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

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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.

Culture as a Commodity

By Kenn Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece appeared on The Double Negative in February 2012.

Bust to Bust

By Dan Russell

When this article about the Liverpool International Garden Festival was conceived, I had a clear notion of how it would unfold: I’d describe the flash-in-the-pan Utopia created in 1984, something I presumed to be the last throw of the dice by a socialist council whose city had been decimated by a ruthless Conservative government. I’d then of course go on to bemoan the lack of a legacy, the wastefulness of letting the Festival site decay and the short-sightedness of the model of regeneration that never thought, “but what next?”. In the timespan it covers we have seen one complete cycle — bust to bust. The city’s regeneration boom, neatly bookended by two tourism-centred initiatives: the Garden Festival and 2008’s Capital of Culture. I was hoping to be cynical about this.

Unfortunately, I was wide of the mark. Thankfully, my lines of enquiry blew open my closed opinions.

Firstly, I spoke with my Scouse family. Like many Liverpudlians, they are vehemently anti-Tory. Had my Auntie Edna known she was to die in middle age, she would have gladly taken out Margaret Thatcher first and spent her last joyous days in prison. As such, it was with great surprise that I learned that they had a lot of respect for one of Thatcher’s ministers. Yes, it was in fact Michael Heseltine who decided something must be done to halt the decline on Merseyside when his own party wanted to simply cut it adrift.

Secondly, I talked to local writer and self-confessed “Liverpool anorak” Kenn Taylor. Both he and my relatives were as unanimous in their praise for the Festival as they were disparaging of the Derek Hatton-led Labour council of the day.

I’m aware that the 1980s aren’t famed for their modernism, but they are still a part of the Twentieth Century story. In my opinion the futuristic Buckminster Fuller-esque geodesic dome and huge, ARUP designed space-bullet of the Festival Hall just about scrape it into these pages by aesthetic virtue, and the philosophy of top-down Shangri-La creation by visionary outsiders gets it in on ideological merit.

Heseltine wanted to ease the memory of the Toxteth riots of 1981 and turn Boys from the Blackstuff-era Liverpool into a destination for visitors and investment. Alongside saving and developing the Albert Dock, cleaning the Mersey Basin and creating new technology parks at Wavertree and Brunswick, it was determined that a Garden Festival, based on the German Bundesgartenschau — a bi-annual regional development initiative originating in Hanover in 1951 — was to be organised.

The site, a sludgy former oil terminal, was dredged and infilled in the largest urban reclamation project ever executed in the country. Two hundred and fifty acres of parkland, sixty ornamental gardens, and numerous pavilions and artworks were created.

My granddad was bought a season ticket and went almost every day, such was local love for the Festival. Celebrities of the era, Acker Bilk, Worzel Gummidge, and SuperTed were all in attendance. For nine months Liverpool attracted over three million tourists, people who previously wouldn’t have dreamt of visiting. There was pride in the city again.

In time the Festival ended and then… nothing. A pamphlet had proclaimed that the Festival Hall was to become “the centrepiece of a planned housing, business and leisure development, for use as a multi-purpose sports and leisure centre”. Unfortunately the only sport and leisure that took place on site was quad-biking and dogging. Not forgetting the ill-fated Pleasure Beach amusement park that lasted from the late 80s to 1996.

Despite failing to use the land itself, all was not lost. Two vital things had come from the Garden Festival: the symbolic gesture that Liverpool wasn’t dead; and a model for leisure-led regeneration. Whilst the Festival site languished, other Garden Festival Cities such as Stoke and Glasgow implemented the next phases of their development, and places like Manchester and Birmingham Urban-Splashed their way to success by adopting the development template that in some ways was pioneered in Liverpool.

It wasn’t until it was gearing up for the Capital of Culture bid that Liverpool belatedly caught up with the style of cultural regeneration it had previously experimented with. A chain reaction had been catalysed that in turn has led to the events of 2008, alongside what Taylor calls “the single biggest thing to happen to the city in the last twenty years” – a shopping centre on a grand scale: Liverpool One. Although it pains me to admit it, cities are built on commerce, and in the absence of new industry the fact is that developing a huge shopping experience on privatised city centre land has helped Liverpool to draw level with its peers. At least it is reasonably architecturally interesting.

Far from merely framing the sequence of bust to bust, Liverpool, and in particular the Garden Festival, has arguably provided a direct model for the culture-led regeneration of the UK’s cities. It’s just that where the Garden Festival itself occurred was not where this happened. This boom of regeneration was the face of the supposedly limitless growth that certainly caused the recent bust, but we might now be in a position to ensure that the “what next” for the city — post Capital of Culture and Liverpool One — isn’t the same as what happened to the Festival site.

I was interviewed by Manchester-based artist and designer Dan Russell for this piece he wrote on Liverpool’s 1984 International Garden Festival for The Modernist magazine.

The Bicycle Thieves

By Kenn Taylor

Hear no evil. See no evil. Speak no evil. All three sat in the front of the Transit, faces locked in grimace.

The van’s old heater could not mask the cold of winter. They wore their high-collared, all-weather coats up past their chins and their breath turned into long streams of white mist with every exhalation.

Aaron drove the van around at a steady pace, focused intensely on the road and his labours with the knackered gearbox.

Phil and Ethan sat adjacent on the dual passenger seat. Casting narrow eyes through the murky windscreen for targets and occasionally rubbing their hands for warmth.

Aaron and Phil were the old hands at this game, Ethan the apprentice. They had been working since first light. Out to catch anything good left overnight.

As time passed, dialogue was reduced to a few comments about the cold and remarks on the sight of any prospects. Coughs, squeaky farts and the crunching of the gears were the only other sounds that echoed around the metal box of the van.

The miserable day had reduced even the glow of a successful prize to minimum. It was now midday and they had two bikes in the back already: a fairly decent Scott and a good-but-old racer. More was needed though.

Coming back around the north end of town, they drove down between the Royal and the university and turned into Paddington.

Hoards of students filled the squares that formed the centre of the university. Aaron slowly moved the van over towards the large bike rack by the university branch of the bank.

“They’re jus goin in for their afternoon lectures,” said Aaron, “we’ll wait till it’s all quietend down a bit.”

“Aye yeah,” said Phil.

“Fuckin gormless studes eh?” said Ethan looking towards the others. They stared ahead unmoved.

They parked the van a little distance away from the racks. Even when most of the students had disappeared into the various university buildings, they continued to wait as the engine ticked over and a Radio City DJ chirped away low in the background.

Eventually, as the student body trickled down to a few stragglers, Aaron nodded and Phil got out of the van and walked casually over towards the bike rack.

Adjacent to the rack, there was a CCTV camera high on a pole. Phil pulled his high plastic coat collar a little further up his face. No one would be watching he reckoned, they never were. But, even if they were recording, on the shit grainy video he would now be just another shaven head in a big coat.

In the rack there were four bikes. Phil assessed the scene within a few seconds, glanced around to see if anyone was watching, and then walked back towards the van. He raised his eyebrows a little and smiled at the other two as he approached.

He climbed back in the van and, still looking forwards through the windscreen, said, “There’s a quality Specialized, but it’s got a decent D-Lock on it an, at this time a day, I jus don’t think it’s worth riskin it. We’ll have the saddle off it though; that’s jus bolted on. There’s also a half-decent Dawes racer and a class Kona. We’ll ave both a them. And a piece of shit Raleigh, but I can’t even be arsed carryin it.”

“Nice haul,” said Ethan.

“We aint got anything yet mate,” said Aaron, and he looked Ethan in the eye for the first time in ages. “You hold yer fuckin horses.”

“Let’s jus get it over and done with,” said Phil, and he pushed the van door open again. As it separated from its bent frame it made a popping sound.

Aaron also got out of his side and walked around to the back of the van. He and Phil pulled the back doors open and picked up a set of bolt cutters off the floor.

Leaving the back doors a little ajar, they walked quickly over to the bike rack.

Without speaking, Phil went over to the first bike and snipped its loose chain in an instant, then set to work on the next one. Aaron pulled the first bike free from its holder, lifted it up and rolled it rapidly towards the back of the van.

Ethan, meanwhile, having unscrewed the bolts on the expensive saddle, began to pull it out of the frame.

They all glanced around constantly, but worked in silence.

Ethan pulled the saddle free with a grunt and fell backwards a little with the force of the release. He walked around to place it in the back of the van.

Phil hacked through the last of the chain on the second bike, it had been harder than he had imagined. Grabbing at the crossbar, he prepared to yank it upwards when he heard an intense rushing at the side of his ears.

He was hit in the side of the head with so much force that his whole body swung violently sideways. He heard a cry and ‘Fuck, Phil.’ before his vision turned red then black.

His sight returned within a few seconds and he found himself rolling uncontrollably on the ground. Reflex and long experience made him jump up immediately, but before he could fully regain his feet he was hit in face again, this time he could identify by a foot, and slid sideways into a brick wall, tasting iron in his mouth.

A second kick to the chest knocked the wind out of him and he curled up to protect himself from further blows. But instead he heard a yelp of pain from above and then felt a dead weight slump onto of him.

As Phil struggled to cough out the blood and the chunks of teeth and gum that filled his mouth, he felt his arms get grabbed and his whole body being dragged violently forward. Still dazed, he figured more pain was about to come his way. He braced himself but, even though his arms were being strained in their sockets, he realised he was being lifted up.

As his vision recovered, he could see that it was Ethan that was pulling him forward, holding him by the shoulder and arm. Phil didn’t even have the time to set his legs straight and his feet dragged and kicked as he tried to find balance.

Ethan continued to pull him along aggressively. He stared straight ahead to the road where Phil could see Aaron rapidly turning the van around with the gears grinding loudly again.

Aaron pulled up with the open back doors facing the two of them. Ethan pushed Phil forward straight onto the greasy metal floor and leapt in behind him. Phil looked back and caught a glimpse of a crumpled body slumped by the bike rack as the van moved away. And the bolt cutters covered in dark blood held by Ethan as he pulled shut the doors.

This piece appeared in Issue 12 of The Crazy Oik in January 2012. 

Kevin Casey in conversation with Kenn Taylor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

KT: How did you go about finding the pubs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief History of Edge Hill

This is a book I wrote to accompany the Metal Culture project, The Edge Hill Archive, which looks at the history and culture of Edge Hill, Liverpool 7, and the work that Metal is doing in the area now. The project and the book’s publication was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The design is by Ultimate Holding Company.

You can read A Brief History of Edge Hill at the Issuu link below or download the PDF. For further information on the wider Edge Hill Archive see also the link below.

Edge Hill: the place where an industry began that changed the world.

http://issuu.com/kenntaylor/docs/a_brief_history_if_edge_hill

A Brief History of Edge Hill PDF

www.edgehillstation.co.uk

Art and Commerce

 

Creativity and how it’s paid for

By Kenn Taylor

Throughout history, art and money have always had something of an ambivalent relationship. The role of the professional artist is in itself a product of excess wealth in any given society. Unless there are surplus resources produced to sustain them, such a function cannot exist. In ancient societies, art and culture was produced by members of communities as merely part of their whole existence.

The creation of more intensive agriculture produced a surplus of food, which led to a freeing up of people and resources. This meant that some people could become dedicated to producing art in exchange for sustenance produced by others, paid for those with the power and the capital to commission it. The professional artist had been born.

Art of course is meant to be, and I do believe it is, something that is above the everyday banality of existence. Truly great art; music, films, sculpture, whatever can transcend cultural and political boundaries, language, and the lives of the individual people and cultures that produce it. The ancient Roman and Greek empires and the people who created them are long gone, but we still have all those armless statues to remind us of them.

Yet in the time that art is being created, the money needs to come from somewhere. Art may rise above such things, but artists themselves and institutions that support art do not, there are always resources to be got, bills to be paid. And, usually, those providing the money have had some say in the art, to a greater or lesser extent.

A cursory glance in any art gallery with a historical collection reveals the influence on art of wherever the centres of power and money lay at any given time in history. For centuries the Catholic Church held much of the power in the Western world and had something of a monopoly on commissioning most artistic production.

Later, royalty and the wider aristocracy called the tune. The Medici dynasty that ran the Republic of Florence funded much of the Italian Renaissance. Further on, the mercantile proto-capitalists in the wealthy Netherlands bankrolled the Golden Age of Dutch Painting, with their demand for secular imagery to adorn their homes.

In 19th century Britain, it was the new industrial barons who paid for much of the art. On Merseyside, the Tate, Walker and Lady Lever Art Galleries were originally paid for by Henry Tate, Andrew Barclay Walker and William Hesketh Lever, magnates in sugar, brewing and soap manufacture respectively. All those grand palaces of culture were paid for from the profits made from selling commodities to the new urban masses created by the Industrial Revolution. In Victorian Britain, sponsorship of the arts was a good way to improve your image as more than a businessman. It was an early example of ‘brand association’ that continues right through to today’s Unilever plc, the successor to William Lever’s firm, sponsoring Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall projects.

Later, New York became the post-WWII centre for arts, paid for by that city’s status as the centre of modern capitalism. And, as London took over and became the world centre of ‘casino banking’ after the ‘Big Bang’ that revolutionised the stock market in 1986, those that had grown rich in this brave new world bankrolled much of the ‘Young British Artists’ movement.

This was more of a blip really in the UK though. After WWII, the Government assumed the role of the principle patron of arts, in much the same way it did with health, coal and railways, with the foundation of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946. The Arts Council is widely regarded worldwide as a good model of support for the arts, neither directly state controlled and thus subject to adverse political interference, nor laissez-faire and thus entirely reliant on the whim of the market.

However, there is an inevitability of not being able to rely on the state consistently for funding, as the recent cuts in public expenditure has proven. These cuts have created much debate about what or who will pay for the arts in future. The current Coalition Government is keen on more corporate sponsorship for the arts and, in particular, philanthropy from rich individuals, something which has left many people aghast.

Many view state support as purer than corporate support or wealthy patronage, as if it taints the art less. Yet, state funding also has its own issues. It is certainly not ‘innocent’, being paid for of course through the taxation garnered through our capitalist system. Rising and falling with the whims of any given government and subject to the whims of individual Arts Council staff, state funding inevitably has its own agendas, strings and bureaucracy attached that can be very frustrating to creatives.

There is no one perfect system for funding of the arts, but artists and arts institutions must make terms with their role in the wider economy. Art is not, and never has been, totally ‘pure’, the money must come from somewhere, even if that creates distaste in the mouth of people who presumably aren’t struggling to feed themselves or keep an art gallery open and with free entry. Yet, engaging with economic reality doesn’t have to mean producing poorer work. Today, there is a greater variety of ways that ever to fund creative endeavours.

In terms of institutions, a mixture of funding sources is probably the healthiest, as influence from one source or the other is less likely to interfere with the integrity of programming and also leave it less vulnerable to one source of funding drying up. Something that the people running Britain’s wider economy, with its over reliance on financial services, could have taken heed of.

The Tate may be regarded by some as a corporate monolith, but it operates a good mixed model of funding, with Government money now accounting for less than 50% of its income, the rest a mixture of sales, memberships, donations and corporate and foundation sponsorship. Tate’s well off members and supporters help pay to keep its doors open for free and its outreach and education programmes running for the less advantaged.

Although many smaller and regional institutions couldn’t match Tate’s prowess, at the opposite end of the scale, in 2012, Shetland Arts will open Mareel, a cinema, performance and creative industries centre in Lerwick, one of the remotest parts of the UK. Mareel has no revenue funding to support its operation and activity. Instead, they plan to sustain themselves through the ownership and exploitation of intellectual property rights – by investing in the creation of arts projects and working to leverage the value of any content. It will also take advantage of digital communications with live music content captured and broadcast from the venue, giving it an audience stretching far beyond its isolated base. If this can be done in a remote Scottish island, surely some of the institutions in England’s regional cities could take inspiration.

What about individual artists? Again the internet is an invaluable tool for the upcoming creative that was not open to others in the past. The net has made self-promotion far easier. You can sell you e-book or artwork online and cut out the middle man. You can put music or film on YouTube for a potential global audience for free and make your own impressive website that you don’t need a degree in computing to build. Crowd funding, or ‘micro-philanthropy’, via the net is also a new option. WeDidThis.org.uk is a site that has helped individual creatives and groups to source funding from ordinary individuals to support everything from arts clubs for disadvantaged kids in Peckham to a travel journalism assignment across Europe.

Aside from working as an individual, there is indeed strength in unity, both in operating a more traditional business model such as a limited company, or any number of alternatives. The artists’ collective has appeared repeatedly through history, with mixed success. Many artists’ studios in Liverpool, such as The Royal Standard and Red Wire, operate on this basis of collective management, operation and funding, banding together to provide studio and gallery space, collectivise resources and bid for bigger funding from other sources.

It is also possible to find a balance between producing ‘pure’ work you want to pursue and commercial work that pays the bills. Again, there’s a long tradition of this, William Blake did commercial work as an engraver his whole life to support his own artistic endeavours. More contemporary, here in Liverpool we can see self-sustaining arts organisations like Mercy and the Kazimier who have found a balance between sustainable commercial success while maintaining their artistic integrity, producing work for corporate or state clients or paying patrons and re-investing that back into more ‘purely’ artistic work.

In these austere times, probably more than ever artists and arts institutions must stare their bank accounts in the face, but doing this doesn’t have to mean selling out. All the great art works in history had to, one way or another, make terms with the economic and political reality in which they were created. As Bob Dylan said, ‘you’re gonna have to serve somebody’ but, more than ever, it can be on your own terms.

This piece appeared in the December issue of Object of Dreams magazine.

Canning zine

‘Canning’ is a new zine I have created with artist Natalie Hughes and designer Mike Carney. It features a varied collection of my writing from the last few years that has been inspired by the Canning area of Liverpool 8. You can read it on Issuu at the link below or download the PDF. A limited number of print copies will also be available for free in the usual outlets in Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield in the next couple of weeks.

http://issuu.com/kenntaylor/docs/canning_zine

Canning zine PDF

Independent Thinking

By Kenn Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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