our best to fuck it up.”

The café in question is the Egg, a vegan establishment on a side street in Liverpool, the city Reid has called home for nearly 25 years, though perhaps not for much longer: “I think I might move out in 2008.” He remarks in relation to the city’s European Capital of Culture celebrations, the forest of cranes building the new city poking out behind him through the window.

Reid was born in Croydon in 1947, the son of a pair of Socialist Druids he was heavily influenced by his family’s beliefs, recalling: “I was dragged along to every protest there was”. His father was the City editor of the Daily Sketch, though he never invested a penny in his life, his mother had a firm belief in fairies and his grandfather was killed gun running during the boxer rebellion in China. His brother meanwhile was part of an Anarchist group which worked towards non-violent resistance to nuclear war. “He was one of six who were tried for treason,” Jamie says of his brother with a wry smile. “Which I found out later, when M15 released the files, is what they were trying to do with us and the Pistols.”

His work has often been seen in the vein of the Situationist International, a small group of artists and intellectuals whose ideas of subverting the ‘spectacle’ of popular culture had a great influence on counter-culture.  He even did the graphics for the cover of the Situationist text Leaving the Twentieth Century by Christopher Grey – the first anthology of writings by the Situationists ever published in English. Jamie says: “Yes that was an influence and pre-dating that, going further back to movements like Dadaism. It was all an influence, as was everything that was happening in the 60s.”

What was his biggest influence then? “William Blake, and that whole period in the 18th and 19th centuries with the likes of Thomas Paine and the French Revolution. It’s part of a pattern of underground movements throughout history, we were part of it in the 70s and you can still see it today”. So does he think art can really change things? “Absolutely, as it always has done, going back to cave paintings. Real art, music too, has a magical and spiritual effect.”

With no clear direction in mind, he signed up to Croydon Art College at the age of 16. It was here that Reid was to first meet Malcolm McLaren and it wasn’t long before both were thrown out of the school for occupying it in a protest. After working a while in demolition he joined the Suburban Press back in Croyden and once more turned his attention to attacking the system rather than buildings.

What began as a community newsletter became a hotbed of subversive artistic statements. Working with a tiny budget, they produced posters to stick up around town with slogans like ‘Save Petrol, Burn Cars’ and ‘Keep Warm This Winter – Make Trouble’. It was here that Reid pioneered the cut and paste ethic that he would later use in his work with the Sex Pistols. They used rough collages, ransom-note lettering and all the lurid colour that the photocopier could produce. Was he trying to celebrate, rather than be ashamed, of their limited resources? “Necessity really was the mother of invention. It was a case of use what was at hand to make things cheap and fast but make them look as good as possible. Use what you’ve got, don’t sit around moaning about what you haven’t.”

Disillusioned with city life, Reid decamped to the Outer Hebrides in 1975. That was till he received a telegram from Malcolm McLaren about this band he was managing. The rest is punk history. From the safety pin through the Queen’s lip to the Never Mind the Bollocks sleeve that landed them all in the dock, Reid was responsible for it all. He was one of the figures who pushed the Pistols in a political direction – even co-writing the lyrics to ‘Anarchy in the UK’.

Beyond the artistic treason there is another side of Jamie’s work that is less well known though just as important to him. Much more earthy and harmonious than the images he is famous for, he paints astrological and magical symbols and serene landscapes. He’s produced a massive series of paintings based around the celebrations of the Eight-Fold Year – the eight druid festivals which divide the ‘Wheel of the Year’. Reid is also heavily involved in producing visuals for the world music outfit Afro-Celt Soundsystem in a similar vein.

As a Druid then, does he believe in the power of magic? “Magic is nothing to be frightened of. It’s there to be used, but for the common good. Very dark people like Bush and that, they use magic too you know, for their own evil purposes.” He continues, “It’s not a matter of going back to the past, it’s about bringing it into the modern world.”

I put it to him that his work seems to have two streams, the spiritual and the political. Is there ever any conflict? “Not for me, there seems to be for other people but I have always done differing work since I began to paint. It’s just that at different times the different sides of me come to the fore.” Does is bother him then, that no matter what else he does in his life he will always be associated with the Sex Pistols? “Well it’s a pain in the arse to be honest and I mean it something that is very English; pigeon-holing you for doing the one thing.”

Of all his work, one of Jamie’s proudest achievements are his interiors in Strongroom – a massive recording studio in London which he is progressively decorating in its entirety. Silk-screened canvasses, marble, etched bronze, and slate carry Reid’s imagery across the 20 room complex. But the project is more than mere pretty interior design: “The sound engineers told me a studio could only be fitted out in one way and we’ve proved them wrong. It’s created a really revolutionary sound.” He goes on: “It’s a 15-20 year project, using esoteric ideas to create an ideal environment for the creation of music. You could easily apply that to say, a hospital. But most 20th century architecture is about enslavement.”

He is also pleased with the effects of his ‘Peace is Tough’ exhibition in Derry: “We really got a dialogue going with people coming in to discuss the work from all sides of the conflict.” The star exhibit of the show was a painting of John Wayne featuring lipstick.

I mention to Jamie that I have always seen a sense of humour in his work, especially his more political art. “I’m glad you said that,” he says. “I’ve always tried to have that in. I think often the best way of attacking things is to take the piss out of them.”

A scan through any magazine shows the style that Jamie pioneered in 1970s can still be seen, endlessly ripped-off for commercial purposes, becoming ‘rebel chic’. Is he bothered? “It’s the way of the world isn’t it, unless you actually overthrow the prevailing system things are always going to be taken from below and exploited. But it’s always alive underneath. You just have to keep on moving forward, generating new stuff.”

Punk had a profound effect on culture and many people’s lives, yet the likes of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood have since largely written it off as nothing more than a way to earn some filthy lucre and moved on to more commercial work once their names were made. Jamie however refuses to denounce them: “I say good luck to them. I think Malcolm also suffers with having the Pistols around his neck. I think he is a great artist in his own right and has done some good work.”

Reid himself was recently accused by some of ‘selling out’ after holding a recent exhibition in Microzine, a high-fashion men’s store in Liverpool. What does he say to that? “It’s funny because that exhibition reminded me of one that I did in Japan which was held in a department store. In Japan you can go into a shop like that and buy artwork like any piece of furniture. I think it’s more honest to do things like that than hanging them up and in a gallery and pretending they’re all precious.” He continues: “I’m glad I did the show in Microzine because it got a lot of kids in to see it that wouldn’t normally go into an art gallery and I don’t blame them.”

Despite this, he remains critical of perhaps the UK’s most successful group of modern artists – the Young British Artists: “It leaves me cold,” he says. “I associate them with Thatcherism. It’s just empty gestures – the nouvelle cuisine of the art world.”

The style he created may now be used to flog what it was intended to attack, but with the likes of prankster graffiti artist Banksy and anti-image mag Adbusters, his legacy of genuine artistic subversion carries on – and we perhaps need it now more than ever. Reid’s own work is today as much influenced by beauty and magic as revolution, but by continuing to supply the visuals to every modern protest movement, is he trying to keep the fires of unrest burning? “Yes, if there is a cause I believe in I will do all I can to support it…I’ll always keep on painting, it keeps me off the streets.”

By Kenn Taylor