Libre

By Kenn Taylor

Those 1950s American cars are a key symbol of Cuba under Communism, giving a bit of old glamour to all those Lonely Planet images and travel documentaries. They’re real enough, seen all over Havana. Many however are like ‘Trigger’s Broom’ – having had so many parts replaced they’re more new than old. There’s no denying though that they’re still cool. In Cuba, they are a key part of that desire for ‘difference’ that attracts people to a place. And their owners are only too keen to earn some extra cash taking visitors for a ride along the sea drive, the Malecon, under the sun and close to the spray of waves.

Less well photographed though are the Ladas. The reason the old American cars are still there of course, has largely been the lack of something to replace them, due to the ongoing economic blockade. Though now they’re so famous they are likely to always remain, as visitors will always want something of the past that meets their expectations. The Ladas from Mother Russia though, were the main replacement car for all those decades after the Revolution. They were popular locally for their ruggedness and relative modernity, though of course the Ladas themselves are now also ancient. While less well known as a symbol of Cuba, Ladas are a big part of the modest traffic that runs around Havana, in particular being used heavily as taxis.

I had little naivety about Cuba’s ‘alternative’ system. While there’s a general lack of the hunger and homelessness that marks much of the UK, in turn you are faced with a Government which tolerates no alternative political parties or dissent and heavily restricts its citizens. While basic needs are generally met, the standard of living is also low. Those old cars may have a certain romance and now a tourist income for their owners, but having to constantly repair a forty year old refrigerator has less allure.

The famous free education in Cuba also doesn’t always translate into liberation. In my final Lada taxi to the airport I spoke at length with the driver. He had a master’s degree in IT but saw little point in using it in Cuba when he could make more money by driving. As well as have more freedom, not having to work for the state. He talked about how he felt his education was wasted and how, like many, he wanted to leave. In turn he asked me about IT work in the UK. I said as far as I knew, it was well paid, but highly competitive. And that a lot of IT jobs were now being ‘offshored’ to other countries where labour was cheaper. He was aware also that we had to pay for university and asked how much it would cost to study for an IT masters. It took me a bit of time to work out the maths and then convert it into to Cuban currency. He was aghast at the expense. “Yes, it’s a real problem,” I said. “Especially if you’re from a poor background.” 

We were pretty quiet after that as we did the final leg towards the airport, pondering the madness of our two systems. Neither of which anyone really believes in anymore, both slowly falling apart. 

This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in September 2020.

Liverpool and Wales: Longing and imagination in city and country

By Kenn Taylor

The relationship between Liverpool and Ireland is well documented. The relationship between Liverpool and Wales less so, yet just as deep. At one point, Liverpool had the largest urban settlement of Welsh speakers. From teaching to building to retail, the Welsh were a key part of the region’s fabric. The National Eisteddfod was held several times in Liverpool and Birkenhead. Relations were not always cosy though. In particular when Liverpool Corporation constructed the Llyn Celyn reservoir over the Welsh speaking village of Capel Celyn, helping fuel Welsh nationalism in the 1960s. Liverpudlians too, were also part of Wales. From the earliest opportunities the working class had for holidays, Wales represented open space, clear air, leisure and countryside.

Even now, Liverpool may no longer represent the economic powerhouse for Wales, especially as Cardiff has grown, but it’s still the closest major urban settlement to North Wales. A place to study, to go out, to shop. While, despite the advent of cheap flights, Wales remains popular for holidays and days out. And both still hold a pull to each other, particularly for the young of each place, long after cars replaced paddle steamers as the quickest route between the two. 

Possessing dramatic landscapes and cultures fired with passion and poetry, they are places separate but intertwined. Hills and tall buildings just visible through the distance on brighter days from up high. For populations with experiences so different, how each viewed the other was and is so much about perception, projection, longing. The Welsh idea of Hiraeth, is something many from Merseyside are also familiar with even if they couldn’t put a name to it. A bittersweet longing for homeland, for a lost golden age, even by those who never knew it or never left in the first place. A yearning to return to something which no longer exists, or maybe never did, but is a feeling which always remains.

In urban Merseyside, Wales is a place to escape to. Peace and space and blinding light. The intensity of openness. A bucolic place of nature, of school outward bound adventures, as much about crisps and kissing as mountain climbing and canoeing. Cheap, accessible holidays and golden if chilly beaches. The romantic weirdness of Portmeirion. Steam trains that go from nowhere to nowhere but at least the landscape looks pretty. This though, of course, ignores the vast holiday industry driven by Merseyside, Manchester and Birmingham, the undulating, boxy sea of caravans along the coast. There are the pseuds too who pretend they’re not tourists, that claim they come for the ‘real Wales’. What is real North Wales though? There’s the real of lakes, mountains and beaches, but also the real of intensive agriculture, nuclear power stations, Japanese factories and RAF jet bases. The holiday parks too are just as real.

In North Wales, Liverpool is a place to escape to, especially for the young. Noise and density and blinding lights. The intensity of urbanity. The possibilities are bigger in London of course, but also much further and harder away. Good times, clubs and music, different people and alternative cultures. Freedoms away from small town oppression. Anonymity and maybe even opportunity. A life closer to the edge, even if it’s easier to fall off. But of course, what is the ‘real Liverpool?’ All of this but also, pleasant suburbs, vast parks, technology hubs and polished shopping centres, like so many others. What both places have is a fierce awareness of themselves and their cultural uniqueness, but that sometimes blinds to what is more universal and what is shared. As well as that, living in cultures so strong, can create a drive for some to escape from it. 

The city in the distance. The hills in the distance. The distance is what matters, near but far. Something to daydream of, to work towards, to long for. A projection in the back of the mind, both real and unreal. The closer you get, the more the longing fades and you begin to think what you saw in the distance was a chimera. The longer you stay, the more you think back to what you have left and realise, maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe. Fresh eyes. Hiraeth again. The intangible feeling.

And it is everywhere. Strive to break from hard lives or particular places and we find we always take them with us. When we achieve our escapism, we find it’s just another different reality. What we’re looking for has never existed and it never will. Yet we still always look for it. In the distance, just out of sight. 

This piece was published in Elsewhere Journal in July 2020.

Building up: a shifting paradigm for cultural development in post-industrial Britain

By Kenn Taylor

International Garden Festival, Liverpool, 1984

As a baby I was, apparently, taken to the Liverpool International Garden Festival in 1984. It was arguably the first cultural mega event in Britain since the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the first to have what would become familiar goals of such events: urban renewal, creating a buzz and changing public perceptions of a place.

The event was largely a success. Based on the German Bundesgartenschau concept and backed by significant Government funds, it turned a former riverside landfill site into a varied garden and event space with activity across the year. It was popular locally and further afield and there were some significant ripple effects. It helped the region regain some confidence and think about what its future might be after a more than a decade of especially hard decline. The festival was also part of a wider Government-backed programme, which for example included the Mersey Basin Campaign to clean up the river, and started the long, still ongoing process of reclaiming the miles upon miles of abandoned industrial waterfront on both sides of the Mersey.

The legacy of the festival site itself is more ambiguous. It was sold off and turned into a leisure complex, which was successful for a while but later closed and lay derelict for years. More recently the gardens at least have been restored, but they have struggled for lack of maintenance funds.

The festival also did not in itself alter the fundamental economic challenges the region faced: a lack of decent quality well paid jobs, a solid local economic base and the tax base that comes with it to fund important services. 35 years later, while Merseyside has improved in many ways from when I was a child, even if things were never as bad as the media stereotyped them, this fundamental challenge has not really gone away. The event however was meant to be a spark for change, not a solution to what is an almost existential urban issue. One that has in the time since, sadly, gone on to affect more and more areas of the UK and the world.

The Garden Festival also inspired others. Similar events followed in Glasgow, Gateshead, Stoke-on-Trent and Ebbw Vale. Arguably the initiative influenced Glasgow working towards its 1990 European City of Culture programme, and Gateshead’s arts based regeneration projects including things like Sage Gateshead, BALTIC and the Angel of the North. The perceived success of Glasgow led to fierce bidding for the 2008, renamed, European Capital of Culture title, including between Newcastle-Gateshead and Liverpool, the latter who eventually won. In Liverpool itself, one of the regeneration projects which followed the Garden Festival was Tate Liverpool opening in 1988 in the redeveloped Albert Dock. Tate Liverpool’s first Director Lewis Biggs, went on to play a huge role in the city’s cultural development in a range of ways, including founding the Liverpool Biennial in 1999, one of the first attempts in the UK to hold a regular biennial in the general mould of Venice.

By the time of the build up to Liverpool’s year as Capital of Culture (CoC) in the mid-2000s, I had managed to get a first, tentative job in the cultural sector, as a zero hours gallery attendant, as well as being part of the alternative publishing scene in the rapidly regenerating city. What happened in that period was, after years of stagnation and decay and then slow, patchy development was a period of hyper development. Like many locals, I was torn between the positivity of finally seeing our region get such a level of new investment and construction after so long when so little was built at all – something hard to grasp if you’ve never lived somewhere facing hard decline. At the same time though, a wariness about whether all this was sustainable.

The Capital of Culture (CoC) programme was by and large varied and successful and had huge impact on changing perceptions of the city and giving it a new level of ambition. For me though, one of the most interesting things about CoC was that, initially intended or not, it made large, questions that may not otherwise have been addressed locally or nationally. Being held in Liverpool, it built on what began in Glasgow and to an extent deconstructed the idea of what a large scale cultural event (LSCE) should be in a city heavily impacted by post-industrial decline – a very different context to the first European City of Culture winners: Athens, Florence and Amsterdam.

Raymond Williams said that “culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.”[1] This makes it hard to organise a LSCE, much harder I would say than organising the sporting equivalent, but to me, that’s what makes it a lot more interesting. Before, during and after 2008 the question pushed to the fore was a simple one with a complex answer: what is culture? Breaking that down: How much should things be ‘local’ and how much from ‘further afield’, how do you choose between art forms, between the popular and the niche, the traditional and the radical? Who are the intended audiences? How do you talk about a ‘local’ culture without excluding people newer to a place? Who decides all this and allocates responsibility, platforms and money accordingly? What do we want to change through all this? Such was political engagement locally, there was a huge level of critical debate and it was fascinating to watch received wisdom nationally about what and where was relevant in terms of culture getting unpicked by the region.

Vaivén Circo by Derren Lee Poole, National Festival of Making, Blackburn, 2019

What was also important, and I saw this later in Hull too when I worked there, was how the year and build up to it helped restore more confidence and pride to the area. Not that it had ever gone away, but it had been severely dented by years of negative stereotypes and media hatchet jobs, which eat away at the collective psychology of a place. The power and importance of this is little understood by those whose world view comes from richer, more powerful cities which inevitably dominate the arts, media and academic discourse, rather than those who live in places which may only feature in the media as the butt of a lame comedian’s joke or in an negative article by a journalist from far away.

Nevertheless, the nagging question, especially when I came from a local, working class background, was would a LSCE event make things better in a region facing multiple challenges? My experience was that CoC in Liverpool did, in many ways. Even just in cultural terms, in the late 1990s, the city’s Philharmonic Hall was on the rocks, the Playhouse and Everyman theatres had shuttered, even popular music venues like L2/Lomax had closed down. No new cultural buildings had been built since 1939 and culture was not high on the agenda of the local authorities. The situation now, even after 10 years of austerity, is very different. Though the impact of CoC itself cannot be separated entirely from other factors such as wider public and private investment in that period.

However, CoC did not remove in itself the fundamental structural issues the area faced, even if it reduced some of them significantly. The point for me though is, much like with the Garden Festival, it should never have been expected to in isolation, because, frankly, no one single thing would remove complex challenges many decades in the making and part of huge global shifts. The counter question I always put is, would the region be better off if it hadn’t happened, if it had gone to another city? Few local people I think would agree.

On a wider level, what happened in Liverpool for CoC also had a real impact in beginning the still ongoing process in the UK of rethinking of how culture is defined and funded and how LSCE are delivered, especially in terms of how they interact with the varied residents of a city. Something which has carried on in subsequent events. Demand and interest in such LSCE has kept on growing. After the popularity of 2008 in Liverpool, the Govt. launched the UK City of Culture model, held in Derry/Londonderry then Hull and now upcoming in Coventry for 2021, with several areas now developing bids for 2025. The Liverpool City Region launched a Borough of Culture and the Greater London Authority launched a similar scheme, with Greater Manchester starting a Town of Culture. Folkstone has its own art triennial, there’s the British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke-on-Trent, Brighton Photo Biennial, the biennial Manchester International Festival, Blackburn’s National Festival of Making, Whitstable Biennial, Glasgow International and so on. Britain was due to have a European Capital of Culture again in 2023, with several cities bidding, until the UK’s involvement was barred because of Brexit. Leeds valiantly has decided to deliver a year of culture regardless in 2023. In 2025 Rotherham plans to deliver a Children’s Capital of Culture, co-developed with children and young people. With it seems an ever increasing number of such events, is there the risk is there of diminishing returns – at some point will everywhere have had a big cultural festival of some kind?

Vicky Lindo and William Brookes, Dead Dad Book, British Ceramics Biennial 2019.
Photo: Jenny Harper

For me though, the question should be, why shouldn’t everywhere have a year of culture, or similar? When the Garden Festival began this whole trend in the 1980s, culture for many UK cities was at the bottom of the civic priority pile, in contrast to the past. Poorer cities didn’t see it as important given what other challenges they had, even wealthier cities saw it as something to give a bit of funding and support to, mainly via older established civic institutions, but few put it front and centre and rarely did it stretch out to all forms of arts and different interpretations of culture. Many cultural facilities were ageing and underfunded, with few built outside London between the 1960s and the 1990s. Artists were rarely considered in town halls if not dismissed entirely. The creative industries were low on the economic agenda despite their importance. All this has now changed for the better, with the role of the arts and culture in its many forms not just valued in itself but increasingly for many other reasons besides. Many fear negative aspects of instrumentalization, with good reason, but if anything, the conversation around culture, what it is and should be, who gets to access and create it, is wider than ever. With a growing understanding of the role it can play in planning, health and many other areas. Many cities like Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, have it near the top of their priorities, while authorities like Hull, despite the huge central Govt. cuts they have received, have maintained cultural funding levels.

All power to towns and cities who have this level of focus and especially those which are doing it off their own bat. Rotherham for example didn’t bid to have a Children’s Capital of Culture, they just decided it was something they should do. And there for me is something absolutely fundamental to the success of a LSCE at all levels, now more than ever, is that it is driven by local ideas, needs, interests and specialisms above all else.

To me, one of the most important Liverpool Biennial commissions ever was Homebaked/2Up2Down for the 2012 Biennial. This saw social practice artist Jeanne van Heeswijk work in Anfield, celebrated as home of LFC but also an area devastated by the Housing Market Renewal Initiative. Jeanne worked over two years to develop a project with the community, which resulted in the tentative re-opening of a local bakery, an idea for community-led housing and a tour/performance explaining the complex local context. I always got the impression the biennial team were surprised this project seemed to attract some of the biggest interest from the international art press rather than other aspects of the programme. I was not though. Here was something original, specific, that could not be seen, easily at similar events elsewhere in the world, even if some of the concepts were transferable. Something that had impact locally, but relevance internationally as more and more of the developed world faced up to a post-industrial future. Eight years on, Homebaked is now a larger, co-operative community business, employing 18 people and playing a big role in a more sustainable wider development of the neighbourhood.

Jeanne van Heeswijk, 2Up 2Down, 2012. Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial

For me this is an exemplar of how projects within biennials and other LSCE can have impact in different ways – plenty of time to explore, develop and build something up with a particular community, with a later event or other public face that engages a wider constituency, but then some sort legacy that can be taken forward. Of course, the very nature of such projects means that not all are guaranteed to be successful in the long term, but Homebaked demonstrates what it is possible to achieve when the conditions are right.

Even from a purely strategic point of view, such as getting on the ‘art world map’ featured in travel guides etc, doing what is already being done elsewhere over and over again, is I would argue, a hiding to nothing. Key is not to fall into the trap of replication, even tempting as it when looking at successful cities or projects elsewhere. To truly have local impact as well as gain the benefits of increased attention and visitors, originality is key. This will vary from a more specific event – a ceramics biennial makes perfect sense in Stoke-on-Trent, Glasgow, with its large number of studios and galleries makes sense to have its International, while having an outdoor focus makes sense in a seaside town. Even within wider, year-long cultural programmes which need to approach culture from a broad range of perspectives, a firm rooting within the city or town itself will always have most power and local specifics are what can make a programme really stand out.

Towns and cities often have specific cultural strengths. Artists and art organisations based in them usually understand these very well and how they relate to the wider cultural landscape and they should play a key role in the development of such programmes. This doesn’t mean though that the loudest voices, from the biggest organisations or the most well connected artists, should have all the power. Rather those planning such programmes should take this as a starting point for a wider conversation about what they want to achieve within a LSCE. This should involve people at all levels: already engaged audiences, artists, community organisations, but much further out to people on the street and online going about their daily lives. Asking questions such as, what part of town could most do with a boost, what local artist from the past has been forgotten, which project could do with help to get them to the next level, what themes are important to this place? Crucial also is to maintain this conversation throughout all phases of a LSCE. Keep asking people, how do they think the programme is going, what do they want the legacy to look like and how will we achieve it? For year- or six-month long programmes as well, there should be care also to taper an event, with a steady build up and wind down so it doesn’t feel like the LSCE was ‘it’ in terms of culture, overwhelming people and then stopping dead, instead acknowledging a particular time as a period of focus. I don’t think there’s a single ‘best’ way organise a LSCE, remember, what Raymond Williams said about culture. Key for me though is to take a key perspective of the local, then see how those ideas fan out nationally and internationally.

Barry Finan, WRRIGHHTINNGSERRS, British Ceramics Biennial 2019.
Photo: Jenny Harper

Wirral was the Liverpool City Region Borough of Culture 2019 and it was great to go back and experience some of the varied events as part of it. For me though the most powerful were a couple of photographic exhibitions, Tabula Rasa and Women of Iron, showing work by young people from the Creative Youth Development Programme ran by the Council. Using a LSCE event to inspire a new generation is so important but having the long term programmes in place so young people can develop themselves before, during and after such an event is vital. As are new employment opportunities. If it wasn’t for the increase in entry level paid arts roles in Liverpool in the build-up to CoC, I might never have been able to get to the role I have now. In a LSCE, plans should be made around what cultural employment opportunities will be created for people locally and how least some of these will be sustained beyond the event. Programmes in areas such as youth development and employment should be front and centre of long term cultural programmes in a region to help develop them as centres of art and creativity.

What the legacy of LSCE looks like should be as specific to a place as the event programme itself. It’s certainly possible to be too rigid about long term outcomes, when working in culture you have to allow for serendipity to an extent, but what the future looks like does need to be considered in some detail before such an event happens. A LSCE might have the big impact, but how to build on that long term needs to be thought about as soon as the event is being planned. When funders are looking at LSCE, they should consider their support in three or five year terms, tapering for developing, building up to the main phase and then afterwards, reduced but longer periods of funding to bed down sustainability and impact. One of the most powerful factors of delivering a LSCE is the scale of discussion and debate it can create locally about culture, how to nurture and further develop it and this should be harnessed. It’s crucial to ask early on, what can such an event help spark that does carry on after it? Could that be say, a permanent, low cost artist studio complex, protection through Agent of Change for local music venues, an ongoing commissioning programme in a certain field, a new annual festival, a neighbourhood cultural event that starts the conversation about long term local change, a new creative arts facility for young people. Again, this should always be driven by specific local needs. Though it’s important to ensure that space in towns and cities is developed or sustained to make art, as well as show it.

Women of Iron project

However, while we focus on arts and culture here, we cannot separate it from the wider context that LSCE operate in in particular locations. A LSCE in an area with a solid economic base but less of a cultural profile, will be different from a place with a good cultural profile but challenging economic situation, different again from perhaps a smaller place with limited profile at all and a small arts base. Liverpool for example, had to deal with decades of nasty stereotypes, Hull felt it wasn’t heard enough of at all in the media, upcoming Coventry meanwhile has a relatively solid economic base but feels it doesn’t have enough cultural recognition nationally.

This does not mean though, that LSCE should be the preserve of already successful places or that bigger, wealthier cities should have a monopoly on the arts. What’s been positive in recent years has been the increased focus on directing some more state arts investment in the most disadvantaged and under invested areas of the UK. However, developing and sustaining an arts and culture programme in a post-industrial area, cannot be done in isolation. LSCE and initiatives such as Creative People and Places are powerful, but they are not panaceas and must be linked in with wider plans and ideas for local economic and social development. Precious few places in the world operate wholly on a culture-based economy and those that do are fragile – Venice’s population has declined throughout the 20th century as its wider economy moved away to more modern places and it became purely a tourist city[2]. While cultural mega cities, say London, New York, Berlin, are employing tens of thousands in culture, arts, tourism and creative industries, those sectors still play second fiddle to things like high finance, professional services and public administration, which more fundamentally sustain them economically. A place cannot be regenerated without considering culture, but art and culture alone cannot be expected to regenerate a place. The Festival of Britain in 1951 is fondly remembered because it was just the celebratory part of a much wider programme of national renewal and investment and opening out of access to education and the arts.

Gentrification and ‘over tourism’ are also significant issues which need to be considered in this context. Though it must be remembered, in urban terms these issues principally impact on the most highly successful and well-off cities and receive so much focus because such places control much of the media and academic discourse. More disadvantaged cities face a different, perhaps even more stark challenge: to keep sustaining and further developing cultural provision at all with limited funds. While artists in these places can struggle to sustain themselves when faced with far fewer opportunities, even if rents remain cheap compared to wealthier cities.  

Silvio Palladino, I Wish to Communicate with You, Hull 2017.
Photo: Silvio Palladino

The role of arts and culture in post-industrial urban change can and does have many positive benefits. Yet these can also be fragile and easily be lost. Long term thinking is not something the UK often excels at, but now, as we’re getting closer to having (re?) won the argument about the importance of art and culture in urban areas and civic life, it’s time for a new paradigm, in which a LSCE is the showcase, the platform, for what’s been achieved and will go on being developed within longer term civic and community ambitions around art and culture.

If we do want to see our cities continue to transform for the better, LSCE’s should also be an opportunity, a catalyst to ask bigger questions about society, politics, economics, culture, and places. What we want them to be and how we go about achieving them. A way of exploring what changes people want to make in towns and cities in the UK and how to build underinvested places back up as we go through challenging and tumultuous times.


[1] Williams, R. Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana, 1976: p.87.

[2] Kington, T. Guardian News and Media, 2009. Who now can stop the slow death of Venice? https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/mar/01/venice-population-exodus-tourism. Accessed 24 Dec 2019.

This piece was published in Engage Journal 44: Biennials and beyond in April 2020.

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

Mark Leckey Dream English Kid 1964-1999 AD

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

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

By Kenn Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still from Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore 1999

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

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

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

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

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

This piece was published by The Double Negative in January 2020 and republished by the Working Class Academics Conference in April 2020.

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

Distinctly

Helen and her Hula Hoop by Chris Killip
Helen and her Hula Hoop by Chris Killip


27th September – 24th November 2019

Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead
Part of LOOK Photo Biennial 2019

By Kenn Taylor

Distinctly
 features the work of ten photographers whose images capture aspects of life in Britain over the last sixty years up to the present day. The exhibition takes up two of the Williamson’s spacious, well-lit galleries, which give the diversity and volume of work in the show room to breathe. The Williamson is a great space for art and has been showing increasingly dynamic programming of late.

Some of the first pictures featured are from Martin Parr’s weather series; well known, but less typical of his work being in black and white. More than the weather, these images seem most to capture the physical landscape of much of urban Britain in the 1980s and early 90s – rain stained concrete and a general air of being run down. The people are just a small part of these scenes, hunkered down in resignation, even if only because of the drizzle.

The Williamson by Robert Darch

A stark contrast from these are Trish Murtha’s images of children playing, joshing and hanging around, in the 1970s ruins of Victorian streets. In these pictures the children are vivid and central. Images like these are a staple of British photography of that era, but contain more warmth than most, a product perhaps of Murtha’s familiarity with her subject, from her own upbringing in Elswick, Newcastle.

Ken Grant’s images of 80s and 90s Merseyside meanwhile, capture a landscape and community familiar to me, but his pictures are always more than just documentary, each heavy with a particular mood and sometimes the air of drama having just happened, or about to. 

Markéta Luskačová’s photographs of London street musicians from the 1970s to the 90s seem much older than their era, featuring people with dress and instruments appearing to be from the start – not the end – of the 20th century. John Myers’ 1970s images too, capture how many people were living in an almost Victorian way right into that decade, even as boxes of Surf and chipboard walls highlight the creeping advance of the consumer world we’re more familiar with.

Youth Unemployment in Elswick by Trish Murtha
Youth Unemployment in Elswick by Trish Murtha

Both Myers and Luskačová’s pictures show in many respects how slowly things changed in the 20th century for most people, right up until the 1970s, with other photographers in this exhibition capturing how rapidly things changed after that. The two roads of Britain after then, the decay and the hyper development that scars the country in different ways, run through many of these works, whether a central theme or in the background. Daniel Meadows’ portraits, first in the 1970s and then of the same people in the early 2000s, picture those who lived through and experienced that change.

Flipping this over though are Robert Darch’s recent images of agricultural life in south west England. While clearly contemporary, the traditional work seems to exist out of time. It’s almost a shock to see colour in his images after so much black and white, but colour is also central in Kirsty Mackay’s images looking at housing and landscape in her native Glasgow and their relationship to the city’s challenges with poor health.

Distinctly By Declan Connolly
Distinctly By Declan Connolly

Chris Killip’s large prints of work from his In Flagrante series are amongst the better known and the most dramatic works in the exhibition. The deep contrast between dark and light tones and sharp cropping making them at once intense, brilliant documentary and at the same time strikingly cinematic.

Niall McDiarmid’s recent portraits of people in high streets around the UK, happy to be photographed, confident, dressed in their gear to go to town, feel very different to the rest of the images in Distinctly and a necessary reminder of the expression of individual, sometimes vivid personality. Even some of these portraits, however, are also framed to a degree by the run down streets in the background, omnipresent.

Decay unnecessarily frames the images in this exhibition in a literal sense too, with the damp in the walls of the Williamson clear in one of the galleries. Like so many museums and galleries in Britain, no doubt a product of limited funds leading to endlessly deferred maintenance.

Images such as those in Distinctly, have resonance with audiences, I think, because they capture some essential aspects of humanity, as well as the specificity of certain cultures in Britain, whilst highlighting realities familiar to so many though not always seen in art. Over six decades in the UK, the brief periods of intense boom followed by long periods of stagnation and decay, the kind that leaves children playing in ruins and resignation on the faces of adults. These photographs portray people and landscapes from the concrete edges of the North East coastline to the ever-changing communities of East London, who are so often marginalised, mistreated, talked over, misrepresented; shown here instead with dignity, vividness and complexity.

Carrie Harris in Women of Iron
Carrie Harris featured in Women of Iron

Mention must be made also about the strong work by the young women photographers featured in the adjacent exhibition Women of Iron, which captures Birkenhead’s Cammell Laird shipyard, in particular its female workforce. Images which stand up just fine against the work in Distinctly by far more experienced photographers. This was a project developed by Wirral’s Creative Youth Development programme. Such programmes are amongst the most important part of public cultural provision and there are not nearly enough opportunities like that for young people. Wirral is drawing to an end this year as Borough of Culture within the Liverpool City Region. Now, like everywhere else in the UK, it deserves a lifetime of the level of arts activity and opportunities that has been seen within it.

This piece was published by Corridor8 in February 2020.

Images copyright: Chris Killip, Robert Darch, Trish Murtha, Declan Connolly, Suzanne St Claire

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

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

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

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

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

Top tips from the Toolkit 

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

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

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

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

Thirty Years: from the Berlin Wall to Brexit

By Kenn Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tobacco Warehouses, Wind Factories and Ten Streets: abridged version

Stanley Dock complex (Kenn Taylor)

Text: Kenn Taylor
Images: Kenn Taylor and Kevin Crooks

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

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

Stanley Dock complex (Kenn Taylor)

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

Invisible Wind Factory
Invisible Wind Factory (Kenn Taylor)

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

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

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

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

Liam Kelly in Make Liverpool (Kevin Crooks)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joel Hansen, Scottie Press (Kevin Crooks)

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

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

Leeds-Liverpool Canal, Vauxhall (Kenn Taylor)

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

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

Dock Road (Kenn Taylor)

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

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

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

Architecture, fashion and time

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

By Kenn Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making a Difference

By Kenn Taylor

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

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

Spring Bank Art. Photo Sergej Komkov

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

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

Portraits Untold by Tanya Raabe-Webber. Photo Jerome Whittingham

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

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

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

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

Mad Pride Hull discussion. Photo Jerome Whittingham

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

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

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