Monday, 22 April 2013

Interview with Castles Built in Sand, directors of Helpyourself Manchester (screening at Victoria Baths on Sunday May 5)

Helpyourself Manchester, a recent film telling the story of Manchester’s unsung DIY music promoters, will be screening at this year's Victoria Baths Fanzine Fair (Sunday May 5), accompanied by an exhibition of original fliers from gigs featured in the film. The documentary focuses on a group of friends who found new and creative means of organising and promoting gigs in the mid- to late years of the previous decade, featuring bands such as Burnst, Cat on Form, the Enablers and McWat. From living rooms to basements, the promoters shown in the film put exciting and unheard bands on not for financial reward, but because they loved the music. The film, which makes uses of animation, photography, interviews and archive footage in a cut-and-paste style appropriate to the subject matter, is the work of Castles Built in Sand, a Manchester-based documentary film collective working on a DIY, not-for-profit and copyleft basis. The Shrieking Violet spoke to Castles Built in Sand to find out more about how they formed as a group and their collaborative approach to film-making.

SV: Tell me a bit about Castles Built in Sand – who are you and how did you come together as a collective? 

CBIS: We are a group of visual anthropologists, artists and musicians. Paddy, Huw, Insa, Yas and Birgitta met through their studies (some of us did an MA of Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester). Simon joined us later.

SV: Why did you decide to start a film-making collective? 

CBIS: After our graduation we all wanted to continue making films and to improve our skills. That's why we decided to start working together as a collective – to share skills, equipment and to motivate each other.

SV: You've also collaborated with some of the participants in your films. What do you gain from working collaboratively, both within the collective and with other groups of people such as interviewees, that you don't get working alone? 

CBIS: Working collaboratively allows us to gain different perspectives on the topics we are working on. It also ensures that everyone feels engaged and represented. This is especially important for us in regards to the people we are working with. We want to ensure they feel like they had a say and are portrayed in a way that leaves them empowered. Filmmaking for us is a mutual process, a give and take and learning from each other.

SV: How does the filmmaking process work – how do you set the theme and direction of where your projects are going? Is every project a joint project, or are there some films where certain people take the lead based on their interests or choose to adopt a lesser role?

CBIS: If we work on a project together there is a lot of discussion involved. We are never quite sure what exactly a project will end up as, because of the collaborative approach, everyone has an input which means a project can change quite a bit in the process of making. For our next project we are going to define our roles a bit more, which will be an interesting new approach for us.

However, we are also not always all working together on a project. Sometimes some of us decide not to be engaged in a project due to time constraints or varying interests or because it doesn't make sense to have too many people involved.

SV: How do you choose your subjects? Is there anything that ties all your projects together, either thematically or in the approach taken to filmmaking? 

CBIS: Our projects are not necessary linked in any way, we choose them according to what we are interested in or think is an important topic to portray.

SV: How did Helpyourself Manchester come about? What's your involvement with that scene, why did the film need to be made and why make the film now – in retrospect? 

CBIS: The idea to make a film about Helpyourself Manchester and this part of Manchester's DIY scene came out of conversations Paddy had with Lee, one of our friends who was involved with Helpyourself Manchester. Huw was around for the last few gigs, whereas Insa and Paddy came to Manchester in 2009, a few years after Helpyourself. We wanted to look at the way people had used space in Manchester to organise culture outside of the mainstream. With all the government cuts and the current debates about gentrification it seemed like a topic that is actually quite timeless and important to discuss.

SV: How did you go about making the film and how long did it take? 

CBIS: From start to finish it took us about one and a half years to complete the film. We collected material on the way, interviewed our friends and tried to get as much info as possible. Then we edited separate sequences which we thought should be in the film and which we joined up eventually. Once we had a first watchable version of the fllm (which at the time was about two hours long) we showed it to the people who we had filmed and to friends who hadn't heard about Helpyourself Manchester before. These sessions provided us with a lot of different opinions as to what would work and what wouldn't and suggestions for changes. In the end we cut the film down to 54 minutes.

SV: Your projects seem to have a political dimension running through them to do with power, voice and representation. Do you consciously try to make films from that perspective?

CBIS: It's less a conscious choice to make films which might be considered political, but it rather comes out of our interests and ways of looking at the things going on around us. So it happens naturally rather than us trying to provide a political stance.

SV: Whether focusing on DIY promoters, the residents of a temporary care home, protestors or young people affected by cuts to education, your films quite often depict the type of subjects and people that might not normally have a film made about them. What do the subjects get out of being part of the filmmaking process – and what do we get out of it as viewers? 

CBIS: It is important to show what wouldn't be shown otherwise and to make people conscious of what is going on around them. Film, photography and sound are powerful tools which offer people outside the media focus a way to express themselves. The collaborative way in which we are working hopefully leaves the people we are working with with a feeling of actually having had a possibility to say what they wanted to say.

SV: You've collaborated with bands like Levenshulme Bicycle Orchestra and Tubers in the past; can you explain the importance of sound in your work?

CBIS: Sound lets us see things differently. When the sound is good, the images seem more powerful and engaging.

SV: There is also a really strong sense of place in your films. How would you describe your approach to representing and describing place? 

CBIS: We try to engage with the place or space we portray – you could almost say we let it speak to us. Using different media is very important for this approach. We don't confine ourselves to one medium but use whatever medium we think best conveys a sense of the place. That's where sound is also very important – if we listen we discover different aspects of what contributes to our notion of a place.

SV: Your webpage has quite a few texts as well as films, which seem to stand together – what is the relationship between the texts and the films, and do you find it to be a useful process to write about the processes of making and conceiving films?

CBIS: What we tend to forget is that each medium has its own qualities and its own place in the context of representing a topic. We try to use different methods and media depending on their usefulness to portray a topic as complete and from as many perspectives as possible. Film can't express or explain everything but it gives a good sense of place and people's personalities. Sound lets us experience place from another standpoint. And texts can help us putting everything into a greater context or to deconstruct the images we present. It is important to question different methods of representation and using mixed media allows us to bear the construction of these representations in mind.

SV: What are you working on at the moment and what are you planning to do next? 

CBIS: We have just started working on a trailer for our next project, which will be an apocalyptic photo essay film. This should keep us busy for a while.

SV: Where can people see your work? 

CBIS: We have a blog which we update as regularly as possible. There you can also find a list of upcoming screenings, the next one being Helpyourself Manchester at Victoria Baths on 5 May, as part of the Victoria Baths Fanzine Fair (12-14pm).

Helpyourself Manchester trailer:


Tuesday, 16 April 2013

A PowerPoint about the Shrieking Violet (Unit X lecture)

I spent the weekend doing battle with the Open Office version of PowerPoint in order to create a presentation to go alongside an hour-long guest lecture I was invited to do for Unit X students at Manchester Metropolitan University this morning (making a PowerPoint was an unbelievably slow process, probably because of the size/amount of photos I used). The students are working on a project to create zines, mainly in groups, and organise a zine fair. I decided to try and sum up the Shrieking Violet in pictures rather than in text, so my PowerPoint includes lots of screenshots from various issues over the years, as well as photos of zines which have inspired me, mainly about cities, both before I started making the Shrieking Violet and on an ongoing basis. While I was taking photos of my dad's early '80s collection of punk/goth/indie zines to include, I came across a couple of letters which were written to my dad (Simon), obviously in response to letters he had sent to editors of zines he enjoyed offering words of praise. Both letters, from the Cramps zine Rockin' Bones, and Scottish zine Deadbeat, are on letter-headed paper, so I included them in the presentation both as a curiosity and perhaps as something to aspire to; maybe one day the Shrieking Violet will have its own letter-headed paper!

The presentation also attempts to show the number and range of contributors to the Shrieking Violet to date (circa 100); some key themes and content areas; collaborations; production; design (including examples of bad design in the early days of the Shrieking Violet, when I thought all text had to be justified and in boxes, and I had a habit of putting images behind the text, rendering it almost illegible, along with some examples of better design, mainly done by other people!); illustrations and photography; the process of photocopying and folding print copies; print and online distribution; the Shrieking Violet contributions in zine libraries; publicity such as interviews; and events such as the Victoria Baths Fanzine Convention.

The presentation I made is a really, really big file, and the image quality is not good now it has been compressed to PDF, however it can be read online below. I have vowed that next time I have to make a presentation I am going to try and use Prezi instead!

Friday, 5 April 2013

The Shrieking Violet in the Skinny (magazine launch tonight)

The Shrieking Violet is pleased to feature in the first issue of the Northwest edition of the Skinny, a free arts and culture magazine for Manchester and Liverpool which launches in Manchester at 2022NQ this evening (from 6pm, Facebook event here. Conveniently, the latest edition of the modernist magazine, themed 'Capital', is also launching this evening just down the road at the CIS tower, also from 6pm). The Shrieking Violet is represented in the feature 'What's Your Northwest', for which interviewees were asked questions about place, community and belonging. I was asked interesting questions, and answering them has really helped me think about how to approach the lecture I am doing about the Shrieking Violet for Unit X students at Manchester Metropolitan University in a couple of weeks, so I decided to reproduce the questions, and my answers, in full below.

Read the full magazine online here, or look out for paper copies around Manchester:

I've not read the whole magazine yet, but there are some great features by former Shrieking Violet contributors and collaborators Lauren Velvick (who previews an upcoming show at the Cornerhouse) and Sam Lewis, who interviews Shrieking Violet favourite Rozi Plain.

TS: What motivated you to set up The Shrieking Violet, and get involved in independent publishing and particularly in Manchester? Who/what were you inspired by, and what did you hope to do with the Shrieking Violet, both personally and in a wider community sense? 

SV: I moved to Manchester for university in 2005 and realised quickly that I wanted to make it my long-term home. After graduating I did a qualification in newspaper journalism but it was a terrible time to be trying to enter the media and it was difficult to even get work experience. I was unemployed for nine months, but decided to make the best of the situation so started blogging about the city around me. In summer 2009, I decided to put the skills I'd learnt on my journalism course to use and take the Shrieking Violet off the page to become a printed zine – if I couldn't be part of the established media then I was going to make my own media, covering things I found interesting that weren't being written about elsewhere. I was disillusioned with the way in which Manchester was marketed, which was all about shopping and consumption, so the Shrieking Violet was conceived as an alternative guide to Manchester which encouraged readers to make their own fun, think creatively and realise the adventures they could have in the city without spending a penny. Having a project and putting something out into the world helped focus my life and lift me out of depression.

I'd wanted to make a zine since I was a teenager, as my dad had loads of old punk/indie/goth zines in the attic, but when it came to making my own I decided to stay away from music as there were already Manchester zines which were covering music very well. Belle Vue zine (which started in December 2008) was a major influence on me realising that the city itself, its residents and their memories and experiences, joys and frustrations, could be the subject of a zine.

TS: And what keeps you motivated to do it – what's your favourite thing about what you do? 

SC: The great thing about blogs and zines is that as soon as you've written about a subject you will find someone else who is writing about something related to that topic too, and more often than not discovering each other starts a dialogue and reciprocal relationship. My favourite thing about making the Shrieking Violet is all the people I have met, who have gone on not just to be contributors but regular correspondents and sources of motivation and inspiration. One of the most rewarding things has been being asked to collaborate with other people, and take part in one-off projects. In 2010 the organisers of Salford's Sounds from the Other City music festival asked me to design the official programme as a special edition of the Shrieking Violet, so I teamed up with illustrator Dominic Oliver to create a souvenir guide to the festival's highlights and the surrounding area. In 2011, the Shrieking Violet got together with psychogeographic walking group the Loiterers Resistance Movement and architecture enthusiasts Manchester Modernist Society for a project called Manchester's Modernist Heroines, which celebrated ten overlooked Manchester women from the twentieth and twenty first centuries through a publication and series of walks.

TS: You write extensively about Manchester and the Northwest region on themes of place, history, society, belonging, architecture, and more. What particularly fascinates you about the place you live, its people, its community, if you had to define it...? 

SV: What fascinates me about Manchester is how much history is written into the streets and buildings, to experience as you go about your everyday life. From street names based on the textile trade to churches, public parks and swimming baths, you really get a sense of Manchester's past and how society used to be. You can marvel at the infrastructure of the industrial age by looking at canals and railway viaducts which are still in use today, get a sense of textile magnates' wealth by looking up at grand warehouses (even if they are now turned into warehouses or apartments), try to imagine life in the former mass workplaces of mills and factories, now standing silent, and see remnants of industrial philanthropy in lads' clubs and ragged schools. These aren't the kind of heritage venues where you have to pay a tenner to get in, put plastic coves on over your shoes or peer at rooms over velvet ropes – these are buildings which in many cases are still getting on with a job and fulfilling a use, even if it's not their original purpose. Manchester's cityscape tells you just as much as any palace or castle about how people used to live, work and socialise, as well as constantly changing and embracing the future.

TS: What's the most unexpected or surprising thing you've discovered about this city/its culture/its people while researching and writing about it (or indeed reading articles others have contributed to the zine)? 

SV: What is unexpected and surprising is some the subjects which crop up over and over again as being important to people living in Manchester. One of these is public transport. The Shrieking Violet has featured articles on everything from never-realised plans to build a tunnel linking the city's two main stations – along with a specially-drawn, London-style map showing what an underground system for Manchester might look like – to an illustrated article about Metrolink, a reappreciation Manchester's neglected Victoria station and even an homage to Finglands buses! I also loved being introduced to some of the inspiring and often overlooked stories of the women celebrated in the Manchester's Modernist Heroines project, who might not have crossed my radar otherwise – from mummy expert Rosalie David to radio producer and presenter Olive Shapley and sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe.

TS: And what's your most treasured revelation - what are you really glad you found out? 

SV: The thing I treasure most is the range of the people who have featured in the Shrieking Violet, whether as interviewees or as contributors. Some of my favourite interviews have been with Manchester's street buskers, who have really interesting stories to tell yet many people never stop to talk to them. I also love finding out about the particular passions or expertise of contributors – for example one man, who has been speaking Esperanto since 1967, wrote about all the international adventures the language has enabled him to have. Another took it upon himself to swim in all of Greater Manchester's numerous public swimming baths, and has now produced an illustrated guide. I've also enjoyed finding about other people's projects, for example film-makers who have written about their work. In 2010 I made a media special of the Shrieking Violet focusing on Manchester's history as a centre of the newspaper industry and this prompted someone who once worked inside Manchester's Daily Express building to get in touch, leading to an article about what it is really like to work for the Daily Sport! I've also loved it when members of Manchester Modernist Society have shared their enthusiasm for some of the overlooked and often neglected mosaics, murals and other artworks which brighten the walls of university buildings and various other places around Manchester.

TS: There seems to be a very strong, visible independent print community in Manchester, Liverpool and beyond. Would you say it's changed/evolved since you first got involved – maybe got bigger, wider...? What kind of community have you encountered, why do you think it's so fertile and what binds you all together? 

SV: The thing that makes self-publishing so attractive is that anyone can do it, whether they are just photocopying pencil drawings and poems or lovingly screenprinting original designs, and there's a growing audience for that tactile, hand-printed, limited edition format. There have never been more opportunities for self-publishers and members of the print community to show off their work, and one area which is really booming is zine fairs and print fairs. Another interesting development is how established zines have become within institutions such as colleges and universities – it's quite common now for illustration, design, photography and fashion courses, for example, to include a student project on making a zine, and it's nice when groups formed at university stay together and continue to publish after graduation.

TS: What is 'your' Manchester? If you had to choose just five places for people new to the city to visit on a sort of 'alternative' tour, what would they be and why? 

SV: 'My Manchester':

1. Canals

The Ashton, Bridgewater, Rochdale and Manchester Ship canals are the city's underlooked green spaces. Whereas once canals would have been polluted and congested, today they are places for pleasure, from canal boating, foraging and bird-watching to walking and cycling. For an awe-inspiring sight head to Barton (near the Trafford Centre), where the Bridgewater Canal makes a spectacular crossing of the wide Manchester Ship Canal by aqueduct, and cars drive over a swing bridge.

2. Ancoats

Ancoats is dubbed 'the world's first industrial suburb', or the cradle of the industrial revolution, and a number of centuries-old mills still remain. Today the area is being converted to residential and commercial use, but Dan Dubowitz's public art project the Peeps, which teases viewers to find a number of small viewing holes dotted around the outside of buildings, gives a tantalising glimpse of what might once have gone inside the area's factories and workshops.

3. Public parks

Manchester is not known for its green spaces, but in fact some of the county's first public parks were in Manchester and Salford; Philips Park in east Manchester, Queen's Park, Harpurhey and Peel Park, Salford all opened in 1846, whilst Heaton Park in Prestwich is one of the largest parks in Europe. In the city centre, too, there are plenty of quiet places to sit and eat your lunch, lay around in the sun or have picnics and barbecues in summer. Like most places in Manchester, the city's green spaces sit on layers of history – literally in the cases of some of the city centre gardens like Angel Meadows and St John's Gardens, Castlefield, which are on the site of slums and mass burial sites.

4. Residential suburbs

Wander around some of the city's suburbs and residential communities to see how other people have lived over time, from the Georgian cobbled streets of Fairfield Moravian settlement, nestled amid the suburban sprawl of Tameside, to the big houses around Old Broadway in Didsbury and Chorltonville, an Arts and Crafts-style village-within-a-village in Chorlton complete with its own village green.

5. Star and Garter

Manchester is known for its music and party culture after all! It may not be the city's most glamorous venue, but the Star and Garter really caters for music fans (and people like me who might not go to clubs otherwise) by offering theme-nights for lovers of certain bands, from Belle & Sebastian to Pulp and Pixies and, of course, the Smiths/Morrissey! It's been a big part of my life since I arrived in Manchester as a student – the first Manchester gig I went to was at the Star and Garter – but there's a chance it might get knocked down to make way for an extension to Piccadilly train station, so I recommend making the most of it while it's still here!

TS: If you had to evoke the character of the city you live in in just a few words, how would you describe it?

SV: (This was the question I found hardest.) The rain's just a distraction.