Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Shrieking Violet Issue 7

Issue 7 of the Shrieking Violet is out now!Justify Full
Featuring snow - the words of Diary of a Bluestocking EP Niblock accompanied by the photos of Andrew Beswick (who has compiled the best photo-diary of snowmen I have ever seen!).

Catriona Gray on the joys of boardgames (something funny happened to the picture of monopoly - the logo is back to front and the pdf added a white border to the photo. I do not know why). Adam Faulkner on French music. My article saying farewell to URBIS. Chris Lane and Peter Huntley of North West New Wave on independent film in Manchester and the North West. A short story by Nick Mitchell. My recipe for mushroom soup and Anthony Watt's red cabbage. Listings.

And a beautiful cover by Kate Alexandra McLeish.

Here is the download link for the print-and-fold-your-own or try-to-follow-the-order-of-the-pages-onscreen version.

Free paper copies will be scattered lightly across places such as Piccadilly Records, Cornerhouse, Koffee Pot, Nexus Art Cafe, Good Grief, Noise cafe, Oklahoma and Central Library.

There is also a postal order service. To request a copy, send your name and address to

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Goodbye, URBIS (2002-2010)

“This landlocked building, URBIS, sleek and unexpected, has turned its back on the River Irwell, to face the town and its compact, self-contained centre. Shivering in its glass cladding like a customised iceberg, Urbis belongs to a fleet…[of] boats which do not travel but are themselves the inspiration for travel by others: visitor destinations, attractors, flexible in usage, weather - resistant, brought into being with the death of the industrial process.” Iain Sinclair, London based writer and psychogeographer, who was commissioned to visit and produce a response to Manchester in summer 2009, quoted in the best-of URBIS exhibition URBIS Has Left the Building: Six Years of the Best Exhibitions in Pop Culture.

At 6pm on Saturday 27 Feburary, the museum known as URBIS will shut its doors forever. It will close for a couple of months and, after its exhibitions have been dismantled, it will be refitted before reopening again as the National Football Museum. Read the Manchester Evening News or the City Council website and they’re full of triumph about how the city has won the National Football Museum from Preston, and what a benefit it will be to the city. Manchester is famous world-over for football. The football museum was struggling in Preston and URBIS, a sort of awkward, unwieldy hybrid of popular culture forum and city museum, was failing to attract enough visitors. The idea was simple: quietly close one of Manchester’s flagship post-bomb projects (as Sinclair puts it, ‘an icon for the new theology of capital and regeneration’), which wasn’t doing as well as hoped, and replace it with a sure-fire crowd pleaser.

I, along with many others, was sad about URBIS closing, but didn’t realise the full extent of what the city will be losing until I went to say my final goodbyes by visiting the URBIS Has Left the Building retrospective.

On the sunny Saturday I went, URBIS was packed. Children ran through the displays, teenagers lurked in groups, couples scrutinised displays intently. It was alive with a cross-section of the city. By the message boards, where people could pin their comments, the conversations I overheard expressed shock and dismay. Reading the comments, a theme emerged; ‘We like football, but we like URBIS better’. ‘We like football BUT… there’s more to Manchester than football’. People are interested in football, but we already all know Manchester likes football. The people of Preston were, understandably, upset about losing their museum (facebook groups were formed both to keep the football museum in Preston and URBIS in Manchester), and it seems that even those in Manchester who like football are upset about losing theirs.

Manchester has a great variety of museums, dedicated to all manner of specialist topics — from the police to the Pankhursts, the working classes to transport. But URBIS was separate. Its name means literally ‘from the city’. Museums dedicated to one subject are the type of place you might visit as a one off, out of curiosity, but unless you’re a real enthusiast, you’re unlikely to visit again and again. URBIS, on the other hand, by being so broad, attracted what Sinclair termed ‘casual pilgrims’, from tourists wondering where to start to Mancunians who could discover sides to the city they’d never seen before.

Some of my favourite exhibitions at URBIS were encountered before you even reached the main exhibition space. Aidan O’Rourke’s Manchester epic mega-photo in the foyer challenged you to try to identify a fast-changing city scape. In the corridor space in between the shop and the entrance, photographers documented often underlooked area of city life, with changing displays ranging from portraits of the ‘goth’ and ‘emo’ kids who frequent Cathedral Gardens immediately outside URBIS to affectionately shot greasy spoons and an overview of the of the Curry Mile.

URBIS showcased movements and ideas not usually found in museums, from Urban Exploration — Andrew Paul Brooks’ photographs of hidden Manchester were taken with the help of the secret network of clandestine adventurers — to guerrilla gardening, Manga, computer games, street art and even hip-hop.

In an pessimistic opinion piece on the Culture24 website, however, URBIS’s creative executive Vaughan Allen explores the failures of building a museum to popular culture:

“Attempts to found museums based around still-living, still-developing expressions of popular activity have floundered on one simple issue: if it's already out there, already happening, it can't be captured and can't be (literally) encased.”

To him, the difficulty of capturing popular culture in a museum is “it’s about something that's fleetingly experienced and then passes away”. But surely the point of URBIS wasn’t to be or recreate popular culture. As Sinclair implies in his description of URBIS, it’s merely a vessel to find out what is going on that you may not have heard about, a starting point for other journeys and adventures.

URBIS was drawn from the city, but it also reminded us of the world outside the city. Some exhibitions were backward looking and trading on past glories — celebrating 25 years since the opening of the Hacienda, for example, but at its best URBIS related Manchester to the wider world, showing how we‘ve impacted on global events and they have changed the way we live. An exhibition on Emory Douglas and the often misunderstood Black Panthers, for instance, timed with the election of the first African-American president, Barack Obama, with a link drawn to Manchester‘s radical history and resistance to the slave trade. Similarly, Leon Reid IV’s installation ‘True Yank’ in Lincoln Square, which dressed a sombre statue of Abraham Lincoln in hip-hop clothes, as part of the State of the Art: New York exhibition at URBIS, reminded Mancunians of a part of Manchester and its history that‘s often overlooked — Lincoln Square is so named because there‘s a monument to the sacrifices made by the people of Manchester who boycotted cotton from the southern American states during the civil war.

Like all good museums should, URBIS inspired discussion and debate. It was more than just a place to go and look, to observe culture passively. URBIS held city tours, regular language sessions, adult education programmes, urban research forums and the acclaimed Reclaim mentoring scheme. It hosted events such as festivals, the occasional gig and Manchester zine fest. It acted as a meeting place and a showcase, holding awards, fashion shows and exhibitions of graduate art and design.

As Sinclair notes, Ian Simpson’s towering glass structure is somewhat out of place with the historic buildings around it. But, at a certain time of day, as the sun turns the frosted glass on the upper floors orange and sets over Manchester city centre in all directions, from the cathedral, Chethams library and the dome of the Corn Exchange to the Arndale, Printworks and CIS tower, it seems like the best place to watch Manchester past meet Manchester present and Manchester future.

I won’t reserve judgement on the football museum until I’ve been. Who knows, maybe it will convert me and I will spend hours browsing the nation’s sporting history. But, until then, I’m afraid I think the closure of URBIS is a big mistake.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Walls are Talking: Wallpaper, Art and Culture, Whitworth Art Gallery

Wallpaper has a few obvious functions; to decorate — change the appearance of an environment. To show off one's status or wealth — through designer, luxury or custom made paper. To display one's taste — matching a room in a perfectly complementing design scheme. Or even, on a basic level, to hide what's below. Wallpaper can reflect the fashions of the time — it contributes to layers of history, literally (have you ever peeled back a strip of wallpaper to reveal a layer of once garish but now faded '70s design, over which new wallpaper has been pasted?) Wallpaper can also be a form of escapism — most explicitly in designs which allow the viewer to imagine themselves somewhere else, particularly outdoors, from William Morris's Victorian patterns, incorporating natural images such as fruit, to the classic motif of ivy, which reflects man's desire to tame and domesticate the wild.

The UK's first exhibition of wallpaper, though, at the Whitworth Art Gallery (Walls are Talking: Wallpaper, Art and Culture), shows how wallpaper has also often been a way of keeping people in their place and how it can contribute to the repressive feel of the domestic space. It also explains, by extension, how the domestic interior, including wallpaper, can be a vessel for rebellion.

Any repeated image or idea can superficially lose its power the more one is exposed to it, although it may continue to have a subtle psychological effect. Walls are Talking politicises wallpaper, applying this concept to explore how wallpaper can reinforce certain ideas and scenarios; a form of indoctrination from within the home, with the child's bedroom often a starting point. Catch them young so they're used to seeing scenes of an idealised childhood and an adulthood which will become the norm, from seemingly innocuous scenes of boys enjoying the outdoors or physical pursuits such as wrestling to contrasting parades of pretty in pink Barbies dancing ballet. Children's rooms are another commercial space, prey to pester power, for example the Manchester United wallpaper that's a 'must have' for a 'little boy' to Spice Girls version, an 'essential' for a 'little girl'.

Once boys have outgrown these 'manly' stereotypes, we're shown archive examples of some quite disturbing designs of sexualised women they can move onto. Submissive images of women fade into the background, only valued for being there, to be looked at, but contributing nothing else to the environment than a passive image. One photo shows how to decorate your room Playboy style. It's impossible to miss the connotations of what the room is meant to be used for.

It's not just children's and teenagers rooms, though. It's suggested that wallpaper is an example of the oppression of the whole domestic sphere — just as a pattern is repeated ad infinitum until you no longer notice it's there, repetitive domestic tasks become a routine in which it's easy to be trapped, for example the work Cry Baby which densely crams red, angry crying babies onto the wall, as something which cannot be escaped from.

Of course, this provides something to protest against and subvert. Wallpaper can be used as a way to force something uncomfortable into vision, from the pock-marks of war to General Idea's pop-art-esque AIDS wallpaper in which the word is stacked high on the wall in bright, unmissable colours.

The Walls Are Talking also questions where we're most exposed to wallpaper nowadays, with it less fashionable in the minimalist, neutrally decorated modern home. Bars, clubs, pubs, hotels shops are now, it seems, the place where we're most likely to be surrounded by wallpaper, and in the last century artists have taken a more playful approach to the artform. You may not want to live with Damien Hirst's pill wallpaper or Andy Warhol's large, colourful cows, but seen in the public sphere they're a comment on our society and its preoccupations. One design which made me laugh out loud was David Shrigley's Industrial Estate, which shows the uniformity of modern design by presenting a series of identical boxes, on which are written words such as 'sauna', 'leisure centre', 'warehouse', 'disco', 'show home' and 'jail', huge and ominous in relation to the tiny people who surround them.

The Whitworth has always been strong on wallpaper, and one of the things I liked best about Walls are Talking is the way in which it complements past exhibitions I've seen there. Last year's Subversive Spaces surrealism exhibition showed the work of Francesca Woodman and other women artists who used rebellion both against and from within the domestic realm as a form of self-expression, and comparisons were drawn with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic feminist story The Yellow Wallpaper. It was hard not to be reminded of the story when walking round Walls are Talking, especially when seeing the installations of Erwan Venn, who has translated wallpaper into video, leaping around to music and floating tauntingly across the screen like the rows of elusive sheep faced by insomniacs.

I also loved the way the walls in the south gallery were completely papered up to the ceiling with Thomas Demand's green, leafy Ivy design, a perfect example not only of how wallpaper can influence a place, but how wallpaper itself can also be changed by context. Although inspired by a child murderer's hideaway, on a sunny day, with the sun catching between the trees outside, the entire gallery was flooded with light and it was as if the whole work had been completely illuminated.

Some of the best designs were those commissioned especially by the Whitworth, including one celebrating the cheque, repeating the image as if it's going out of fashion (which, of course, it is!).

Walls are Talking
Whitworth Art Gallery
Oxford Road
M15 6ER
Until May 3

Thursday, 4 February 2010

In praise of soup/an experimental mushroom soup recipe

I used to turn my nose up at the idea of soup for dinner. I saw it as a starter, a warm-up for real food. If I had it for my evening meal, I'd be hungry again in a couple of hours, I thought.

That was until New Year's Day, when I had my first ever hangover and the only way I could possibly face food was in pureed form. Gentle food to go easy on my head and stomach. When I arrived home on New Year's Day, I just about managed to make some squash, turnip and lentil soup and immediately felt slightly calmer.

Even when the hangover had gone, though, I still felt terrible for weeks afterwards. I realised this New Year terrified me like no new year had ever scared me before. Whereas I'd always thought of myself as being confident and bold, suddenly, instead of being excited by the future like normal, the idea made me feel really panicked. Every day I had foreboding in my stomach, a constant rumbling of dread. Before, it was rare my daily routine didn't feature some combination of chili, paprika, cumin or ginger, but now the thought of spicy food made my body and brain recoil in fear.

I couldn't face doing anything useful, so threw all my energy and spare time into obsessively making soup, throwing as many combinations together as I had around the kitchen, from carrot and pumpkin (a bit disappointing - the carrots completely overpowered the pumpkin) to broccoli, leek, potato and Stilton (you'd think this is too many good things in one meal, but it works!).

If I made a big pot on a Sunday evening, I could freeze or refridgerate it, thereby keeping myself in lunch and/or dinner for the rest of the week. Gradually, I realised I couldn't imagine eating anything but soup; I feel like I've barely eaten anything solid all year, only progressing a slight step up to mashed potato when I felt a bit braver. With the outside dark and prohibitively cold, what could be a better comfort food than a meal that can be eaten with a spoon and fingers (if taken with bread)?

I started to see soup-making as a creative act: it's got all the ingredients that go into a normal meal, but blended together to make something new. Things that are good by themselves are even better in close proximity with something else - there's nothing like apple in the company of pumpkin. I found myself daydreaming about new combinations whilst at work, which I rushed to fulfill when I got home.

Around the end of the month I started feeling better again. I introduced cumin to some pumpkin and apple soup (a few weeks previously, this would have been a matter of course; now it felt daring) and it was good. I was glad of the kick. I'm happy I rediscovered soup as it's nice to have a homecooked meal for lunch at work - and there's no chance I'm giving myself a hangover ever again.

Experimental mushroom soup

Serves three reasonably generously (I ALWAYS find that soup recipes feed far fewer people than they claim to. I am not going to lie to you - if you tried to feed four people with this amount of soup, they would probably all still be hungry).

Takes less than half an hour.

Just over 400g mushrooms (I couldn't decide which to buy. I spent a while looking at the closed cup type before deciding that they were a bit pale and polite looking and I wanted my soup to be a dark, speckly, satisfying colour. The large, flat variety looked more exciting - I love the pleated texture on their undersides and the contrast in colours between rock-coloured off-white and earthy, foresty brown . 400g was six of these.).
4-5 cloves of garlic, depending how much garlic you like (I generally feel like a meal isn't a real meal if it hasn't got any garlic in it)
Four tablespoons butter (or vegetarian/vegan equivalent.)
Four tablespoons flour
600ml milk (or vegetarian/vegan equivalent)
500ml vegetable stock
Up to about 200ml water
One and a half teaspoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper to season

Melt the butter in a large pan. Add the garlic, chopped, and mushrooms, chopped into cubes, and stir so they are all covered by butter (as much as is reasonably possible depending on the space in your pan). Fry on a low heat until they start to look cooked - ie, glossy and a darker colour than they were before you started.

Stir in the milk gradually and stir a few times.

Add the flour gradually and stir. Turn up the heat and the soup will thicken.

Add the stock gradually, stirring all the while. Add water if your soup is looking thicker than you want it to.

Add the lemon juice and stir in.

Using a hand blender, blend the soup until it is as smooth as you want it to be.

Add more water if desired.

Finely grate some nutmeg on top - not much, just a sprinkling, then stir in.

Season with salt and lots of black pepper.

Eat with lots of toasted, crusty bread and butter. I ate mine with a garlic and coriander naan as that was what I had in my cupboard. It was good, but French stick may have been even better.

Freeze or refrigerate the rest. If you want to make soup into a more substantial meal, add rice, couscous, pasta or, best of all, gnocchi when you're reheating it.