Sunday, 13 March 2011

Merz Flâneuries: Meeting David Medalla

Artists David Medalla and Adam Nankervis have spent the last week retracing the footsteps of Kurt Schwitters, visiting some of the places associated with Schwitters in the North West — including Warth Mill in Bury, described as a ‘claustrophobic terrifying dungeon’, where Schwitters was incarcerated with other artists in 1940, and Elterwater in Cumbria, site of his famous Merz Barn. Schwitters also spent some time in Salford and Manchester so, acting as flaneurs, in the spirit the nineteenth century French dandies who observed the city, the pair have also wandered around Manchester and Salford seeing what these places throw up. The resulting flaneuries, including text and images, will be shown in Tate Britain in two years time for a Schwitters retrospective.

During their visit, they stayed in the bed and breakfast at Islington Mill in Salford, where I had a chat with David. He explained: “We haven’t had any rest. Flaneurie is a French thing that involves walking around noting things, observing them and initiating actions. The end is organic.” He explains that the flaneurie fits in with his work as: “I do a lot of walking around. I’ve done things in the street all over the world — in the slums of India, in Africa, in Latin America." He added that the unpredictable nature of flaneurie is another appeal: "One oscillates between necessity and choice or a combination of both. I enjoy anything and I say yes to everything. A lot of my work is very ironic and totally unpredictable.”

David was born in the Philippines but went to Columbia University in New York, and has lived and worked all over the world. He met Adam in the Chelsea Hotel and they’ve been long-term collaborators but David describes it as more like a ‘dialogue’ because he lives in Bracknell and Adam is currently based in Berlin.

David’s half-century career has been fuelled by chance encounters and impromptu performances, taking “coincidences and chance and uniting them in a curious way”. Particular favourites he reminisces about are Mr Casanova International, a street performance where young men were asked to read sex adverts from the local newspaper, only realising they had taken part in a performance years later when they looked back and remembered and a toy Bambi shitting (photocopied) $100 bills all over Manhattan — an artwork which nearly got him sued by Disney! Spanning performance, land art and kinetic art, he’s also famous for creating hundreds of machines, including sand machines and bubble machines, and sculptures shaped like flowers that close when it’s cold and open when warm, and respond to favourite smells and sounds, such as lovers’ armpits, birds in the morning and jet planes overhead.

His works are often interventions into cities and places, reacting and responding to what’s around. 'Elegies for bendy buses', for example, was inspired when “babies in prams started making very interesting sounds. They were imitating the closing of the doors like a mechanical lullaby”. For one performance, David walked up and down Westminster wearing boxing gloves. “People were depressed about having to go to work on a blue Monday so I punched them. Some would punch me back which was quite terrifying.” For another work called Salute Roma, undertaken when David was homeless, he slept on a different one of Rome’s seven hills on each day of the week.

He’s made a hat, which he puts on during our interview, that he’s built from found objects during his visit: an alphabet in Chinese and English, playing cards arranged in full houses and part of a Salford University student newspaper with the headline ‘Change that’s just too big to fathom’, because he “liked what it said”, which he found during a visit to Salford Museum and Art Gallery. Across the road, David also took inspiration from a Karl Marx quote on the wall of the Working Class Movement Library, reading ‘Philosophy only explains the world. We have to change it’, although he thinks “Marx should have added three words — ‘for the better’.”

He plans to develop the hat further as a performance — “I will stand in front of estate agents in London saying ‘it’s full house’. I think I will be hated by estate agents — they rent even garages out for £1million”— and eventually visit the potteries of Stoke-on-Trent to create a ceramic version.

David has long been a fan of Schwitters’ work, which also crossed genres to encompass everything from collage to sound poetry. He explained: “My take on Schwitters is personal. I really like his work. I stayed in a cheap hotel when I first arrived in Paris and in a gallery two doors away was a very beautiful work by Schwitters — the rusty wheel of a pram called The Sailor, which I didn’t understand and it didn’t look like a sailor to me but I asked the gallery who it was and later I found out a lot about Schwitters."

He continued: "The Merz Barn has had a great influence on artists and on architects, for example Frank Gehry. Eventually they’ll make a musical of Schwitters’ life. His poems are beautiful when they are recited by him, even with old fashioned, amateur recordings.”

David particularly admires Schwitters’ 'transformation and renewal', explaining: “He thought that with the right spirit we can make a new kind of world, he was very optimistic. Schwitters was from a middle class, comfortable family but they [the Nazis] said he was a degenerate artist. He had to flee Germany and was incarcerated but he had that strength. He had to live in the cold in the barn in Cumbria with his wife and no heating except body heat and that’s admirable. That’s a lesson people can take. Human beings can suffer any form of destruction but with the right spirit can transcend it.

“I have a moment of sympathy as I was conceived and born during the second world war and ninety per cent of Manila was bombed during the war but I had an opinion that you could build a better world.”

David thinks it is important to, as he terms it, ‘surf the angst’. He advises: “There are moments when you get angst, despair, worry and fear. Learn how to use the moment and make the most of crisis and calamity.”

The Merz flaneuries project isn’t the first time David has produced work inspired by Schwitters or visited the Merz Barn in Cumbria. Two years ago he did a performance for which participants were given each other’s phone numbers and told to ring each other at midnight on one side of the barn, and recited their favourite vegetables on the other side of the barn, a response to Schwitters moving from Hanover — the city — to Cumbria — the countryside. David explained: "It was a poem, a choral symphony. It started to have a rhythm.”

David has been invited back to Islington Mill for a residency in October, and is interested in the city’s renewal. He visited Manchester for the first time in the 1960s, and remembers “the mills were closing and it was the end of the industrial revolution. There was a feeling of having been bombed (which it had, during WWII).”

He is looking forward to returning: “The new culture is really rising up. It’s amazing. When I come back I hope to do something about Manchester.”

Merz Flaneuries was part of a series of city wide events celebrating the work and legacy of Kurt Schwitters throughout March.

Find out more at

Friday, 4 March 2011

Manchester's Modernist Heroines — publication and events

Manchester Modernist Society, The LRM (Loiterers Resistance Movement) and The Shrieking Violet have teamed up for a collaborative project exploring the stories of ten fabulous North West women spanning the fields of invention, aviation, media, science,geography, design and architecture throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty first. Manchester’s feminist history did not stop with the Suffragettes!

Anyone (please note: these are not women only events!) is welcome to join us on Sunday March 6 at the Town Hall in the Women of Achievement room from 1-4pm for your free copy of 'Manchester's Modernist Heroines’. Manchester's Modernist Heroines is a special edition of the Shrieking Violet fanzine (with a cover beautifully stitched and collaged by Rosa Martyn, who studies Hand embroidery at the Royal College of Needlework) which aims to commemorate their achievements, uncover many more via your own favourites, and who knows – inspire some heroines of tomorrow. An exciting range of contemporary Manchester women – ranging from artists and writers to tour guides and even a dance troupe! – has responded to the ten women, and the results include essays, interviews, poetry, planned events and artworks.

The publication can also be read online here:

Or downloaded and printed here.

At 3pm on Sunday March 6 The LRM will be curating a walk inspired by the work of Modernist Heroine Professor Doreen Massey focusing on flow, energy, gender and exploring space. The wander will uncover some of the hidden histories and power relationships which have shaped the city; Manchester is made up of myriad stories and some about our marvellous modernist heroines are absent from the official narrative.

This is the start of an ongoing project; please tell us about your heroines on the day or add them directly to a special Modernist Heroines page on the Modernist Society website.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Carol Batton: “Two things people don’t know about me are that I’m from Salford and I’m sixty.”

Given out sheet by sheet, hand to hand around the Northern Quarter for nearly three decades, Carol Batton’s poems are an everyday, but unique, part of Manchester’s cultural fabric. They have the ability to surprise you, to make you smile, and generally make the experience of living in the city nicer. They’re part what gives a place its individuality.

Today Carol turns sixty but, rather than using this interview (which took place a few days beforehand) to reflect on that milestone, she’s keen to find a new, original angle on her work. After I sit down at a table in the Night & Day, where we’ve arranged to meet*, she decides that this should be an anti-technology diatribe and comes up with an impromptu list of criticisms:

“Computers and mobile phones are something you pay to get rid of. I can’t see why people want the following:

Trojan horses
Phishing with a ‘P’
Fraud (credit card)
Emails from people who may want to destroy your computer
‘Sorry you can’t have that page’
Antivirus treatment
Emails about the health service and what they’re going to do to you.”

A keen gardener, she concludes indignantly: “I would rather be watering a plant than giving a computer power.”

Despite this, and not even having an email account, she has used a family computer to search for me online, and recognised me when I walked in because I have joined the Carol Batton appreciation society on facebook (388 members at the last count).

Although she is the Northern Quarter’s unofficial resident poet (she explains “ninety per cent of people in Manchester have been to the Northern Quarter and it’s a creative area. I wouldn’t hand my poems out in Marks and Spencer”), Carol came to poetry relatively late, prompted by being prescribed lithium in 1983. This was a pivotal moment in her life: “I went on medication; first it sent me to sleep and then I started jotting down poetry.

“The medication is by far the worst thing that ever happened to me but it gave me poetry.”

Carol has an impressive range of hobbies and interests, and has experimented with a range of career options, including studying art at teacher training college: “I knew I wanted to be famous when I was at school. I tried tightrope walking at twelve and ballet dancing in the garden — anything to be famous! I didn’t want to be a hairdresser!”

She’s also enthusiastic about hill walking, dancing, tai chi and rare birds and can name all the flowers, trees and fungi, explaining she writes about “anything apart from love, surprisingly”. She says: “You have to be a polymath to be a poet. You have to know what you’re writing about if it comes up.”
Making up for the late start as a poet, Carol has been extraordinarily prolific. At one time she was writing up to a poem a week (now it’s more like one a month) and she estimates she has distributed 100,000 sheets of poems around Manchester, first reproduced by risograph and now photocopied at Marc The Printers on Edge Street.

“This is a how a poem comes about. I’m looking out of my window or I’m walking along in the rain. I’m looking at flowers and I’ve got a first line which is usually very good and I take a second or third line and if it’s looking good I take out my notebook — I’ve usually got two or three. Then I try it out with a couple of friends and they say ‘wow wow wow’ or ‘no no no’.”

The final poem is turned into a master copy, either typed or handwritten on paper (so “it cannot vanish out of existence easily”), which Carol refers to as CRC (camera ready copy) ready to be printed. These pages then comprise ‘stock’, added to poems from the past ten to fifteen years which have proved popular and stood the test of her time, which is kept in the Oklahoma bag she carries with her — something Carol describes as ‘like my shop’. As the thick pile indicates: “There are an awful lot I can lay my hands on.”

Carol is well-known for giving out her poems on the street: “I accost people and it’s very random but my poems give me a form of recognition for a stranger, they’re a ‘hello’, an introduction that establishes me. There’s an astonishing reaction to stuff. People like the short poems on card and they like the long, lyrical poems. I get accosted by strangers three times a day. ”

Carol once described herself as a samizdat poet, drawing a parallel with clandestine self-publishers evading censorship in Soviet states under oppressive regimes. “It is mass produced but it is not formally processed. It is handed out individual to individual. It is hand made and passed around by hand — I manually control it. It is self-publishing, my style.”
In 1990, Carol started memorising poems and performing at an open mic night called the New Troubadors, amongst a group that also included Bryan Glancy who was the inspiration for the title of Elbow’s album The Seldom Seen Kid. She has also performed at the Royal Northern College of Music with Stephen Fretwell, but she admitted: “It scares me. People think you just stand there and feel important but you’re panicking. You have to throw poetry in the air and catch the audience.”

Although Carol claims ‘TV and the newspapers don’t want me’, she has also been published in many magazines and appeared on two records. In 1999, Carol met Andy Votel of Twisted Nerve Records, who recorded her for the spoken word compilation Twisted Words, where she appeared on vinyl in the company of Billy Childish and Malcom Mooney, and for the album Folk is Not a Four Letter Word.

Carol has been looking forward to turning sixty: “I’ve waited for it and I deserve it!” But she has acknowledged it’s time to slow down, and is returning to planting seeds (“I very much like flowers. I’m digging them in as fast as I can”), deciding this is a good note on which to end our interview:

“I’m going from poetry, printing and publishing to petunias, planting and pansies in my old age.”

* Grateful thanks to my friend Richard Barrett, poet, writer and fellow Carol Batton fan, who first offered to interview Carol Batton for the Shrieking Violet some time ago, then decided I should interview her, then patiently set this interview up whilst we umed and ahed about who would do it.