Baltic State

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By Kenn Taylor
Images by Pete Carr

From The Guardian to Lonely Planet, Tech City UK to RIBA, everyone is talking about Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle: a cutting-edge area of culture, nightlife and rapidly growing creative and tech businesses, all in a district that didn’t really exist 10 years ago.

So how did it develop – and what can other cities learn from it?

Baltic Triangle was originally an industrial area nestled between Liverpool’s city centre, its waterfront and its southern residential districts. As businesses folded or moved to newer premises elsewhere, many of its buildings, from 19th century warehouses to 1980s light industrial units, lay abandoned.

In the pre Credit Crunch property boom, sites closer to Liverpool city centre were occupied by artists and creative businesses, and the area saw rents rise, flats and shops built on venues and studios – all the usual tropes of stage two gentrification.

But 2008, as well as being the year of the Credit Crunch, was also Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture. While that served the property boom, it also gave creatives a weapon to fight against it, and Liverpool’s authorities faced a conundrum: how could a real capital of culture allow such things to be swept away by property development? The city needed significant external investment to develop its economy – but how could it also protect and nurture the culture that had helped to turn it around?

Not everyone could see the potential of an area which barely had street lighting – but a few pioneering organisations, such as Elevator Studios, could sense an opportunity. As Mark Lawler, director of Baltic Creative Community Interest Company (CIC), explains: “The people who make strategic decisions thought, okay here’s an opportunity to actually protect some space long-term for creative and digital industries so they don’t get pushed out as values rise.”

The Baltic Triangle’s name comes from it being a triangle of land near the historic Baltic Fleet pub. Some have suggested that the district emerged entirely organically; the reality, as is often the case, was a little more complex.

The way Lawler tells it, Merseyside ACME, Liverpool Vision, Liverpool City Council and the North West Development Agency (NWDA) got round a table, and discussed what assets they had available. “The NWDA said we have 18 warehouses let’s stick them in the pot and grab some grants to redevelop them.”

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A new organisation was established to lead this project – and after some discussion about whether it should be a charity or private firm, the coalition settled on the CIC as a halfway house. Lawler explains: “We have a community statement which is about supporting the growth of the creative and digital industries in the Liverpool City Region.”

Organisations such as Liverpool Biennial were encouraged to move to the area, and Baltic Creative CIC’s small units began to attract new creative businesses; soon, more eateries and venues were opening to cater for the growing cluster. Meanwhile, as the council improved the public realm, two new University Technical Colleges (one for computer games, one for life sciences) brought students to the area.

Carl Wong is the CEO LivingLens, a company innovating in the use of video in market research. Founded in late 2013, it now has eleven staff – “three in London, the remainder in Baltic”.

“We recognised that, for us to build a team and a talent pipeline, it would be much more valuable to be in the heart of a technology cluster that was really vibrant,” Wong says. “We looked across the North West and indeed across London and other places as well. For us it was clear that Baltic was at the heart.”

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But the Baltic Triangle risks being a victim of its own success as space runs out, he adds. “Baltic is full. There needs to be the right infrastructure there to engender more businesses to come and this momentum to continue.”

This is something the team at Baltic Creative are already working on. They’re currently redeveloping space on Jordan Street, which is already pre-let. They’re also planning 16,000 sq ft of creative business space in a former Guinness bottling plant on Simpson Street, and working on the new Northern Lights studio complex in part of the former Cains Brewery, both of which Lawler hopes will be on site within 2016.

But Baltic Creative isn’t the only outfit developing property in the area now it’s fashionable. As Carl Wong notes: “There’s a massive amount of development in and around Baltic – but it’s not necessarily to support new tech start-ups. There’s new halls of residence being built. You have retail development. It’s great to extend the vibrancy of the city, but it doesn’t support technology businesses.”

But Baltic Creative itself is working with some of these very developers to leverage new space for creative businesses, says Lawler. “We work with private developers to say, ‘You don’t want a ground floor, first floor problem of boarded retail units. We’ll take them off you and develop them and fill them full of creative and digital industries’.”

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So, is Baltic Triangle a model for other cities keen to nurture the creative and the digital? “We’ve done a bit of travelling and we’ve seen different approaches to creative clusters,” says Lawler. “The biggest difference that we have compared to any model I have seen is control and ownership. The sector here owns circa £5m worth of assets in Baltic Creative CIC. Let’s imagine in 20 years that’s worth £50m or even £100m – what that does is provide a bedrock for the sector in Liverpool to continue to grow.”

Through its CIC model, Baltic could offer space long-term to those in creative fields, rather than them just being a staging post in the property development cycle. Yet as Mark Lawler notes: “The market is moving faster than the planning.” The NWDA which supported Baltic Creative’s first phase no longer exists – and Liverpool’s authorities have only limited funds for development.

Baltic has the ability to grow creative space through the development of its own assets, but it will only be able to do this if it gets significant strategic and planning support from local authorities. Liverpool’s culture and economy needs it – and if it continues to succeed, it could also be a shining example to other cities. The planners helped birth this creative district: now they must help nurture and protect it.

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This piece was published by CityMetric, a New Statesman website, in June 2016.

A Creative Alternative?

Photo of Bradford Odeon protest by P13 D
Photo of Bradford Odeon protest by P13 Digital Media

By Kenn Taylor

When I was a child, I was taken by my school to see a submarine launched at the Cammell Laird shipyard, a place that had been the raison d’être of my hometown, Birkenhead, for the last 200 years. I was given a flag to wave at the vast, metal object as it went down the slipway. My principle memory is of the scale of the place, as we stood dwarfed by the yard’s huge construction sheds and yellow cranes. What I didn’t quite understand at the time was that this was the end. This was the last ship that was to be built at the yard.

I would to come to realise this, though, and also that it was almost to mean the end of the town, reduced largely to decline and dependency on low-paid service-industry work, benefits and a small number of public-sector jobs. What happened to Birkenhead as a phenomenon has, if anything, increased elsewhere in my lifetime. The sort of decline that could once safely – for others – be said to be located in certain specific areas, has engulfed more and more places over the last twenty years in a rapidly shifting global world. What do you do with a place when its reason to exist has gone? Can it have a future? How can people suffering from the poverty generated by such situations have better lives and opportunities? These were the questions that plagued me as I grew up in a postindustrial area.

Economic decline is inextricably linked to population decline, both of which create surplus land and buildings. In the later part of the twentieth century, in certain urban areas such as New York, London and Berlin, this ‘free space’ was often occupied by artists and those seeking alternative lifestyles. Economically, this ultimately worked out for these cities, since while certain industries and the communities that had relied on them had been hollowed out, they had other industries to sustain them. In New York and London this was principally high-finance and in Berlin, principally government. So this occupation by ‘creatives’ actually helped re-animate what was, in the eyes of local authorities, ‘problem spaces’, bringing them back to economic use as they became fashionable and subsequently attracted new, wealthier residents. Such gentrification has been well documented.1 Writers like Richard Florida suggested that other postindustrial areas should adopt this model, becoming ‘creative cities’2  that attract the highly educated, highly mobile people who set up the likes of Google. This was seen by some civic leaders as a catch-all answer to stemming population decline, creating those lucrative ‘good jobs’ and so increasing the tax- and power-base of postindustrial areas. Based on these theories, many such localities spent big on arts venues, festivals etc aimed at regenerating disused space, attracting culture-seeking tourists and more importantly, those new ‘creative’ business-starting residents.

However, in many other cities, while empty buildings, declining populations and tax bases were also the problem, this solution was not so easy as in New York and London. In a place as large as a city, a ‘creative class’ generally needs a ‘real’ economy to feed off in order to enjoy a supporting infrastructure and audience. Shoreditch may emphasise its mental distance from The City of London, but without the latter’s finance industry paying for the likes of London’s advanced public transportation system via demand and taxation, along with everything from sponsoring theatres to buying artworks and commissioning designers, its ‘creative class’ would struggle. As any artist who has lived in a postindustrial city for any length of time will tell you, cheap rents and easily available space are important, but to lack easy access to a major market or audience (even in these internet days) is ultimately limiting.

While we may love them for their diversity, vibrancy and creativity, cities have since ancient times largely existed for strategic or economic reasons, formed out of convergences of power and money. This is why so many artists and creative people still move to New York and London despite the harsh costs and lifestyle. These cities offer potential for advancement that other localities do not, whether in terms of creative stimulation or more pragmatic personal opportunities. This is why economically successful cities are always centres of inward migration, people seeking their own piece of the growing pie, whether money or culture, which in turn helps gives birth to that diversity, vibrancy and creativity.

Throughout history, art and culture have generally emerged from economic centres that can afford them, rather than being expected to be the economy, or at least not solely. Some unique places such as Venice can, via tourism, achieve an economy based on their cultural histories. Yet even Venice has a shrinking population, which is causing it problems now that it is no longer a centre of manufacture, commerce and slavery. Indeed, despite all the new creative industries being talked about in postindustrial places like Detroit, such as the start-ups at the A. Alfred Taubman Centre,3  making cars is still actually the biggest part of the Detroit economy.4  Likewise, even as cultural-focused tourism does grow in Liverpool, its maritime and manufacturing trades are still bigger economic assets.5  Over in Birkenhead, even the old Cammell Laird shipyard has re-opened and is now booming.6  These most traditional of industries, which had declined for years, are still the main points of growth for such places as trade patterns shift, to a degree, back in their favour. Such growth remains vulnerable, but at least these localities are still playing a significant role in the global economic system, in fields, despite their reduction in staff numbers, that employ far more people than the arts are ever likely to.

In London and New York, the fight for space against the overwhelming power of capital is key, hence the constant shifting of ‘creative zones’ to the latest deprived area. In cities such as Liverpool, though, the fight is for capital or rather any way for the city (including its artists) to sustain itself without having to rely on cross-subsidy from elsewhere to pay for its services. The latter is a dangerous situation, leaving postindustrial areas vulnerable to the whims of the policies of often faraway governments.

Is there an alternative for cities other than to fight each other for a slice of global capital? To take part in a pact with the very ideology that brought down industrial cities? We should not forget that it was also this same ideology that gave birth to these cities and subsequently the culture that rose from them: be it Motown or The Beatles, Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals or the metal sculptures made by Arthur Dooley, himself a former Cammell Laird welder.

Despite the continued economic reliance on transport and manufacture in Liverpool, cultural activity has played a big part in shifting both the perception and actuality of the city in the last fifteen years in a way that few residents would disagree has been an improvement, even if most would also agree there is still a long way to go. If, with the right cultural attractions and activities, a town can create a tourist business and transform external views of the place, creating a few jobs in the process, why would any poor locality not do so?

Are these cultural initiatives in postindustrial locations just window-dressing: a bit of art to cover over the economic cracks, encouraging higher-end tourism and providing something to do between inward investment meetings? A chance for globetrotting arty-types to ‘reanimate’ decayed spaces and help pave the way for developers? Or can they offer more?

I would argue that they can. Art’s real strength in this situation is how it can exist in a space between those at different ends of the scale of power and money. In this deeply imbalanced situation, real sway can be had, as Charles Bukowski once said, when ‘an artist says a hard thing in a simple way’. Art has the potential to cut though things, creating a channel through dysfunctional systems. Creative activism in the public arena can, by highlighting errors, showcasing alternatives and probing new solutions, make the prevailing forces of power, at best take a step back, or at least demonstrate to others the holes that exist within their plans and systems.

Such action in postindustrial areas can break the deadlock that can emerge from vested interests. Governments, local authorities, businesses, property developers, investors, even entrenched community groups, while often having plans that may be valid on one level, can, in the inevitable vastness of such organisations, end up letting neighbourhoods, even whole cities, fall down the cracks. As an example, we can look to Liverpool and how the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder initiative affected it and other areas with mass housing demolition. 7  This plan emerged, no doubt with good intentions, from a think-tank at Birmingham University and was adopted by the then government as a way of regenerating postindustrial communities. Dozens of journals, petitions and surveys eventually began to critique this extreme approach. While these achieved a cumulative effect, ultimately they held less power and sway in general public and political opinion than two actions in Liverpool. In Anfield, the 2up2down/Homebaked project,8  re-opening a bakery that many thought had gone for good, and in Liverpool 8, community groups painting bright images, planting flowers and hosting a local market outside abandoned homes. All the secret meetings, investment strategies and ten-year-plans rightly turned to dust in the face of such an obviously more positive use of empty property reduced to ruin by socio-economic policies. Such initiatives may have impacts that are more emotional than practical, but therein lies the ability of such creative action to compete against, or at least square up to, those who control the money and power. Those with their hands on the levers inevitably struggle to respond when they are faced with a public demonstration of obvious failure and positive alternatives.

The question from critics though, and it is a valid one, is what next? When folly or injustice has been demonstrated, what alternative is there? Can such initiatives represent long-term solutions? Creative perforations can open avenues to new situations, but for real change they have to then grow into something bigger. In becoming more established and practical, such projects may lose some of their initial outsider power, but this is essential if such action is to instigate actual change and shift the balance of ideas, power and control.

For an example of this we can shift from Liverpool to Bradford, where creative grassroots action helped not only to save a grand Art Deco cinema from demolition, but began a total re-imagining of the potential future of the building. After being closed for several years, the Odeon was facing destruction, to be replaced with a new office and retail development,9  the need for which was questionable. Slowly, local opposition built into a ‘Save the Odeon’ campaign, with activists often utilising artistic impulses such as covering the building with ‘Get Well Soon’ cards, decorating it at Christmas while a brass band played, and even turning up as a group to clean its exterior to demonstrate that, beneath a bit of dirt, a fine building was languishing. These actions slowly won over more local people and even gained celebrity support from the likes of Imelda Staunton, Terry Gilliam and David Hockney. After much pressure, the demolition was eventually cancelled, with the local authority agreeing that the building should be retained in future plans for the area. The campaigners have subsequently formed into an Industrial and Provident society named ‘Bradford One’ and are now bidding to be allowed to take over the building themselves.10

Meanwhile, over in Detroit, the apparently sensible policy of reducing the city’s size in relation to its shrunken population came up against The Heidelberg Project, begun in 1986 by artist Tyree Guyton on the city’s east side. Initially, he painted a series of houses in Heidelberg Street with bright dots in many colours and attached salvaged items to the houses. He went on to develop the project into a constantly evolving work that transformed a semi-abandoned neighbourhood into a creative art centre.11  Twice it was faced with demolition by the Detroit authorities, and indeed some of it was destroyed. Yet, despite these setbacks, it is now a global tourist attraction with its own arts education programme for local schoolchildren, not to mention being one of fifteen projects that represented the US at the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale.12

The question raised by those who wanted to see the demolition and removal of all these places was, ‘Well, what would you do with it?’ In answer, creativity was used against the overwhelming machines of business, media, government and prevailing orthodoxy, to open up alternative possibilities for these spaces. Such projects may not in themselves solve all the problems of a postindustrial city, but their operation in a more open-ended space outside of dominant ideologies can raise awareness, generate new solutions and galvanise people to action. After all, successful local regeneration is based on local enthusiasm for it, which, when people are already facing the multiple challenges of living in a deprived area, can be slow to start and quick to wane. Key to ongoing positive change stemming from such initiatives is the genuine involvement of local people in an in-depth way. The Bradford One and Heidelberg actions were both begun by people who already had a stake in the local area, while 2up2down/Homebaked in Anfield began as an external provocation from Liverpool Biennial. However, all of these projects ultimately took the time to win understandably sceptical people over from outside of their own circles and become rooted in local desires, rather than just agendas imposed from outside. Also vital though, is that such projects moved on from their initial creative perforations and formed organisations, sought funding, liaised with regulators, engaged wider publics and communicated with media and academia. Thus they created a momentum that became sustainable, even through inevitable setbacks and ups and downs.

So, having begun to develop initial provocations into projects with positive outcomes for communities, the question becomes, what next? How does the spark of an alternative become something sustainable or even a new way of doing things in postindustrial areas? The rights of the urban resident of the twentieth century were gained through practical action, engaging, even if aggressively, with the prevailing system and demanding a share, as well as through the development of solid alternatives that functioned effectively, even if these existed within a wider capitalist framework. Bodies from the Cooperative movement founded in Rochdale in 1844 to the early housing associations formed in 1960s Liverpool, determined that inner-city housing had a future, and so it remains today.

Having successfully fundraised via Kickstarter to open its bakery, 2up2down/Homebaked now seeks to establish a co-operative housing scheme13  as part of the wider redevelopment of Anfield, which is centred on a new stadium for Liverpool Football Club. In Bradford, the Save the Odeon campaign has formed into the constituted Bradford One organisation, which is developing proposals that, if successful, will see the historic structure transformed into a multi-purpose cultural venue and centre for creative enterprise. This will include an ‘asset lock’ ensuring that the Odeon’s future use will always benefit the people of Bradford.14  In Detroit meanwhile, the Heidelberg Project is planning to expand into neighbouring properties as part of a broader ‘cultural village’ concept for the area once the site has been secured from recent damage.15  The project’s development committee now includes senior staff from Detroit and Michigan local authorities, demonstrating quite a change from when Guyton spent much of his time fighting officials who wanted to shut down the project. His case was no doubt aided by the Heidelberg’s increasing popularity and global visibility.16

While global big business is probably here to stay, it seems that local control, whether it is of new business start-ups, arts centres, housing co-ops or bakeries, offers the best long-term sustainability for communities. Yet for this to happen, local people must be able to take control. The will must be there in the community for such initiatives, but provocations such as the above, by highlighting alternatives and breaking open new ideas, can have transformative effects, bringing people on board who never imagined they could ever have a voice or play a part in the future of their area.

However, controlling authorities also need to have the desire, or at least the will, to hand such power to communities. So will states grant such power to localities and will local authorities in turn divest power to their citizens? Even if this happens, will it descend into counter-productive factionalism? Perhaps in some cases, but as the examples above show, plenty of projects can exceed even the wildest hopes of their founders, if they are given the opportunity. It may be the case though, as projects such as these have demonstrated, that the only way to gain power is for such organisations to be formed, take the initiative and demand it, creating legitimacy though raising awareness and encouraging action. Equally vital is that the authorities provide the required financial support for such projects at the relevant time. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea of community solutions quickly fell on its face because of a lack of money, something even acknowledged by the academic who came up with the phrase.17  If you hand the levers of power over to people, but with no capital to be able to use them, positive effects will always be limited.

Creative perforations, such as those listed above, are in themselves valid, as a way to speak the truth to power, show an alternative and imagine new possibilities. However, if they are to have lasting effects, they need to change, morph and engage with the prevailing systems of power and money in order to achieve wider goals. This may require compromise, but such compromise will have much stronger social benefits in deprived areas than any academic treatise denouncing failures in the system from a faraway university.

Finally, can these projects be more than interesting perforations, a few gems standing out in otherwise troubled cities? Can they actually become new ways of organising postindustrial urban environments? If this is possible, such initiatives cannot exist in a vacuum. Power brokers need to be engaged and convinced that the system needs to shift and absorb these new ideas. In undertaking such engagement, projects like these may risk losing their outsider power, but they gain the potential to change many more lives and even of becoming new orthodoxies. That is, of course, until the need arises for the next perforation from outside of the prevailing order.

This piece was published in the Stages Journal #2 published by Liverpool Biennial in September 2014.

Footnotes

1  See, for example, S. Zurkin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1982.

2  Richard Florida, ‘Cities and The Creative Class’, http://www.creativeclass.com/richard_florida/books… (accessed 24 April 2014).

3  M. Haber, ‘Meet The Makers: Rebuilding Detroit by Hand’, Fast Company (2013). Available at: http://www.fastcocreate.com/1682411/meet-the-maker… (accessed 20 April 2014).

4  T. Alberta, ‘Refueled: Domestic Automakers Poised to Lead Detroit’s Revival’, National Journal (2014). Available at: http://www.nationaljournal.com/next-economy/americ… (accessed 25 April 2014).

5  Liverpool Economic Briefing 2013, Liverpool City Council, 2013, p.9.

6  B. Gleeson, ‘John Syvret commits future to Cammell Laird’s’, Liverpool Echo (2014). Available at: http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/business/john-… (accessed 1 May 2014).

7  I Cole & B. Nevin, The road to renewal: the early development of the housing market renewal programme in England, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York, 2004, pp.9–17. Available at: http://www.jrf.org.uk/system/files/1859352707.pdf# (accessed 22 Apr. 2014).

8  ‘2Up 2Down, a Community Land Trust and Co-operative Bakery for Anfield’ (2014), http://www.2up2down.org.uk/ (accessed 25 April 2014).

9  I. Qureshi, ‘Why does Bradford care so much about a derelict cinema?’, The Guardian, (2012). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/the-northerner/2012/… (accessed 1 May 2014).

10  About Us, Bradford One (2014), http://www.bradfordone.com/faq/ (accessed 1 May 2014).

11  The Heidelberg Project – Great Public Space (2014), http://www.pps.org/great_public_spaces/one?public_… (accessed 1 May 2014).

12  A. Goldbard, ‘Public Art as a Spiritual Path’ Forecast Public Art (2014). Available at: http://forecastpublicart.org/public-art-review/201… (accessed 1 May 2014).

13  Homebaked Community Land Trust, 2Up 2Down (2014), http://www.2up2down.org.uk/about/egestas-elit/ (accessed 1 May 2014).

14  Our Plans, Bradford One (2014), http://www.bradfordone.com/bradfordone-news/our-pl… (accessed 1 May 2014).

15  S. Welch ‘In wake of fires, Heidelberg Project rethinks goals, halts capital campaign’, Crain’s Detroit Business (2014). Available at: http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20140330/NEWS… (accessed 1 May 2014).

16  G. Anglebrandt, ‘Expansions in the works for Heidelberg, MOCAD’, Crain’s Detroit Business (2011). Available at: http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20110421/DM01… (accessed 22 April 2014).

17  P. Blond, ‘David Cameron has lost his chance to redefine the Tories’, The Guardian (2012). Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/… (accessed 24 April 2014).

Pre-Worn: art, artists and the post-industrial community

Hackney, London

By Kenn Taylor.

In 2012 the Liverpool Biennial continued its tradition of using empty buildings to exhibit art. This time around, spaces it occupied for the period of the festival included the huge abandoned Royal Mail sorting office at Copperas Hill and the former waiting rooms of the Cunard shipping company on the city’s waterfront. With many visitors commenting that these unused spaces were just as, if not more, fascinating than some of the art on display in them.

In the past, the Liverpool Biennial has occupied everything from a disused Art Deco cinema in the city centre to a former glass warehouse near the docks. The de-industrialisation and de-population experienced by Liverpool over the last few decades meaning there is no shortage of empty buildings to use. The re-animation of such abandoned spaces is a key part of the Biennial’s strategy, with urban regeneration a fundamental reason for the festival’s founding and existence.

Of course, the reutilisation of former commercial space for the creation and display of art is itself an older phenomenon. Dating back to at least 1960s New York and since seen around the world from London to Berlin to Sao Paulo.

As well as being a particular trend within artistic production, the use of post-industrial areas for creative purposes also reflects wider shifts within economics and society in the latter part of the 20th century. Traditional urban hubs began to lose the industrial bases that had helped make them rich and many cities, if they could, moved towards more service-orientated economies based on things like finance, the media, tourism and leisure. The effects that this had on the communities that had relied on such industry for sustenance were usually deeply negative; economic decline, social decay and de-population.

However, this also led to the freeing up of a large amount of previously occupied space which, with demand having collapsed, was available at very low rates. This attracted the some of the expanding pool of artists in the post-war era. Once hubs of this new ‘industry’ began to emerge, more and more of the ‘creative class’, to use Richard Florida’s term, started to move in and slowly change the nature of these areas. With the subsequent upswing in activism and entrepreneurship that saw abandoned spaces becoming art galleries, coffee shops and the like, these areas became increasingly fashionable. To the point were those wishing to live in a trendy locale or buy into a particular lifestyle, even if they themselves were not ‘creative’, began to move there. Then, as wealthy professionals came to dominate these areas, the ‘poor young artists’ were forced out. Despite artists in many cases using their creative strengths to rail against the effect, the process has usually been inevitable and irreversible. Such ‘gentrification’ of post-industrial areas has been well documented, for example in Sharon Zukin’s classic study of its effects in New York: Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change.[i]

What is it though, that attracts art and artists to such post-industrial areas in the first place? That is, aside from the low costs?

The flexibility of industrial space is another key factor. Given the myriad forms of contemporary art that began to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century and the often large spaces it needs to be created and displayed in, huge open-plan buildings formerly filled with goods, machinery and people became ideal art spaces. It was initially artists’ studios, followed by grassroots galleries and then commercial galleries which began using abandoned industrial buildings, but this phenomenon perhaps came of age when public galleries also began to occupy former industrial spaces.

The use of abandoned commercial buildings allowed new museums and galleries to have the same monumental scale of older purpose-built museums and in some cases, such as Gateshead’s Baltic and London’s Tate Modern, even larger. Yet as ‘recycled’ buildings, they didn’t have the same naked self-confidence as a structure created for ‘art’s sake’ as say, Tate Britain or even the Brutalist Hayward Gallery in London.

Turning these buildings into museums was seen, less an act of reverence and ego, as were the museum constructions of the past, with their links to elitism and the idea of a strictly defined high culture, more the humble recycling of unused space. Financially it also made sense. As it became ever harder to justify the spending of public money on ‘fine art’ in a world which had begun to acknowledge all forms of cultural production had validity, re-using abandoned industrial space and bringing a ‘buzz’ to a declined area became another good reason to justify public spending on culture.

However, the notion of tapping into a pre-existing ‘authenticity’ that former industrial areas are perceived as having is also vital to this phenomenon. Like someone buying a pair of pre-worn jeans, the abandoned cranes and switchgear, decay and graffiti in post-industrial spaces lends an immediate character and ‘legitimacy’. A tinge of authenticity that can be taken up by those who are seeking it, I.E. those of middle and upper class backgrounds who inevitably dominate the creative class of any given city.

Copperas Hill Sorting Office during Liverpool Biennial

This seems to be something that is at the core of what attracts creatives, and the cultural institutions that ultimately follow them, to post-industrial buildings and communities. It is inevitably the ‘character’ and the relative ‘wildness’ of such areas which is the biggest draw after low costs and large spaces. The frequent desire for many in the creative community to live as they wish without attracting too much grief from the authorities, leads to the search for ‘transgressive’ spaces. Whilst mingling with poorer populations who behave in a less ‘conventional’ way (I.E. middle/upper class and suburban) also seems to provide in the minds of some an authenticity they crave. And therein lays the rub. The conditions which many artists seem to thrive on are those that are usually negative for the pre-existing communities that they take residence in. Abandoned space, very low rents, cheap intoxicants, an ‘edgy’ atmosphere, a lack of employment and a sense of lawlessness are generally signs of a community struggling.

Creative communities formed in this way also tend to be short-lived, relying on a rapid turnover of young people moving in. Within a few years most leave these ‘authentic’ localities, as they begin to settle down into family units. That is of course, if such areas don’t reach a tipping point and those moving in change the nature of the neighbourhoods they inhabit into more ‘family friendly’, I.E. quasi-suburban, conditions as seen in parts of London, New York and Berlin. A phenomenon which usually sees rents rise and often drives out more deprived and diverse pre-existing communities. When such gentrification does begin, creatives are usually the first to complain about the influx of the wealthier middle-classes and about how artists are being pushed out. Inevitably identifying themselves as ‘fellow outsiders’ with the ‘edgy’ local community they move into rather than the ‘Yuppies’.

Creative inhabitants of such communities are usually much less willing to admit that it is precisely them who begin the process in the first place. Without their studios and venues beginning to occupy such spaces and them being the “shock troops of gentrification” as memorably described by Rosalyn Deutsche[ii], who help make an area fashionable, the richer urban professionals would be much less likely to follow them, softly softly.

Once the notion of creative gentrification was hit upon, it quickly became a tool of local authorities world-wide to ‘improve’ areas on a brutally pragmatic level. Used as a process to quietly drive out often poor and deprived populations and replace them with the well-educated and wealthy, thus seeing an upswing in tax receipts and a decrease in expenditure. Cultural regeneration in that mode serves the interests of creatives who want ‘free’ space and those who seek areas to become ‘profitable’, but in the process inevitably, ultimately pushes out pre-existing communities.

What though of these ‘alternative quarters’ in the period between their industrial decline and their inevitable gentrification? Are they the hubs of originality and authenticity that so many seek? Well they certainly seem to be places where new ideas and artists frequently tend to emerge from, but for all the claims of uniqueness and individuality, the alternative areas of most cities worldwide, if looked at closely, seem remarkably similar. With any difference usually down to factors which predate their emergence as a creative quarter. Common denominators include the aforementioned former industrial space re-utilised for culture, an international and largely young population, more often than not from comfortable and well-educated backgrounds, ‘alternative’ cafes, graffiti, electronic music and independent clothing stores which sell similar, if ever-changing, fashion styles.

Such creative quarters may emphasise their distance from the financial quarters of cities, with their generic glass office blocks and branches of chain coffee stores, but in their own way they are just as generic; international spaces often better connected to each other than they are to the communities around them.

The respective communities that inhabit contemporary financial and creative quarters have more in common than either would probably like to think. Both are often fond of intoxicants and parties and are cosmopolitan, if largely still of the middle-upper section of global society, a section which is highly mobile and international in outlook. Like the CEO looking for the country with the lowest cost of production and tax breaks to set up a business, many artists move around the world looking for the cheapest digs and availability of funding by local authorities keen for their own slice of gentrification.

One set may wear suits, the other retro t shirts, to display their respective capital in each zone they occupy, but both are, in their own way, living off the wider community, creating ‘products’ which, though important, are not the vitals of life made in the far off agricultural and, still producing, industrial zones of the world. While ultimately both branches of this globalised class have, in their own way, occupied former industrial working class spaces of inhabitation and influence, as seen in the case of the takeover of the East End of London by a mixture of the finance class around the former docklands and the creative class in areas such as Shoreditch.

As previously discussed, most creative quarters very quickly become a parody of themselves as, after the shock troops of artists move in, the second wave of urban professionals and cultural tourists follow, occupying an area then, having usually changed it fundamentally into another generic ‘alternative’ hub, seek the cultural capital of being the first into the next ‘hot’ area.

This obsession with the inhabiting the margins seems to stem in part from a desire to exist in an alternative space to the prevailing capitalist system and a rejection of the bourgeois nature of suburban life. Finding, studying, living in and making reference to the margins in the minds of many takes them outside of a system they dislike. Yet the margins are a product of and part of the system. Their gentrification by the artistic and educated classes results in their removal as bases for those who are forced to exist on the edge of society by capitalism and turns them into areas that feed more successfully into the system. In moving into these areas to live in an alternative way, in many cases, such people ultimately help to destroy whatever was alternative about it.

As Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan put it in their essay about New York, ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’: “For despite their bohemian posturing, the artists and dealers who created the East Village art scene, and the critics and museum curators who legitimize its existence, are complicit with gentrification on the Lower East Side. To deny this complicity is to perpetuate one of the most enduring, self-serving myths in bourgeois thought, the myth that, as Antonio Gramsci wrote, intellectuals form a category that is ‘autonomous and independent from the dominant social group. This self-assessment is not without consequences in the ideological and political field, consequences of wide-ranging import.’ ”[iii]

So, are there alternatives for the creative class who wish to live in such areas aside from colonising and destroying the communities they profess to love? Well if there is, it’s about integration rather than replacement and, if art and regeneration is to benefit such urban communities themselves, it can only do so by embedding the needs and desires of existing residents into practice.

One possible example is the recent Homebaked/2up2down initiative in Anfield, Liverpool, arranged by the Liverpool Biennial. Over a period of two years the project, led by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, worked to embed itself in the local community and through collaboration developed the ultimate aim of re-opening a closed-down bakery in the neighbourhood. For the period of the Biennial itself, the group that had been formed around the project also created a tour for visitors based around meeting local people. Homebaked/2up2down thus provided services for the existing community, helped to tell the story of the area to visitors and promote local expression. Those involved are now working towards making the bakery a sustainable community business and refurbishing adjacent housing under co-operative ownership. This stands in contrast to the aforementioned former Royal Mail sorting office and Cunard waiting rooms which, now the Biennial have left, are destined for a new commercial future.

Homebaked Anfield

Yet one of the reasons this Biennial project in Anfield is unlikely to begin the process of pushing out the existing community is because of the small number of professional artists that can live in Liverpool due to the relatively small arts market and the relatively weak economy. This means the process of gentrification will always be limited. Conducting a similar initiative in an area with more opportunities for creatives to make a living and move in, such as London or New York, would perhaps still ultimately be just be another step in making the community into the next ‘hotspot’.

Mark Binelli in his book The Last Days of Detroit examines the ultimate post-industrial city and the various aspects of cultural regeneration that have gone on there, including the Detroit’s emergence as a new, low-cost, wild, authentic space for artists from elsewhere. He’s sees the potential in this to help regenerate the abandoned areas of the city now Motown has far less of a motor industry and Manhattan has almost entirely pushed its edgy aspects away. However, he is also wary of the new playgrounds of the creative class treading on the ruins of communities that in many cases had their existence swept away by factors outside their control. He quotes a local resident, Marsha Cusic: “Some of the people coming here bring a sort of bacchanal spirit, like they’re out on the frontier and they can do anything…Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project. It’s real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.”[iv]

Similarly, many of the former industrial areas of Liverpool may have no hope of a future industrial use and their re-appropriation as spaces for art, etc, can give great abandoned buildings, even abandoned areas, a new use and prevent decay into dust. Yet it should not be forgotten that, as much as it may be a futile wish, many of people who previously occupied such spaces, from Liverpool to Berlin to Detroit, would have preferred an alternative world. One of secure, healthy, happy communities with busy industries, not edgy, troubled and ‘authentic’ areas suffering at the raw end of globalised capitalism, with plenty of room for art galleries and parties.

This piece appeared on cities@manchester, a blog of the University of Manchester in May 2013.


[i] Sharon Zukin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982, rev. ed. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1989)
[ii] Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1998), p. 151.

[iii] Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’,  The Portable Lower East Side, Volume 4, Number 1, (1987) <http://www.abcnorio.org/about/history/fine_art.html&gt; [accessed 2nd March 2013]

[iv] Mark Binelli, The Last Days of Detroit (London, Bodley Head, 2013), p.285.

Voices on the Tides

By Kenn Taylor

Art is a call and response but, assembling in the Bluecoat, we anticipate listening. Tonight, we have come to hear some voices from the North.

Our first is Dinesh Allirajah, who tells us of the characters he has created and how each one has a little bit of himself in them. His experiences slipped under the radar into a story, from a bad knee to a favourite record, all taking on a life of their own.

“Like I did with my asthma in 2008 and like I did with being Asian 1992 – 98.”

Our voices are shaped by our experiences. Personalities determined by the connecting of synapses as we each go through life’s commonalties in our own unique way. From this our stories emerge. Changing and modifying, we iron out the details and preserve the best and the worst. The stuff we don’t want to lose or can’t throw away.

Some though, go further and write their voices down, make narratives from their own stories. “These people I have created,” says Dinesh, “in order to preserve slivers of my own life I want to keep. Preserved forever in the chilly embrace of a writer.”

We are all taken into this chilly embrace in the clean, dark auditorium. As the characters that writers create struggle for life, we see it all through our own filters of experience. We have come to listen but, as we do, we dig inevitably into our own memories and neurosis. A call and response.

Rebecca Sharp puts her own voice onto the spaces painted by Anna King. We are taken to insignificant patches of rough grass and distant tower blocks, worn looking wooden sheds and bent fences. The everyday changed by paint and then once again by verse.

We find ourselves in a faded and blurry place, somewhere in the back of our minds. We know we have been here before because it is everywhere. Places where everything of real importance usually occurs. These are where the true voices emerge from, not the seven wonders and centres of the universe, but the insignificant spots of ultimate reality.

Andrew McMillan talks to us about family. His own nephew impressed, not by poetry, but that his mum’s boyfriend can bench press him.

“Everyone has a family, even War Criminals.”

Andrew takes us a long way from here. To a crumbling building on the edge of a Serbian forest, or even a clinical but comfortable cell in The Hague and Ratko Mladić, wondering about his children. Like we all wonder. about. our. children.

In the interval, waiting for a Coke, we stare at the dead flies in the lightbox above the bar.

Back and, as the sound of seagulls fills the auditorium, Chris McCabe takes us to the Mudflats. Here in the theatre there is a theatre that has come from the basement. The place where we keep all the things from our lives and our families that we can’t or won’t throw away. What we hear when we are young embeds in our minds and we pass it on even as we don’t mean to. We may forget about the things we carry around, but it all lies buried. Writers may mine their lives for characters, stories, truths, but when we are faced with a question we can’t answer, we all do the same. A call and response.

All the love and pain of a family are revealed by the four on stage. People, and the ghosts that they live with. When those we love leave this life they remain in our minds, shorn of many of their layers and complexities. Only a cipher of what they said and did to us and what we said and did to them, all of the love and all of the pain and everything in-between. And their ghosts are strongest when they shape what we say and do to others. They are gone but their voices remain.

Grandmother talks to dad and dad talks to Chris and he talks to his son. Generations of change, but the same struggles continue. The same questions and confusions, getting by, trying to be there for each other despite the world, trying to make each other understand what we have been through.

We all tell our own story, drawn from the actions and experiences of our lives. Our own story, to suit ourselves, but others will tell it different. Our lives in the chilly embrace of others.

“WAR WOUNDS and WORD FIGHTS, that’s men!”

Dad once wrote a book because he had to but, in true Liverpool fashion, tells his son, “Don’t look at the dark stuff, tell the jokes!” Look back and try to view the past through the lens of humour. Let us forget the dark stuff. Leave it in the basement. It never goes away though, always waiting with the ghosts to come when you have to draw on your past to make sense of the present.

“What’s a tide dad?”

“It’s when the motion of the sea hits the shore.”

Tides come in and go out but the pattern always repeats. Like Dinesh said, it all starts with a memory. We pass on the experiences that we each have to go through, a flow between different generations, all waiting on the same tides.

Why be away from your family. “I have to work.” “I had to work.” We all have to work and we miss each other. Miss those who we love as we work to support them. This is the particular story of a family, a particular story of Merseyside, of ships and the lack of them. Of the North and the continual struggle were wealth and opportunity is limited. There are the truths and fallacies, triumphs and regrets, exaggerations and myths. The lies we tell ourselves and others.

The tide goes out in the Mersey and reveals the mudflats underneath. Authors may sit and write and we may listen, a call and response in the places of culture. What really matters though is that we pass our voices on. Whether through family or through art it is all part of the same attempt to communicate all that we have learnt and seen before we depart. As individuals, we’re merely keepers, of genes, but also of stories. Messages. All artists steal from the past, their own and others. We create voices from the voices we have heard. We refine and change again and again but fundamentally the stories remain the same.

The writing is done now, because it had to be. Because you have to work and you have to pass on. A call and response.

Now, “let’s go and play.” Before the tide comes in again.

This piece was commissioned as a creative response to the ‘Mudflats’ evening of spoken word. This was curated by Michael Egan, orginated by Northern Elements and held at Bluecoat, Liverpool in March 2013.

LOOK/13 Liverpool International Photography Festival

Every Man and Woman is a Star by Tom Wood

By Kenn Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

Alive in the Face of Death by Rankin

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

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

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

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

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

Chung Zhak and Yun Nan wedding photo: Kurt Tong Archive

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

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

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

Identity Documents by Adam Lee

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

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

LOOK/13

Liverpool International Photography Festival

17th May – 15th June 2013

Various venues, Liverpool

www.lookphotofestival.com

The piece appeared on The Guardian in May 2013.

A Culture of Participation

By Kenn Taylor

When it was announced that Liverpool had been chosen to be the 2008 European Capital of Culture, there was an outpouring of emotion in the city. After so many years of being the UK’s pariah city par excellence, the importance of the accolade to Liverpool’s collective psychology and how it was viewed externally cannot be underestimated.

Beyond the city itself though, of greater importance was how, whilst hosting Capital of Culture, Liverpool became the focus of intense debate and a subsequent sea-change in the way that many people think about concepts of culture, community, participation and regeneration.

Long before 2008 of course, Liverpool had a strong cultural output despite, or perhaps because of, its continual economic struggles. Even Liverpool’s bohemian enclaves are only a short walk from the most grinding poverty and this has always lent something of a DIY and a socially and politically aware spirit to arts in the city.

Arguably the first ‘arts centre’ in the UK was Liverpool’s Bluecoat, founded at the turn of the century in an abandoned school by rebellious spirits called the Sandon Studios Society, unhappy with the then traditional arts establishment in the city. Sixty years later a group of idealistic Liverpool University students set up the Everyman theatre in an abandoned chapel. They wanted to create a space for drama that would reflect ordinary lives and take radical perspectives, in doing so helping to pave the way for socially concerned writers like Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale.

In another abandoned chapel, a group of radical creatives set up The Great Georges Community Cultural Project in 1968, arguably the UK’s first ‘community arts’ project, now still operating as the Black-E. Later, in the 1970s a group of photographers ignored by the art establishment set up shop in an abandoned pub. They called part of it the Open Eye Gallery and helped bring photographers of everyday life such as Martin Parr and Tom Wood to attention. Whatever public money was spent by the city itself on the arts in the post-war era was nearly always through the lens of ‘what will it do for the community?’ and ‘how will people connect to this?’ long before audience participation was a section on every Arts Council application form.

It was into this tradition that the UK’s choice of host city for the 2008 European Capital of Culture came into view. The hope in Liverpool was that winning the title would celebrate the city’s cultural achievements, so often forgotten or ignored, and also that it would help attract investment and create much-needed jobs. It was very much in line with pre-Crunch era Blarite ideas of turning post-industrial areas into centres for the ‘creative economy’ that the city’s bid went in. Liverpool was arguably the starting point for the application of such ideas of cultural regeneration in the UK. After the 1981 riots, the regeneration schemes in the city initiated by the then Conservative government included the opening of Tate Liverpool in 1988 in the city’s abandoned docklands. This long before London’s Tate Modern and Gateshead’s Baltic also turned redundant riverside industrial space in centres for culture.

Ultimately Liverpool was to beat favourites Newcastle/Gateshead to the Capital of Culture title. The judges who made the decision said it was Liverpool’s strong cultural heritage, future plans and most of all, the sheer enthusiasm of the city’s population for the bid that won the day. Yet, as that faithful year got closer, more and more people began to ask, what is it for and who will it benefit?

The criticisms tended to be two-fold. The property boom which was already engulfing the UK was accelerated significantly in Liverpool by the title. Soon grassroots music venues and artists studios began to be displaced by luxury flats. Capital of Culture it seemed was indeed helping to re-make the city’s fabric, but was it in a good way for its cultural scene? Secondly and perhaps more fundamentally, many people had objections to what they felt was too much focus on bringing an ‘international’ culture aimed at attracting tourists to the city and not doing enough to encourage local creative expression and involvement.

Accusations of the Liverpool Culture Company, who were tasked with running the year, being remote and lacking understanding of the local arts community were rife, if sometimes unfair. With art it is of course hard to please all of the people all of the time. However, these criticisms were perhaps summed up when a popular local Banksy work on an abandoned pub was covered over with Capital of Culture branded hoardings, something which even made Newsnight.

A whole swathe of independent fringe projects sprung up alongside the official 2008 cultural programme, often using creativity to highlight the above issues. In a city with such a tradition of DIY, rebellion and politics in art, this was perhaps inevitable. As time went on, more and more people began questioning the whole idea of the then dominant mode of cultural regeneration. With these issues highlighted by activists in Liverpool, national critics who had previously praised the cultural regeneration of Britain’s Northern cities began to write of their wariness of the ‘dropping in’ of art from on high to change things in post-industrial areas. There was a realisation that such initiatives were not necessarily bringing benefits to deprived communities, that in some ways they were making things worse and were perhaps ultimately unsustainable.

For a time, it seemed the whole Capital of Culture project was heading towards disaster. In the event, sterling work by all involved pulled it back. Ultimately delivering a programme that was varied and popular, ranging from experimental electronica to a Gustav Klimt exhibition and a play about Liverpool FC. Most local people felt, by and large, that it was a successful year, but also that how the city did culture in future would have to be different.

Yes, culture can bring up the visitor economy; witness Liverpool’s huge growth as tourist destination since 2008, recently nominated by Condé Naste Traveller as its third favourite UK destination after London and Edinburgh. Yet if the same type of art is available in London and New York, why go anywhere else? Uniqueness is what attracts visitors, culture they cannot consume elsewhere. Gaudi’s architecture brings many more people to Barcelona than the works in its contemporary arts centre, for example. More fundamentally, there was also a realisation of the need for a change in how cultural services interact with local communities. That publicly funded culture should not be just imposed from the top down, it should be developed with thought given to how different audiences can connect and become involved at different levels. In Liverpool this was perhaps just a return to the way things were done before, back to the era of the founding of the Black-E, the Open Eye and Everyman, but such thinking is beginning to embed itself within wider cultural policy and thinking.

Liverpool of course didn’t do this on its own, but the city has played a big role in debates about culture, participation and the urban environment over the last thirty years. A line could be drawn from the opening of Tate Liverpool with its ‘international culture’ coming North and its luxury flats next door, the beginning of the property and ‘new economy’ boom and the speeding up of the international art world to Capital of Culture and the Crunch and onto today’s greatly changed arts landscape, with funding reduced and audience criteria higher than ever.

Liverpool’s biggest cultural event since Capital of Culture was The Sea Odyssey Giant Spectacular in 2012 and it demonstrated some of the changes that had taken place in the way the city went about its cultural programme. Delivered by renowned French street theatre experts Royal De Luxe, the project was several years in the making. Much time was spent developing the story so that their giant marionettes, which have been seen around the world, had a local connection, in this case via Liverpool’s links to the Titanic. The procession also took in a route that encompassed Anfield and Everton, two of the city’s most deprived wards, not just the shining regenerated city centre and waterfront where so much of the 2008 programme had taken place.

Plenty of opportunities were given for local people to be involved via a Wider Participation Programme embedded from the start of the project. The Sea Odyssey Spectacular included volunteer roles ranging from ‘local advocates’ who promoted the event in the community to people actually operating the marionettes. In addition, much partnership work was undertaken so that local cultural organisations, community groups, schools, colleges and businesses could interlink their own initiatives to the event. For example, there was an accompanying festival in Anfield’s Stanley Park arranged by local partners. Consequently this event is much more fondly remembered in the city than the not dissimilar La Machine from 2008.

Similarly, while the Liverpool Biennial festival had always worked to encourage participation and engagement, for the 2012 event more focus was given to creating in-depth participatory projects. This included the Homebaked/2up2down initiative in Anfield, led by Dutch artist Jeanne Van Heeswijk. Over a period of two years, the project worked to embed itself in the local community and developed the ultimate aim of re-opening a closed-down bakery and restoring abandoned housing in the area. For the period of the Biennial itself, the group that had been formed around the project also created a tour for visitors based around meeting local people which highlighted what had happened to the area in recent years with the failure of various regeneration schemes. Thus the project helped to bring abandoned space back into uses that benefit the community and tell local stories to visitors.

Similarly the Biennial commissioned Los Angeles based artist Fritz Haeg to work with the local community on creating a new garden at the stunningly-sited but somewhat rundown Everton Park. Both the Anfield and Everton Biennial projects had aesthetic outcomes, but ones which also addressed real local issues and needs whilst still working with international artists in an international context. Indeed, these ‘community’ projects attracted as much if not more national press attention than some of the ‘mainstream’ art shows in the city centre held at the same time.

Thinking about culture in the city is also increasingly turning towards sustainability. As a legacy from the Biennial initiatives, the bakery hopes to be fully re-opened by the end of 2013 and plans are underway with the local community for the further development of Everton Park, including a new pavilion.

Liverpool as a city appreciates the power and importance of art and culture, but knows that it can not sit in rarefied isolation from reality and shouldn’t just be dropped in and expected to improve a community by its mere presence. This isn’t to say that all art must be totally instrumentalist; as much as Sea Odyssey had regeneration ideas behind it, it was also something that was in and of itself fun and interesting to watch, but with just changing how things were done a little, it became much more than that.

A culture of participation is healthy and necessary, especially as funding cuts continue to bite and publicly funded arts organisations are more than ever responsible to and reliant on their audiences. Projects such as these undertaken in Liverpool can show the way. That it is possible to commission and create work that benefits local people, entices visitors and excites the art world all at the same time and in doing so, create the possibility of changing lives and communities for the better.

This piece appeared on Mailout.co in April 2013.

As Ever the Phoenix

As Ever The Pheonix Image


His mind felt like it was cracking open, his eyes were puffy and red, and his skin itchy and sticky. He lay cocooned in his cheap, battered leather jacket and a t-shirt stuck to him by three days worth of sweat.

He held his head in his hands, keeping his burning, swollen eyes closed for as long as possible, only looking up occasionally to see the couple of Arab ladies opposite chatting through all his suffering.

The sound of the many washing machines turning was reassuring, though barely enough to drown out the brooding thoughts that threatened to career into his mind.

The laundrette had a stifling atmosphere. Strip lights on even in the day, walls plastered with brightly-coloured flyers advertising long past events and every surface covered with a thin, sickly-static residue of detergent.

He felt like he was breathing it in, the powder going deep, searing away at his already cigarette-abused lungs, slowly suffocating him as he sat beneath the grim yellow fluorescence. He put his head back in his hands again for a long time. Squeezing his eyes hard to try and take control of the throbbing, trying to take control of the feeling in his body.

When he looked up again the two ladies had gone and he found himself looking straight out through the large front window of the shop that looked across the junction of Upper Parliament Street, Catharine Street and Princes Avenue.

Cars, vans, buses, bikes and people all moved rapidly in all directions through the crossroads, all speeding along their own paths through the city. He felt a little better now, and continued to stare out at the never-ending flow through the window that was scarred around the edges with the dust and grease of a million washes.

He stared unblinking until his eyes started to stream and the Escorts and Polos and Hyundais and Transits began to blur. Blue and chrome became brown and plastic; the back of one car began to connect with the front of another.

As he watched, the pedestrians began to walk slower, their every action becoming long and fluid. Every single movement of every body could be seen in minute detail, dragged out and fractured. Eventually, their whole forms began to fragment and disintegrate.

The cars became viscous, their components stretching and flexing before losing their forms and turning into fluid shapes. These too began to flux and bend, breaking into pieces and floating off in many directions.

He saw a bird rise out of the now cracking tarmac on Princes Avenue, a Phoenix that struggled hard to free itself from the fragmenting road surface, eventually, violently, pushing its body outwards and turning the remaining tarmac to dust. It stretched out its brilliant red and gold wings as it rose away.

As he looked back to the road, he saw it had turned into a foaming torrent of a river, roaring forwards without pause down where the avenue had been. In it floated the last few forms of vehicles that quickly sank.

The Georgian terraces that lined the road began to crumble, their facades falling in on themselves to reveal thick jungle, soaring golden temples and, in the distance, jagged, snow-tipped mountain ranges.

The remaining people on the streets turned there, in the bright sunshine, into lions and stags and dragons and mermaids.

And, as the last vestiges of Liverpool 8 erupted, he saw the drive-in NatWest consumed by a waterfall and, far across the plains, the Renshaws factory was shunted aside by an emerging volcano.

Here were a million colours and forms rising before his eyes. Animals grazed on the rich plains and leaped through the surging waters now deep blue, then viscous green, now crystal clear.

It all became too much and, his eyes aflame, he closed them, squeezing them tighter than ever, but still he saw the colours on the inside of his closed lids, burning into his mind.

He concentrated all of his thoughts, all of his energy, on containing what he had seen: the sounds of the volcano; the continually rumbling drums from far away; the vivid, liquid brown of the stag’s eye; the flock of small, bright birds emerging from the dense, damp undergrowth.

All surged inside his head for what seemed like an age. When he eventually peeled open his dry, sticky eyelids again, he was confronted with only the dirty window of the launderette and a shrunken old woman gently snoring on the bench opposite.

Through the window, a Hackney Carriage honked and careered down Princes Road; but behind it, in the corner of his vision, he could see a Phoenix still rising.

This piece appeared on Northern Spirit in November 2012.

Anarchy Row

Anarchy Row image

By Kenn Taylor

Daybreak on Anarchy Row
Hard sun
brings out the best

Long
bent
streets

Buildings
grand and shit
Scarred
by thousands of bombs
Real and
those imagined
by people who
mistakenly thought
they had the answer

The young
form into groups
for protection
and dominance
Shuffling
in bus stops
Long spliffs
burning through the day

Eyes
smiling with power
Kings of their own world
and
always ready
to come into yours

Help them
Condemn them
Say those with powerful places
to place words

Wringing their hands
in broadsheets
over lost communities
they never knew
nor understood

Communities that
have better things to do
than read them

Beats blare out
from bohemian neighbours
who keep doors locked
firmly shut
from the ones
who’ve been
running around
these streets
since childhood
Short on innocence
and peace

Down the road, the economy grows
Shiny flats and restaurants boom
Clean, honest, our bright future
Expensive lattes and
colourful
breakout
workstations

A world away
from
running down
shooting

Big people
Big ideas
Big machines
Coming for you

Do-gooders
and money-grabbers
try to intervene
To save
or
exploit

But everyone
just carries on

Anarchy Row
however much they try
will not conform

Respectability
is not required
Supplying as it does
drugs
women
all the
good times
All the needs
of those respectable folks
with respectable jobs
respectable houses
respectable families

All of it
lies

If you have mean eyes
second-hand guns
You can earn big money
If you do as you’re told

A tinted BMW
and a skinny blonde
If you do as you’re told

And
never
ever
GRASS

Stupid
or strong?
Organised
Refusing to
absorb the lies
You can’t shift cocaine from
Mexico
to Islington
by being a fool

As the light dims on Anarchy Row
people hit their stride
Taking the profits
down town
Glass and steel bars
where money
is all that matters
Italian suit
two bottles of Crystal
Not long before
the ladies
swarm around

Back on the darkening roads
and decay
Old men
from the times of
marches and strikes
still loud
but bitter
sit ranting
in the
few pubs left
But no one is listening
anymore

Older ones
from a different world
cower behind
still-clean
net curtains
while the kids
stalk around

‘Watch lad, we’ve got guns round here’
They do
but they also have bullshit
in tonnes
To justify the attacks on
those not locally born
and
shitting on their own
if they fail to conform

Fear is not permitted
Failing to question
until it’s too late
Blood on hands
A fate sealed
Just another bad example
that no one takes heed

Back out soon
kudos increased
moves up the food chain
till someone bigger
has their next meal

This is the law
that’s governed people
since the start
I’m the fucking hardest
so I’m in charge
The rest of you come and try

As a system
it’s not pretty
but it works

Not everyone
though
falls into line
Every second building
a community centre
of some kind

Forces fight
for soul
Both sometimes winning
But for every one
who gets out
two more
fall down

This is Anarchy Row
Infinitely richer
and poorer
than you can possibly imagine

This piece appeared on Northern Spirit in November 2012.

245 Aigburth Drive

245 Aigburth Drive Image

By Kenn Taylor

The room was long and high, but dark and thick with silence. A lack of sound so heavy as to stupefy anyone caught inside it.

She lived at the top of the house, the bit where the mid-sized Victorian mansion spiralled off into intricacies of points and towers and chimneys.

Flats since the 1960s, these attic rooms had once housed the servants. Country boys and country girls packed off to attend the merchants of the city. Now it was home to just her, alone.

On the windowledge, a once bright flower, now a mass of fraying brown matter, slowly decayed in a thick, glazed pot that retained a brightness even through its dust coating. Behind it, she sat at her desk staring out of the long sash window that let through the filtered cold light of the day.

She had held her pen poised over the pad for so long that her hand ached. As she struggled to write down her story once more, it all seemed gone, lost in the depths of her memory.

Her spirit, though bright, had not escaped the passage of time, her body even more so. She had lived a high life of intense emotions, passions, dreams and excitement. In her time, she had seen and done all; partied for days, travelled far and alone, attended protests, attacked the system. She had been there at the beginning of things, seen great arts at their inception and history in the making.

In the end though, it was all too much. New young idealists began to fill the space. Idealists as yet unlined by the stress of it all, as yet un-jaded by the pain caused by all of these beautiful people. She chose to pull away from all the excitement. Retreat. Retreat.

Decadence burns you up faster, till there seems to be nothing left but a longing for peace. Now that she had peace though, she lived in replays of past glories: sights, faces, feelings, places.

Since then, she had tried many times to recapture her experiences, but there was no way of recording it all. Too much had occurred. To be there was to be there and not to have been there meant that it didn’t matter. For the joy was all in the moment itself, now long past.

Some of the best times though, still remained in her head. Small spots of brightness that cut through the thick fug of greyness and confusion that now filled so much of her mind. Things that had once seared through her were now just a vague tingle, a snatch of a memory drying her throat and dilating her pupils a little on recollection.

Yet, even though so much was gone, she felt some satisfaction that this state had been brought upon her by seeing, doing too much. Even if it was all lost, there was still the contentment of that, a cooling sensation in her body that collapsed the tension and gave her comfort.

She remained poised, fading into those dreams, her desire to recapture them for others, fading also, always flawed because they would never see through her eyes. All that mattered now was the memory and that was all that remained as the trinkets and the people and the places faded away, such as beautiful things always do.

As she retreated further, she lowered the pen slowly down onto the desk and carried on looking out of the dusty sash window, long after the view had turned to absolute black.

This piece appeared on Northern Spirit in November 2012.

Culture

P1070262

By Kenn Taylor

Blood flowed freely from both his nose and mouth. He was forced to sniff and swallow constantly to keep it from streaming down his face. The wet metal taste sickened him and he felt pain deep in his limbs with every movement.

He forced a cough when the blood in his mouth started to drip down his throat, a cough that scattered a field of red specs across the pavement. He accepted that this was just what happened, and tonight he had been unlucky, but a raw anger still seared through his stomach, his throat, his eyes. A pure anger the likes of which he’d never felt before. He coughed another mouthful on the pavement.

The rage he felt wasn’t so much for his attackers. No, rather his employers who had demanded once more that he stay behind to help them catch up with work that hadn’t been done. So he had ended up going home in the dark, and they had ended up getting him. And he wondered again if there was any point in trying.

As muscles and bones across his body complained, he gritted his teeth hard and felt enamel jarring on enamel. He would be dammed if he was going to let them get inside his head. They could beat him up, but he would come back stronger, as always.

The four of them had gripped him down by the Baltic Fleet as he walked home from the function in the arena the agency had sent him down to steward. He had stayed behind reluctantly, knowing that if he’d argued, he would have been blacklisted by the agency again. Now though, he knew however late he had worked today, if he turned in tomorrow, black eye and all, they’d accuse him of having been fighting and send him home, “Can’t have your sort upsetting the guests now can we?”

They’d been waiting down a side road off Jamaica Street that he’d had the misfortune to take a shortcut down. There were four of them in big Honda. It was past eight o’clock, but it wasn’t even that dark. He’d seen them eyeing him up as he walked past. Lips pursed, watching everything and giving nothing away.

He’d picked up the pace right away, hoping they had bigger fish to fry. But they decided he was something for them to do while they waited for whatever business that had brought them to that part of town to materialise.

His mistake was to put up a fight. They probably would’ve just taken his money and left if he’d stayed down. But he wasn’t going to go down without a having a go at least. Never. Even though he knew it was stupid, he had always stood up to what he saw as badness even after being knocked down so many times. So he took the beating, lay for a while to recover and consider his situation, and then moved on as best he could. Like he always did

He pushed on up past Cains and the new arts centre where he’d been working on a function the other day, passed the wrecked looking maisonettes that still contained a few families and the big, faded posters proclaiming brand new developments. “What a mad fucking world,” he said aloud through the blood and bile that filled his throat.

His faith in the rightness of things that had once been so strong was now decaying, but with every blow his faith in himself grew stronger. And he knew that it was only by being stronger and fighting harder that he would be able to push past all that had been loaded upon him. His only fear was that this desire to escape would corrupt him, but he took solace in all those others who had made it.

He pulled at his uniform; a nylon polo top now speckled with sweat and blood, and coughed another mouthful onto the pavement. A passer-by glanced briefly at his shambling but determined figure, before quickly averting their eyes and crossing the street.

Sucking the blood back into his nose once more, he hammered intently down the long expanse of Upper Parliament Street. Cars streamed past him, but as this point he had neither care nor thought to if they saw his split lip, swollen eye, bloodied top, and he raised his head and walked faster.

As he readied himself to cross over towards his street, he noticed something odd in the corner of his eye. Something incongruous had appeared in the familiar landscape of his regular walk home. He slowed his steps and the stopped to examine the new addition. All pain was forgotten briefly as he stood and stared at the object.

It stood on a battered and pock-marked field of grass where rows of terraces had once stood. It was a collection of white, flat metal strips. The strips weaved in and out of each other to form a slightly flattened square with criss-crosses at all angles. All-together, it resembled a kids’ climbing frame that had been assembled incorrectly.

He stood stock-still, save for blinking, and carried on staring intensely at the object. Behind him, cars still continued to scream past towards the Women’s’ Hospital and Renshaws.

As he stood, he raised his hand again to wipe more of the blood from his nose and to check on its congealing process. He looked absent-mindedly at the long, black and red smear on his hand and felt again the pain in his kicked shoulder as he lowered his arm.

He stepped over the small ledge of rubble that divided the field from the pavement, the only remaining marker from the houses that had once lined the street, and, with a confident stride and a slight limp, he headed across the grass towards the object.

He walked right up to the frame and lent in close, staring hard at its poles. He moved to one side, then another. Ran his hand along the smooth, coated-steel surface and look at the ridged bits on the edge where it had been folded by machine. He squatted down, lent on the frame and felt its coldness next to his cheek, then stood up again quickly, the blood rushing to his head giving him a touch of dizziness and clear white spots in front of his eyes.

As he regained full balance he looked at the object again. It still revealed nothing of its purpose, why it was here and what it was meant to be. What it had to do with anything in fact. This item, object, thing had arrived suddenly, without consent, and had been planted without asking. Not grown, bled, eeked out, but dropped from on high.

At the other end of the object he spotted a small, tilted plaque on a pole in the ground. He went over and read it: “Playground in a New Media Universe. Coated steel structure, 2008. Otto Lucas b. New York 1974. Commissioned for Liverpool’s Community Culture Programme.”

He read it again, then looked at the object, then read it again, then looked at the object. As he went to read the panel again, a drop of blood landed on it; a bright, bright red spot that expanded outwards a dozen tiny lines.

This made him smile, and he sucked the blood back up through his nostril once more, turned away and walked off purposefully towards a dead tree at the edge of the field.

Beneath it was a pile of rubbish left from the demolition of the terraces; broken brick, crisp wrappers and other assorted crap. A stubby, grey steel scaffolding pole that was amongst the detritus caught his eye. He lent forward slowly and gripped it with intent. The crusting stalagmites of blood in his nose heated and his heart pounded harder with every footstep as he headed back towards the object.

Once he reached the object again, he stopped and looked hard at it once more, willing it to reveal something, to give it a chance to redeem itself.

As he heard the cars streaming past behind him once again on Upper Parly, he smiled wide and manically, raised the scaffolding pole high above his head and brought it crashing down on ‘Playground in a New Media Universe’.

This appeared on Northern Spirit in November 2012.