Saturday, 16 July 2011

Ancoats Peeps: Dan Dubowitz and the Presence of Absence

Walking around Ancoats, it's hard to believe it was the birthplace of the industrial revolution, that the quiet, cobblestoned streets would once have been ringing with the clog-heavy footsteps of thousands of workers crowding into the mills. Almost as hard to imagine is that businesses still operated out of its centuries-old mills well into the twentieth century, clinging on even as production was moved to cheaper factories in the developing world. Walk around the area for long enough, though, and you start to spot things. Brass portholes, barely noticeable, are attached to the outside of boarded up mills and empty buildings. Many look from a distance like just another piece of the buildings, pock-marked as they are with functional bits of metal. Crouch down, though, and peep, and you're looking into another world, a place where workers have just popped out for lunch and could be back at any time. At the end of each of the Ancoats Peeps is a scene, a tiny bit of history; close-ups of machinery, slowly rotating objects, a room with workers' pin-ups still on the wall, the inside of a public toilet. Some have a photographic stillness – until you realise a tiny detail is moving. You're not really sure what you're looking at, or even where you're looking at, but want to look again and again and again, waiting for someone to return or something to come back to life and spring into production again.

The Ancoats Peeps, of which there around a dozen in total, dotted about Ancoats (their exact number and location is delightfully mysterious), are part of a project that's spanned the best part of the last decade. When the last of industry was moving out of the area and buildings had been compulsorily purchased for redevelopment, the Ancoats Urban Village Company decided to hold a nationwide competition for an artist to undertake a public sculpture as part of the regeneration of the area, which was by then run-down and crime ridden. Artist and architect Dan Dubowitz won the commission; however, when he arrived in Ancoats in 2003, he was clear that a sculpture would not be right for the area. “I went and handed the cheque back. The area doesn't need another visual object to try and define it. There is a tendency towards edifices and big objects but Ancoats needed something subtle you would stumble across. It needed something about the whole area and the identity of the area that people could be involved in. The whole area is a sculpture in a way, a visual beast.”

Whilst most of the historic mills of Ancoats (those that weren't victims of arson) are still standing, in many ways the area is being rebuilt all over again. Not just in conversions and new apartment blocks, but culturally, as an area, in people's perceptions, as a place to live and work, a community, and it was this that Dan found he needed to address – why regenerate the area, when it was derelict, over any other part of the city, instead of just leaving it to rot or knocking it down and starting all over again? He explained: “I discovered a real problem that no object could ever address, which was cultural continuity. Ancoats has been such an important place and about certain things – capitalism and communism, written about by people like Engels – and now it's a wasteland. It's going from industrial to domesticity. I had to ask: 'How is it going to be about that if it was once about dark Satanic mills? What is Ancoats going to be used for next?' There aren't really professions whose job it is to ask those questions but they still need to be brought to the table on a weekly basis and asked over again. I was asking, 'If we're going to build, what should we be building and why?'"

Dan has experience of working on cultural masterplans around the country, although he admits: “Some of them don't really kick off and get that far. Public art is a very fraught field. The idea that art is something that beautifies an area does not help. So often the brief of an artist is to try to rescue something, for example liven up a public space when they decide it needs something. There is a huge value in involving an artist at an early stage – but it shouldn't be assumed that it will lead to a physical artwork.” The regeneration company agreed to let Dan approach the project organically. Dan was given his own studio and set about deciding what form his involvement as an artist should take. He started by exploring Ancoats and its stories, getting to know the dynamics of the area and the diaspora of its people by conducting hundreds of interviews. “There were still one or two man businesses in Ancoats – little guys with repair shops hanging on in corners. Lots of people have their own stories from different periods.”

Dan had decided to focus on art rather than architecture when he realised he was more interested in wastelands and derelict buildings, and working with what was already there, than putting new buildings up. Once he had gained access to the deserted mills of Ancoats, he starting documenting the place as he found it: “Once I got inside I'd just stay there all day. I developed a kind of photography using very long exposures and through that I got to know the place.” The resulting photos are beautiful. You feel like you're looking at a scene from a fairytale like sleeping beauty. Once industry moved out, nature moved in. Under glass ceilings, mills become greenhouses, overgrown with ferns and trees. In other cases, whole rooms were found intact, walled up. Some of these photos now sit in light-boxes in Cutting Room Square – the first ever public square in Ancoats, and another product of the regeneration process.

Part of the success of the Ancoats Peeps is that Dan was working with a diverse team that included not just town planners, engineers, architects and a landscape designer but a photographer and archaeologists. The latter unearthed all sorts of artefacts relating to the area's history, including eighteenth century ladies' shoes and a penny that had lain undisturbed in a roof of a mill since it was built. Dan realised the value of leaving things where they were: “I said, if we found things walled up, instead of putting things in a museum why don't we put them back? The team really understood the wider ramifications of things we found and their interest to wider types of people.” Dan appreciated the willingness of different members to bring their expertise to the team, but also “step outside the group and think outside the box”. There was real commitment to the area: “We sat in a room and knew that if we all made decisions this part of the city would be different. We weren't interested in writing reports that would just sit on a shelf.” He admits: “Ancoats was all-consuming. It took over my whole life.The space is really quite special. It really got under the skins of people. It has a spirit. It's something with no rational words, that you can't put your finger on.”

Dan described the creation and siting of the Peeps as “a long and complicated process”. Each Peep was installed on a building site – some of which were then themselves abandoned and became the new ruins of Ancoats, half-built skeletons, when the slump and depression hit (in one case, Dan had to steal in and rescue a Peep from a building whose owners had gone in to receivership). Dan ended up banning the use of the word “art”, preferring the word “features” for his work, and funding came from the European Regional Development Fund rather than the usual arts channels. The reasoning was that “the Peeps would be features in the street and a part of the streetscape, where you'd usually put benches”.

Whilst the buildings have had shell repairs to stop their deterioration, their fate is still far from decided. Though they are no longer ruins, several are still empty and “frozen in a kind of limbo”. However, Dan sees the completion of the part new-build Ice Plant residential development, which recently hosted an exhibition of his photos as well as a display of artefacts rescued from the area, as a turning point. With the Halle orchestra looking at moving into St Peter's church, he'd like to see the area buzz with culture and become a hive for arts activity – “like Victoria Baths”. Mainly, he acknowledges, “it just needs more people in it”. The regeneration of the area has created its own set of tales, and Dan and the team recently ran a weekend of walks around the area telling the story of the Peeps, which attracted 1,000 people – including former workers who came back to reminisce (one visitor even recognised themselves in some photos of Whit Walks that they'd forgotten existed). It's quite a transformation for an area that Dan admits “was such a no-go part of the city”. Now the project has come to a natural conclusion, Dan reflects: “We all wanted to see the area change in people's minds – we hope if those 1,000 people begin to see what we see then they will tell another 1,000 people.”

For more information and to purchase the accompanying book, The Peeps: The Presence of Absence, published by Manchester University Press, visit

For more information on Dan's other work visit

Friday, 1 July 2011

Folkestone Triennial: A Million Miles from Home

Once, Folkestone was a destination. Authors from Charles Dickens to Agatha Christie found inspiration in the town and so popular was it with those with money and leisure that a bar in the Grand Hotel is named after Mrs Keppels, the mistress of once frequent visitor Edward VII. It's hard to imagine its glory days now. Like so many other seaside towns, which fell out of favour in the era of cheap overseas holidays, it's enjoyed better times. The opening of the Channel Tunnel saw off ferries to France and even the Orient Express, which until recently passed through Folkestone on its way to the continent, has ceased to stop at the harbour station. In the past few years, a new (extremely ugly) shopping centre has been built in an attempt to revitalise the declining town centre, and the Folkestone Triennial initiated, aiming to reinvigorate the town culturally.

The first festival, in 2008, installed works by leading artists in prominent places around the town, inspired by both Folkestone's heritage and the cultural baggage of seaside towns – from teen pregnancy to pigeons. Some of the artworks have become permanent, and settled into the fabric of the town – Richard Wentworth's plaques denoting non-native tree species, Tracy Emin's casts of discarded children's items, Mark Wallinger's cliff-top pebbles commemorating the lives of local men lost in the first world war and Richard Wilson's beach huts, refashioned from a former crazy golf course. The second Folkestone Triennial builds on the first, with international artists opening up the town's hidden, deserted and overlooked places (whether through dereliction, decline or obsolescence), from lowly back rooms and storage spaces to a grand Masonic Hall. I went to secondary school in Folkestone, and the Triennial is not just an art treasure hunt, challenging you to find works scattered about the town, but an alternative guidebook, taking you from the West End to the East Cliff and giving a new perspective on the sights in between.

One space usually unseen by the public is a dank, dark deckchair store underneath the cliff-top Leas promenade, where French-Algerian artist Zineb Sedira's films play on mismatched video screens around the room in an effective, immersive installation. Her films document two Algerian lighthouses and the sometimes isolated lives experienced by those who work in them. Tucked away in a corner of the south east, Folkestone isn't really on the way to anywhere except France and, watching Sedira's films in a space cut into the cliff, it feels like you're detached from the rest of the world, on an island even, protected from the waves that crash against the rocks on screen. It's hard to forget that Calais is 30 miles from Folkestone – less than half the distance to London, and a number of works dwell on themes of immigration, displacement and cultural alienation. These include a floor of office space in the high street given over to an installation by Israeli artist Smadar Dreyfus, where visitors stumble around different rooms, filled with the sounds of children's classrooms. The total darkness and unfamiliarity mean it's completely disorientating.

Right at the Western end of the Leas is what looks, if you notice it at all, like an unusually large piece of topiary. Hidden below a gently swaying mass of leaves is a Martello tower, one of many solid, round structures that were built to defend the coast against Napoleonic attack. They still stand along the Kent coast in various states of repair, from crumbled ruins to now-desirable house conversions. This Martello tower is so deserted it has gone beyond a ruin to a jungle, and Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias has cut a wavy path up to it through the undergrowth. With leaves above your head, and the foliage multiplied by mirrors and castings of branches, it's like you're walking into a hedge. You emerge into a viewing platform, separated from the Martello tower by a living moat of brambles and nettles, to admire the tower. It might be hidden, but it's still standing after centuries in front of the ancient Kent hills.

The tower's nearest neighbours are mansions overlooking the sea set in spacious, sun-catching grounds. On the same stretch, and slightly further towards the town, is the massive Grand Hotel. With vintage open-top Jaguars parked outside and afternoon tea served to live music on a grand piano, it's one of the few places where it's possible to imagine how glamorous Folkestone would once have been. Yet Brazilian artist Tonico Lemos Auad leads you through the vast, spacious rooms with plush carpets and elaborate wallpaper to a plain back-room with floorboards and old furniture – a part of the hotel that isn't normally seen by visitors. It houses a giant scratchcard which visitors are invited to scrape to reveal images of seaside festivals, from Brazilian carnivals to Folkestone's annual Charivari parade. Auad has also placed work in another sometimes hidden space, down at the harbour – low tide reveals Carrancas, carved figureheads inspired by Brazilian good-luck talismans, attached to poles amongst the boats that have come to rest on the (usually submerged) harbour mud.

At the nearby Harbour station, the train tracks snake right out into the sea on a pier for trains to be loaded onto boats. A sculpture by Paloma Varga Weisz has landed on the tracks, on top of what could be a magic carpet – only it's been grounded and Folkestone's its final destination. The figures on the rug are going nowhere, and neither is anyone else – the station was closed in 2009. The station and pier are decrepit, but have spectacular views over the sea to the White Cliffs of Dover, where cross-channel traffic continues.

By the sea a bell, removed from a church because it no longer fits the tuning of the other bells, is suspended over wasteland, waiting for passers-by to ring it. The surrounding area is also in suspense – once home to the Rotunda fun fair, source of memories of childhood birthday parties and, when we were older, Friday night trips to the rides, it was cleared for redevelopment (a supermarket, casino, leisure complex and housing were all suggested for the site), before the recession and a tussle over opposing plans for the land put development on hold.

The other side of the Harbour, at Sunny Sands, the town's sandy beach, I was sceptical about seeing Cornelia Parker's mermaid sculpture, thinking I wouldn't find much of interest in a sculpture copied from an iconic artwork so associated with another place. In real life though the figure, cast from a local woman, is rather lovely – she stares out to sea, calm and serene on a rock above the crowded chaos of beachgoers with their personal stereos, livid skin and screaming children.

Back up the cliff, in the town, Hew Locke has placed colourfully painted wooden boats on a bright sea of lightbulbs in secluded St Eanswythe's Church. Hanging below the wooden beams of the roof (you realise the nave of the church itself is shaped like an upturned boat), and above antique wooden pews, the boats make you notice the beauty of the friezes and stained glass windows that are already there.

One sign of the town's changing fortunes is the restoration and reopening of the Leas Lift, a Victorian water lift. £1 gets you up or down the cliff – soundtracked by an installation by Martin Creed. I took the Lift up the cliff, and the ascent is matched by a musical composition performed by local string players. It rises like a musical scale, starting off with a low grinding and ending in a high pitch, in a reassuringly smooth transition as the lift stutters and clacks its way towards the Leas.

Other highlights of the festival include Spencer Finch's giant colour wheel and flags, changed daily to match the colour of the sea. Strange Cargo, who have long been doing good projects in the town, complement the Triennial's artworks with plaques drawing your attention to the quirkier aspects of the town's history, drawn from the memories of local people. Perhaps best of all, though, are Ruth Ewan's subtle interventions into the town's timing. She has placed clocks in prominent (and some not so prominent) places in the town, from a pub to a fireplace in the woodlined bar of the Grand Hotel, next to important-looking portraits, to the former town hall and even an entirely new clock on the Leas. The clocks have been changed to French republican time – meaning they only go up to ten, making you do a double take and look again more closely!

It's not often enough you get to be a tourist in your home town. It's three years since I last spent any significant amount of time in the area, but Folkestone's transformation from the place where I grew up has been considerable with new bars, cafes, galleries, independent businesses and venues, and even a University College Folkestone. The Triennial seems to be having a knock-on effect, with its own fringe festival this year – something to explore next time I visit!

Folkestone Triennial is free and runs until September 25.