A Spotlight On…Claire Walmsley Griffiths

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

South Pier, Claire Walmsley Griffiths, 2020

Kenn Taylor: How did you become a photographer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell me about your Retired Ravers project?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece was published as part of the A Spotlight on Social Practice series by Open Eye Gallery in January 2020.

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

Mark Leckey Dream English Kid 1964-1999 AD

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

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

By Kenn Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still from Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore 1999

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

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

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

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

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

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

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