Friday, 23 March 2012

Have zines, will travel: Caribou caravan at Victoria Baths Fanzine Convention

Visitors to the Victoria Baths Fanzine Convention in May will be able to step inside one of the country's more unusual zine stores – a zine shop inside a vintage caravan, which will be pulling up outside Victoria Baths for the day.

Nottingham-based artist and zine-maker Annie Atkinson set up Caribou in 2011 as a shop and gallery inside a small vintage caravan to showcase and sell the work of artists, writers and musicians working with an independent and DIY ethic. Annie makes the zine Flick my Ankle, as well as other mini-zine boxes such as Ultra Horse Fags and an ET mini-comic box.

Annie was originally going to open a bookshop in Nottingham selling unique art books, zines and furniture but decided to scale down the project and go back down to an idea she'd had a few years before of opening a teashop in a caravan. She explains: “I saw some other people in Canada, Australia and America were doing a similar thing and I thought it’s okay to do it now, because if there are others doing it then I’m not completely insane…so instead of a teashop it’s become a travelling art shop! But the potential for tea will never die.”

The caravan was acquired after a long hunt. Annie admits: “I wish it was a romantic story but I bought the caravan from a man on Gumtree! I had been looking for ages for the perfect one and this one came along and so we drove across the country to get it.”

Caribou is filled with artists' work, records, found mix tapes and a ‘listening booth’ in the form of a Fisher Price tape player. Annie also has an illustration photo booth, where visitors can sit and, instead of having their picture taken, have a picture of their face hand drawn by Annie. The caravan is kitted out to incorporate seating when the shelves are folded away, so there is room to do small workshops and activities such as zine-making. As well as stocking fanzines, hand made books, cards, jewellery, mix tapes, records, prints and ceramics, Annie sells reconditioned typewriters that she has lovingly repainted.

Among the more unusual items are flexagons: small, illustrated paper pieces that fold in on themselves three times to reveal different images. Annie says: “No-one seems to really get them! I have one with the characters of the Royal Tenenbaums, with different hairstyles in each folded image. You have to see it really to understand what I mean. Come into the caravan and you’ll see!” Annie's best seller is the Plastic Knife series comprising zines sent from Australia which come with a plastic knife stuck to the front cover. Annie says: “People go wild for them!” Japanese cut and paste zine Kosho Kosho, where the reader can cut out and make things like an illustrated paper iPhone, is also popular. Other big sellers are moustache teacups Annie paints herself.

The caravan was based inside Hopkinson Gallery in Nottingham until February, and since then it has been to various locations around Nottingham, including North Sherwood Street on Sundays, where it is open to passers by. Annie says: “We’re hoping to take it to more places around the UK, and then hopefully conquer Europe (in a non war sense)!”

Annie describes the experience of running Caribou as “immense”. She says: “People have got in touch from all over the world wanting to sell things in the shop, help out with volunteering and get involved in other ways. I’ve been invited to do talks about the zines at writers' clubs, and I’ve been invited to book festivals and events. It’s been really great and I hope it continues to get people excited!”

Visit Annie's blog at

Step inside Caribou caravan at the Victoria Baths Fanzine Convention, Hathersage Road, Manchester, Saturday May 19 between 10am and 5pm.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Revisiting the Irwell Sculpture Trail

Exercise, muddy feet and fresh air are among the less celebrated benefits of viewing works of art, but visiting the Irwell Sculpture Trail is a chance to experience all three at the same time as seeing works by locally and internationally renowned artists. The 33 mile sculpture trail, which follows the River Irwell from Salford Quays all the way to Bacup in Pennine Lancashire, has been around for over a decade now, but recent reinvestment means that, as well as restoring some of the sculptures to prime condition, new, interactive features make the experience far more than just looking at art and going for a walk.

The sculpture trail started in Rossendale in Pennine Lancashire following a lottery bid and gradually expanded to reach as far south as Salford Quays, with artworks leading the visitor through the history of the industrial towns and cities that grew up alongside the River Irwell and the changing uses of the river and surrounding areas. It's a story not just about the Irwell, and the trains, canals and mills that follow its course (the trail regularly meets other waterways such as the Manchester and Bolton and Bury Canal, and the clusters north of Bury can be conveniently reached on the East Lancashire Railway), but local people, incorporating memories and experiences into several of the sculptures. However, some of the artworks on the sculpture trail fell into disrepair over time, and have only recently been restored. Diana Hamilton has been project manager for the Irwell Sculpture Trail since 2007 and is setting the direction for its future. She explained: “It's a really unwieldy project as four local authorities are working together. In the past there was a lack of thought when commissioning and a lack of understanding who would be responsible for maintenance, and that's a problem right across public art. Now there's a new mindset when commissioning public art of making sure there's a maintenance plan.”
Working with the Arts Council, an audit of the trail was carried out, looking at the state of the sculptures, the pathways and the access to the trail, and a five year plan developed. Diana explained: “We discovered some sculptures no-one knew about and incorporated them into the trail. Some people had walked past a sculpture for years and not known what it was. Some of the sculptures melted back into nature and naturally disappeared. Some had been vandalised and some were never meant to have a longer lifespan than they have.” The lack of public information previously available had also meant that some sculptures were very hard to find, and some of the trail went through private land or land that flooded. Suggested routes have now been changed to avoid private land, and the Environment Agency is looking at the land that floods. Diana said: “The trail has gone through a real period of change. It all happened organically. We heard people's frustrations about not being able to find the sculptures so turned the trail from a linear trail into clusters.”

A consultation was also held and, while there had been opposition to some of the sculptures at first, Diana says the artworks are now part of their communities: “There was so much local opposition to Tilted Vase in Ramsbottom, and Halo in Halsingden when they were planned, but people love them now.” Each area has a steering group, including representatives from tourist information and community groups, and they have a practical role commissioning temporary artworks alongside the trail. Some of the sculptures came about through the Section 106 planning clause, and councils along the trail made a commitment to spend the money on the arts, often involving the community.

Many of the artists lived in the area where their contribution to the trail is based, and artworks reflect local stories. In Whitefield, near Bury, the artist talked to park rangers and discovered there used to be 'fancy birds' in the park in Victorian times, leading to a simple but effective artwork entitled Canaries in the Park, which comprises still, hard-to-spot model birds sitting still on the railings, and acting as silent spectators in the bowling green. The colour scheme was drawn from tropical sweets from the local sweet factory. Some of the birds have also been adopted by the community and adorn the town's rooftops.

Other artworks give a sense of place. Diana describes Lee Quarry, near the Stacksteads cluster, where bikers interact with the sculptures and use them to perform tricks, as “an amazing performance space”, saying: “It's like being on the moon. You can use the sculptures to find your way around. They give you a sense of where you are.”

New signs and interpretation will help visitors make the most of their visit to each cluster, and QR codes have been added to the sculptures which anyone with a smartphone can scan to hear local stories as well as recordings of the artists and videos of events which have been held alongside the sculpture trail. Diana gives a macabre example: “An old mill owner used to throw children into the river in Salford when they were no longer needed and you can still see the gravestones along the river. There are little nuggets of stories like this to bring the trail alive. Children love gruesome stories; it adds another layer to the experience.” Visitors can also take part in a monster hunt in Rossendale and a geo treasure hunt.

However, you won't need a fancy phone to enjoy the trail. Diana says: “It's all very well if you have a smartphone to use a QR code but we also want to satisfy the rambler in their sixties and seventies. There's a really wide audience, from families with small children to ramblers on their annual expedition. We're keeping all these audiences happy.”
The Irwell Sculpture Trail works closely with other venues along the trail, and sculpture trail activities will tie in with events such as Bury Light Night and the chocolate festival in Ramsbottom, as well as the Olympic torch passing through Rossendale and Bury. An exhibition in light boxes at Piccadilly Station is currently linked up with the Ghost Cam at former stately home Ordsall Hall in Salford, one of the attractions which hosts sculptures along the trail, and performers from Salford's DIY Theatre Company have been bringing alive the Salford section of the trail. It's hoped future events will also include guided walks.

Diana said: “The sculpture trail is a free day out that gets people out and about and walking outside. Because each cluster of sculptures is part of a bigger project, people visit other areas they might not have been to before. Visitors might pick up a sculpture trail leaflet in Salford and end up in Rossendale in Lancashire to see more sculptures. Some people just go to visit a particular sculpture, but others might want to make a day of it and go for a walk.” Among the most popular sculptures are those at Clifton Country Park in Salford, which draw on the park's past as the site of a colliery. Diana said: “So many people don't know there's a country park in Salford, but the park treats the sculptures as an asset.”

With the relaunch of the sculpture trail website, and publication of a free, 32-page brochure in March, there's no better time to visit. The brochure, which will be available from local tourist information points, features information on each sculpture, including road names, parking, bus stops, toilets, places to eat and nearby attractions such as museums, and the website will host a route planner, ordnance survey information, news about events around the trail and resources for schools.
The sculpture trail works with other organisations involved with the environment and public art, and Diana is looking forward to collaborating with the Environment Agency. She said: “We want to experiment and challenge the idea of public art and public art commissioning. The Environment Agency is working on the Irwell and getting rid of the weirs, but they're not allowed to get rid of any of the material from the site so it needs to be reused, which gives us an opportunity to work with environmental artists. There is so much potential along the trail.”

Plan your visit to the Irwell Sculpture Trail at

This interview with Diana Hamilton took place during the writing of an article on the Irwell Sculpture Trail for Creative Tourist, which makes more detailed recommendations of some of the highlights along the trail in Greater Manchester:

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Antonia Low: White Cube Longing, Chapel Street & Hope United Reformed Church

Berlin-based artist Antonia Low's work exposes what she sees as the 'impossibility of the white cube', a supposedly neutral place in which the visitor forgets their surroundings to concentrate on what is in the space, rather than the context in which it is displayed. In the past, she has used white cubes as starting points for installations that show up inevitable imperfections, exposing the infrastructure – a lift mechanism or wiring – hidden behind surfaces that are seemingly free of detail.

For White Cube Longing, Low has created a single focal point in a room where once there was none. The basement space in which White Cube Longing is displayed in Salford's Chapel Street and Hope United Reformed Church has numerous distractions relating to its multiple uses, from a netball basket to balloons hanging from the ceiling to a girls' brigade logo. White Cube Longing is a pristine white room, viewed from a serving hatch, that is cut off from the rest of the space (and now, due to the false walls and floor of the installation, only accessible via the serving hatch). Illuminated in neon, the room looks almost surgically clean and new, appearing to stand independently of time and space, yet the installation was only made possible because of the space's obsolescence as a kitchen for preparing and serving food. The kitchen did not meet hygiene standards because the lack of a dishwasher meant cups could not be washed at the required temperature for public use. Eventually the kitchen will be refurbished, but until then the church's minister is content to let the installation remain as a 'step in the middle, a quiet space'.

Low's installation draws you in, a glowing light among the basement's gloom. It also draws you into an institution which is in need of an attraction and a new purpose to get people through its doors. Once, churches were focal points for the community – places for routine and regularity, physical reminders among the rooftops of a common, unifying belief. Because of their scale, it's hard not to feel a sense of awed reverence and smallness in a church. As congregations dwindle, and ageing churchgoers are not replaced by younger generations, churches are shutting down and the buildings are left to face dereliction. Many are magnificent, but it's hard to find a new use for buildings so crafted and specific in their original intent and expensive to maintain.

White cube galleries have been accused of imbuing artworks with an air of sacredness, or imposing a formal distance between the exhibition and the viewer. The one object on display in White Cube Longing is a cupboard, the oldest of several which had been added to the kitchen over the years as the building's use evolved. The lack of activity in White Cube Longing makes you notice the varied life of the rest of the building, a place associated not just with worship but the diverse people who use it for non-religious purposes. The basement of the United Reformed Church is usually accessed through a separate, back entrance, but the curators and artist made the decision to bring visitors to White Cube Longing in through the main church itself, and past a new cafe area which has replaced the one in the basement. Low's installation makes you ponder the building's adaptability and wonder what these places are for now, which have been around for so long, and what is lost if they disappear.

White Cube Longing is the sixth in a series of performances, installations and interventions into the everyday around Manchester and Salford that comprise the Seven Sites project.

Visit White Cube Longing at Chapel Street & Hope United Reformed Church, Lamb Court, Chapel Street, Salford, M3 7AA daily from 11am-4pm until March 30.